Saturday, February 11, 2023

Commentary: Remaining independent in confronting geopolitical challenges in Indo-Pacific

Commentary posted to the Philippine Star (Feb 11, 2023): Remaining independent in confronting geopolitical challenges in Indo-Pacific (Alynna Carlos)

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr (L) receives US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin prior to a meeting at the Malacanang Palace in Manila on Feb. 2, 2023.   AFP/Jam Sta Rosa/Pool

The Philippines and Indo-Pacific states are confronted by geopolitical challenges that range from traditional, non-traditional and evolving security threats.

The collective concern to manage these security challenges pushes states to cooperate in multilateral, minilateral, and bilateral approaches.

The administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is expected to maximize the country’s diplomatic relations while remaining independent and free from external pressure in the exercise of its foreign and security policies. This is tested in the latest diplomatic engagements of the administration.

The Department of National Defense (DND) recently announced the designation of four new sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the continuation of joint sea patrols with the United States.

The agreement, reached during the visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III to the Philippines, was well received by members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Senate. This strategic move signals a strengthening of relations between the Philippines and the United States, with Secretary Austin elevating the alliance to the level of a "family."

In response to this, China did not welcome the latest initiative of the United States in the Philippines, warning the latter to avoid being “taken advantage of and dragged into troubled waters." This is only one of the many instances of strategic competition between the two major states, which are central to the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific.

The recent roundtable discussion hosted by the Stratbase ADR Institute entitled "The Strategic Position of the Philippines in the Geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific" highlighted trust issues among states that affect the region's peace and stability.

Richard McGregor, senior fellow for East Asia of the Lowy Institute, explained that amidst the strategic competition between the two major states, it is quite difficult to predict that China will have the same regional role and influence that the United States currently has. This is due to Beijing’s current disputes with states in the region, which make it less trustworthy. Given these territorial and trust issues, according to McGregor, maritime Southeast Asia becomes “highly unstable,” placing the region in an even more difficult period.

On the West Philippine Sea, RADM Rommel Jude Ong (Ret), professor of Praxis of the Ateneo School of Government, suggested the conduct of unilateral or joint patrols with allies and partners to manage security challenges.

Recognizing the limitations in the country's resources, he also advised that the Philippines must work with the United States, Australia, and other security partners to implement a maritime security strategy. He said that this would convey a message of solidarity among like-minded states.

On the other hand, Richard Heydarian, non-resident fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute, suggested stepping up efforts with Australia, noting that the two countries' relations are promising but largely unexplored.

He outlined how the status of Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and Australia has offered both nations a powerful counter-terrorism and conflict resolution mechanism in the last ten years.

In these uncertain and difficult times, it is critical we keep our security policies responsive and strategic while we strengthen ties with trusted states.

In a national survey conducted by Pulse Asia Research Inc. and commissioned by the Stratbase ADR Institute from November 27 to Dec. 1, 2022, 84% of Filipinos believe that the Marcos administration should work with the United States to strengthen security cooperation to defend our national sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. Filipinos also ranked Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom and South Korea as their trusted countries.

Furthermore, strengthening the military capability of the Philippines, especially the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard, and conducting joint maritime patrols and military exercises with allied countries, are effective means to address issues in the West Philippine Sea, according to 80% of the respondents.

Given this data and the current geopolitical developments in the region, the implementation of Philippine foreign and security policies must be consistently anchored on national interests. This is especially crucial when dealing with major players in the region.

Marcos Jr.'s administration has been consistent in balancing relations with the two major powers, beginning with a state visit to China at the start of the year and continuing with official engagements with the United States, including the 10th Bilateral Strategic Dialogue and Austin's visit this year. Diplomatic engagements with one state should not deter relations with another.

The Marcos administration is expected to continue elevating bilateral ties with both the US and China while also working with allies and partners such as Japan and Australia. For example, strategic initiatives in the pipeline include the Balikatan military exercises with the United States in Ilocos Norte in April 2023, which may be participated in by Japanese and Australian forces, as well as President Marcos' visit to Tokyo this week.

The state visit to Japan from February 8 to 12 is expected to deliver infrastructure initiatives through a US$ 3 million loan program. Other bilateral agreements to be signed are related to defense, agriculture, and information and communications and disaster relief cooperation.

Marcos is scheduled to meet with Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whom he first met in September 2022 in the United States. Moreover, the president will have an audience with Japanese Emperor Naruhito and Empress Masako.

The current administration has so far kept diplomatic relations warm through various commitments on areas of concern. Its exercise of an independent foreign policy is seen in its ability to establish a communication mechanism with China while also being free to conduct defense initiatives with like-minded states such as the United States, Australia and Japan.

