Asia in Review Archive (2019-2020)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

4 August 2020

Philippines, Malaysia in diplomatic row over Sabah state

(mp/lm) Responding to an announcement by U.S. Embassy concerning Filipino residents in Malaysia`s Sabah state, the Philippine´s Foreign Secretary posted a tweet claiming that Sabah “is not in Malaysia”. A second statement soon followed it: “You better edit that announcement if you know what´s good for you.” As the tweets revived a longstanding territorial dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur condemned the tweets as irresponsible and summoned the Philippine ambassador.

In the lead-up to the formation of the Malaysian federation, Sabah joined the neighboring state of Sarawak, and the states of the Malay peninsula to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. But the territory was once part of the centuries-old sultanate of Sulu, for which the Philippines claims to be the successor state. [Nikkei Asian Review] [Straits Times]

28 July 2020

Philippines: Protests ahead of Duterte’s State of the Philippines Address

(mp) Shortly before President Duterte´s annual state of the Philippines speech on Monday, hundreds of demonstrators protested against the new anti-terrorism law, the closure of the ABS-CBN network and other issues. Despite arrest threats by the police, the protesters waved flags, held up posters and staged motorcades in the capital. As public gatherings of more than ten people have been banned due to the coronavirus outbreak, four protesters, although wearing face masks, were taken into custody by police. [Time]

28 July 2020

Philippines: Tax evasion charges against Maria Ressa

(mp) Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, executive editor and CEO of the news website “Rappler” who was previously convicted for cyber libel [AiR No. 24, June/ 2020, 3], has pleaded not guilty to tax evasion, describing the charges as harassment. The case is about the provision of incorrect information for Rappler’s tax returns. Human rights activists see the allegations as part of a campaign to silence opponents of President Rodrigo Duterte. Earlier this month, the broadcasting network ABS-CBN had been denied renewing its license [AiR No. 19, May/2020, 2].

The government stated that President Duterte supported free speech and that the legal cases were initiated not for media reports but for breaking the law. [Straits Times]

28 July 2020

Philippines: President Duterte warns the US of returning to naval base in South China Sea

(mp) During his state of the union speech, President Duterte on Monday said that Beijing was “in possession” of the disputed South China Sea while he had no chance to change the status quo. Duterte admitted that his country´s military power could by far not cope with China´s army, which has continuously been ramped up. Moreover, he expressed his concern that Washington’s return to the former naval base at Subic Bay would put all involved countries at risk of a new war. [Nikkei Asian Review]

21 July 2020

Philippines and China easing tensions, superpowers´ ties deteriorate

(mp) The Philippines and China held a one-hour phone conference on Tuesday to reaffirm their friendly bilateral relationship and to promote cooperation despite contentious maritime issues and rising tensions, after Washington had called Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea “completely unlawful.” China in response accused the US of militarizing the territory, provoking conflict, and causing instability.

Manila further called a four-year-old ruling by a court in The Hague, which China has never recognized, a “milestone” and “non-negotiable” for the international order and reaffirmed its importance. Beijing invited the Philippines to jointly secure peace and stability in the South China Sea by bilateral talks. [Nikkei Asian Review]

In a related development, the US Ambassador to the Philippines in a lengthy statement expressed his country´s support for Manila, proposed a deeper partnership, and thereby referred to the area as the “West Philippine Sea.” This term, which also includes zones disputed by Beijing, and has mainly been used by Manila, was regarded as highly provocative towards China. Consequently, his Chinese counterpart, Ambassador Huang, urgently warned Southeast Asian countries about Washington´s efforts to enter the South China Sea disputes and subsequently interfere with the region´s political stability. [South China Morning Post]

21 July 2020

Philippines defend anti-terror bill, announce controversial coronavirus measures

(mp) In a letter to US representatives, the Philippines assured that its new anti-terrorism law, which took effect on Saturday will respect freedom and human rights. Philippine President Duterte said that “law-abiding citizens” would not have to fear the act, which targeted terrorists only. However, lawyers have questioned the bill before the Supreme Court. [Straits Times] [AiR No. 27, July/2020, 1]

In a related development, civil right groups are highly alarmed after the announcement of new measures to combat COVID-19 including searching for infected patients in their homes in order to take them to central quarantine facilities. Patients who do not comply will face imprisonment. Critics fear police abuse and saw parallels with the President´s so-called “war on drugs” in which police also searched households for drug suspects. [The Diplomat]

14 July 2020

Philippines: Lawmakers shut down ABS-CBN network

(mp/ls) On Friday, the Philippine´s largest TV network ABS-CBN lost its broadcasting license after a majority of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Franchises voted not to issue a renewed 25-years-license for the group. ABS-CBN, which had a reach of over 60 million viewers, employs more than 11,000 people whose jobs are at risk now. Lawmakers insisted that the license was a privilege, not a right, so that the case would not raise any constitutional issues. [ABS-CBN]

Civil rights organizations condemned the vote and saw a further assault on the Philippine´s free press by the government of President Rodrigo Duterte, who had previously threatened the channel, which is known for its criticism of the government. ABS-CBN became particularly famous for its reports about human rights issues in Duterte´s “war on drugs.” The network´s President Carlo Katigbak expressed his disappointment and announced that he would look for alternative ways to resume business.

