Saturday, March 24, 2018

US foreign policy is failing in the Philippines

From the East Asia Forum (Mar 23): US foreign policy is failing in the Philippines (By Luke Lischin, National War College)

In spite of the United States’ renewed focus on great power competition in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the war against terrorism will remain salient to US strategy. In few places is this clearer than in the Philippines.

The United States’ ongoing efforts to bolster its military aid under the remit of counterterrorism cooperation reflects Washington’s desire for continued influence in the region. Unfortunately for the United States, military aid to the Philippines without diplomatic and economic policies to match will not be sufficient to mitigate Chinese influence.

In September 2017, the United States upgraded its Operation Pacific Eagle mission in the Philippines to an Overseas Contingency Operation in recognition of the presence of the so-called Islamic State (IS) on the island of Mindanao. The details of the operation are scant — 200–300 US Special Forces personnel are currently serving in an advisory capacity, and US$20 million is committed to the reconstruction of Marawi.

Although the United States deployed about double that number of operators during the height of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, the current deployment is a notable accomplishment given President Rodrigo Duterte’s desire to expel them from the country. Pacific Eagle’s designation as an OCO effectively removes caps on military and civilian spending in support of the operation, clearing the path for its budget to grow significantly. Bourgeoning counterterrorism funding is a tantalising incentive for Manila to cooperate closely with Washington, but it belies the fact that success for Pacific Eagle will not ‘come cheap’.

A lasting peace in the Philippines remains out of reach as the Abu Sayyaf group has returned to the fore alongside other pro-IS militants. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) remain poorly trained and underequipped. Meanwhile, the Moro peace process continues to wither on the vine as the legislation negotiated to end the conflict awaits consideration in the Senate.

Polling suggests that the Philippines is receptive to US military engagement. Although Philippine confidence in US leadership remains strong, it is in decline. Similarly, the AFP remain stalwarts of the US–Philippine alliance — a situation that Duterte openly laments.

The United States can feel justifiably confident in pursuing Pacific Eagle with the support of the military and the public, but it cannot count on the Philippine Congress. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque Jr has repeatedly downplayed the significance of US–Philippine cooperation on counterterrorism and Duterte has gone as far as blaming Washington for masterminding a botched counterterrorism operation. Even in pursuit of an ostensibly shared goal, Duterte cannot be counted upon to do more than cynically embrace US–Philippine cooperation and begrudgingly accept US funds and supplies.

While the US seeks to preserve its relationship with the Philippines through military ties, China seeks to contest US influence by using trade, investment, and economic aid as an avenue to expanding security ties. Productive economic relations with both the United States and China are vital to the Philippines’ economic wellbeing, which makes it unlikely that trade and investment with one country will overshadow the other in the near term.

As things currently stand, the United States dwarfs Chinese contributions to the Philippine economy in terms of both foreign direct investment and the value of remittances. According to the Philippines Statistics Authority, the top contributors of approved Foreign Direct Investment to the Philippines in 2017 by percentage were Japan (30.3 per cent), Taiwan (10.3 per cent), Singapore (9.6 per cent), the Netherlands (9.1 per cent), and the United States (8.3 per cent), while China contributed just 2.2 per cent.

Even so, Beijing advances an economic policy that is more coherent and ambitious than anything put forward by Washington, especially since the latter withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Until the United States manages to formulate an economic strategy for the Philippines, it will continue to rely on reinvigorating its security ties with Manila in order to offset China’s nascent efforts to expand its policies in that same area.

As Duterte criticises and scapegoats the United States, he continues to seek greater security assistance from China. The quality and quantity of Chinese military aid to the Philippines pale in comparison to US contributions, but it has garnered the effusive gratitude of Duterte. In 2017, China provided approximately US$300 million in military aid and disaster assistance, marking the beginning of what Duterte heralded as ‘the dawn of a new era’. In December of the same year, Beijing and Manila completed talks to expand cooperation in these areas. By February 2018, Duterte proposed sending his troops for counterterrorism training in China as a means of ‘creating balance’.

Duterte continues to play down the significance of enhanced Chinese military capabilities in the South China Sea, even while incidents such as the unilateral survey of Benham Rise by Chinese vessels stoke national anxieties over Philippine sovereignty. As the Duterte administration continues to engage in apologetics and paper tiger rhetoric to assuage the public’s anxieties over Beijing’s intentions, Washington must appreciate that its defence ties with the Philippines face a challenge.

Pacific Eagle cannot hope to repair US–Philippines relations while keeping China at bay on its own. The United States will need to come to this realisation as it engages with its allies and potential partners in the region through weapons sales and military diplomacy. Ad hoc policies that rely on US defence capabilities and military aid are poor replacements for a long-term foreign relations strategy. As President Donald Trump‘s administration enters its second year in office, it is running out of time to formulate one.