In confronting the geopolitical challenges of the Indo-Pacific, Philippine foreign policy must remain independent from external pressure and committed to national interests. Doing so allows the country to focus on its security priorities while contributing to regional peace and stability.

Alynna Carlos is a program manager at the think tank Stratbase ADR Institute.

SJ Finlay Tackles Child Soldier Story in "Boy From Nowhere"

 Posted to the Golden Globe Awards (Feb 10, 2023): SJ Finlay Tackles Child Soldier Story in "Boy From Nowhere"

The first time Canadian filmmaker SJ Finlay visited the Philippines, he was only 8 years old.

Growing up into a documentarian and a filmmaker, he went back in 2014. After visiting the city of Zamboanga in the Philippines, which was under siege by rebel groups at the time – they destroyed a whole fishing village and a lot of the city – Finlay found that children were often recruited to fight against the government. It was usually to protect their tribal lands but also for more extremist views in the case of some factions.

From that experience, Finlay got the idea for his feature directing debut, Boy From Nowhere.

Based on true events, the movie is about a young boy, Gary (Gary Jumawan), who loses his father and home when his fishing village is burned down in an attack. He sets off inland to find his mother and her tribe.

Vulnerable and impressionable, he battles hunger and solitude, drifts into the wrong crowd and is brainwashed into becoming a child soldier for the local rebel faction until further loss leads him to find a more meaningful purpose in his life.

Scenes from Boy From Nowhere (2023)

The film, which Finlay wrote, directed, shot and produced, also stars Nack Nack Abugyan, Balugto Necosia and Waway Saway.

The following are excerpts from our exclusive Zoom interview with Finlay. He tells us about how he managed to shoot his film “guerrilla style” on a limited budget and time in Southern Philippines using a cast of non-actors whose lives closely mimic the film’s tale of a boy caught up in a chain of events beyond his control.

What inspired you to do this film and how did you get involved, especially with Mindanao and Southern Philippines?

The Philippines is one of my favorite countries in the whole world to visit. The people are incredible. I think that they're some of the friendliest people in the world, if not the number one. They should do friendliest rankings. People think Canadians are friendly but we've got nothing on Filipinos. They're so friendly.

I used to do a lot of work with different charities and non-governmental organizations. I went through one a number of years ago where they sent me through Southeast Asia on a tour. I was doing photography and video for a bunch of different projects that they had in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and the Philippines.

I ended up in Davao in Southern Philippines. I even went to Zamboanga City, which [at the time] was in the spot you don't go as a white person but Filipinos know, "Oh yeah, you don't go there." They had just been laid siege to by a rebel group.

I think it was the MNLF [Moro National Liberation Front] and they had burned down a whole fishing village, Badjao Fishing Village, and attacked the city. So there were refugees everywhere living in tents on the beach in different camps. They had really been traumatized by this event. I found out that there were child soldiers being used by the rebel groups. Those ones were Islamic. I did some filming, met some people and thought, wow, this is such an interesting story that very few people know about.

We've heard about child soldiers in Africa but we've never heard about them in Southeast Asia. But they happen. They happen in Myanmar and other places and they happen in the Philippines, in the South, too. It's such a tragic issue that I thought, oh, it would be great to go into a film.

Child Soldier in Boy From Nowhere (2023)

I did a short film and a music video. I actually did two music videos on that trip. As a side project, side note. One of the guys I did a music video for is nominated for this year's Oscars for best soundtrack, for Everything Everywhere All at Once.

I did a music video for Son Lux and people were like, "Wow, the imagery is really amazing in Southeast Asia. The story seems really cool."

Then what happened was I got an inheritance. My grandma passed away unfortunately but I got a new camera and I thought, okay, I'm going to take some money. Not a lot, but like $10,000 or $15,000 and I can make a whole movie in the Philippines with this amount of money. That would barely get you a couple of days in Canada or America but in the Philippines, your money can go very far because people are so friendly, they want to help.

I collaborated with the locals to tell a story that was true to life, that represented the plight of a few different people groups from Badjao fishermen to former gangsters, to the tribal peoples in the mountains and the valleys of Central Mindanao and collaborated with this idea on farming.

Food scarcity is a big issue there, that I wasn't really aware of but just how easily manipulated somebody can be if they're just hungry. They'll trade so much just to feed their belly. That was so inspiring to me.

So I did a few trips over a couple of years, built those relationships, and started filming. Then, we filmed half the movie and I was able to go back after doing a project with World Vision in Nepal and finish the movie a few years ago.