The decision comes after the executive editor and CEO of Rappler, Maria Ressa, was convicted of cyber libel last month [AiR No. 24, June/ 2020, 3], possibly facing several years in jail. President Duterte officially denied any involvement in both cases. The Philippines are ranked 136 of 180 countries in the latest report on press freedom by the NGO “Reporters Without Borders.” [Nikkei Asian Review]

7 July 2020

Philippines: President Duterte gives presidential approval to anti-terror bill

(mp) Without making any amendments, President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday signed-off on the “Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020”, after it had been approved earlier by Congress. Citing a rising number of threats from communist and Islamist insurgencies that warranted strong countermeasures, the government justified the legislation, which critics fear could be used to crack-down on human rights activists and perceived enemies. The law defines terrorism as intending to cause death or injury, damage to government or private property or use weapons of mass destruction in order to “spread a message of fear” or intimidate the government. It includes expanded permissions of surveillance as well as warrantless arrests and detention for up to 14 days. [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2] [DW]

While Senate President Vicente Sotto declared “only terrorists and their supporters” had to fear the law, civil society groups are skeptical of the motives and the legality of the legislation. Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson claimed the bill had “pushed Philippine democracy into an abyss”, as it would likely be used to target political opponents. Only some days before, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, urged the President to reconsider the law to prevent a “chilling effect” on human rights. [Straits Times] [Amnesty International]


7 July 2020

Philippines: United Nations Rights Office condemns violence of war on drugs

(mp) Speaking at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Tuesday said the HRC should consider supporting new accountability measures against perpetrators of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines’ so-called war on drugs. Her appeal follows on the publication of a UN HRC report in June this year, which documented thousands of illegal killings that have occurred since President Duterte gained power in 2016. [UN News] [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]

Fending off the accusations, Philippines Justice Minister claimed that the country has set up an inter-agency body, including the country´s Commission on Human Rights, to investigate the 5,655 drug war victims that are officially recognized by the government. However, Human Rights Watch has questioned the investigation´s credibility, since only a single one case related to the war on drugs has led to a conviction of the police officer involved in the shooting so far.

Duterte previously terminated the Philippines’ membership in the International Crime Court after the Court announced plans to call for investigations into drug war killings. [The Diplomat]


30 June 2020

Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful

(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]

Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]

The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]

30 June 2020

At summit, ASEAN leaders stress importance of international law for South China Sea dispute 

(jn) Leaders of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting “freedom of navigation and overflight” above the South China Sea. The passage in their vision statement is seen as a response to reports of China planning to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), something the country has also not ruled out publicly. The prospect of an ADIZ was not only decried by ASEAN members, but also the US military in the region.

ASEAN members explicitly stressed “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.” They also agreed to work on “an effective and substantive Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, a framework that would go further than the 2002 Declaration of Conduct that the ASEAN once agreed on with China.

On Saturday, another ASEAN statement authored by chairing member Vietnam pointed out that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones” in the South China Sea. Such remarks can be seen as a strong repudiation to China’s controversial historical claim to most of the disputed waters, and it is no coincidence that Vietnam as one of the most vocal critics of China’s encroachment was the drafter. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats this month and in April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].

The UNCLOS defines certain water areas as exclusive economic zones (EEZ) where coastal states are given the exclusive right to explore and use marine resources. The leaders said in the statement that the “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”. 

There was no immediate response from China, but according to AP, Southeast Asian diplomats said that the statement marked a significant strengthening of ASEAN’s assertion of the rule of law in the region. In 2016, the Permanent Court or Arbitration in The Hague had ruled that China’s vast claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis. However, Beijing did not recognize the ruling. 

For a number of different interpretations and evaluation of the ruling see [ISEAS]. Among them is a piece of Clive Schofield who refers to China’s refection of the ruling to point to the fact of “fundamentally opposed, overlapping and contested spatial visions of maritime rights in the SCS” which “sets the scene for ongoing maritime incidents and disputes” with China not giving up its claims of historic rights.  

The ASEAN leaders also dedicated themselves to tackling the economic collateral damage wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic by establishing a regional pandemic fund, building medical supply stockpiles and reasserting the need for open trade links.  

The vision statement reaffirmed the importance of implementing free trade agreements and comprehensive economic partnerships between ASEAN and key economies. It mentioned India as a major trading partner (alongside China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong), although PM Narendra Modi had said last year that India would withdraw from the negotiations to sign up for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact [see also AiR No.45, November/2019, 1]

The 36th ASEAN Summit themed “Cohesive And Responsive ASEAN: Rising Above Challenges And Sustaining Growth” was convened as a video conference on June 26 under the chair of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. [The Guardian] [South China Morning Post] [South China Morning Post 2] [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Nikkei Review]

30 June 2020

Philippines: Police kills four soldiers in the south 

(ls) In an apparent friendly fire incident in the southern Philippines, four army intelligence officers were killed by policemen on Monday. The intelligence unit operated in the area in search of Abu Sayyaf suicide bombers. There are different accounts of what happened, one side saying the army intelligence men threatened the police while the other side said no such threat had occurred. The respective police officers are now investigated by the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG). A parallel investigation by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) was also requested. [Benar News] [Manila Bulletin]

In a separate development, four suspected terrorists and their supporters with alleged links to the Abu Sayyaf and Islamic State (ISIS) groups were killed in a police raid in Parañaque City, which is close to the capital Manila. The Philippine Congress recently passed a new anti-terrorism bill which still needs to be signed by President Rodrigo Duterte. It gives law enforcement and military agents greater liberties in surveilling, arresting, and prosecuting terrorism suspects. [Rappler]

30 June 2020

Philippines: Child victims of the drug war

(ls) Two NGOs, the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the Philippine-based Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center, have documented 122 incidents in which children have been killed in the Philippines’ drug war between July 2016 and December 2019. The NGOs also said that the actual number is likely higher. The report says that some children were directly targeted, sometimes for witnessing other killings. Others were killed as proxies when real targets could not be found, or they were victims of mistaken identity. Some have also been killed by stray bullets during police operations. [OMCT-Report] [PhilStar]

In addition, ahead of the three-week session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, thirty-one U.N. special rapporteurs and other experts called for an independent and impartial investigation into the drug war. In response, presidential spokesman Harry Roque, himself a former human rights lawyer, said the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations “lack impartiality” when it comes to the Duterte administration. [Benar News]


