China has been less aggressive in the South China Sea lately, given the unrest in Hong Kong and economic problems elsewhere in China and with major trading partners, especially the United States. The Philippines continues to expand its military ties with other nations in the region that are threatened by China. The Philippines may be the poorest of these nations but is also the one with the most to lose because of the Chinese claims on the South China Sea. There is also more help from more distant nations, mainly the United States but also Britain and a growing list of nations concerned with the growing Chinese military and aggressive Chinese diplomacy.
President Duterte’s remains popular despite, or because of, his “war on drugs”. Since 2016, when Duterte was elected and began, as promised, the war on drugs, over 5,500 suspected drug dealers, distributors and smugglers have died. Another 220,000 suspects were arrested or turned themselves in. About four percent of those arrested turned out to be key people in the drug business and this has done a lot of damage to the illegal drug business. Most Filipinos ignored the foreign and local protests over the “shoot first” tactics employed. Opinion surveys continue to show the program is popular, mainly because fewer Filipinos are victims of crime in general and most attribute that to the anti-drug operations. Drugs are still a problem because imports of heroin and meth from Burma (the Golden Triangle) and cocaine from South America continue, as well as a growing number of synthetic drugs from China. The smugglers and dealers are now a lot more discreet and harder for the police, and even many potential customers, to find. About 40 percent of communities report that they have no visible drug problems and many more communities are headed in that direction.
In the last few years, hundreds of corrupt cops and other officials have been identified and prosecuted or simply expelled from their jobs if there was not enough evidence for prosecution. Many corrupt senior officials were identified and punished. Duterte also promised to do something about the chronic corruption and he did, with the war on drugs leading to the arrests of many current and former government officials who were corrupt, but are now in prison or awaiting trial.
Duterte also backed the successful prosecution of Ampatuan clan leaders and gunmen responsible for the 2009 massacre in the south that left 58 dead. This happened while 21 policemen were present and did nothing. The policemen were fired for their inaction but it took a decade to bring the clan leaders responsible to justice. Over a hundred people were prosecuted but the court proceedings moved very slowly. Such is the power of clan warlords in the south. Meanwhile, the government tried to act in other ways. In 2012 the government ordered the national police to eliminate the many private armies and get it done by 2013. That took a lot longer and Duterte has continued to enforce the militia ban. Because of the Ampatuan clan militia massacre, the government was forced to acknowledge the existence of private armed groups, or PAGs. Official attempts to identify and count PAGs quickly found over a hundred of them. The existence of PAGs was embarrassing because many of these private militias were controlled by local politicians who supported the national government and were allowed to form (often with help from the army and national police) these armed groups to help in the fight against Moslem (MILF and Abu Sayyaf ) and communist (NPA) rebels. Many of these militias had been around for over half a century and their leaders were often local landlords or businessmen. This mix of politics, economics and private militias often went rogue, as was seen to horrific effect in 2009. Many of the PAGs continued to receive weapons, training and other assistance from the government. The problem has been the lack of supervision, mainly because the national level politicians did not want to offend their local supporters by questioning how the private armies were used. Often PAG members were used to intimidate voters during elections, or for purely criminal activities. By 2014 the identified PAGs were found to have about 4,000 members. About half the PAGs are recognized as participating in illegal activities and the government has been under since 2009 to crack down. These illegal activities have been an open secret for decades, but prosecuting the PAG leaders meant taking on powerful local families who provided political and economic support for national political parties and politicians. Since 2010 about a quarter of the PAGs were disbanded, and half the known PAG members dismissed. The remaining PAGs have resisted disbanding. Part of this has to do with the large number of illegal weapons many of these fighters use. There are believed to be three million firearms in the country of 90 million, but 40 percent of these pistols and rifles are unregistered and illegal. Getting rid of the PAGs won’t get rid of all the illegal weapons.
December 16, 2019: The government has decided to buy a weapon that could do some serious damage to Chinese forces in the South China Sea. The government wants to buy two batteries of the Indian PJ-10 BrahMos missiles for coastal defense. Each battery has two or three truck-mounted launchers, each with two or three missiles and communications equipment. Each battery also has a mobile radar for detecting targets via normal radar or by detecting and locating ship radar. The actual purchase contract is still being negotiated and because of the high cost of this system, $70-100 million depending on battery configuration, the government has to get approval from the legislature and satisfactory financing arrangements. The government hopes to get all that done within six months. That will not be easy as this will be one of the most expensive weapon system purchases the country has ever made.
The land-based BrahMos missiles are carried, three to a truck, on a 12 wheel vehicle which also acts as a launcher. Smaller trucks can be used carrying only two missiles each. The three ton missile has a range of 500 kilometers and has a 200 kg (440 pound) warhead. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the BrahMos is its high speed, literally faster (at up to 5,000 feet per second) than a rifle bullet. Used against hostile surface warships, BrahMos is hard to stop. The Indian Navy recently ordered two batteries for coast defense.
