Sunday, April 9, 2017

Philippines on Duterte’s Order to Occupy Disputed Islands: Never Mind

From the New York Times (Apr 8): Philippines on Duterte’s Order to Occupy Disputed Islands: Never Mind

The Philippine government on Saturday walked back comments by President Rodrigo Duterte ordering the armed forces to occupy uninhabited islands in the disputed South China Sea after the comments caused tensions to spike with China.

For one thing, the Philippines already occupies nine islands and reefs in the disputed chain, the Spratlys, and has troops stationed on a dilapidated World War II-era ship it stranded on one of the contested shoals.

Analysts and some officials were also perplexed by the order, since it came as ties between the two nations were on the mend a year after a United Nations-backed tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in the sea dispute.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was with Mr. Duterte when he made the statements at a military camp on Thursday, sought to allay fears that the president was abandoning his pro-China stance.

“There is no cause for concern,” Mr. Lorenzana said. “The islands have been in our possession since the 1980s, when former President Marcos declared it as ours.”

Mr. Lorenzana sought to clarify that Mr. Duterte meant the military should construct living accommodations in the islands, including a water and sewerage system, lighthouse and electricity, so that they could serve as sanctuaries for fishermen.

Of the islands controlled by the Philippines, the biggest, Pag-asa, also known as Thitu, is considered an island municipality. It is occupied by troops and governed by an elected official under the province of Palawan, west of Manila.

But it is part of the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of about 14 islets and dozens of reefs and shoals scattered near the middle of the South China Sea. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have overlapping claims in the archipelago.

Security experts have long warned that the dispute is a flash point of conflict in the region.

The Philippines occupies nine of the roughly 50 islands and reefs that it claims in the Spratlys, including Pag-asa. While all the countries with claims have agreed not to make any provocative moves, there is no binding “code of conduct” to govern their actions.

China recently moved to advance its own claims in the sea by building shoals into artificial islands and building military and other facilities on them.

A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, said Beijing had been worried about Mr. Duterte’s statement and expressed hope that Manila would continue to “properly manage maritime disputes with China.”

The two sides are to meet in May in a bid to hammer out a “bilateral” arrangement to manage conflicting claims.

A Philippine presidential spokesman, Ernesto Abella, assured the Chinese side that Mr. Duterte had not changed tack.

“The Philippines assures all claimant countries that we remain committed to improving and enhancing our relations with our neighbors and partners in the region,” Mr. Abella said. “At the same time, it is important that the living conditions, safety and personal security of Filipinos in Philippine territory be assured.”

Mr. Duterte’s position on the matter “is clear and has nothing to do with politics,” he added. “His instructions cover existing Philippine facilities and Philippine territory.”

This past week, Mr. Duterte ordered troops to occupy South China Sea islands that remained vacant. He also said he might go to Pag-asa island to plant a Philippine flag there on June 12, the country’s Independence Day.

But the order puzzled observers. Mr. Duterte had previously noted that China and the Philippines could share resources in the disputed region rather than fight over it.

A former national security adviser, Roilo Golez, who remains active in anti-China political circles, said the president could merely be posturing.

It is not the first time Mr. Duterte has issued conflicting statements. Mr. Abella has told journalists to use their “creative imagination” in trying to interpret what the president meant.

During a visit to China last year, the usually foul-mouthed president caused confusion when he announced an impending “separation” from the United States, a traditional security ally. But he later reversed that statement and said the two enjoyed a longstanding alliance treaty.

LOOK: Air Force provides proper maintenance to ensure operational-ready aircraft

From Update Philippines (Apr 7): LOOK: Air Force provides proper maintenance to ensure operational-ready aircraft

Philippine Air Force 220th Airlift Wing also known as the ‘Airlifters’ is the primary unit providing tactical airlift operations Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). It is strategically housed in Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu.

“Airlifters have managed to provide capability such as providing support to internal security operation, conduct of sovereignty patrols, VIP movements, national development efforts and crisis response,” the Air Force said.

The Air Force notes that aside from performing various airlift missions, the other equally important task is on aircraft maintenance, only to ensure that these are operational-ready aircraft that can perform such missions anytime, anywhere.

Almost 20,000 man-hours was recorded from 2016 up to this date in order to correct almost 4,000 various discrepancies as part of both scheduled and unscheduled maintenance, the Air Force said.

“The maintenance personnel led by the 470th Maintenance Support Group Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Thorsten Ajello Bautista PAF and Major Rhanjee Lao PAF have truly proven their commitment and capacity to go beyond what is expected of them,” Air Force said.

Air Force photo

Duterte and generals split on China rapprochement

Nikkei Asian Review (Apr 7): Duterte and generals split on China rapprochement (By Richard Heydarian]

High stakes internal battle under way over direction of Philippine foreign policy

A Chinese coast guard vessel approaches Filipino fishermen off Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in September 2015. © AP

Analysis of Philippine foreign policy, especially in recent months, has largely revolved around the bigger-than-life persona of President Rodrigo Duterte. Since his accession to power nine months ago, the firebrand Filipino president, once dubbed the "Trump of the East," has consistently defied conventional wisdom, shaking up the Philippine political system as never before.

Promising an "independent" foreign policy, which "will not be dependent on the United States," Duterte has overseen a perceptible downgrading of bilateral military cooperation with the Philippines' sole treaty ally. In response to American criticisms of his human rights record, Duterte has not shied away from cursing top leaders in Washington, including former President Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, Duterte has progressively restored bilateral relations with China, which has offered large-scale investment and development aid in exchange for peaceful management of disputes in the South China Sea. Much less attention, however, has been paid to the consequential role of the Philippine security establishment, which harbors deep suspicions toward China and seeks to maintain robust military cooperation with America.

Far from being the exclusive domain of Duterte, Philippine foreign policy is a contested battlefield among various factions with conflicting geopolitical persuasions. The Philippines' current chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has raised the stakes even further, since Manila has significant influence over the regional agenda, specifically on the South China Sea.

What happens in the Philippines will inevitably have significant impact on the broader regional landscape.

With soaring approval ratings and supermajority support in the Philippine Congress, Duterte has enjoyed significant leeway in shaping a foreign policy unlike that of any of his recent predecessors. As a self-described socialist, known for his anticolonialist sloganeering and adversarial history with America, Duterte's brand of populism represents the rejection of liberal democratic institutions at home and the American-leaning policies of the ruling elite.

Thus, a recalibration, if not revolution, in Philippine foreign policy was a key element of Duterte's unlikely rise to power. In stark contrast to his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, who likened China to Nazi Germany, Duterte has often portrayed Beijing in a highly positive light.

The tough-talking Filipino leader has described China as a vital partner for national development and a potential military ally, while constantly downplaying the South China Sea issue. Most recently, Duterte thanked China for "loving [the Philippines] and helping [his country] survive the rigors of this life."

As a concession to China, Duterte has scaled back various joint military exercises with America, including the U.S.-Philippine Amphibious Landing Exercise and the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Exercise. He also canceled plans for joint maritime patrols with America, while barring the U.S. Navy from utilizing Philippine bases for conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations in the disputed waters.

But the security establishment -- composed of generals, defense officials, statesmen, and diplomats with more orthodox views -- has constantly resisted any alteration in the foundations of Philippine foreign policy, while viewing Duterte's strategic flirtation with China with deep suspicion.

Shortly after a visit to Manila by Chinese Commerce Minister Zhong Shan and Vice Premier Wang Yang, who offered a multibillion dollar investment package, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana rang alarm bells about Chinese activities months earlier in the resource-rich Benham Rise.