30 June 2020

Philippine President Duterte calls ASEAN not to escalate South China Sea dispute

(mp) Echoing ASEAN’s general stance on the South China Sea (see above), also Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the parties involved in the conflict to exercise self-restraint and respect the rule of law to avoid “escalating tension.” He stressed that the conflict needed to be solved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Duterte, the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogues, demanded to work with China closely and to achieve an early conclusion with the other member states to reduce the tensions in the region that have continuously risen. [Inquirer]



23 June 2020

Philippines: The conviction of Maria Ressa and the unequal enforcement of the truth

(ls) The cyber libel conviction of Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. by a regional trial court in Manila last week [AiR No. 24, June/ 2020, 3] has created an intense discussion over the state of press freedom in the Philippines. CPG’s Lasse Schuldt argues that the decision demonstrates the different standards of accuracy enforced against citizens and the government. In a country presently governed by an administration that has allegedly been the source of widespread disinformation, Schuldt writes that private media and citizen reporters are subjected to ever stricter anti-falsehood laws. The case provokes to rethink private and state accountability for the spreading of falsehoods. [Verfassungsblog]



23 June 2020

Philippines: Businessman and political influencer Danding Cojuangco dies at 85

(mp) Chairman and CEO of the San Miguel Corporation, Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco Junior, died on Tuesday after a lasting illness. Cojuangco, who was the 15th richest man in the Philippines, was regarded as highly influential in Philippine politics after he gained national prominence as an adviser to former President Ferdinand Marcos. In the Presidential elections of 1992, he reached the third place. [Asia Nikkei]



23 June 2020

Philippines: Wirecard´s missing billions not in the Philippines

(mp) Central bank governor Benjamin Dioko on Sunday issued a statement saying that the $2.1 billion (€ 1.9 billion) of cash missing from German payment firm Wirecard had never entered the country´s financial system. Dioko further stated that the country’s biggest lenders – BDO Unibank Inc. and Bank of the Philippine Islands – had suffered no losses, despite having been named in connection with the missing money. Earlier last week, both banks had issued a statement denying any relationship with Wirecard and further allegeing that the documents brought up by external investigators linking them to the money had been forged. [Straits Times] [DW] [SCMP]


16 June 2020

Philippines: Military construction on disputed island, while also “strengthening ties” with China

(mp/ls) Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana visited the Philippine-occupied island of Pag-Asa, unveiling a modernized beaching ramp and announcing a new military infrastructure project worth US$ 26 million. Despite their military character and subsequently advanced maritime defense positions, Lorenzana claimed that the measure followed the purpose of creating a liveable environment on the island. [South China Morning Post] [Inquirer, with photos from the island].

Pag-Asa is located in the South China Sea, where China’s recently heightened assertiveness caused several disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam, countries which have overlapping claims in that region. Manila’s 2014 arbitration win against Beijing was meanwhile agreed to be set aside to make way for joint resource exploring. 

Meanwhile, during the marking of 45 years of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and China, President Duterte called for “further strengthening of ties” between the countries. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque described their relationship as warm friendship. In a phone call, Chinese President Xi told Duterte that the Philippines would be prioritized once a vaccine against COVID-19 had been developed in China. [CNN Philippines


16 June 2020

Philippines: Continuing protests overshadow Independence Day

(mp) Instead of celebrations of the Philippines’ independence from Spanish colonial rule in 1898,  hundreds of protesters rallied against the anti-terrorism bill, which is awaiting President Duterte’s signature after it passed parliament last week [AiR No. 23, June/2020, 2]. 

The legislation, which extends the range of instruments available to the authorities in the fight against terrorism, has been persistently criticized by human rights groups. The UN human rights office raised concerns over the bill, claiming it “diluted human rights safeguards.” Government officials argued the protests were overblown. There were no reports of arrests or violence. [New York Times]


16 June 2020

Philippines: Maria Ressa found guilty of cyber libel – Grave concerns about democracy

(mp/ls) Maria Ressa, head and journalist of the news website, which is known for its critical reports about President Duterte and his war on drugs, was convicted of cyber libel on Monday and faces up to six years of imprisonment. The allegations originate from an article, in which a businessman was tied to illegal activities. Ressa’s colleague and author of this article, Reynaldo Santos Jr., was convicted simultaneously. The story, however, was published months before the enactment of the cyber-libel law, on which the judgment was based. Ressa had been arrested early last year but released on bail.

Ressa and Santos Jr. are entitled to post-conviction bail while they exhaust legal remedies in higher courts. Press Freedom groups condemned the decision, saying that it instead was a politically motivated prosecution based on the government’s fear of a free press. Ressa denied the charges and stated that they aimed at silencing the political opposition. Her lawyer announced to file an appeal. [Nikkei Asian Review]

Some legal groups and experts argue that the acts in question could not be prosecuted because of prescription. According to them, cyber libel prescribes only in one year, and not 12 years, which was the Department of Justice (DOJ) theory that was upheld by a court in Manila, which made it possible to convict Ressa and Santos Jr. [Rappler]

The verdict came at a time when journalism is under increasing pressure in the Philippines. At the beginning of May, the country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was forced off the air after a 25-year operating licence had not been renewed. [AiR No. 19, May/2020, 2]



16 June 2020

Vietnam decries collision of vessels, laying of undersea cables in South China Sea 

(jn/ls) According to Vietnamese state media, last week a Chinese ship chased and rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat near Lincoln Island, a rock in the Paracel Islands’ waters occupied by China but also claimed by Vietnam. Subsequently, the Chinese crew reportedly seized fish and equipment to the value of $21.000 and also mistreated the Vietnamese captain after he had refused to sign a document. The incident may be the first after the fishing moratorium “Flashing Sword 2020” had been unilaterally imposed by China for the South China Sea north of the 12thparallel last month. [AiR No. 18, May/2020, 1] [AiR No. 19, May/2020, 2]

The Philippines and Vietnam criticized the ban and vowed not to recognize it. The last such incident transpired on April 2 when a Vietnamese fishing vessel sunk in a confrontation with a Chinese coast guard ship [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].