We did post-production for a couple of years, the film festival run and now, it's finally coming out. So, I'm super excited because it's been in the process for a long time.

Most of your actors are non-actors. How did you recruit and cast them?

They all basically played themselves. Pretty much everyone in the film is just playing a version of themselves, not exactly their story but they are just being themselves.

I met Gary through the charity that I work with in Canada. He was one of the sponsored kids and he was in the community in Agdao, Davao City, and his brother was in the first music video that I did, the first time there so I got to know him then. I just auditioned a few kids.

Gary was so trusting of me and just willing to do whatever it took. He was so natural on camera. To be honest, the biggest thing is that his parents trusted me because not many parents would trust me to take this kid around and put a gun in their hand and run around in the jungles and stuff. The biggest thing was mostly actually his parents.

On the set of Boy From Nowhere (2023)

Nack Nack was a former gangster whom I met. He had been rehabilitated, given his life to God and was really in the process of changing his life around. He had such a natural charisma on camera and I told him, just treat Gary like your little brother that you never had.

To be honest, I think he is the best character in the film. He just really has this natural charisma to him and we really care for him even though we're not sure about him as a character, whether we should trust him or not. Then, the villagers at the end are basically just playing themselves.

Datu Vic is the chief of that village. That village's primary mission is peacekeeping between the corporations, the government, rebel groups, and tribal groups that feel like their land is being encroached on. Datu Vic’s message at the end is just like 100 percent the message of their tribe and what they're passionate about.

You could call it God, destiny, fate, whatever you want to call it, that I met these people and they came together and basically, just played themselves. They were so natural on camera but also, it's just the magic of editing, too. You get enough takes and you find the performance and you work with it.

You filmed this movie guerrilla-style in Bukidnon. Can you tell us more about the experience and the risk and challenges of filming there?

I met a few people along the way who told me it would be a bit risky. A few people who had relationships with the NPA through a family member or something. The New People's Army is a long-running, more communist-leaning rebel group that operates in Bukidnon. So they are not a fan of the big corporations coming through.

For instance, we were driving up to Bukidnon and there was a truck that had been burned, a whole semi-truck that had been burned. It was on the side of the road. I got the camera out and took a shot and I put it in the movie.

People ask, “Where did this burning truck come from?” I was like, “Oh, that was really there by the real rebel group. They had just burned it down.” And it's because they had gone through their territory without paying tax or paying reverence to the tribal lands that it was going through.

We also met members of the military who told me to be careful but I got the impression that I wasn't in danger; unless I got caught in the wrong spot, I wouldn't be kidnapped.

I had enough relationships with people in power, whether they were in the Talaandig Village or other friends that I had or friends through the church that I wasn't really going to be in trouble with.

I did do a radio interview with the People's Radio which they would all often listen to and they gave them a warning like, "Hey, Sam is here. He is going to be filming.” And the location around Songco Village, if you see a bunch of guys rocking around with guns, it's just a video shoot, a film shoot, which is a risky thing to do, especially being on the streets and stuff. People driving by would think that they're the real rebels and would get scared. So, there was that challenge but I felt the people were so friendly and really took care of me. I had enough good relationships that I felt safe. We also took precautions to stay close to the village and use actual villagers that other people would recognize so that they didn't think the military was coming in or the rebel group was coming in.

How was your experience interviewing the former NPA guy in jail? What did you learn from him?

Good question. I just really learned about their plight and I really sympathized with it. I met different people in jail with different stories. It wasn't about an ideology necessarily but it was about protecting the tribal lands and the rights of those groups.

In Canada, we have a similar problem with land rights where the First Nations feel that they have the right to the land and the government feels that they have a right to the land. In Canada, we have so much land we can just say, "Okay, well, you take some over here and we'll take some over here."

In the Philippines, there's not very much land to go around. Way more people than in Canada and way less land. These conflicts are going to happen where? Can we mine this land that has tribal rights or not? Is it the government land or is it the tribal people's land?

Just hearing about those conflicts and what they were doing to support the tribal people was really their primary concern. I didn't want a rebel group that felt like the bad guys, necessarily. I wanted to understand their perspective.

I have a line where the rebel leader in the film is talking about mining companies from Canada, Australia or Japan. I wanted Canada in there because it's true that we don't know that we have mining companies in these countries. The local people are not happy with what they're doing and we would feel that responsibility and just that connection a little bit more.

I put some of those things in the film that I talked about in that interview, just to help the viewer understand that these aren't the bad guys necessarily but they also don't see in terms of, "Oh, an 18-year-old can fight but a 17-year-old can't."