Defense officials accused China of engaging in suspicious activities in the area, which is part of the Philippines' continental shelf in the Pacific Ocean. Lorenzana raised the possibility that Chinese vessels may have been engaged in illegal oceanographic research, allegedly aimed at canvassing natural resources, placing surveillance equipment, and exploring the topographical conditions for deployment of submarines.

Good cop, bad cop?

Duterte, who seemed unaware even of the location of Benham Rise, tried to downplay the affair by claiming that he had unilaterally given China permission for its activities, which would have been beyond his constitutional power. The defense and foreign secretaries both denied his claim immediately.

Under growing pressure, Duterte asked the Philippine navy to step up patrols, while contemplating the establishment of permanent structures in the area to assert Philippine sovereign rights. Days later, tensions between Duterte and the security establishment flared again when the president suggested that Manila "cannot stop China" from building structures on the contested Scarborough Shoal, which lies just over 185 km from the Philippines.
Leading figures in the Philippine Senate and judiciary have openly warned the president against making defeatist statements, while opposition members of Congress filed an impeachment complaint, accusing Duterte of committing treason. Lorenzana described the prospect of Chinese construction activity on the shoal as "very, very disturbing" and "unacceptable," especially given its geographical proximity to the Philippines' Clark and Subic Bay military bases.

Crucially, Lorenzana underlined the importance of American military assistance in preventing full Chinese occupation of the shoal. Confronting an open backlash among his generals and prominent figures in the media and government, Duterte, who has eagerly sought the favor of the military since taking power, claimed that China had reassured him there would be no reclamation activity in the Scarborough Shoal.

Subsequently, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs made clear that the maritime disputes would be raised in Duterte's upcoming visit to China, where he is expected to meet President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a Belt and Road Initiative summit in May.

Duterte meanwhile toughened his tone during a recent visit to military facilities in the western island of Palawan, when he ordered Filipino troops to occupy and assert Philippine sovereignty over disputed land features across the Spratly island chain. He even promised to personally raise the Philippine flag on Thitu Island, the second largest of the Spratly chain, on Philippine Independence Day on June 12.

While this could be just a calculated effort to shore up his patriotic credentials and stave off a backlash from the defense establishment, Duterte is expected to move ahead with refurbishing the decrepit airstrip and facilities in the Thitu.

The ongoing back-and-forth between Duterte and the defense establishment is being reflected in the Philippines' chairmanship of ASEAN. On one hand, Duterte is eager to stick to issues close to his heart, such as fighting transnational terrorism and drug trafficking, while sidelining more sensitive issues such as maritime disputes. He has made clear that he will not use a victory on the South China Sea conflict at the international Permanent Court of Arbitration to put pressure on Beijing in regional forums.

On the other hand, senior members of the foreign affairs and defense departments want the South China Sea disputes to be at the center of regional discussions. Perturbed by China's rapid construction of military facilities in the disputed waters, they want the Philippines to use the court case to push for a legally-binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.

This internal policy dissonance largely explains contradictory statements by Duterte and senior officials about the ASEAN agenda this year. So far, it is not clear whether this is part of an elaborate "good cop, bad cop" strategy by Manila. More likely, it is the explicit expression of high-stakes internal debates, which animate the battle for the soul of Philippine foreign policy.

The fluidity of the battle underscores the important role of external powers, particularly China, Japan and America, in shaping Manila's behavior. China is eager to empower Duterte and like-minded doves in Manila by offering large-scale investments and development aid, hoping to soften its position on territorial and maritime disputes.
Japan and America, meanwhile, have sought to strengthen the voice of the defense establishment by offering maritime security assistance, underlining threats posed by Beijing's maritime assertiveness, and leveraging their significant economic footprint in the Philippine economy.

Tokyo has also sought to bridge the differences between Manila and Washington, while countering China's charm offensive by offering its own big-ticket infrastructure investment package. Ultimately, the direction of Philippine foreign policy and its chairmanship of ASEAN are not set in stone, whatever Duterte may say.

[Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic, columnist and author of "Asia's New Battlefield: US, China & the Struggle for the Western Pacific."]

US Faces Growing Troubles in Asia

From the Asia Sentinel (Apr 7): US Faces Growing Troubles in Asia

US Faces Growing Troubles in Asia

New President faces a long sea of difficulties as allies lean towards China

A bit more than two months into the new administration in Washington, DC, the US is arguably facing the severest threat since World War II to its military and diplomatic ascendency in Asia, a situation President Donald Trump seems, from his public statements, not to understand.

And, although the president compounded the problems with his withdrawal of the US from the Transpacific Partnership, the US-centric omnibus trade bill that would cover 40 percent of global commerce, much of it is not his fault. Former President Barack Obama has been criticized by his own allies, including former Ambassador to China Max Baucus, for not aggressively pursuing passage of the trade measure his administration negotiated.

Although Obama announced in 2011 that the US would intensify its engagement with Asia – the so-called ‘pivot’ — many observers say he largely delivered only rhetoric through much of his presidency, despite the fact that concerns in the Middle East left over from former President George Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq have tied down US air and naval forces there.

With the US withdrawing from the TPP, China is eager to take advantage while other nations, led by Japan and Australia, are seeking to resurrect it. The US will be the loser, and California will be the state that loses the most.

Likewise, Obama’s pivot pretty much ended up with nothing but a couple of battalions of US Marines in Darwin in northern Australia and two or three Independence-class Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) to Singapore.

Well before the new administration came into office, the US Seventh Fleet, which has commanded the Asian sea lanes for decades, has found no effective answer to China’s fortification of islet specks in the South China Sea. The outposts are of minor military significance, but they give substance to Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over almost the entire ocean up to the doorsteps of the littoral nations with their so-called “nine-dash line,” a map invented by Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government in 1948 before the Communists ever came to power.

Part of the US’s problem is the march of history. China has now become the world’s second- biggest economy and looks likely to become the biggest before too many years are out. Its current president, Xi Jinping, is asserting China’s strength in a way unseen since the Ming Dynasty allowed the Imperial Navy to fall into disrepair in the 1500s. It is relatively easy to assert its new strength in the South China Sea, which is on China’s doorstep and 12,100 km from California, with attendant supply line struggles.

But beyond that, other serious problems have intruded, some of them caused by what has been the US’s staunchest ally since World War II: The Philippines and its thuggish president, Rodrigo Duterte. The 71-year- old Duterte remains what he was – a small-town mayor who was elevated onto the international stage by dint of his vow to execute drug dealers, which he has done unmercifully, and who so far has betrayed little understanding of international law or relations.

In June of 2016, the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague ruled on a Philippine claim that China’s nine-dash line was invalid and that the Philippines had exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea. It was a historic ruling that Duterte, shortly after he became President, said he would set aside, shocking the international community, which had sought to present a united front against China behind the ruling.

Duterte and his foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay Jr – who has since been disqualified from office by having held US citizenship – have since that time told different stories, sometimes insisting that the ruling by The Hague is sacrosanct, at other times downplaying it.

Now Duterte has triggered an almost incomprehensible diplomatic gaffe, apparently giving China permission to explore a resource-rich area within the Philippines’ claimed exclusive economic zone 350 km. east of the main Philippine island of Luzon – without telling either his Department of Foreign Affairs or his Department of Defense that he had done so, in a conversation late last year with Chinese officials.

There is speculation in Manila that Duterte mistakenly thought the area, a submerged extinct volcanic ridge more than 3,000 meters underwater known as Benham Rise, was actually in the South China Sea rather than the Philippine Sea east of the country. In any case, when earlier this year a Chinese research ship showed up to explore the area, Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippine Defense Secretary, told reporters he had given instructions to the Philippine Navy to “accost them and drive them away” only to learn that Duterte had said they had permission to be there.