As another sign of unabated tensions between the two countries, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday protested against China’s undersea cable construction also near the Paracel Islands, calling it a violation of Vietnamese sovereignty. Vietnam also deployed a coastguard vessel to the equally disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea to drive away Chinese maritime militia around a Vietnamese outpost. [Radio Free Asia 1] [Radio Free Asia 2]

Meanwhile, the US Navy has currently three aircraft carriers patrolling in the “Indo-Pacific”, accompanied by Navy cruisers, destroyers, fighter jets and other aircrafts. The presence of three carrier strike groups, the first in nearly three years, is unusual as they normally take turns throughout repair schedules, port visits, training or deployments to other parts of the world. [Business Insider] Chinese observers interviewed by the government-controlled Global Times called the deployment a “mere show of vanity”. [Global Times]



9 June 2020

Philippines: Hit by surge of Facebook fake accounts

(mp) Thousands of duplicate Facebook profiles of students and journalists have appeared in the Philippines over the weekend, likely created by a professional internet troll farm. The accounts were easily distinguishable due to their lack of profile information; however, some were used to threaten and verbally attack their correspondent students.

Opponents of President Duterte expressed their concern that after the passing of the new security bill (as reported above), Duterte plans to intimidate his political opponents or tries to create evidence against them to drown out rising critics. The Department of Justice has announced an investigation; results are expected in a week. Facebook condemned the incident. [Washington Post]



9 June 2020

Philippines: UN report criticizes permission to kill in war on drugs

(mp) A new United Nations (UN) report published on Thursday condemns the violation of human rights in the Philippines’ so-called “war on drugs,” waged since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a crackdown on drug crime in 2016. The report explains that some statements from the highest levels of government had “risen to the level of incitement to violence” and that the “vilification of dissent is being increasingly institutionalised”, leading to “systematic extrajudicial killings with near impunity” for law enforcement officials. [OHCHR] [SCMP]

The “war on drugs” has taken the lives of 8,663 people, according to conservative data provided by the government. As reported by the UN, only one person has been convicted of murder. The UN is urging for an independent investigation of the killings. [BBC]


9 June 2020

Philippines: Protests flare over new Anti-Terror-Law

(mp) Nationwide several protests were held just hours after the House of Representatives had approved a controversial anti-terror bill [Original Bill] [AiR No. 9, March/2020, 1], leading to the arrest of seven students in Cebu city. While President Duterte stressed the necessity to fight terrorist movements urgently, opponents of the law fear an abuse of power to crackdown on dissidents. They are concerned that an expansion of the term “terrorism” will culminate in a law against critics of the President rather than a law protecting from terrorist movements. In the past, Duterte administration officials had toyed with the idea of declaring martial law during the Covid-19 response. [The Diplomat]

The bill expands the scope of warrantless arrests and allows authorities to detain suspects for 24 days without charge. It is likely that the opposition will question the legality of the bill before the Supreme Court. [CNN Philippines] [The Diplomat]


9 June 2020

Philippine government reverses decision on VFA, citing geostrategic “developments” for change of heart

(lm) On Tuesday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin announced that the Philippines have temporarily suspended its decision to end the bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. According to a diplomatic note sent to the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, the six-month abrogation will be “extendible by the Philippines for another six months.” After that period, unless other action is taken, the Philippines’ government would revert to its original plan to terminate the agreement, which was first announced mid-February. [The Diplomat] [CNN][Asia in Review No. 6, February/2020, 2]

Experts cite two major developments for President Rodrigo Duterte’s reluctant recognition of the importance of security assistance from the United States. Firstly, the decision reflects Manila’s shifting geopolitical calculations as previous warming-ups with Beijing have proven unsuccessful and China’s strategic opportunism over the past three months has fuelled anxieties over Beijing’s expansionism. [SCMP] [CNN 2]

The decision further reflects that the Philippines recognise the importance of humanitarian assistance by the United States. Signed in 1988, the military pact facilitates comprehensive security and humanitarian cooperation between the two countries, giving US military aircraft and vessels free entry into the Philippines. As it provides the legal framework governing sustained and large-scale rotation of American troops on Philippine soil, the VFA has also enabled the Pentagon’s assistance in the Manila’s counterterror and domestic security operations. [NY Times]


26 May 2020

Philippines: New study confirms hot spot for Online Child Sexual Exploitation and worrying increase 

(jk) A US based think tank – International Justice Mission (IJM) – released a new study last week, stating that Philippine cases of online child sexual exploitation have increased sharply in recent years. Exploitation often happens with the parents’ agreement. The report found that over “three years, the estimated prevalence rate of internet-based child sexual exploitation in the Philippines more than tripled”. [IJM] [full report]

During an online launch of the report, a US State official pointed out that the “global shutdown with the COVID-19 pandemic seems to only be increasing these phenomena”. [ABC News]


26 May 2020

US-Philippines defense relations 

(jk) About two weeks after the announcement by the US Department of Defense clearing the Philippines to buy six attack helicopters form the weapons manufacturing arm of US companies Boeing or Bell respectively [AIR Asia in Review No. 18, May/2020, 1], the Philippines’ Defense Secretary stated that both companies’ offers exceed Manila’s budget and that they would have to look elsewhere for the purchase. [ABS-CBN]

However, an alternative deal for helicopters struck with Turkey at the end of 2018 has come under increased pressure with the US sanctioning Turkey over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system which led to US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). To deliver the helicopters, Turkey relies on parts it receives from the US which are hard to obtain under sanctions and therefore, it cannot guarantee the delivery at this time. [AIN Online]

Looking ahead, the Philippines may try to negotiate with the American suppliers the price down closer to Manila’s budget, potentially reducing the weaponry and services that would come with the deal. 