[Luke Lischin is an academic assistant at the National War College.The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the National War College.]

Kidnapped Muslim teacher released in Sulu

From the Mindanao Examiner (Mar 24): Kidnapped Muslim teacher released in Sulu

Kidnappers have released a school principal after her family paid ransom in exchange for her freedom in Sulu province in southern Philippines.

Marjorie Abdul, who was seized on Thursday inside the Liang Elementary School in Patikul town, has been reunited with her family Friday.

It was unknown how much ransom her family had paid to the kidnappers, who are believed to be allied with the Abu Sayyaf. At least five gunmen barged into the school and dragged Abdul to a waiting vehicle.

No individual or group claimed responsibility for the latest abduction. The military’s Western Mindanao Command did not release any statement on Abdul’s release.

Just this week, kidnappers also freed another Muslim teacher, Doris Hamsirani, who was recovered in Liang village, also in Patikul town.

The teacher was snatched on March 7 in Timbangan village in Indanan town, but details surrounding her abduction were unclear. It was unknown whether her family paid ransom or not, or whether the Abu Sayyaf or other group was behind her abduction. Police provided no other details.

The Abu Sayyaf is still holding over a dozen hostages, mostly foreign sailors, in the troubled region.

Philippine School Principal Abducted by Militants Released Hours Later: Police

From BenarNews (Mar 23): Philippine School Principal Abducted by Militants Released Hours Later: Police


Abu Sayyaf militants gather in a remote village in the southern Philippine province of Basilan in this undated file photo.

An elementary school educator who was abducted a day earlier by Abu Sayyaf militants in the southern Philippine province of Sulu was released hours later, police said Friday.

Heavily armed militants stormed the Liang Elementary School in the town of Patikul on Tuesday morning and snatched Principal Marjorie Abdul at gunpoint, according to Capt. Joa-ann Petinglay, the military’s Western Mindanao Command spokeswoman.

Troops immediately launched an operation to go after the abductors who are known to control parts of Patikul, Petinglay said.

“We strongly condemn any kidnapping ploys employed by lawless groups in the province. Rest assured that we will sustain our operations in coordination with law enforcement agencies,” Petinglay said.

Police sources in Sulu, however, told BenarNews that Abdul was freed about 12 hours later after her family paid an unspecified ransom. It was not clear whether the military was aware of this development, and calls to Petinglay late Friday went unanswered.

Abdul’s abduction and apparent release occurred days after another Muslim teacher, Doris Hamsirani, 45, was freed after a week in captivity. Police found Hamsirani Tuesday morning as she wandered in Patikul after escaping from her captors, according to media reports.

Earlier this week, authorities in nearby Zamboanga City captured two Abu Sayyaf militants who were allegedly involved in the abduction of 21 foreign tourists from a resort in Malaysia 18 years ago.

With a few hundred members, Abu Sayyaf is driven by profit and has long abandoned its ideological leanings.

It is blamed for some of the worst kidnappings, bombings and beheadings of locals and foreign hostages during the past two decades. In the last two years alone, the group beheaded a German and two Canadians it had kidnapped separately in the south after their governments failed to pay ransoms.

Last year, a faction of the Abu Sayyaf group led by Isnilon Hapilon, the acknowledged leader of the Islamic State in the country, laid siege to the southern city of Marawi and displaced thousands of residents. The five-month siege killed 1,200 people, mostly militants, and left the once-beautiful lakeshore region in shambles.

Abu Sayyaf who ran in 2016 polls gets life for gunrunning

From the Philippine Star (Mar 24): Abu Sayyaf who ran in 2016 polls gets life for gunrunning                          

The San Juan City regional trial court yesterday sentenced to life in prison a suspected Abu Sayyaf rebel who was arrested in September 2016 for illegal possession of high-powered firearms and explosives.

Branch 264 Judge Genie Gapas-Agbada found Kenneth Isa guilty of 11 counts of illegal possession of firearms.

Superintendent Roque Merdegia said Isa, who lost in his bid as vice governor of Sulu in the 2016 national elections, cried when his sentence was read.

In a 20-page decision, Agbada cited the prosecution’s evidence that proved beyond reasonable doubt that Isa was in possession of firearms.

The judge junked Isa’s defense that he was not the owner of the firearms and a mere visitor at the house where he was arrested.

Isa was arrested on Sept. 26, 2016 in Barangay West Crame where assorted firearms were found in his possession.

Four M-16 rifles, two M-14 rifles, six M203 grenade launchers, three rounds for M203 grenade launchers, a .45 caliber pistol and approximately 8,000 bullets.

