President Duterte promised to crack down on corruption, something other new presidents also do but tend to forget about once sworn in. Duterte acted and dismissed over 30 senior officials suspected of corruption. Few were prosecuted because making a legal case is difficult. Some of those Duterte fired were later rehired after they were able to demonstrate the suspicions about them were unfounded. Duterte also discovered that a lot of the corruption, especially when it comes to import taxes (customs fees), would be much less of a problem if the methods for handling imports were changed so corruption was not so easy to carry out and get away with. Nevertheless, a lot of lower-ranking officials (from customs, as well as the security services) have been caught and prosecuted. In some cases, entire local police forces were fired or transferred. Duterte realized that it’s the senior offenders who have the most impact on removing the culture of impunity that has made corruption so pervasive.
One bright spot has been the economy. Even without the promised Chinese investments (from deals China signed but has been slow to implement) GDP growth in 2018 was 6.6 percent and continuing to increase. If enough investments are made in areas like agriculture and oil exploration growth could his 8 percent in a few years. The anti-corruption and anti-drug program also has a positive impact as does the reduction in terrorist and separatist violence. Reductions in these areas mean the military can turn to the growing threat from China in the South China Sea. The defense budget has already been spending more on weapons and equipment for defending Filipino portions of the South China Sea that China is claiming ownership of.
Armed disputes inside the Philippines are on the decline. The Islamic terror and leftist rebel groups suffered major losses in the last two years and show no signs of recovering. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) organizing efforts were largely destroyed. The drug gangs, which had become very powerful simply because of the amount of cash they handled and the number of gunmen (and corrupt officials) on their payroll also took heavy losses for the first time when a newly installed president (Duterte) went after the drug gangs in 2016 and is still at it. The drug gangs, leftist rebels and Islamic terror groups were all major components in the criminal underground provided all manner of essential illegal services (weapons, false documents, smuggling, money laundering, information) that are now much less available and more expensive to use. This sort of thing does not make headlines but the police and military intel analysts can measure the impact and it’s an important factor in the continued decline of all three sources of criminal activity.
January 7, 2019: In the south (Sultan Kudarat province), twenty NPA men took over a rural construction site before dawn and set fire to eight large construction vehicles. The leftist rebels were retaliating against a road building company that would not meet the NPA extortion (for “protection”) demands. This puts a lot of locals out of work but the NPA needs cash to keep operating.
December 31, 2018: In the south (Cotabato city), ISIL was believed responsible for setting off a bomb outside a mall, killing two and wounding 30. ISIL manpower is much reduced since 2017 and the major ISIL activity (aside from avoiding detection and arrest) is continuing to carry out high profile attacks like this. There are fewer and fewer of these attacks. More common are money raising activities like kidnapping, piracy, extortion and smuggling. All these are more difficult to get away with which is not the kind of trend criminal organizations thrive, or even survive on.
December 26, 2018: The CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines) observed its fiftieth year of existence with three more ceasefire violations by its armed wing; the NPA. There was also an incident were 19 NPA members surrendered, which is an increasingly common event but rarely noted in CPP press releases. There are a lot of other things the CPP does not like to dwell on. Cold War era political rebels like the NPA were found to have more links with the other outlaw groups than expected, given the fact that NPA was always anti-religious and Moslem political and religious groups were militantly anti-communist. By documenting NPA connections to Islamic terror groups NPA loses more of what little political credibility it still has. This is being seen in Europe where several senior NPA leaders have obtained political asylum and openly continue working for the NPA. Some of these leaders are already facing efforts to cancel their asylum.
NPA has suffered heavy losses since 2016 and that led to internal disagreements over strategy. Because of that NPA has split into several factions. There is no one who can accurately represent all of NPA and resume negotiations and continue to work out a peace deal. The government has responded by ordering the security forces to concentrate on NPA and shut them down. One result of the NPA problems is that more NPA members surrendering or deserting the organization. Since mid-2017 many NPA members who surrendered provided information indicating that losses from desertion were more than twice what the government was reporting. In addition, there were medical losses (because so many camps had been destroyed) as well as fewer new recruits. Those losses increased since late 2017 and judging from the reduced presence of NPA in areas they have long terrorized it is having quite an impact. There are still a few factions willing to fight on but they are facing more armed resistance (especially from local defense groups) and much less popular support. In 2017 nearly a thousand NPA rebels surrendered, were captured, killed or known to have deserted (and are sometimes being sought to major crimes). Less than a third of these losses were from combat. Most were surrenders or deserters. Also important is the capture or surrender of nearly 700 firearms and much stockpiled ammo and bomb-making materials. In many areas where the NPA has long operated the locals have come to view the NPA as bandits and turned against them. Those loss rates continued into 2018 and the military expects that those NPA losses to increase in 2019 and if the trend continues the NPA will end up as scattered groups of “commie gangsters”.
December 23, 2018: In the south (Maguindanao province), two rival MILF factions opened fire on each other during a land dispute. Each faction lost two dead (and several wounded) before soldiers arrived and intervened.
December 22, 2018: Two clashes between the army and the NPA left two soldiers dead and four wounded. The NPA suffered some wounded. The clashes took place in the north (Kalinga province) and in the south (Northern Samar province).
December 20, 2018: In the north (Manila), police arrested a key Abu Sayyaf member who was on the national “most wanted” list. Many notorious Islamic terrorists will hide in plain sight between major operations. The works better in large cities like Manila.
December 19, 2018: In the south (Agusan del Sur), NPA gunmen kidnapped twelve local defense volunteers and two soldiers, an incident that led the army to halt peace negotiations with the NPA leadership.
December 18, 2018: In the south (Sulu province), the army activated the new 11th Infantry division. This does not add any troops to the counter-terror operations in Sulu but does gather over a dozen battalions already there, usually on temporary duty from the permanent bases elsewhere in the country. Having the eight infantry and six support (Intel, civil affairs, training, recon, communications and logistics) battalions under one command makes it easier to support and command all these units whose main job is finding and eliminating Abu Sayyaf personnel in the province.
December 13, 2018: In the south (Sulu province), marines clashed with a large (about fifty) group of Abu Sayyaf on Minis island. The Islamic terrorists lost seven dead, ten surrendered and the others fled, taking many wounded with them. One marine was killed and three wounded. Since the clash took place on one of the smaller (two square kilometers) islands (Minis) in Sulu province helicopters and patrol boats were called in to prevent the Islamic terrorists from escaping, or receiving reinforcements from other islands. If the surviving Abu Sayyaf can be confined to the island, especially through the night (when smugglers and Abu Sayyaf like to move around by boat) they will be easier to hunt down and capture, even though most Abu Sayyaf members have no problems blending in with local civilians.