January 22, 2020:
President Duterte continues to enjoy high approval ratings. The latest poll shows 82 percent approval, which is up from 78 percent in September 2019. These are all high for a president in office for more than three years. Duterte promised to make people safer while also reducing corruption. He did so and continues to concentrate on what he got elected to do. The latest poll found that only 52 percent of voters expected Duterte to deliver on all or nearly all of his campaign promises while 43 percent expected him to only deliver on a few. Duterte has delivered on more campaign promises than any previous president. Yet his approval ratings have declined as they do for every president, but then they rise again as yet another campaign promise is addressed. In late 2018 his approval was 78 percent. That was down from 84 percent shortly after he took office in 2016. Approval peaked at 85 percent in late 2016 and fell to 75 percent in early 2018 before reaching a low of 68 percent in mid-2019. There are many foreign critics of the Duterte war on drugs but for the people most affected by it there is approval. Filipinos feel safer and more confident about their future. The national crime rate is 3.3 percent less than a year ago and is apparently continuing to decline. Meanwhile, corruption arrests and prosecutions continue to increase and many of those prosecuted are senior officials, often from previous governments. Duterte has also gone after quality-of-life problems like electric and water supplies.
The economy is growing and the Chinese threat is being addressed without getting the country into a war. Unrest among the Moslem minority in the south is much reduced and the communist NPA rebels, who have been a problem for over fifty years, are fading fast. ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) efforts to establish itself have failed as the group suffered heavy losses in the Philippines during the last two years.
In short, there is a lot less rural violence and urban Islamic terrorism. Duterte is often rude, crude, outspoken and effective as a politician. He has always been like that and those who vote for him seem to appreciate the blunt honesty and doing what he was elected to do. All these changes are noticed by the average Filipino and that shows up in the opinion polls.
January 21, 2020: In the south (Tawi-Tawi province), marines clashed with Abu Sayyaf gunmen twice over the weekend and killed five of the Islamic terrorists. Tawi-Tawi is adjacent to Sulu where most surviving Abu Sayyaf members are based.
January 19, 2020: The new commander of the national police, who replaced a predecessor dismissed for corruption, pledged to concentrate on police misbehavior and the continuing effort to reduce crime in general. The crime rate has gone down along with the number of people involved in the illegal drug business. With fewer corrupt cops around criminals resort to intimidation and assassination of police commanders to regain their freedom of action. In many rural areas, this murder and intimidation extend to local mayors and other officials. With less cooperation from local police, many criminal gangs are much less active and losing money and members. Pity the poor criminal.
January 18, 2020: In the south (Sulu province), soldiers clashed with a group of Abu Sayyaf gunmen, killing one of them and capturing their speedboat. That boat was later identified by a recently freed Abu Sayyaf captive as the boat used to attack his fishing ship and kidnap him and two other Indonesians.
January 17, 2020: The government revealed that 8,900 MILF fighters had been demobilized, most of them during the last four months of 2019. The rest of the original 12,000 MILF gunmen will be demobilized in early 2020.
The army was able to carry this demobilization out because it got a lot of cooperation from local militias, mainly those belonging to the MILF as well as MILF itself. Another factor is
BARMM (Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) gaining voter approval earlier in 2019. This led to the disarmament, demobilization and retraining of MILF militias, a process that will not be complete until 2022 because this process includes over 25,000 local militias and private armies. Many of the former MILF and militia fighters will become part of the 40,000 strong Bangsamoro security forces. In the meantime, these MILF and local militia forces are expected to help deal with organized crime and Islamic terrorists operating near them. Most of the MILF militias began as local defense forces and now that is their primary function until they are demobilized, with many members ending up as local police.
Since February 2019, armed members of MILF have been responsible for local security although the Filipino armed forces still handles most of the counter-terrorism operations, especially against ISIL, Abu Sayyaf and BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters). BARMM consists of Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi provinces, as well as the cities of Marawi, Lamitan, Cotabato and 63 villages of North Cotabato province. The city of Cotabato will be the BARMM capital.