[Human Rights Watch] has voiced its strong concern about the potential deal, however, considering the Philippine military’s poor record of accountability, its “culture of impunity” and ongoing human rights abuses. It calls on the US Senate to delay or stop the deal. 

In the meantime, according to the Philippine’s Navy chief, the US Navy may return to its former base at Subic Bay under a commercial deal. An “American equity firm and an Australian shipbuilder [(Austal)] expressed keen interest in taking over the Subic shipyard from a bankrupt South Korean company”. A Chinese company is also interested in taking over the shipyard, but at this stage it is not yet clear who will secure the deal. There are also concerns about the recently cancelled Visiting Forces Agreement with the US, although Philippine officials have “assured Australian and American investors that the commercial deal would not be affected”. Subic Bay used to be a large and strategically important US naval facilities but was closed in 1992 when the Philippine Senate decided to terminate the Military Bases Agreement of 1947. [One News]


26 May 2020

South China Sea: Philippine Navy makes historic ship docking on Thitu island

(jk) For the first time, a Philippine Navy vessel has docked on the Philippine-occupied Thitu island, the largest of the Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea. The island is home to Filipino soldiers and a small fishing community.

The Philippines have long been trying to upgrade its facilities on the island, including repair work on the harbour, a beaching ramp and the island’s runway, but Chinese presence in the area has made progress difficult, especially since late 2018. [Manila Bulletin

According to satellite imagery analysed by [AMTI], Chinese Martitime Milita has maintained “an almost constant militia presence around Thitu Island” since then. The landing shows the Philippines have eventually completed much of the upgrading work despite Chinese vessels trying to hamper the progress. Since 2012, China has several reclaimed islands it now uses as military bases in the West Philippine Sea and its navy, coast guard, and militias maintain a widespread presence in the area.


19 May 2020

Philippines: ABS-CBN calls Supreme Court as parliament backtracks temporary license

(ls) After the Philippines’ biggest media broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was forced to cease its operations two weeks ago [Asia in Review, No. 19, May/2020, 2], the Supreme Court rejected the network’s plea for an immediate resumption. Rather, the judges ordered the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) and both chambers of Congress to comment on the issue within 10 days. ABS-CBN said that, since the NTC ordered the shutdown, the company lost more than 10 million USD in advertising revenue. [Al Jazeera]

Whereas the House of Representatives on last week’s Wednesday passed a bill giving ABS-CBN a temporary license to go back on the air for five months while Congress decides whether to grant a new license [Inquirer], it withdrew the second reading approval on Monday this week as questions regarding the constitutionality of the legislative procedure had been raised. The bill was introduced on first reading and approved on second reading on the same day. The House leadership, however, stated that the withdrawal came in response to calls from members for extended plenary debates and the introduction of amendments. [Manila Bulletin]


12 May 2020

U.S. Navy Submarines join surface ships and aircraft in interoperability exercise in Philippine Sea 

(jk) Three US Navy submarines joined 7th Fleet ships and aircraft last week during a “joint advanced warfighting training exercise” in the Philippine Sea. The exercise developed  “warfighting concepts, improve maritime lethality, and enable real-world proficiency and readiness to respond to any contingency.” [US 7th Fleet]


12 May 2020

Philippines biggest broadcaster forced off air 

(jk) The Philippines’ biggest media broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was forced to cease its operations last week after a 25-year operating licence was not renewed. NGOs and government critics make a connection between President Duterte’s previously displayed tendencies to restrict and close media outlets that he sees as critical towards him and his government. [BBC]

Duterte has made no secret of going against ABS-CBN since his election campaign in 2016 when he alleged the network was biased against him. He has made his stance clear several times, including remarks back in 2018 when he said he will object the licence renewal [CNN Philippines 1] and last year, making his message even clearer saying that he will personally see to it that the network is out of business in 2020. [CNN Philippines 2] Other journalists and critical networks, most prominently journalist Maria Ressa who faces years behind bars after publishing critical stories on her website Rappler, also facing government closure, are more cases in point. [e.g. Asia in Review, No. 29, July/2019, 3] [Asia in Review, (2/11/2018)]

ABS-CBN has asked the Supreme Court to reverse the order by the country’s telecom regulator to shut down its operations. It argues it “undermined freedom of speech and the public right to information” and believes it should have been granted a temporary licence while the renewal that was due last week is still deliberated in Congress. Congress’ hearings have been delayed due to the pandemic. [Al-Jazeera] [Rappler]


5 May 2020

Philippines protests China’s ‘new’ districts in the South China Sea  

(dql) The Philippines last week lodged a strong protest against China’s establishment of the so-called Nansha and Xisha districts in the South China Sea put under the administration of China’s self-declared “Sansha City,” adding that China’s move “violate[s] Philippine territorial sovereignty.” [Rappler] [No. 16, April/2020, 3]

In a related development, fishermen’s associations in the Philippines and Vietnam protested China’s annual summer fishing ban in the South China Sea, urging their respective governments to oppose it. The protests come after China last Friday announced its annual moratorium on fishing within waters it claims jurisdiction over, including waters down to the 12th parallel of the South China Sea, encompassing the Paracel Islands and Scarborough Shoal. Different from previous years, China added that this year it would crack down on vessels violating the ban. China has previously abstained from arresting any fishermen from Vietnam and the Philippines, but have arrested Chinese fishing vessels for violating the ban. [Benar News] [Express]


5 May 2020

Philippines releases about 10,000 prisoners

(ls) In a move to prevent the further spread of Covid-19 in prisons, the Philippine Supreme Court has issued a directive to lower courts to release inmates awaiting trial in prison because they could not afford bail, others who were sentenced to jail for six months or below, as well as elderly and ailing prisoners. Overall, nearly 10,000 prisoners have been released. Many detention facilities are filled up to five or times their capacity, making social distancing impossible. Prison overcrowding has become a greater problem since President Rodrigo Duterte launched the “war on drugs” in 2016. [Al Jazeera]