As with the ruling in The Hague, Duterte and his administration have veered between tough talk against the Chinese, defending Philippine sovereignty and offering to give it away. That has caused major problems for other countries that have looked to the US to help counter China’s expansionist urges. Vietnam, for example, has had a long series of confrontations with China over island-building and what it views as attempts by China to appropriate Vietnamese territory.

But other allies appear to simply be folding. Malaysia, which once surreptitiously allowed US troops to train in its jungles, is wavering. Its prime minister, Najib Razak, is the focal point of a US investigation into the theft of US$1 billion from a state-owned investment fund that may have lost as much as US$11 billion from mismanagement and theft. He has responded by moving his country’s foreign policy closer to China and away from the country that may want to prosecute him.

Thailand, which has cooperated in military exercises called Cobra Gold with the US and other allies for decades in what has been called the biggest joint military exercise in the world, featuring 35 nations, has since come under severe US criticism because of a draconian military coup in 2014. The Thai government has responded by appearing to veer towards China, inking important agreements to develop a key rail project and arranging for the purchase by China of billions of dollars in agricultural products.

Cambodia has consistently taken China’s side in Association of Southeast Asian Nations deliberations.

Trump himself caused trepidation by carefully orchestrating a pre-inauguration telephone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen that was widely interpreted as resetting the debate over what China considers a rogue province. Then, when controversy blew up, Trump appeared to say it was all Tsai’s idea and later endorsed the longstanding one-China policy. The resultant confusion in Taiwan has demoralized the administration there.

While these events have been taking place, China’s extensive “One Belt, One Road” plan to reconstruct the historic Silk Road is moving forward to build sea, rail and highway infrastructure that would ensure that much as all roads led to Imperial Rome, all roads from Indonesia to Central Asia would lead to Beijing.

Counteracting China’s burgeoning influence in its own backyard seems almost imaginably difficult, given Beijing’s growing expertise and experience in international affairs. A new, untried and woefully inexperienced regime in Washington is confronting Xi and Beijing. That showed during US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent trip to Beijing.

Despite Tillerson’s earlier rocket-rattling over Beijing’s South China Sea installations – offering during Congressional testimony to use US power to blockade them – the language he used during his inaugural visit to China was seized upon gleefully by the hardline Global Times, a state-owned publication, as having capitulated to Beijing in endorsing the idea that China and the US are equal in the region. That is something that no previous administration has done. Tillerson later had to clarify that there would be no change in US policy.

Japan has begun to cautiously step into the breach, sending its largest warship, a helicopter carrier, on a three-month tour of Southeast Asia in an attempt to reassure allies, much as Germany has had to take on new responsibilities as the new administration has blown cold on the European Union.

But Japan is no match for growing Chinese might and expansionism today. The US administration, faced with a newly formidable adversary in Beijing, with a North Korea eager for any adventurism to keep the pot boiling, with more allies looking north instead of across the Pacific, has its work cut out for it. It won’t be helped by that kind of inexperience and a 31 percent cut in the State Department and US Agency for International Development budgets.

NPA rebels search for safe way to free captives

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Apr 9): NPA rebels search for safe way to free captives

Communist rebels are in search of options to safely release what they call prisoners of war (POWs), referring to three soldiers and a policeman, amid the refusal of the armed forces to suspend military operations in areas where the captives are being held, according to communist party founder Jose Ma. Sison.

Sison, acknowledged as founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), said in an online interview that the CPP and its armed component, the New People’s Army (NPA), were studying how to safely release the captives without endangering their lives and that of their rebel captors in the absence of a military cessation of offensives against the rebels.

“There are precedents for the release of POWs to a domestic third party,” said Sison in the interview on Saturday.

“President Duterte had acted in a third party role several times when he was still a mayor,” Sison said, referring to many instances when the rebels released their captives to Mr. Duterte when he was still Davao City mayor.

Goodwill gesture

He said rebels were committed to releasing their captives not only to heed one of four conditions set by Mr. Duterte for peace talks to proceed but also as a gesture of “goodwill and confidence” by the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), an umbrella organization of underground leftist groups, in relation to peace talks with the Duterte administration.

Aside from the release of captives, Mr. Duterte has also demanded a ceasefire and a stop to rebel tax collection as conditions to resume formal peace negotiations with the rebels.

Sison blamed Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenza and armed forces chief Gen. Eduardo Año for the delay in the release of the captive soldiers and policeman.

“They do not care about their personnel. They have no mercy for their families,” Sison said.

“They do not respect President Duterte’s desire to have these POWs freed by the NPA,” he added.

Lorenzana and Año, he said, continue to push for an all-out war against the rebels “without considering the safety and orderly release of their own men.”

Sison said he believed that the military had not yet been apprised of the results of negotiations in the Netherlands between rebel and government representatives, which had led to an agreement to declare a unilateral ceasefire.

“It seems that they suffer from a disconnect in policy and action regarding confidence building measures in the peace negotiations,” he said.

Sison said the NDFP had already asked the government peace panel to work for the suspension of military operations to pave the way for the captives’ release. They are Pfc. Edwin Salan, Sgt. Solaiman Calucop, Pfc. Samuel Garay and PO2 Jerome Natividad.

NPAs abduct North Cotabato barangay captain

From the Philippine Star (Apr 9): NPAs abduct North Cotabato barangay captain

Magpet town in North Cotabato is bordered on the south by Kidapawan City and on the north by Arakan town. Google Earth
MAGUINDANAO, Philippines — Bandits wounded a soldier in an ambush while communist rebels abducted a barangay chairman in separate incidents in central Mindanao on Sunday.
Authorities in North Cotabato are still in pursuit of New People’s Army guerrillas who snatched Michael Lingaro, incumbent chairman of Barangay Mahongcog in Magpet town.
He was abducted by about 20 NPAs somewhere in Barangay Mahongcog at about 9:00 a.m. on Sunday, according to the Magpet municipal police office.
Lingaro is known for being a staunch supporter of police and military operations against the NPA in Magpet and nearby towns in North Cotabato.
About a hundred NPAs reportedy plundered highland villages in North Cotabato’s Antipas town, a short distance from Magpet, last month.
The two municipalities are surrounded by mountain ranges where there are NPA enclaves.
Government and National Democratic Front panels agreed in the Netherlands on April 5 on an interim ceasefire but this has yet to be formalized.
"We are pleased to learn that the document which shall pave the way to the ceasefire has been signed. Meantime that there is no ceasefire declaration yet, there will be no corresponding Suspension Of Military Operations for the moment," Col. Edgard Arevalo, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson, said last Thursday. 
The panels hope that the ceasefire will lead to a peaceful resolution of 48 years of fighting.
Soldier wounded in BIFF attack
Senior Superintendent Agustin Tello, director of the Maguindanao provincial police, identified the injured soldier as Pfc Butch Albarico of the Army’s 40th Infantry Battalion.
Albarico, who sustained bullet wounds in the upper torso, is now in a government hospital in Shariff Aguak town, also in Maguindanao.
Tello said Albarico and companions were patrolling somewhere in Barangay Ganta in Saidona Mustapha town in the second district of Maguindanao when members of the outlawed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters attacked them from two directions.
“They were ambushed while conducting a community patrol in Barangay Ganta to secure villages there on request of local officials,” Tello told The STAR on Sunday afternoon.
He said the incident caused panic among villagers residing near the scene of the ambush.
Although outnumbered, the soldiers returned fire, preventing their attackers from closing in.
The BIFF gunmen scampered away when responding soldiers from nearby roadside Army detachments arrived to help drive them away.
Barangay folk have confirmed that three fanatical BIFF bandits, initially identified only as Ahmed, Butukan and Sanguid, were wounded in the ensuing firefight.
There is heavy BIFF presence in Shariff Saidona and in Maguindanao’s nearby Mamasapano, Salibo, and Datu Saudi towns.
The apparently misguided extremist group boasts loyalty to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and is using the black ISIS flag as its revolutionary banner.
It has also been coddling foreign terrorists who are experts in fabrication and handling of improvised explosive devices.