They think, okay, if you're a young man, if you're over 13 and you're ready and willing to fight, here's a gun. They don't think in terms of human rights as well, which we think about in terms of what's technically a child soldier is and that's a huge violation of international rights.

What did you learn from the tribal chief whom you befriended and talked to?

I learned so much from Datu Vic. He told me to respect local traditions and practices and that I couldn't just come in as a young, white guy with a camera and a lot of cash and try to take advantage of the setting and the local people. I found them to be so welcoming even though I was kind of young and brash, coming in there with this idea, "Oh, I wanted to shoot an action movie in your village."

That seems so crazy but they were very welcoming and then, coached me on like, "Okay, if we're going to be a part of this, we need some part. We need to tell our story. We can't just make an action movie but it has to be sympathetic to both sides, and the main thing that we are fighting as a village is food scarcity, and traditional farming practices. So our identity is around farming. We are training our young men to be farmers. We're training outcasts and other people to come and be farmers."

So farming became a theme in the film that I wasn't even aware of when I started and then we had to backtrack and change some things to go, "Oh, this food scarcity issue is so important to the whole film," especially when you're starting out as a fisherman and the fish are becoming less and less because of the fish dragging on the ocean floor, global warming and storms.

There's more food scarcity at that level. The primary lesson I learned from him was respecting the local people and traditions to partner with them, to bring them on board into the project rather than telling them, "This is what we are doing," and allowing their voice to come through in the message of the film.

That partnership really led to a beautiful co-partnership where this film isn't written just by me, it's not just my project that I'm impressing onto the Filipinos but we are partnering to tell a Filipino story through and through.

You shot, wrote, directed, and produced this film. But who translated the script from English to Bisaya and Tagalog?

Great question. I had a rough translation based on the lines and I could kind of tell. My assistant in the Philippines helped with a rough translation but then, I had a friend whom I played basketball with.

A side note is that I love basketball. I'm a huge basketball player. So, every time I go to the Philippines, I play all the time. That's how I got connected with a lot of people and wanted to put that in the story. So a guy whom I play basketball with here in Canada is married to a Filipina and she's from Mindanao. Her name is Jinky French.

She came over and we watched through the film and we fixed some of the subtitles and checked things. There are Filipinos everywhere. You can always find someone who's ready and willing to help. I just had somebody locally here in Canada who helped me just dial that in.

Can you say something in Tagalog?

My three favorite words are, “sige, sige” [okay, okay], and then, if you're playing basketball, “pasa, pasa” [pass, pass] and “tira, tira” [shoot, shoot].

3 NPA rebels surrender in Surigao del Sur

From the Manila Bulletin (Feb 11, 2023): 3 NPA rebels surrender in Surigao del Sur (By Mike Crismundo)

BUTUAN CITY – Three New People’s Army rebels surrendered to the Army 36th Infantry (Valor) Battalion (IB) in Surigao del Sur on Tuesday, Feb. 7.

THREE New People’s Army rebels surrendered and revealed the locations of arms caches in Surigao del Sur. (Army photo via Mike U. Crismundo)

The surrenderers were members of the weakened Guerrilla Front 30, Sub-Regional Sentro de Grabidad (SRSDG) Westland, of the Communist Party of the Philippines-NPA North Eastern Mindanao Regional Committee (NEMRC).

On Wednesday, Feb. 8, they reached out to the commanding officer of the 36th IB, Lt. Col. Michael Rey S. Reuyan, and revealed the locations of their arms cache in the province.

Troops went to these areas and discovered guns, bullets, bombs, anti-personnel mines, firearms accessories, equipment, and subversive documents, among others.

Reuyan said the surrender was the result of the efforts of the Provincial Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (PTF-ELCAC).

He urged remaining communist guerrillas in the province to surrender and re-join mainstream society.

Army 901st Brigade commander Brig. Gen. George L. Banzon lauded said the surrenderers made the right decision and assured them that the Army will assist them in availing of benefits under the Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Program (E-CLIP).

New 301st Infantry Brigade chief named

 From the Manila Bulletin (Feb 11, 2023): New 301st Infantry Brigade chief named (By Tara Yap)

ILOILO CITY – Col. Michael Samson has been named as the new commander of the Army 301st Infantry Brigade (IBde) based in Panay Island.

SAMSON (301st IBde photo)

Lt. Gen. Benedict Arevalo, chief of the 3rd Infantry Division and the Armed Forces Visayas Command (Viscom), who presided over the turnover ceremony, ordered Samson to work for lasting peace and further dismantle the strength of the New People’s Army in Panay.

In response, Samson said: “Rest assured that I will continue the current mission and continue carving the path to victory to achieve a common goal – of lasting peace as well as a progressive and developed Panay Island,” said Samson during the change of command ceremony in Camp Hernandez, Dingle, Iloilo, on Thursday, Feb. 9.