5 May 2020

Philippines: Media and journalists under ever-increasing pressure

(ls) In the continued Southeast Asian “war on fake news” [Asia in Review, No. 16, April/2020, 3], the Philippine National Police started new investigations against dozens of people for “spreading unverified and false information on the Covid-19 outbreak” and committing cyber libel. [South China Morning Post

A joint report of media and journalists’ associations, published on 4 May 2020, points to the increasing restrictions and threats that Philippine reporters have been facing since January 2019. One practice referred to in the report is “red-tagging” by which journalists are publicly associated with Communist groups, which exposes them to threats to their lives. [Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism]

5 May 2020

Philippines cleared to buy US attack helicopters 

(hg) The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) of the US Department of Defense, which is in charge of arms export control, cleared the Philippines to buy six attack helicopters, either the Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian or Bell AH-1Z Viper. The proposed deals would each also include equipment, weapons, spares, training, support, and other services. 

Stunning is the price divergence though with the Apache deal valued at around USD1.5 billion and the Viper around USD450 million. An obvious explanation for the huge discrepancy is lacking yet. [Janes]

For the Philippine Air Force (PAF), the six new helicopters would provide a significant reinforcement. 

The DSCA notification is, however, only the necessary condition for a deal if Manila decides to eventually conclude with a US company. Once cleared by Congress then, the sale would enter negotiations, during which quantities and costs can still shift. Anyway, Manila is also considering buying the Turkish-made T129 ATAK instead of an American product. [Defense News]


5 May 2020

Is the Philippines-US Defense Treaty at stake?

(hg) Since 1951, the Philippines have been one of the US’ core allies in Asia-Pacific, thus members of the so-called “San Francisco System”, also including Japan, South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Thailand, and New Zealand. After bilateral relations have become strained under the Duterte administration, the Philippine’s President has now announced that the partnership must come to an end: “It’s about time we rely on ourselves. We will strengthen our own defenses and not rely on any other country.” 

For the history of the security partnership and the development, significance and consequences of its more recent deterioration see [Global Risk Insights]. 


28 April 2020

INTERPOL crackdown on terrorist routes in Southeast Asia

(jk) An INTERPOL-led operation from mid-February to mid-March involving law enforcement from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysiaand the Philippines led to the arrest of over 180 individuals, allegedly involved in human trafficking and terrorism. The operation took place along known common routes used by terrorist and organized crime groups in the border area of the involved countries, for example the Sulu and Celebes Seas, which have repeatedly been the focus of terrorist for kidnappings and human trafficking. Law enforcement was able to rescue a number of human trafficking victims and seized illegal firearms and explosives. [INTERPOL]


21 April 2020

Philippines: Heavy fights with Islamist rebels in Mindanao lead to 11 soldiers killed

(ls) In the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, Philippine troops have clashed with dozens of Abu Sayyaf armed fighters allied with the ISIL (ISIS) group, leaving 11 soldiers dead and 14 others wounded. The group is an offshoot of the decades-long separatist unrest in the south. The violence has eased since the largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, signed a peace deal with the government that replaced a Muslim autonomous area with a more powerful and better-funded region. [Al Jazeera]

21 April 2020

Covid-19 in the Philippines: Duterte threatens to bring in military – Senate raises mismanagement

(ls) As the number of Covid-19 infections in the Philippines continues to rise, President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened a martial law-like intervention, bringing in police and military, to stop people from ignoring a virus lockdown in Manila. The imposition of martial law is a sensitive issue in the Philippines as it evokes the human rights abuses of the Ferdinand Marcos regime. Duterte had imposed martial law over the island of Mindanao from May 2017 to December 2019 in response to Islamic State-inspired militants’ siege of the city of Marawi. [Bangkok Post]

Meanwhile, in a surprise move, several Senators, including the Senate president, have filed a resolution calling for the resignation of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III for his “failure of leadership” in addressing the coronavirus crisis. Among the Senators are many confidants of Duterte, who refused to dismiss Duque. The Senate is expected to address the resolution once the legislative chamber resumes session on 4 May. [ABS-CBN]

In another development, was Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia resigned, saying he had “differences in development philosophy” with some Cabinet members. He later told the media that he has stood for a “modified quarantine” to revive the economy but other members of the Cabinet disagreed with him. [CNN Philippines]

After all, The Diplomat writes, “it was Duterte who rejected the proposed travel ban, repeatedly belittled the seriousness of COVID-19, urged Filipinos to go out and travel around the country [see the video here: Rappler on YouTube], and failed to provide the public with accurate and comprehensive information about the pandemic and the government’s response.” [The Diplomat]

14 April 2020

Philippines Government expresses “deep concern” after China-Vietnam incident in South China Sea

(jk) After a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat near the Paracel Islands [Asia in Review No. 14, April/2020, 1], the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs released a statement indicating it is increasingly worried about Chinese actions in the South China Sea and that “trust in a friendship is lost” after such incidents. It cites “momentum” in talks on a Code of Conduct, as well as the current Covid-19 pandemic, which requires coordinated responses and mutual trust. [Department of Foreign Affairs]

While Chinese activity may not have increased since the onset of the corona crisis, its continuation despite an obvious need for cooperation and trust in extraordinary circumstances has not gone unnoticed in ASEAN. The US The Department of Defense also released a statement on the incident, echoing this point: “The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of the rules-based international order, as it sets the conditions that enable us to address this shared threat in a way that is transparent, focused, and effective. We call on all parties to refrain from actions that would destabilize the region, distract from the global response to the pandemic, or risk needlessly contributing to loss of life and property”. [US Department of Defense]

14 April 2020

Philippines: Harry Roque returns as presidential spokesperson

(jk) Former presidential spokesperson Roque returns to the position he held from 2017 to 2018. Roque – a former human rights lawyer – supported and defended Duterte’s war on drugs and his decision pull out from the International Criminal Court in March 2018. He was toeing Duterte’s line so closely that critics said it would be misleading, to say the least, to continue referring to him as a “human rights lawyer”. 