Alleged NPA seize guns of village officials in N. Cotabato

From ABS-CBN (Apr 9): Alleged NPA seize guns of village officials in N. Cotabato

 Police have launched pursuit operations against NPA rebels who took away the firearms of village officials in a remote barangay in Magpet, North Cotabato. Photo courtesy of Magpet Municipal Police Station

NORTH COTABATO – Suspected members of the New People's Army (NPA) posed as soldiers and took away the firearms of village officials of Brgy. Mahongkong in the town of Magpet, Sunday morning.
Chief Inspector Rommel Constantino told ABS-CBN News in a phone interview that around 50 NPA rebels seized 4 firearms from Brgy. Mahongkong Chairman Michael Lingaro and members of the Barangay Peacekeeping Action Team (BPAT).

The suspected rebels were on board a pick up and forward truck when they arrived in the village.

The gunmen went to the house of BPAT members and some residents in the area and took their firearms and ammunition.

No one was hurt in the incident.

Authorities have set up checkpoints and launched pursuit operations against the gunmen.

MILF: Editorial -- Liguasan Marsh

Editorial posted to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Apr 8): Editorial -- Liguasan Marsh

It is good news to hear that the Duterte administration is pouring at least P21 million for the planting of bamboo and mangrove in the 288,000-hectare Liguasan Marsh. By modest standard, the money is too small but as a starting point, it is more than enough.

However, its success depends on government, the local government units (LGUs), and the people on the ground. The MILF can extend help in many ways through the mechanisms of the GPH-MILF peace process.

To us, the success of any undertaking is not the amount of money poured in it. The people factor is the most important, followed by correct framing or conceptualization, then the manner of implementation, and support of government and everyone else.

Greening or reforestation programs of government is largely a failure especially provinces in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Hardly seedlings nurtured or grown in nurseries are planted; good if 30 percent go to actual planting; and if planted all, there was no effective maintenance instituted.

Frankly, we do not know exactly where the problem lies, whether in the national level, in the ARMM, or in the LGUs, or the implementers. Government should diagnose the cause; of course, the ARMM under Regional Governor Mujiv Hataman through its DENR is doing their best to improve their delivery capability. But much has been desired especially in the protection of the watersheds of big rivers. Small-scale loggers are cutting trees not only in the periphery but inside protected watersheds especially in South and North Upi, Maguindanao, as well as in Lanao Del Sur.

Secretary Regina Lopez of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) should be congratulated for this initiative. She personally went to the area and planted the first bamboo seedling to signify that it is “go, go” already for this project.

What is more laudable in this project, not to say encouraging anymore, is that this massive greening program is not the one that use the people for selfish ends but they are the direct beneficiaries. They can earn from it and better their communities.

We are referring to so-called development programs that do not only pollute the environment but worse they lead to their dispersal and dispossession of their landholdings. This is what we call development aggression.

Liguasan Marsh is so rich in diversity. It grows medicinal plants, homes to tons and tons of freshwater fish, as well many kinds of birds including migratory ones. Crocodiles also live here. Not only this, it contains oil and gas deposits that forever lure the imaginations of greedy entrepreneurs.

Liguasan Marsh should not only de developed but should also be protected and preserved for the people of the area and the Bangsamoro people in general. The overflowing or flooding of the Cotabato river basin is where the Maguindanao ethnic-tribe gets their name. They are the “people of the flooded plain”.

MILF: Tarbiyyah Committee presents Bangsamoro Strategic Plan on Education and Culture Development

Posted to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front Website (Apr 8): Tarbiyyah Committee presents Bangsamoro Strategic Plan on Education and Culture Development

The key officials of the Education Committee presented the First Bangsamoro Strategic Plan on Education and Culture Development (FBSP-ECD) 2017-2035 held at Ma’had Manarapan, Carmen, North Cotabato on April 1, 2017 with tagline “Balanced and Quality Education for all”.

The consultation assembly aims primarily to understand the Bangsamoro education curriculum that can deliver balanced literacy programs, sustain peace and harmonious co-existence and participation of all education stakeholders in all levels of education. It was attended by more than two hundred key stakeholders from different committees of the Kapalawan Provincial Political Committee (KPPC).

The program presentation started with the reading of verses of the Noble Qur’an. The welcome address was delivered by Mike Alamada.

Cotabato Provincial Board Member Kelly “Maestro” Antao gave an inspirational message. He emphasized the importance of having a Bangsamoro strategic plan in support to the formulation of the Bangsamoro basic education curriculum.

Aleema Norhaya Hadji Yusof expressed her gratitude to the Tarbiyyah TWG who showed their skills, exerted efforts and made sacrifices to come up with the education curriculum.

Shiekh Nash P. Yusof Alhaj appreciated the efforts of the organizers who provided the necessary support to the activity. He ended up his message by challenging everyone to aspire more and encouraged the participants to listen to the lecture-presentation attentively.

Shiekh Norden Husain Alhaj presented the First Bangsamoro Strategic Plan on Education and Culture Development. He explained the committee structure and the regulatory framework of the strategic plan that were formulated based on the provisions of the signed Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB).

The CAB provides for the formulation of a development plan that is consistent with the national development goals while recognizing the Bangsamoro unique needs, ideals and aspiration of the Bangsamoro.

He also emphasized the creation of Bangsamoro Ministry of Education (BMEd) that shall consist of seven bureaus such as Islamic education; Higher Education; Basic Education; Science and Technology; Culture and Heritage; Arts and Sports; and Administrative and Finance Bureau.

Dr. Esmael Abdullah, head of the TWG elaborated that the Qur’an is central in the curriculum of Islamic Education which is primarily directed to young male and female children, The Bangsamoro basic regular education shall have 8:4:2 Scheme that pertains to Early Childhood Care and Development (ECCD). He encouraged the Bangsamoro communities to open up a Tahderriyah school to complete the scheme with balanced education for all.

Sheikh Ahmad Doli Alhaj stressed that the paradigm of the Bangsamoro Ministry Education (BMEd) shall stand in the light of the teachings of the Noble Qur’an related to education and the sayings and practices of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W). It shall be a system of education that will lead the Bangsamoro People to work in accordance with established Islamic education. There shall only one unified system of education in the Bangsamoro, Shiekh Doli stressed.

An open forum highlighted the program.

NDF: Sison to come home in connection with peace process or his nomination as National Artist for Literature

Propaganda statement posted to National Democratic Front Website (Apr 7): Sison to come home in connection with peace process or his nomination as National Artist for Literature  

NDFP Media Office
Press release
7 April 2017

National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) chief political consultant Jose Maria Sison said he is open to going home to the Philippines, when there is a highly significant development in the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations, such as the amnesty and release of all political prisoners listed by the NDFP and the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms by the GRP and NDFP negotiating panels in Oslo.

He also said that one more possibility for his homecoming soon could be the result of his nomination as National Artist for Literature (Poetry and Essay). He had just learned that creative writers, performing artists and mass leaders, including a group from the Concerned Artists of the Philippines are nominating him for the National Artist Award. He welcomed the nomination, saying this could also be a “compelling reason” for him to come home. But he modestly said that at this moment, he could not presume to win the award.