As brigade commander, Samson oversees the Army campaign against the NPA in Aklan, Antique, Capiz, and Iloilo.

Prior to becoming 301st IBde commander, Samson was the deputy brigade commander of the 303rd IBde in his home province of Negros Occidental.

Samson replaced Brig. Gen. Marion Sison.

NPA leader arrested in Laguna

 From the Manila Bulletin (Feb 11, 2023): NPA leader arrested in Laguna (By Danny Estacio)

CAMP VICENTE LIM, Laguna – Authorities arrested a New People’s Army (NPA) leader in Barangay Tagumpay, Bay, this province, on Friday, Feb. 10.

The Police Regional Office 4-A identified the suspect as Acer Obiado Turcedo, alias “Ar-ar,” a platoon leader of the Front Committee-1-Metro under the Samahang Yunit Pampropaganda (SYP)-Buhawi.

Turcedo was tagged as the No. 3 and 5 Most Wanted Person in Matuguinao, Samar for attempted murder and arson.

The suspect was apprehended on a warrant from a court and yielded a .45 caliber pistol, a magazine with 10 bullets, a grenade, and a sling bag.

5 NPA rebels killed in Masbate encounter

Posted to the Manila Times (Feb 12, 2023): 5 NPA rebels killed in Masbate encounter (By Rhaydz Barcia)

LEGAZPI CITY: Five members of the New People's Army (NPA) were killed in a military encounter in Barangay Gujom, Cawayan in the island province of Masbate on Friday.

Army Capt. Frank Roldan, spokesman of the Army's 9th Infantry Division based in Pili, Camarines Sur, said that soldiers under the 2nd Infantry Battalion were conducting a security patrol after Gujom residents tipped off the presence of an armed group.

The high-powered firearms and other belongings left behind by members of the New People’s Army after clashing with government troops in Masbate on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023. Photo FROM the Army 9ID.

When government forces arrived in the area, the armed men suddenly opened fire resulting in a 20-minute exchange.

Roldan said five members of the communist terrorist group were killed in the encounter. Aside from the five casualties, Roldan said some of the rebels who fled were wounded.

The Army identified the slain NPA members as Rufino Alba alias Kaloy, commanding officer; Biroc Noynay alias Marjon; Jerome Sabang; Patrocenio Aton; and Reneboy Versaga, all members of Platoon 1, Larangan 2, Komiteng Probinsya 4.

Roldan said Jimuel Naraja alias Angel and Highblood, also of Platoon 1, Larangan 2, Komiteng Probinsya 4, was injured during the firefight.

Roldan added that the Army nabbed three NPA sympathizers identified as Diosdado Riveral, Ricardo Capangpangan and Steve Riveral.

AFP Public Affairs Office chief Col. Jorry Baclor said the troops encountered an estimated 20 armed men in the area.

"In the 20-minute encounter, five [NPA members] were killed, and four rebels captured, including one wounded; while no one was hurt on the military side," the 9th Infantry Division public affairs chief said.

Soldiers also recovered from the encounter site six high-powered firearms including an AK-47, five M-16 rifles, and the armed group's other equipment and personal belongings.

Government forces continue to pursue the rebels who escaped the encounter site.

The Joint Task Force Bicolandia (JTFB), according to the military regional spokesman, is closely monitoring the movement of the communist terrorist groups in the provinces of Sorsogon and Masbate.

Maj. Gen. Adonis Bajao, commander of the 9th Infantry (Spear) Division and the JTFB, urged the rebels to give up their guns.

"We're saddened by this kind of news, but we cannot discount the threat of terrorism, especially that this will affect the community. We are urging our brothers in the New People's Army to surrender, cooperate with the government and to be with their families for them to live a peaceful life," Bajao said.

Opinion: Unsettling realities in quest for lasting peace

Opinion piece posted to the Manila Times (Feb 11, 2023): Unsettling realities in quest for lasting peace (By Maj. Gen. Edgard A. Arevalo, Ret.)

ON Feb, 8, 2023, it was reported in the news that 39 members of the Philippine Army (PA) 1st Special Forces Battalion were actually disarmed and detained by members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) 103rd Base Command in Barangay Dilimbayan of Maguing town of Lanao del Sur. The elite troops were freed only after 25 hours and upon the intercession of the Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities (CCCH).