The Islamic terror groups down south, particularly ISIL, are battered and depleted but still active. ISIL rebuilding efforts are hampered by the continued military patrols seeking the dwindling number of camps these groups use for training and building bombs and other devices. Diehard anti-BARMM groups like BIFF have been ISIL associates since 2014 and still finding recruits among young Moslem men looking for some violent excitement. Many Moslem clerics still preach that this sort of violence is justified when Moslems feel they are under attack. Within ISIL the Philippines is no longer a prime destination of ISIL specialists seeking refuge. The areas where Islamic terrorists could set up camps are now part of BARMM and increasingly monitored by former MILF members waiting to become local policemen. Abu Sayyaf is no longer very active as pirates or kidnappers because avoiding the security forces has become a full time job. The leftist NPA is still present and active in the south (less so in the north) but these rebels are operating more like gangsters than political operatives. This has led to fewer new recruits and more of the younger, idealistic, members to either surrender to the government or simply walk away.
January 16, 2020: In the south, across the Sulu Sea off nearby Malaysia (Sabah) Abu Sayyaf pirates attacked an Indonesian fishing boat and kidnapped the eight Indonesian crewmen. The pirates later released three of their captives in Sabah. These Indonesians sought out the police and reported the attack. The military is now searching for these pirates and their captives. Currently, Abu Sayyaf only has about 400 active members and is short of cash, local support and new recruits. Kidnapping used to be a good source of cash, especially if a foreigner could be taken. That has become more difficult and risky because the military has increased the number and effectiveness of its land and naval patrols. That’s one reason most of the recent pirate attacks have occurred in Malaysian waters.
January 12, 2020: The navy has tracked a Chinese coast guard ship spending a lot of time circling a Filipino base
on Second Thomas Reef. Although this reef is 200 kilometers from Palawan (indisputably part of the Philippines) and thus recognized by international law as Filipino, China also claims ownership. This was going on while Chinese coast guard officials were making a “goodwill” visit to the Filipino capital. China still claims that Second Thomas Reef is Chinese and that Filipinos are trespassing. Back in early 2018 China moved a lot more ships, plus aircraft overhead, to this area in a failed effort to prevent resupply of the detachment of Filipino marines stationed there on a World War II era landing ship (the BRP Sierra Madre) since 1999. The Filipino navy deliberately grounded the LST on Second Thomas Reef to provide a place for this “observation team”. In 2013 Chinese patrol ships came within nine kilometers of the LST, which China insists is there illegally. The Philippines warned China that it would resist any attempts to use force against the grounded ship and while the Chinese still tries to interfere with supply ships, they have stayed away. In 2015 China protested the Filipino effort to make repairs on the LST. The Philippines protested the Chinese moves but only after a two week delay because of disagreements within the Filipino government about how to deal with the situation. China is buying a lot of influence in the Philippines but at the same time most Filipinos fear being “conquered” by an increasingly aggressive China. The Philippines also decided to proceed with upgrades to its other disputed islands in the Spratly Islands. Since late 2019 China and the Philippines have been negotiating, unsuccessfully so far, to create a COC (Code of Conduct) for operations in contested areas.
January 8, 2020: The army is resuming its offensive operation against the leftist NPA rebels because the NPA has violated the holiday ceasefire it proposed and implemented. The 16 day truce began on December 23. While the security forces observed the truce, a number of NPA factions did not and there were two NPA violations on the first day. For the rest of the truce period, there was frequent violence against civilians, as part of the NPA effort to intimidate civilians into supporting them or at least not cooperating with the security forces. During 2019 the security forces inflicted major damage on the NPA by eliminating 10,918 NPA members or supporters via surrender, arrest or killed in combat. The government continues to hold peace talks with the NPA leadership but those leaders appear to have lost control of many NPA factions.
January 1, 2020: In the north (Manila), police arrested a known BIFF member who, it turned out, was on vacation and not working on carrying out a terror attack in the capital.
December 23, 2019: Today is the first day of the 16 day holiday truce the NPA proposed and the government agreed to. Despite that, in the north (Camarines Norte province) NPA gunmen ambushed some soldiers, killing one of them and wounding six. In the south (Iloilo province), police were ambushed by NPA gunmen, leaving two policemen wounded.
December 22, 2019: In the south (North Cotabato province), BIFF was blamed for three explosions that left 23 wounded (nine of them soldiers). BIFF is down to less than a hundred active members spending most of its time trying to avoid the security forces. These three attacks, two of them involving hand grenades, are apparently the best BIFF can do right now. BIFF denied responsibility but they are the most prominent Islamic terrorist group in the province.