India and Russia developed this missile together and offered the BrahMos for export. The high price of each missile, about $2.3 million, restricts the number of countries that can afford it. The weapon entered service with the Indian navy in 2005. Different versions of the PJ-10 can be fired from the air, from ships or submarines. The maximum speed of 4,900 kilometers an hour makes it harder to intercept and means it takes five minutes or less to reach its target. The air-launched version weighs 2.5 tons, the others, three tons or more.
The 8.4 meter (28 foot) long, 600mm diameter missile is an upgraded version of the Russian SS-NX-26 (Yakhont) missile, which was in development when the Cold War ended in 1991. Lacking money to finish development and begin production, the Russian manufacturer made a deal with India to finish the job. India put up most of the $240 million needed to complete two decades of development. The PJ-10 is being built in Russia, with India as the initial customer. China and Iran have also expressed interest in the weapon, but a dozen other nations have been approached with a sales pitch. One unnamed Asian nation placed an order in 2016 and it is unclear if those have been delivered. So far the only users are India and Russia, which plan to manufacture about a thousand BrahMos over the next ten years, including those needed for export.
December 13, 2019: In the south (Eastern Samar province), a policeman on patrol was killed when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb and then gunfire. Two civilians also died while one policeman and two civilians were wounded. NPA rebels were responsible and this use of roadside bombs and gunfire has become a favorite tactic. The communist rebels have adapted to the hostility of the rural populations by attacking them regularly. These marauding leftist rebels are now seen as political bandits rather than potential liberators. The security forces now have to deal with these new rebel tactics, which are particularly effective in rural areas where roads are few and the rebels can set up their ambush on routes certain to have an army or police vehicles pass by.
In the West African nation of Togo, local pirates released three sailors kidnapped from a tanker in late 2018. Back then ten Filipino crewmen on two commercial vessels operating off the west coast of Africa were taken hostage by pirates, along with sailors from several other nations. This area, largely in the Gulf of Guinea, has replaced Southeast Asia as the area of highest piracy activity. Since there is no safe space to take captured ship the West African pirates board any vulnerable commercial ship at night, round up the crew, loot the ship of portable valuables and sometimes take members of the crew that might yield a ransom. The loot and hostages are then taken ashore and hidden away in camps deep inside the Niger River Delta or other remote coastal areas. In this case, the pirates were from Togo, a small nation west of Nigeria on the Gulf of Guinea. One of the sailors released, apparently after the payment of ransom, was Filipino. Another Filipino sailor on this crew was to be released but he died of illness before the release date. Filipinos sailors account for the largest national group among crews of large, sea-going vessels. As a result, when hostages are taken by pirates, Filipinos are usually among them.
December 7, 2019: In the south (Sulu province), soldiers clashed with about 40 Abu Sayyaf gunmen, killing four and wounding several more of them. One soldier died and nine were wounded. Troops later identified the Abu Sayyaf faction involved as being responsible for two suicide bombing in the last 18 months. This faction is also one of the more dedicated to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), which Abu Sayyaf now belongs to.
December 3, 2019: The Philippines has less terrorism to worry about and expects to soon lose its position among the top ten nations suffering the most from terrorist violence. In the 2019 GTI (Global Terrorism Index), which counts all forms of terrorism, the Philippines ranked number seven. The complete top ten consisted of Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Yemen, Philippines, and Congo. India, Philippines, Yemen and Congo all have Islamic terrorism accounting for a minority of the deaths. In the last year worldwide terrorism deaths declined 15 percent to 15,952. This decline is, so far, a four year trend and most nations are benefitting from it.
November 29, 2019: A recent (September) opinion poll found that 72 percent of Filipinos believed that the Philippines could maintain good relations with China and the United States at the same time. Yet 78 percent believed good relations with the U.S. was more important than with China. This is largely because the U.S. is the most trusted foreign nation according to 80 percent of Filipinos compared to only 21 percent of Filipinos saying they similar levels of trust in China.
November 25, 2019: In the south (Sulu province), two clashes near rural villages over the weekend left six Abu Sayyaf gunmen dead and several more wounded. Seven soldiers were wounded. The troops were searching for a couple held for ransom by Abu Sayyaf. The wife is Filipino and the husband British so the Islamic terrorists were seeking a large ransom. The soldiers did rescue the couple when troops encountered their Abu Sayyaf guards and the Islamic terrorists fled without harming their captives. No ransom was paid and Abu Sayyaf has been losing more captives to army action during the past year. There are only a few hundred active Abu Sayyaf members left in the south and many civilians are willing to use their cell phones to call in a tip to the army or police.
November 22, 2019: In the south (Sulu province), soldiers clashed with a small group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen. The outnumbered Islamic terrorists fled as quickly as they could and left one body behind. The dead man was later identified as Talha Jumsah. Local civilians had alerted the army to the presence of this man in the area and several army patrols were sent in to follow up. Jumsah was a key member of ISIL because he had received bomb-building training from ISIL and maintained links with the remaining ISIL leaders and financiers in the Middle East. With Jumsah gone Abu Sayyaf has lost a key bomb builder and organizer of suicide bombings as well as an important link between Abu Sayyaf and other ISIL factions in the Middle East.