The news report was confirmed by the PA spokesman. In an interview aired over a local radio station, he painstakingly declared that the soldiers were stopped only for "identification purposes" to ensure that they are not members of the New People's Army (NPA) "disguised" as members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). I remember him establishing the point that the soldiers were treated well and were made to stay longer in the MILF camp for further verification. The battalion's personnel, he stated, were in the area as part of follow-up operations against the NPA rebels who were on the run from a series of the AFP's successful operations.

Being once an AFP spokesman, I have been there and done that difficult task of carefully explaining the incident that could otherwise escalate into a serious controversy more than it already is. But the point remains that our soldiers were not allowed to leave when they wanted and until their identities were validated — and that is detention. The fact that they parted with their firearms and belongings as a matter of procedure as can be seen in the picture accompanying the article — that is disarming. And while they were said to have been treated well, I cannot imagine how the soldiers felt for the entire duration that they were inside the MILF camp with armed men in their midst — for 25 hours, according to the report.

I wish our tactical commanders were at liberty to disclose the details of what happened there and the circumstances on how the soldiers were stopped as they were on their way back to their camp. We can only be thankful that there was no armed encounter that happened in the process that would surely result in people killed only to be labeled later as an incident of "misencounter" or another case of "mistaken identity."

Permission to enter their 'territory'

The reason cited by the MILF for the many incidents of "misencounter" or "mistaken identity" is lack of proper coordination (read as permission) prior entering their areas of temporary stay (read as territory). One of the goriest incidents that happened sometime in 2007 was reported in open sources. Some 80 members of the Philippine Marine Corps (PMC) were ambushed — 14 killed-in-action including 10 of them beheaded — by members of the MILF in Basilan. Mohaqher Iqbal was mentioned by Reuters to have said the MILF lost four fighters and seven were wounded but believes they had killed 25 soldiers, seized 27 assault rifles and destroyed two military trucks. The Marines were after terrorist and bandit Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) members who kidnapped Italian priest Giancarlo Bossi. The clergy was reportedly brought in the area where the MILF's lay claim as their "territory" and at the time that peace negotiations with their group and the government had begun with the 1996 peace agreement.

There were several other incidents of legitimate combat operations conducted by the AFP against the ASG that resulted in armed skirmishes between soldiers and MILF rebels because the area is claimed to be MILF "territory" and there was no proper coordination. Investigations were conducted every time that the peace agreement was deemed to have been violated, but results never came out and the perpetrator remains unpunished.

The most infamous incident that will forever haunt the quest for that elusive peace is the one that happened in Mamasapano in Maguindanao where 44 members of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) were killed or "massacred" on that fateful day of Jan. 25, 2015. It was a classic case of "pintakasi" by the MILF and other residents in Barangay Tukanalipao against the "intruders" in their community. On hindsight, it was claimed, the bloodshed could have been averted if only "proper coordination" was made on the ground. But I would argue that it will not have achieved the same result.

Military authorities are therefore caught in a bind as appropriate notices with the MILF ground commanders are now part of pre-operational requirements as in the case of the operating teams of the 1st Special Forces Battalion that had prior coordination directly with the MILF's 103rd Base Command. While the troops were able to accomplish their mission of raiding a reported NPA lair, this is not the usual case. Each time that the military coordinates its impending operations with the MILF, operational security is compromised, and the element of surprise is permanently lost.

While these are the challenges to operational success that military ground commanders must know how to overcome, they nonetheless comply with "proper coordination" in pursuit of the established modus operandi between the MILF and the CCCH.

The road to peace

According to the United Nations, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) lay the groundwork for safeguarding and sustaining the communities to which the individuals return, while building capacity for long-term peace, security and development. Thus, among the most challenging parts of the peace accord between the government and the MILF is DDR.

The 1987 Philippine Constitution provides that there should only be one AFP and one PNP. There is nothing in the fundamental law that limits the areas where the military and the police can operate as they perform their respective constitutional mandates to protect the people, secure the State and maintain law and order anywhere in the four corners of the archipelago. Therefore, the issues on the authority to wield arms and autonomy must be settled in the soonest time possible.

Soldiers and police personnel are mindful as it is a common knowledge that it is easier for MILF fighters to let go off their spouses than their firearms, as the number and caliber of the latter are equated to a man's and a family's statuses. The possession of high-powered firearms, some of those I saw were of intricately curved wooden stocks, is therefore as perennial as grass and is integral into the culture of our fellow Filipinos in Muslim Mindanao.

Military personnel who have been assigned and operated in Central Mindanao and Western Mindanao are aware of the intricacies and complexities of the operational environment in that part of the country. To say the least, there is always the likelihood of military operations spilling to MILF areas for reasons of proximity of their lairs and the existence of blood relations among most members of the MILF, terrorist groups like the ASG and other "peace spoilers." The incidence of pintakasi is a testament to the truism that indeed, blood is thicker than water.