Roque had initially resigned from the post to pursue a seat in the country’s senate, which he has now given up, citing health reasons. [Inquirer]


7 April 2020

How the corona crisis threatens poor children throughout Southeast Asia

(ls) As the number of direct victims from the corona crisis is rising, experts say that there are also many secondary victims, underprivileged children and women in particular, whose already hard lives are made harder still. Some of them in forced marriages. Pictures also showed children in the Philippines who were caught out after curfew and put in a dog cage. Support groups warn that the coming months will leave many more at risk of human trafficking and exploitation. [South China Morning Post]


7 April 2020

Philippines & Vietnam: New anti-fake news laws thrive in corona crisis

(ls) After the Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte signed into law the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” on 25 March, the Act has been used to start criminal proceedings against journalists who have been accused of spreading false information about the corona crisis. According to the relevant section, the Act criminalizes “individuals or groups creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population, and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion”. [Reporters without borders] [Act on Senate’s website]

In Vietnam, a new law, which will come into effect on 15 April, will fine people who post or share false information about the corona virus online with significant amounts. The country’s Law on Cyber Security, which took effect in January 2019, already prohibits spreading fake news, but it does not stipulate specific fines for spreading them on social media. Nonetheless, the Department of Information and Communications has already issued hundreds of fines on individuals posting incorrect information about the virus outbreak. [The Register]


31 March 2020

Caution over Thailand’s and Philippines’ emergency powers over the COVID-19 Crisis

(jk) As reported last week [Asia in Review No. 12, March/2020, 4], both Thailand and the Philippines have granted their leadership emergency powers to handle the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. 

While in both cases no extreme measures have been taken yet, the emergency powers that were granted allow for instance for stringent control of the media and are generally kept vague. Critics argue they could easily be misused by the authorities to stifle critics of the government and increase the risk of unchecked use of power which needs to be watched carefully. Rights groups, such as Freedom House or Forum-Asia, have flagged the issue and voiced concerns the COVID-19 crisis could be used as an excuse for governments to bolster their power. [Benarnews] [Asia Times]

According to remarks by Indonesian President Joko Widodo and a worsening situation in Indonesia, it appears that the government in Jakarta is also considering emergency powers to fight the crisis while Timor-Leste President Francisco Guterres declared a state of emergency across the country from March 28 to April 26. [The Straits Times] [UCA News]


24 March 2020

Philippines: Wide-reaching powers for President Duterte to fight Covid-19 outbreak

(ls) The upper and lower houses of the Philippines’ parliament have granted President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers to combat the coronavirus crisis. He was supposed to sign the fast-tracked law on Tuesday. The law will free up 275 billion pesos (US$5.3 billion) of this year’s national budget to be used for million low-income households, for testing and processing, personal protective equipment and to construct or lease temporary hospitals and housing. It authorizes Duterte to “direct the operation” of privately-owned hospitals, medical and health facilities, other establishments for specified purposes. A more sweeping section that would have given him powers to take over private firms such as public utilities and private banks was not included in the final version. The law will remain in effect for at least three months or until the state of calamity in the entire country is lifted. [South China Morning Post] [CNN Philippines]

17 March 2020

Vietnam and Philippines stand out in Reporters without Borders list on disinformation

(jk) On the “World Day Against Cyber Censorship” on March 12, Reporters Without Borders published a report on countries violating internet and press freedoms. The 2020 report on “leading digital predators” contains four categories: harassment, state censorship, disinformation and spying and surveillance. With regards to disinformation and spreading state-sponsored disinformation online, the Philippines and Vietnam stand out. [RSF]

In particular, the report highlighted “Force 47 in Vietnam, an “army of 10,000 cyber-soldiers” run by the Ministry of Public Security. Similar in nature to Russia’s Web Brigades and China’s 50 Cent Army, Force 47 are a highly organised unit of commentators and trolls that participate in online forums and on social media, as well as edit Wikipedia entries, to counter critical content and spread pro-government narratives.” [Southeast Asia Globe]

10 March 2020

Philippines: Senators challenge withdrawal from US defense agreement

(tk) Senators in the Philippines launched a Supreme Court challenge against President Rodrito Duterte who terminated the 21-year-old Visiting Force Agreement (VFA) with the U.S. on February 11. [Asia in Review No. 6, February/2020] They argue that the president cannot unilaterally rule out an agreement approved by them. [Al Jazeera] The Senators seek a ruling not only for the VFA case, but for all similar treaties and agreements as the Constitution provides that a two-thirds majority of all Members of the Senate are required for the conclusion of a treaty or international agreement but is silent about its termination. [PhilStar]

3 March 2020

Philippines: New Anti-Terror Bill

(tk) The Philippines arguably is among the most affected countries by the latest wave of terrorism stemming from the Islamic State and other linked groups over the past few years.

In reaction, the Philippines’ Senate approved the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020.