Sison brushed off rumors that he is “very sick.” He said he is, in fact, already at the stage of gaining strength after three weeks of thoroughgoing diagnostics and medical treatment and one more week of recuperation in the hospital.

 Unlike in the third round held in Rome last January, where Sison skipped the closing ceremonies, he was at every major event of the fourth round this April, including a reception at the residence of the Norwegian ambassador to The Netherlands.

Should a “real milestone of great substance for the Filipino people be achieved in the peace negotiations,” Sison said he would consider visiting the Philippines to join celebrations of the event and touch base with the masses. He said in his opening and closing remarks for the fourth round that he is optimistic that the CASER would be signed within 2017.

Sison is an outstanding poet and essayist, with more than 25 books to his credit. He belongs to the patriotic and revolutionary tradition of Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Francisco Balagtas, Lope K. Santos, Amado V. Hernandez and other literary giants of their time. He has contributed greatly to the Filipino sense of nationhood, advocating national sovereignty and independence, democracy, social justice, economic development through land reform and national industrialization, patriotic culture and solidarity with all peoples for peace and development.

He won the Southeast Asia WRITE Award for poetry and the essay in 1986. The award is the highest of its kind in Southeast Asia and is sponsored by the royal family of Thailand. When still the crown prince, the present Thai king handed him the award in a grand ceremony in Bangkok.

His writings have wide influence in the Philippines among his literary peers, the generations of youth since 1959 and in the mass movement for national and social liberation. The works of Sison have also been published abroad by major publishers. He enjoys worldwide recognition as a Filipino patriot and creative writer.

The National Artists are proclaimed by the President, after choosing them from a short list of nominees provided by the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). Creative writers, performing artists and mass leaders are now urging the CCP and NCAA to announce the guidelines and forms for nomination within April. The awards are given every three years and are due within 2017.

IN PHOTOS: The China build-up

From Rappler (Apr 9): IN PHOTOS: The China build-up

President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the military to occupy and build structures in Philippine territory in the South China Sea. China has been building its own way before this.

STAND OFF. Philippine navy troops inspects a Chinese fishing vessel loaded with giant clam shells off scarborough Shoal in April 2012. Photo from DFA/PN

STAND OFF. Philippine navy troops inspects a Chinese fishing vessel loaded with giant clam shells off scarborough Shoal in April 2012. Photo from DFA/PN

On Thursday, April 6, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military to occupy and build structures in Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). In particular, he said he wanted to "fortify" Pag-asa in the Kalayaan Island Group by building bunkers and other structures in the Philippine-occupied island.

China responded by raising its "concern" over the plan, and said the Philippines should "properly handle" its maritime dispute with China in a way that would ensure the "stable growth" of their bilateral relations.

Just 5 years ago, such a civil response from China would have been unimaginable. On April 8, 2012, the Philippine Navy apprehended 8 Chinese vessels anchored in the waters of Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal). Three months later, China took control of the area by creating a barrier to the entrance of the shoal, denying Filipino fishermen access to the rich fishing grounds. A standoff between Manila and Beijing ensued.

In June 2013, the Philippine government filed a case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, the Netherlands to settle the dispute. In 2016, the court ruled in favor of the Philippines.

The Philippines and China have claims on islands, reefs and rocks in the West Philippine Sea. In 1978, the Philippines staked its claim in the Spratlys by occupying islands which it collectively calls the Kalayaan Island Group, attached to Palawan.

Beijing claimed the Paracel islands following its victory in the battle against South Vietnam in 1974. In 1987, China was able to build a marine observation station on Fiery Cross Reef (Kagitingan) under the Global Sea Level Observing System (GLOSS) of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission.

China's project has led to a massive reclamation activity in the Spratlys, particularly in the reefs contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia.

The Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative noted that “since 2013, China has engaged in unprecedented and ecologically devastating dredging and island-building at all 7 of the islets and reefs it occupies in the Spratly Islands. To date, Beijing has created more than 3,200 acres of new land.”

FIERY CROSS/KAGITINGAN REEF. In 1998, China built a weather station that is seen in a photo from January 2006 (above). After a decade (bottom), the marine observation station became a military fortress. All photos courtesy of CSIS/AMTI/Digital Globe

MISCHIEF/PANGANIBAN REEF. China occupied the reef in 1993 after building structures in stilts for its fishermen. The photo below shows how the reef looks like in 2016.

SUBI/ZAMORA REEF. One of the 'Big 3' in the disputed territories. Photo shows how the reef looks like in July 2012 and after 4 years (below).

CUARTERON/CALDERON REEF. No structure is visible in 2011. Below, a Chinese naval facility is seen in January 2016.

GAVEN/BURGOS REEF. Was just a rock in 2007. On March 2015 (below) a Chinese facility is seen constructed.

HUGHES/McKENNAN REEF. Like Gaven, the reef was structure-less in 2008. On March 2015, a Chinese facility can be seen (below).

JOHNSON/MABINI REEF. No structure can be found in 2004. 11 years after, a Chinese radar facility (below).

Philippine, Vietnamese navies boost ties in goodwill visit

From Rappler (Apr 9): Philippine, Vietnamese navies boost ties in goodwill visit

The Le Quy Don 286 ship of the Vietnam People's Navy docks in the Philippines  

 GOODWILL VISIT. A Vietnamese Navy ship visits the Philippines to strengthen ties. Photo from the Philippine Naval Public Affairs Office

GOODWILL VISIT. A Vietnamese Navy ship visits the Philippines to strengthen ties. Photo from the Philippine Naval Public Affairs Office

A ship of the Vietnam People's Navy (VPN) docked at the Manila South Harbor on Saturday, April 8, for a goodwill visit to the country.

Delegates of the Philippine Navy (PN) vessel BRP Rajah Humabon escorted the VPN's ship Le Quy Don 286 to its berthing area.

On board were VPN Deputy Director Commodore Phan Van Van and 50 cadets, who are attending various events with their Filipino counterparts.

The activities include a shipboard tour, receptions, and a volleyball match.

The goodwill visit will be capped by a send-off ceremony, where a PN vessel will escort the VPN's ship to the vicinity of Corregidor Island.

The visit, set until Monday, April 10, aims to strengthen ties between the two navies. (READ: Can the Philippines and Vietnam be strategic partners?)

In 2015, the Philippines entered a defense and maritime agreement with Vietnam.

Both the Philippines and Vietnam are South China Sea claimants, locked in separate maritime disputes with China.

An arbitral tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands ruled against China in July 2016, saying it has no legal basis to "claim historic rights to resources" in areas within its so-called 9-dash line. China refuses to acknowledge the decision.

US Navy strike group to move toward Korean peninsula: US official

From InterAksyon (Apr 9): US Navy strike group to move toward Korean peninsula: US official

The USS Carl Vinson, a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier, departs from Naval Station North Island in Callifornia in January 2017 file photo. REUTERS

A US Navy strike group will be moving toward the western Pacific Ocean near the Korean peninsula, a US official told Reuters on Saturday, as concerns grow about North Korea's advancing weapons program.

Earlier this month North Korea tested a liquid-fueled Scud missile which only traveled a fraction of its range.

The strike group, called Carl Vinson, includes an aircraft carrier and will make its way from Singapore toward the Korean peninsula, according to the official, who was not authorized to speak to the media and requested anonymity.

"We feel the increased presence is necessary," the official said, citing North Korea's worrisome behavior.

This year North Korean officials, including leader Kim Jong Un, have repeatedly indicated an intercontinental ballistic missile test or something similar could be coming, possibly as soon as April 15, the 105th birthday of North Korea's founding president and celebrated annually as "the Day of the Sun."