The emergence of peace spoilers remains a challenge. It is from the leadership and the ranks of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) of Nur Misuari where the MILF of Hashim Salamat emerged. And from the MILF came the so-called breakaway group Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) founded by Ameril Umbra Kato. With the advocates of peace in Mindanao lies the burden of ensuring that there will be no more such groups that will be "unsatisfied" with the outcome of the peace accord and give rise to new splinter or breakaway groups.

Amid the fact that the stand of the AFP on peace talks and peace negotiations is most of the time heard but unheeded as accords are mainly political decisions, it will always be among the torchbearers of peace. And unlike what many people think, soldiers are not war freaks, blood-thirsty or "utak pulbura" like the enemies of the State had the habit of calling them. The contrary is true, they are the most peace-loving and staunchest advocates of peace. Because while the people reap the dividends of peace, the soldiers pay the highest premium.

Five dead in shooting rampage inside Philippine army camp

From Benar News (Feb 11, 2023): Five dead in shooting rampage inside Philippine army camp (By Froilan Gallardo and Richel V. Umel)

Infantry soldiers patrol the streets of the besieged city of Marawi in the southern Philippines, June 13, 2017, after Islamic State militants took over the city in a daring move.  Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews

A soldier ran amok inside an army camp in the southern Philippines on Saturday, killing four fellow soldiers and wounding another, the military said.

The suspect, identified as Private Johmar Villabito, of the Army's Service Support Battalion (SSBn), was himself killed in a shootout when two soldiers tried to subdue him.

An investigation has been launched to determine what triggered the deadly rampage in Cagayan de Oro city, the military said. There were initial fears – later dismissed – that state enemies were behind the attack, because Islamic State-linked militants as well as communist insurgents are known to operate in areas in the south.

“The Armed Forces of the Philippines is saddened by the unfortunate incident that transpired early this morning inside the headquarters of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division in Camp Evangelista, Cagayan de Oro, which resulted in the death of five soldiers,” the military said in a statement.

Military investigators have been asked “to conduct a thorough investigation and implement measures that will prevent the recurrence of similar incidents in the future,” it said.

The suspect, Villabito, went inside the quarters where soldiers were sleeping shortly after 1:00 a.m. and shot four of them using his M-16 armalite rifle, regional military spokesman Maj. Francisco Garillo Jr. told reporters.

The slain soldiers were identified as Sgt. Rogelio Rojo, Cpl. Bernard Rodrigo, Pfc. Prince Kevin Balaba and Private Joseph Tamayo.

Villabito then proceeded to another room but two alert soldiers put up a fight and killed him. Another soldier, Staff Sgt. Braulio Macalos, was wounded.

“After firing the shots towards the four sleeping soldiers, the suspect was also killed while trying to enter another room inside the camp,” Garillo said.

“We offer our prayers and sincerest condolences and families. In these trying times, we are one with families praying for the repose of their souls. We assure them that all assistance will be facilitated and provided to the families to include the benefits and claims,” he added.

“We cannot really determine what transpired and how. We will still find out,” Garillo stressed.

“We assure the public that this is an isolated incident. This will not have any impact in the operations,” the military official said.

Militants under Daulah Islamiyah, the local name of the Islamic State (IS), whose membership comprises fighters from several Filipino militant factions, are known to be actively operating in Mindanao.

But the military said the incident had nothing to do with those militants.

In October last year, a former Abu Sayyaf member who was allowed to work inside a military camp ran amok, killing a soldier and two civilians in the town of Sumisip in Basilan.

In May 2020, a former soldier also killed seven people and wounded two when he indiscriminately shot his neighbors and bystanders in Calbayog City, in central Samar province.

The military camp where the incident happened is reportedly among nine locations where the Philippines has granted the United States access as part of U.S. efforts to expand its presence in the region.

Cagayan de Oro is also a short drive to Marawi City, where a small team of U.S. troops assisted Philippine forces in defeating pro-IS militants who had seized the city in 2017.

While the American troops were restricted from combat operations, they helped their Filipino counterparts gather intelligence that led to victory in the five-month battle where at least 1,200 militants, government forces and civilians were killed.

