From the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Jan 1): The AFP in 2017: Challenges on all fronts
It was a busy year for the Armed Forces of the Philippines which found itself challenged on all fronts — insurgency, terrorism, natural disasters, and territorial defense.
It also struggled with a few internal matters. But the biggest and worst challenged met by the military in 2017 the Marawi siege, a five-month battle between government forces and Islamist terrorists.
The AFP lost 263 men – 165 from the Marawi conflict.
Here’s a recap of some of the issues the military confronted this year:
What started out as an attempt to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the “emir” of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Southeast Asia, erupted into a full-blown battle between government troops and Islamist terrorists. On the side of Hapilon were terrorists from the Lanao del Sur-based Maute group. The five-month conflict became the country’s longest urban armed conflict since World War II. Soldiers who are used to fighting in jungles were thrown into an unfamiliar urban setting. Apart from 165 soldiers dead, over 900 terrorists and 47 civilians were also killed.
READ: Marawi locals cheer: Death of Maute, Hapilon ‘answered prayers’
Duterte ends peace talks with Reds
President Rodrigo Duterte formally cancelled the peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines aimed at ending a 49-year armed struggle, the longest insurgency in Asia. The President cited the communists’ attacks on government forces and civilians that made him decide to call off the negotiations. He also formally tagged them as terrorists.
READ: Duterte cancels peace talks with communists / Duterte widens break with Reds; declares CPP-NPA terrorists
Martial law in Mindanao
Martial law in the whole of Mindanao was initially declared on May 23, the same day clashes between government forces and local ISIS-inspired terrorists erupted in Marawi. Congress later gave the President a six-month extension of martial law as the battle dragged on. While fullscale military operations in Marawi have been terminated, martial law is still in effect in Mindanao until the end of 2018 after Duterte asked Congress for a one-year extension.
READ: Duterte declares martial law in Mindanao / Duterte seeks martial law extension in Mindanao by a year
Chinese ships in Benham Rise
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed early this year that Chinese survey ships were patrolling Benham Rise in the Pacific Ocean, a 13-million hectare undersea region declared by the United Nations as part of the Philippines. China claims it was an “innocent passage” but Lorenzana was doubtful. This prompted the government to step up maritime patrols and make plans to build a naval base in Casiguran, Aurora, to keep an eye on the territory. Duterte renamed Benham Rise to Philippine Rise in May to assert sovereignty over the waters believed to be rich in resources.
READ: Lorenzana: Chinese survey ship spotted in Benham Rise / PH warship to patrol Benham Rise
Sacking of Navy chief Vice Adm. Ronald Joseph Mercado
Navy Flag Officer in Command Vice Adm. Ronald Joseph Mercado was relieved from his position mid-December after being accused by Lorenzana of insubordination. The former Navy chief allegedly favored a particular combat management system for the P18-billion frigate acquisition project. The defense chief claims that Mercado’s insistence delayed the project for four months. He was unceremoniously replaced, with the turnover ceremonies not announced to the public. It came a surprise to many in the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
READ: Navy chief relieved over P16-B frigate contract
Modernization projects continued despite a few setbacks and controversies. The DND signed a P4.9-B project for six brand new light attack aircraft from Embraer Super Tucano last Novermber, one of the biggest deals sealed this year. The delivery of eight FA-50 fighter jets this year completed the order of 12 units.
READ: AFP modernization 2017: Marawi ‘game changers’ in spotlight
Wage increase for soldiers
President Rodrigo Duterte has signed into law the increase in base pay for soldiers, police, jail guards and firefighters which cost P64 billion. The uniformed personnel will receive their paychecks with increase starting on the first payday of 2018.
West Philippine Sea dispute
Philippines and China may have warmer ties after Duterte assumed office in 2016 but Chinese presence in Philippine-claimed waters in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) seemed to continue.
Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano reported “tensions” on Pagasa Island (Thitu Island) and its 3 sandbars after receiving reports on the presence Chinese maritime militia and a ship of People’s Liberation Army Navy near the Philippine-claimed territory. He expressed concern that the Chinese may be eyeing to occupy the sandbars that belong to the Philippines. He also claims receiving reports of Chinese ships blocking and preventing Filipino fishermen from passing through.
The Abu Sayyaf continued to be a threat despite being downplayed by the Armed Forces. The bandit group beheaded some of its captives this year, including German national Jurgen Kantner.
The bandit group from Mindanao managed to reach Bohol in the Visayas for a kidnapping mission early this year but were thwarted by authorities.
Basilan-based Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon was confirmed to have been the emir of ISIS in Southeast Asia, an information that the military repeatedly denied in the past. He and the Maute brothers led the Marawi siege, but were killed by government forces.
PH hosts Asean defense ministers’ meeting
Terrorism was in the spotlight at the meetings of the defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Nations and allied countries which were hosted by the Philippines. The Asean defense ministers condemned the attack of ISIS-inspired terrorists in Marawi City and vowed to work together to counter terrorism and violent extremism. Issues on the South China Sea and North Korea were also tackled in the meetings.