Earlier this week US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in Florida, where Trump pressed his counterpart to do more to curb North Korea's nuclear program.

Trump's national security aides have completed a review of US options to try to curb North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. These include economic and military measures but lean more toward sanctions and increased pressure on Beijing to rein in its reclusive neighbor.

Although the option of pre-emptive military strikes on North Korea is not off the table, the review prioritizes less-risky steps and de-emphasizes direct military action.

Murad: May 18 deadline to submit draft BBL to OP is from Pres. Duterte

From MindaNews (Apr 9): Murad: May 18 deadline to submit draft BBL to OP is from Pres. Duterte

CAMP DARAPANAN, Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao — The May 18 deadline to submit the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to the Office of the President came from President Rodrigo Duterte himself, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) said.

“Siya ang nag set noon na sana ma-submit sa May 18,” Murad told MindaNews Friday afternoon. He said the date was brought up by the President during their talk at the launch of the 21-member MILF-led Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) on February 24 in Davao City.

Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, chair of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front talks about the Bangsamoro peace process in an interview with MindaNews on Friday afternoon, 07 April 2017. MindaNews photo by FERDINANDH B. CABRERA

He said the President was “emphasizing on the immediate na formulation of the new BBL para maipasa na sa Congress. Palaging sinasabi nya na dalian para matapos na ito” (He repeatedly said hurry up so this can be finished immediately).

“Actually, gusto nga niya, nag set nga siya ng parang unilateral na timeline na May 18 kailangan ma-submit sa kanya yung bagong BBL in time para mai-submit sa Congress in July … consistent pa rin ang kanyang sinasabi na paunahain natin itong Bangsamoro” (that we push for the Bangsamoro first), Murad said.

The President will deliver his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 24 where he is expected to certify as urgent the passage of the Bangsmaoro law.

Duterte on March 11 surprised those keenly monitoring the Bangsamoro peace process, when, addressing the MILF during the inauguration of the People’s Television (PTV) Cordillera Hub in Baguio City, he said, “you’re about to complete the Bangsamoro Transition draft (referring to the BBL). I will study it before we submit it to Congress and pray that it would sail on still waters.”

The BTC, however, was not “about to complete” the draft BBL by then as its members were named only on February 10, three months after the Exedutive Order reconstituting the BTC was signed. It was officially launched in the presence of President Duterte on February 24 at the Waterfront Hotel’s Garden Paviliion in Davao City, and held its first session on Marh 6 and 7 to discuss internal rules and the budget.

In its April 3 to 5 session, the BTC approved its internal rules, adopted as “working document” the draft BBL submitted by the previous BTC to Congress on September 10, 2014, and set up the six committees to begin crafting the draft BBL.

As of April 9, it was still awaiting notice from the Departemtn of Budget and Management for the release of its budget. Commissioners in the meantime have been shouldering the expenes for transportation to and from Cotabao City as well as the payment of rhti

The BTC — composed of 11 members nominated by the MILF and 10 by the government (GPH) — will begin committee hearings on April 10 to 12 and will have its plenary session on April 17 to 19.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte sits with (from left to right) Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Jesus Dureza, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) Chair Al Hadj Murad Ebrahim and Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC) Chair Gadzali Jaafar during the launching of the expanded BTC at the Waterfront Insular Hotel in Davao City on February 24, 2017. SIMEON CELI JR./Presidential Photo

The April 3 to 5 session also moved to an earlier target the supposed May 18 deadline. The 21-member BTC is now eyeing a May 15 deadline as Commissioner Hussin Amin manifested it was the date mentioned by Irene Santiago, chair of the GPH Peace Implementing Panel, in a televised interview.

May 15 is only 36 days from April 9.

Murad acknowledged that meeting the May 18 or May 15 target date is “very challengeing.”

He noted that it took time for the internal rules to be adopted and the committees set up so “with the pace now of the BTC, talagang very challenging, mahirapan kaya lang (difficult but) it’s not impossible.”

He said he hopes the BTC commissioners “can develop strong partnership para magkaroon ng common objective para matapos kaagad.”

He reiterated that the draft BBL should comply with the Framework Agereeent on the Bangsamoro that the GPH and MILF peace panels signed on October 15, 2012 and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed on March 27, 2014.

The BBL’s passage will pave the way for the creation of the Bangsamoro, a new autonomous politcial entity that will replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Meanwhile, the peace implementing panels of the GPH and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) have met, informally, four times but have yet to hold its first formal meeting.

GPH peace implementing panel chair Nabil Tan told MindaNews there will be no formal launch like the BTC but they will make a formal call on the President within the first half of April.

MNLF founding chair Nur Misuari’s temporary liberty is until April 27.

Judge Ma. Rowena Modesto-San Pedro of the Pasig Regional Trial Court in Pasig City on October 27 last year granted the “motion to suspend proceedings and enforcement of warrants of arrest against Misuari” for a period of six months from October 27, to allow Misuari “to attend peace talk sessions with the government.”

April 27 is fast approaching but Parcasio is confident Misuari’s temporary liberty will be extended.

“Well, we could always file a motion for extension … because his leave is tied to the peace process. It’s tied to the fact that he’s given time to travel, to meet different people, to consult MNLF members, confer with government in connection with the peace process, so we are confident that hopefully the court will grant the extension,” Parcasio told MindaNews last month.

Westmincom advocates ‘Basilan success story’ as to eradicate banditry

From the Philippine News Agency (Apr 9): Westmincom advocates ‘Basilan success story’ as to eradicate banditry

The commander of the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) on Saturday said the strong collaboration between the security forces and stakeholders is the key why the dreaded Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is losing its relevance in the island province of Basilan.

“As Westmincom commander, I am advocating that the ‘Basilan success story’ be used as a template for every peace and development efforts in all other provinces. We can all see that it is one of the most successful so far,” newly-promoted Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., Westmincom chief said during the culmination of “Kalasig-Lasigan” Festival in the town of Sumisip.

Galvez attributed the strong partnership of the local government units in the island province of Basilan and the military in its fight against banditry.

Sumisip, which has been the stronghold of the ASG, is now gradually being taken over by the local communities and the military.

Earlier, the regional government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), also took over the barangays of Baiwas in the town of Sumisip, Baguindan in the adjacent town of Tipo-Tipo, and Macalang in the town of Al-Barka. The Abu Sayyaf bandits had occupied all these areas.

Galvez said he is replicating the success in Basilan throughout Westmincom’s area of responsibilities, which includes the entire western and central Mindanao areas.

In his message, Galvez said that he was overwhelmed by the significant developments and progress he had seen in the town of Sumisip.

Galvez has previously served as the brigade commander of Basilan province.

“So much has changed and so much has improved since the last time I was here,” Galvez said.

“I am very proud to be previously assigned in this area of the province,” he added.

Galvez expressed the full support of his command to all peace endeavors of Sumisip municipality and the entire province of Basilan.

He was joined by Col. Juvymax Uy, Joint Task Force Basilan commander; and the Battalion Commanders under the task force.

“Rest assured that your soldiers will not stop supporting your efforts and developmental initiatives. We will be your partner in advocating peace and progress not only in Sumisip but also in all of Basilan and in the entire Westmincom area,” Galvez said.

For his part, Basilan Gov. Hadjiman Hataman-Salliman expressed his gratitude for the support the province is receiving from Westmincom.

“I would like to call the people of Sumisip to have a stake over the fight against lawlessness and terrorism. It is not just a military problem, but firstly, an issue that the local government units and the people of Basilan must address together. The military is just there to support and help us in this fight,” Salliman said.