Merdegia said Isa is involved in gunrunning activities Metro Manila and Cavite, smuggling firearms for warlords in Sulu and Basilan.

3 NPA rebels surrender

From the Sun Star-Cagayan de Oro (Mar 24): 3 NPA rebels surrender

THREE suspected communist insurgents, two of them allegedly high-ranking New People's Army (NPA) officials, have surrendered to the government, bringing with them five assorted high-powered firearms and ammunition.

The former rebels were identified as Jeffrey Mondejar, Jaica Precioso and Apatan Agsubo.

Mondejar is said to be the Vice Commander of Regional Sentro de Grabidad (RSDG) COMPAQ, while Precioso belongs to the Platoon Medic of Sandatahang Yunit Pampropaganda (SYP) Banglas of Guerilla Front Committee (GFC) 88, North Central Mindanao Regional Committee (NCMRC).

The army said Agsubo is a member of SYP2, GFC 34 of Southern Mindanao Regional Committee (SMRC).

First Lieutenant Tere Ingente, 4th Infantry Division (4ID) spokesperson, said the three rebels surrendered to Lieutenant Colonel Rommel Pagayon of the 26th Infantry Battalion (26IB) in Talacogon, Agusan del Sur on Thursday.

Ingente said the surrenderers yielded an AK47, Garand rifle, carbine, an M16 rifle and a revolver pistol.

Colonel Andres Centino, commander of 401st Infantry Brigade, said the former rebels decided to give up because of the "widespread corruption inside the NPA and the rampant atrocities it inflicts to innocent civilians."

“The recent surrenderers heard a radio announcement on the different programs of the government and was convinced of the sincerity of the Duterte administration to help the former rebels especially when they found out about their former comrades who were invited to MalacaƱang Palace to dine with our President,” Centino said.

It can be recalled that some 123 former rebels were invited by President Duterte for a three-day tour in Manila and a dinner at MalacaƱang Palace.

“There is a life far more progressive and peaceful than the life being experience by the NPA terrorists in the mountains. Our president is extending his hands to help them and to find extraordinary ways to encourage them to lay down their arms and return to the mainstream society,” said Major General Ronald Villanueva, the 4ID commander.

Aside from the dinner invitation, the female rebels are now in the process of getting passports for a future trip abroad courtesy of the administration.

4 rebels killed, 2 soldiers wounded in Cotabato clash

From GMA News Online (Mar 24): 4 rebels killed, 2 soldiers wounded in Cotabato clash

Four New People's Army guerrillas were killed, and two government troopers were wounded in an encounter on Friday afternoon in North Cotabato.

In a report by GMA News Cotabato stringer Garry Fuerzas, Captain Randy Llunar, chief of the 901st Brigade Philippine Army Civil Military Operation, confirmed that the slain rebels belonged to NPA's Guerilla Front Committee 53 under Joel Pulido, based in Barangay Manobo in Cotabato's Magpet town.

Llunar also said that two soldiers were wounded in the encounter, but are now safe while undergoing treatment.

According to Llunar, the soldiers acted on tip from concerned citizens on the presence of the rebels in Magpet.

When soldiers arrived in the area at about 4 p.m., the rebels opened fire, sparking a skirmish the lasted for over an hour.

Unable to repel the oncoming soldiers, the NPA fled in the direction of Mount Apo, leaving behind their dead.

Several families have also fled their homes in the encounter site, even as a pursuit operation is ongoing.

The encounter erupted five days before the NPA's 49th founding anniversary.

Explosions rock Maguindanao, 2 hurt including a policeman

From GMA News Online (Mar 24): Explosions rock Maguindanao, 2 hurt including a policeman

A policeman and a civilian were hurt in a twin bombing incident on Friday evening that brought havoc among Teduray residents of North Upi, Maguindanao.

Senior Superintendent Agustin Tello, provincial police commander of Maguindanao confirmed that two explosions took place past 7 p.m.

“The information we received, the first explosion was believed to be a hand grenade lobbed near the elementary school where a basketball event is happening, when the police responded, a secondary bomb exploded (IED) wounding one of our police responder”, he said.

Tello believed that the attack is meant to hurt his policemen when an Improvised Explosive Device was planted.

The groups behind the action in Barangay Burungotan are yet to be identified.

Joint-Task Force Central Mindanao spokesperson Col. Gerry Besana identified the police victim as PO1 Marjun Lahaylahay while the wounded basketball player is still unidentified.

The first explosion was heard around 7:45 pm while the second explosion took place 8 p.m.

Troops from Marine Batallion Landing Team 7, which is stationed in the area, immediately deployed a team with a V-150 armored vehicle.

It can be recalled that December 10 last year, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) members conducted a similar attack occurred in the same town wherein a Marine trooper and a policeman were injured.