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales contributed to this report from Cotabato City, southern Philippines

PBBM eyes purchase of Japan-made vehicles for military use

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 11, 2023): PBBM eyes purchase of Japan-made vehicles for military use (By Ruth Abbey Gita-Carlos)

MOTOR TALKS. President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. (center) and members of the Philippine delegation meet with Toyota Motor Corporation officials in Tokyo, Japan on Friday (Feb. 10, 2023). Accompanied by (from left) Special Assistant Anton Lagdameo, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri, former president and Pampanga (2nd District) Representative Gloria Arroyo, House Speaker Martin Romualdez and Presidential Communications Office Secretary Cheloy Garafil, Marcos said he intends to purchase Toyota Mini Cruiser vehicles for the military’s use. (Courtesy of PCO)

MANILA – President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. on Friday bared the plan to purchase Mini Cruiser vehicles manufactured by Japanese carmaker Toyota Motor Corporation for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

At the same time, the Japanese officials said they intend to reintroduce the Asian utility vehicle Tamaraw model, which dominated the Philippine market as the “people’s car” from the late 1970s to early 2000.

Marcos’ pronouncement happened in a meeting with top Toyota executives in Tokyo as he lamented that the AFP used utility vehicles over the years but did not get good results.

"It (acquisition of Toyota Mini Cruiser) is something we would like to revisit simply because we have tried many utility vehicles for the military but they really [have] not been a success for us," Marcos told the Toyota officials.

Delta Motor Corporation, which ceased operations in 1984, partnered with Toyota and launched vehicles such as the Tamaraw and the Mini Cruiser for military use.

Marcos welcomed the idea of the comeback of the Tamaraw, which he said has been a "dependable utility transport for many years for Filipinos."

Tamaraw means water buffalo in the Philippines.

"Many of the Tamaraws you've recently built are still on the road," Marcos told the Japanese officials, who described the Tamaraw as the company's workhorse.

"It is very interesting to hear your new plans for the Philippines and it's very much in alignment with what we're trying to do... We are hoping we are able to improve the situation for your supplier to be able to come in to the ease of doing business," Marcos added.

Since the Tamaraw model dominated the Philippine market for decades, Marcos said its use is not new to potential Filipino and even Asian clients.

"We have always been appreciative especially in the involvement of Toyota in the Philippines over so many years and I think the mutual experience between Toyota and the Philippine and the local markets has been a good one and the partnership we can look to as a success," Marcos pointed out.

Comprehensive Automotive Resurgence Strategy

In another meeting with officials of Mitsubishi Motors Corporation, Marcos noted that the proposed extension of the Comprehensive Automotive Resurgence Strategy (CARS) program is still under review.

Mitsubishi and Toyota qualified for fiscal incentives under the CARS program which was signed in 2015 but lapsed in 2021.

Under the CARS program, participating carmakers are given six years to comply with the minimum volume target sales of 200,000 units each for their enrolled car models in order to get incentives.

The Philippine government allotted PHP27 billion for fiscal incentives under the program.

While the current administration is still closely studying the proposal to extend the CARS program, it is "very much of the mind that we have to encourage this investment because it is an industrial and high-end manufacturing operation," Marcos said.

“It is something that would be important to the Philippines because we are trying to encourage now... both for local businesses and businesses from other countries and businesses from Japan," he said. "We are trying to encourage this capital investment to improve the share of manufacturing contribution to the GDP (gross domestic product)."

Marcos floated the possibility of extending the program, in a bid to "balance the economy."

“Right now, services is a large majority of the contribution to GDP, which is all right, and we want to keep that going. But we want to balance the contribution from different sectors of the economy,” he said.

Soldier runs amok, kills 4 in Cagayan de Oro

From the Philippine News Agency (Feb 11, 2023): Soldier runs amok, kills 4 in Cagayan de Oro (By Jigger Jerusalem)

The headquarters of the Philippine Army's 4th Infantry Division in Patag, Cagayan de Oro City. (PNA file photo)

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY – A soldier ran amok and shot four of his fellow soldiers dead inside the 4th Infantry Division headquarters in Barangay Patag here early Saturday.

Police identified the fatalities as Private Joseph Tamayo, Patrolman First Class Prince Kevin Balaba, Sgt. Rogelio Rojo, Cpl. Bernardo Rodrigo, as well as the suspected shooter, Private Johmar Villabito.

Another soldier identified as Staff Sgt. Braulio Macalos Jr. was also wounded in the shooting but is now out of danger.

Initial reports said Villabito “shot the victims without any apparent and justifiable reason using an M16”. The incident happened at around 1:10 a.m. when the victims were asleep inside their barracks at the Service Support Battalion (SSBN) unit.

A certain Pvt. Mark Anthony Aguined and Pfc Joseph Estrada engaged the suspect and shot him dead, said Maj. Francisco Garello Jr., 4ID spokesperson.

Garello said the suspect initially attacked his roommate and went to five other rooms and started shooting.

The 4ID is still currently gathering other information from the witnesses to establish the motive of the shooting. (