The week-long “Kalasig-Lasigan” Festival, which means “merry-making” in Tausug, started on Monday. The festival includes traditional Yakan dances and songs, showcasing the rich and beautiful culture of the natives.

A “dulang” contest was also one of the highlights of the activity, participated by the different barangays of Sumisip.

Task Force Davao's anti-terror campaign 'creating vigilant citizenry'

From the Philippine News Agency (Apr 9): Task Force Davao's anti-terror campaign 'creating vigilant citizenry'

The anti-terrorism campaign of Task Force Davao is gaining positive results "in creating a well-informed and more vigilant citizenry," its commander said.

Col. Bernard Neri, Task Force Davao commander, said Saturday afternoon that after the September 2016 explosion that ripped through the Roxas night market here, they received over 100 calls and tips from concerned citizens regarding unattended bags or suspicious personalities.

He stressed this is "an indication of a vigilant citizenry."

On Friday, Task Force Davao joined a private motoring group and public utility van operators in putting stickers to all public utility vans plying between Davao City and southern parts of Mindanao like South Cotabato, Maguindanao and North Cotabato.

The Task Force targets 100 stickers bearing “Let us Fight Terrorism – President Rodrigo Roa Duterte” to be posted on vans and other private vehicles. In the city’s bus and transport terminals, the Task Force also posted streamers on anti-terrorism.

Neri said the people must know that security is everybody’s concern.

Arrested ISIS members transferred to AFP

From the Philippine News Agency (Apr 8): Arrested ISIS members transferred to AFP

The two suspected members of terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who were arrested recently in Taguig City, are now in the custody of Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Based on the letter sent to Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II by NBI Fugitive Search Unit, Husayn Al-Dhafiri, Kuwait citizen; and Rahaf Zina, a Syrian national, were properly turned over to AFP custody on Saturday, through Major Jonathan Escopalao, ISG PA, AFP at ISG HQ Fort Bonifacio Taguig City.

Aguirre said the Justice Department would continue its investigation to determine if there were other members of the terrorist group in the country following the arrest of the duo.

"We are going to continue, in partnership with our intelligence units, to verify if there are other persons involved," said Aguirre.

The Bureau of Immigration (BI) arrested Al-Dhafiri and Zina on March 25.

The two, whose arrests stemmed from the deportation request of the Kuwaiti Embassy, were detained at the NBI while awaiting the finalization of the deportation proceedings against them.

Based on intelligence reports provided by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the information given by the Kuwaiti government, Al-Dhafiri is a member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS.

Al-Dhafiri is allegedly involved in explosives manufacturing and possibly on operational planning against Kuwait, while Rahaf is the widow of the slain Abu Jandal Al-Kuwaiti, who is the number two military commander of the ISIS operating in Syria.

Aguirre said the couple had been in the country since January 28 using working visas which was facilitated by a local company called Q8 Solutions.

Citing verification made by the BI of Al-Dhafiri's travel records, the DOJ chief noted that the Kuwaiti has been in the Philippines several times in 2016 using a tourist visa.

Aguirre said the two were charged for violation of immigration laws in the country as they failed to present immigration documents.

He added that deportation proceedings are being conducted.

BI Commissioner Jaime Morente assured that the bureau is conducting an investigation against the company.

Since their arrival last January, Morente learned during the debriefing of the couple that the couple went to Davao for four days and to Cebu for three days.

During the couple's stay, Morente admitted that it was possible that the two may have met with members of local terror groups like the Maute.

"That is a possibility and that is being investigated by our intelligence service," he assured.

“I think this company (Q8 Solutions) was being investigated by the House (of Representatives) Rep. Joey Salceda in 2016 for illegal recruitment,” the BI chief added.

Morente said Al-Dhafiri would be deported to Kuwait while Zina would be deported to Qatar since it was her last known location before she arrived in the country.

He said they are coordinating with the security services of Kuwait and Qatar for the turnover of the two.

DFA: President Duterte’s decision to protect 9 islets in West Philippine Sea is an act of performing his mandate

From the Philippine News Agency (Apr 8): DFA: President Duterte’s decision to protect 9 islets in West Philippine Sea is an act of performing his mandate

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Saturday clarified that President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision in ordering the military to occupy and protect at least nine islets in the West Philippine Sea is an act of performing his mandate with respect to Philippine territory.

DFA Spokesman and Assistant Secretary Charles Jose said the order was purely focus on islets, which are ours and not part of the contested one.

“The aim is to improve the living conditions, safety and personal security of Filipinos in those areas,” Jose said in a text message.

“At the same time, we remain committed to improving our relations with China and other partners in the region,” he added.

He said the President tried to be friends with everybody “but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control.”

The Philippines controls nine islets in the disputed Spratlys region, the largest of which is Pag-asa, an area under Palawan’s fifth class town of Kalayaan.

Other Philippine-occupied islets and land features in Spratlys are Ayungin Shoal, Lawak Island, Parola Island, Patag Island, Kota Island, Rizal Reef, Likas Island and Panata Island.

AFP, PNP form joint communication committee for peace, dev't programs

From the Philippine News Agency (Apr 9): AFP, PNP form joint communication committee for peace, dev't programs

In line with its efforts to promote its peace and development programs, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police has formed its joint AFP-PNP Civil Relations Committee (JAPCRC).

AFP public affairs office chief Col. Edgard Arevalo, in a statement Sunday, said the joint letter directive calling for the creation of the JAPCRC was signed on Friday.

“The JAPCRC shall coordinate and synchronize AFP Civil-Military Operations (CMO) and PNP Community Relations (PCR) to better implement our peace and development programs particularly in conflict-affected communities,” he added.

Arevalo said AFP deputy chief-of-staff for civil-military operations Major Gen. Melquiades L. Feliciano and Police Community Relations acting director Chief Supt. Noel G. Constantion signed signed the letter directive with key officials from the AFP and PNP in attendance.

The JAPCRC was patterned on the existing Joint AFP-PNP Intelligence Committee (JAPIC) and will support the proposed Revised National Joint Peace and Security Coordinating Center (JPSCC) Organization.

“This serves as a venue for us to strengthen mechanisms for the integration and collaboration of our efforts for joint civil relations operations; with the end view of realizing the Filipino’s aspirations for peace, security, stability, and progress,” Constantino stressed.

The JAPCRC aims to ensure efficient, responsive, and coordinated civil relations efforts in support of national security and development objectives.

It will also recommend areas where the AFP or the PNP shall take the lead or support role in the conduct of joint civil relations activities.

Another function of the JAPCRC is to coordinate civil relations aspect of all AFP-PNP law-enforcement, internal security, and counterterrorism efforts. The functions will be replicated at the area, regional, and provincial levels.

Among the activities to be conducted under the joint effort are strategic crisis communications; creation of joint quick response teams during emergencies; conduct of joint training activities, medical, dental, veterinary, and engineering civic action projects; and joint humanitarian civic assistance.

“Public support and good community relations are crucial to the successful performance of military and police functions. Both the AFP and the PNP acknowledge this and have long sought the support and assistance of the civilian populace in the performance of their different but interrelated mandates,” Arevalo said.

“It is imperative that the AFP and PNP work closely and support each other in addressing all threats to national peace and security and at the same time, it is necessary for both organizations to maintain their legitimacy among the people they serve,” AFP chief-of-staff Gen. Eduardo Año said.

"Through the creation of the JAPCRC, we hope to further establish a stronger and more active relationship with our people and stakeholders in building a better and peaceful nation,” he added.

Duterte orders DBM to hasten pension release for veterans

From the Philippine News Agency (Apr 9): Duterte orders DBM to hasten pension release for veterans

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte promised that his administration will prioritize the entitlements of war veterans as he led the commemoration of the 75th Araw ng Kagitingan in Bataan.

“I assure our veterans [and] their families that we are prioritizing your entitlements,” Duterte said in his speech at the Mt. Samat National Shrine on Sunday, April 9.

The Chief Executive instructed the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) and the Department of National Defense (DND) to expedite the release of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) retirees' pension credentials from 2008 to 2013 in the amount of PHP6,421,000,000.

The government has settled the backlog in disability pensions and made the management of almost 200,000 pension accounts more efficient, according to the President.

In addition, veterans with conditions and their dependents can be assured of free healthcare at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center and 152 veterans-accredited hospitals, Duterte said, adding that he has instructed the said institutions to further improve their services and accessibility.

He likewise said the government has subsidized the education of more than 2,500 dependents of war veterans under the Iskolar ng Bayan program.

“These entitlements do not compare to the sacrifices that you have made. But we want you to know, our nation [and] our people are grateful to you for what you have done and we will do better,” he said.

“No matter what we do, we can never do enough to repay you. But I would like for you to know that your government is doing much, much more,” he added.

The President then urged the younger generation to recognize the sacrifices of war veterans and treat them with much respect and deep sense of gratitude.

“We must never forget that we owe them a deep debt of gratitude. Utang po natin sa kanila ang ating buhay,” he added.

Prior to the speech, the Chief Executive, Ambassador of Japan to the Philippines Kazuhide Ishikawa, and Charge d' Affaires of the United States Michael Klecheski offered a wreath at the Dambana ng Kagitingan in honor of the fallen soldiers of the second world war.

AFP confident of meeting June 30 deadline to neutralize Abu Sayyaf

From the Philippine News Agency (Apr 9): AFP confident of meeting June 30 deadline to neutralize Abu Sayyaf

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) remains confident of neutralizing the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) within the six-month time frame set by President Rodrigo Duterte.

“The AFP is on the right track and is confident it can meet the timetable of six months within which the Commander-in-Chief, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the ASG defeated,” military public affairs office chief Col. Edgard Arevalo said in a statement Sunday.

This confidence was further bolstered by AFP chief-of-staff Gen. Eduardo Año's visit to the officers and enlisted personnel of Joint Task Group Sulu last April 6.

He went on to urge soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen of the unit to work harder and double time so that the campaign to eliminate the bandits can meet its June 30 deadline.

“The AFP is midway in its campaign against the Abu Sayyaf, General Año inspired them to operate at full speed, double or increase the operational tempo some more. The AFP has proven its capacity to inflict heavy casualties against the terrorist group,” Arevalo stressed.

As this develop, Año said that the bandits are no match to the AFP due to its ability to adopt new tactics and maneuvers to defeat them.

“We have actually perfected the art of combined and joint operations. We saw the interplay among major services, and the interplay of each ground troops to deliver in different lines of operation, the maneuvers, the fire support and the combat leadership,” he added.

Also on April 6, Año along with senior AFP commanders visited the officers and enlisted in Kuta Heneral Teodulfo Bautista in Sulu.

He also awarded new Glock pistols to the officers who led the successful operations against the ASG that resulted to the recovery of 77 high-powered firearms -- the biggest haul so far in the period of less than two months.

Año lauded the troops of the JTF-Sulu for their sacrifices and hard work in implementing his six-month campaign against the terrorist group.

“(In the past three months) the AFP leadership did not hear a single complain; everyone did his and her best in the job. We are very proud of all the soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines who continue to perform their tasks in line with our thrust against the Abu Sayyaf and other local terrorist groups,” he added.

Duterte’s drug war blinding PH from rising ISIS threat, analysts say

From Rappler (Apr 9): Duterte’s drug war blinding PH from rising ISIS threat, analysts say

Experts believe that not only is this fixation on the drug war allowing these terrorist groups room to operate, but may also be the reason the situation has gotten so out of hand

After 3 months in captivity, 70-year-old German national Jurgen Kantner was beheaded on February 26, the latest in a long line of kidnappings and killings conducted by Filipino terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf.

Footage of the ordeal made the rounds online, reminiscent of the public execution of American journalist James Foley in 2014 at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS). Unlike the highly-produced, propaganda-fueled videos of ISIS, however, Kantner’s final moments were captured by a shaky camera phone. He sits on the jungle floor, a curved blade tucked beneath his beard. His captor works the blade like a saw and it isn’t over quickly. One imagines a bullet might have been more merciful.

Kantner’s execution marks a recent surge in terrorist operations by the Abu Sayyaf, following the two dozen splinter groups pledging themselves to ISIS under Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the self-appointed IS Philippines.

Despite this, public attention both local and international remains fixed on the country’s ongoing war on drugs. In a flag-raising ceremony held in Camp Crame on March 7 – not two weeks after Kantner’s murder – PNP Chief Ronald dela Rosa promised to redouble efforts in cracking down on the country’s illicit drug trade.

As the drug war death toll continues to climb, the rising threat of ISIS command moving into the country remains largely unchecked. Experts believe that not only is this fixation on the largely Manila-based drug war allowing these terrorist groups room to operate, but may also be the reason the situation has gotten so out of hand.

“Without a question, I would say the president’s not only commitment but obsession with the war on drugs has consumed a significant amount of his political capital,” said Richard Heydarian, a security expert and political science professor at De La Salle University.

“Not only has that created a public relations nightmare for the Philippines, but has taken away necessary focus and attention that should have been dedicated to other sources of stress in this country,” he said.

Tensions in the Muslim south center on a decades-old, armed struggle for autonomy, with major groups like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and its progenitor the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leading the charge in negotiations with the Philippine government. While the Bangsamoro Basic Law – the country’s key piece of legislation on the matter – entered into its third year of deliberation, hopes were high that Duterte would be the leader to finally broker peace in the region.

According to Heydarian, Duterte, who claims Muslim heritage and spoke during his campaign of putting to bed harmful stereotypes about the Islamic faith, raised a lot of expectations as the first president to hail from Mindanao.

“But I think that’s worked against him, because the expectations were so high,” Heydarian said. “First, it made the president a little complacent. And second, it made the other side more impatient.”

It was from these long brewing frustrations that the extremist factions in power today were born. In 1991, the Abu Sayyaf was formed out of rank-and-file MILF and MNLF defectors who turned to radical extremism as a response to the government’s perceived indifference to their struggle.

Today, the Philippine government’s focus on its war on drugs has relegated peace negotiations with the south to the backseat, once again threatening massive defections to an already strengthening terrorist collective. For analysts like Heydarian, this is the nightmare scenario.

Rohan Gunaratna, the head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, believes the group poses a larger threat today than ever before, not only to the Philippines, but to the East Asian region as a whole.

Receiving instruction from ISIS central, Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon is now attempting to unify the ISIS-inspired groups in the area and establish a wilayat, a controlled-territory to serve as the new base of operations for ISIS.

“With IS steadfastly creating a base in Mindanao, the Philippines is the most likely country where the foreign fighters from our region will return,” he said.

While many admonish the government’s poor handling of this rise in terrorism, Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, believes that the Duterte administration has already made moves to address the threat.

“The current military plan, Oplan Kapayapaan (or Operation Plan Peace) regards the war on drugs and the war on terrorism as two sides of the same coin,” he said. “The war on drugs will be pursued more vigorously in tandem with the war on terror.”

But with so much on the table, the question now is if the president’s divided attention would be enough to address this pressing issue. Gunaratna believes that with Islamic State influence and structures growing in mainland Mindanao, the international terrorist group is likely to declare a wilayat in the country before the end of the year.

As ISIS grows in power by the day in the nation’s south, the Philippine government is quickly running out of time to respond.