The anti-terror bill penalizes those who will propose, incite, conspire, participate in the planning, training, preparation and facilitation of a terrorist act as well as those who will provide material support to terrorists and recruit members in a terrorist organization. Violators will face life imprisonment without the benefit of parole, whether they are foreign terrorist fighters or Filipinos who committed terrorist acts abroad. Further, the bill aims to ease legal restrictions on law enforcement officials to facilitate the conviction of suspects by various means, including a limited, non-extendable detention of suspects without charges and surveillance on suspected terrorists. [The Manila Times] [The Diplomat]

18 February 2020

Philippines lifts travel ban on visitors from Taiwan

(jk) The Philippines has lifted a travel ban on visitors from Taiwan over fears of spreading of the Coronavirus. It had initially banned travelers from Taiwan as part of the ban of travelers from the PRC, but Taiwan had objected to this view, also in light of the fact that it has significantly less cases than the mainland. Taiwan’s foreign ministry said the World Health Organization’s “mistaken designation of Taiwan and listing it as part of China’s virus area had misled the international community, causing huge problems for Taiwan’s government and people.”   [Straits Times]

18 February 2020

Philippines: Worries about Media freedom as largest television network ABS-CBN struggles 

(tk) President Rodrigo Duterte has filed a Supreme Court petition to shut down ABS-CBN, the country’s largest television network, accusing it of committing “highly abusive practices”. Duterte has repeatedly pledged to stop the network’s operation and has threatened other media outlets. [Al Jazeera]

ABS-CBN secured its franchise for 25 years under Republic Act 7966 which gives it the right to operate until 2020. Though, the period previously got extended until the end of Congress in 2022, ABS-CBN has faced an ongoing struggle for franchise renewal since Dutere’s election in May 2016. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) calls this “a disgraceful attack on media in the Philippines with the intent to destabilize and threaten independent media reporting.”

Last week, more than 500 journalists have gathered to protest threats regarding the broadcasters’ franchise renewal. [Asia Pacific Report

The Socioeconomic Planning Secretary expressed concerns that the non-renewal of the franchise may get in the way of promoting economic diversity and fostering competition. It would affect investor confidence in the country and endanger 11,000 jobs created by the network. [philstar]

18 February 2020

Philippines: Head of drug enforcement for Philippine National Police said ultra-violent approach to curbing illicit drugs had not been effective

(jk) Earlier in February, the head of drug enforcement of the National Police said that although volume of crime had decreased, users could still buy illegal drugs with easy and the violent approach of the war on drugs has failed. The Duterte government, which has been criticized for its approach before, seems undeterred and not to be looking for a new strategy. It continues to maintain that it is “winning” the war on drugs and if there are setbacks, those are only due to corruption and “absence of a death penalty”. [Reuters]

11 February 2020

Philippines: Official Termination of Visiting Force Agreement with U.S.

(tk/jk) After President Duterte threatened the U.S. last week to terminate their Visiting Force Agreement (VFA), Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Locsin has now officially signed the Philippines’ notice of termination of the agreement. This comes as a response to the visa denial of Senator Ronald dela Rosa by the U.S. embassy last week. [Asia in Review No. 5, February/2020]. Earlier, Locsin warned of the far-reaching consequences of the VFA abrogation. He said, “the continuance of the agreement is deemed to be more beneficial to the Philippines compared to any benefits were it to be terminated.” [Rappler]

Many observers are concerned that the termination will further embolden China in its efforts to extend its control in particular over its maritime neighborhood. [Inquirer 1] The Philippine government stated Duterte wants to focus on strengthening the Philippines’ own defense capabilities, but also noted it would remain open to sign defense agreements with other countries. [Inquirer 2]


4 February 2020

U.S.-Philippines tensions continue 

(jk) Asia in Review last week mentioned increasing tensions over political visa bans between the US and the Philippines after the US blacklisted a former Philippine national police chief, allegedly over of his participation in the drug war under President Duterte’s direction. [Asia in Review, No. 4, January/2020, 4]

Over the week, the situation has remained tense. Duterte has threatened to terminate a key defence agreement, the Visiting Forces Agreement, and said he would not allow his cabinet ministers to visit the US at this time, unless Washington “corrected” the visa denial. [The New York Times] In addition, he has hinted at “toning down US- Philippine relations” and skipping the US-ASEAN summit, to which US President Donald Trump invited ASEAN leaders earlier last month. [South China Morning Post] [Asia in Review, No. 3, January/2020, 3]

28 January 2020

Philippines: More corruption, less democracy and worse economy under Duterte

(tk) Even though President Rodrigo Duterte got elected in 2016 for his anti-corruption promises, the Philippines is getting more corrupt and less democratic under his presidency. According to the Corruption Perception Index reported by Transparency International, The Philippines slid down 18 notches since 2015. On the Economic Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index it slid down 4 places since 2016. Further, gross domestic product growth in 2019 was the slowest in eight years. Many worry Duterte is merely empowering a new business elite and worsening the extreme concentration of wealth and power among a handful of landowning families. [Forbes] [Nikkei Asian Review]

28 January 2020

U.S.-Philippines tensions over political visa bans

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has warned the United States he would repeal the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), an agreement on deployment of troops and equipment for exercises, after U.S. authorities decided to deny entry to Ronaldo dela Rosa, a former police chief who is now a senator. Dela Rosa was responsible for the implementation of Duterte’s “drug war”, during which up to 20,000 people have been killed. The U.S. visa decision came as the Philippines banned U.S. senators Richard Durbin and Patrick Leahy from entering the country after they had introduced a draft bill calling for the ban on U.S. entry to anyone involved in locking up Philippine senator Leila de Lima. De Lima is a former justice minister and one of Duterte’s top critics. She was jailed in 2017 on drug charges. [Reuters]

7 January 2020

Philippines evacuates citizens from the Middle East

(lf) The Philippines have started efforts to evacuate citizens from the Middle East, mostly from Iran and Iraq, by sending two navy ships. Over 8,000 Filipinos are employed in Iran and Iraq and, with the rising US–Iran tensions, would like to return home. The Middle East is one of the main destinations for oversea Filipino workers and the instability of the region as significant implications on the country. [InquirerThe Diplomat]

31 December 2019

Philippines US relations tense over Senator de Lima case

(lf) The Philippines has banned two US Senators from entering the country after the US Congress had approved a provision against all Philippine officials involved in the imprisonment of Senator de Lima. The Filipina Senator has been charged on drug offences in 2017 after she had led an investigation about the mass killings during Duterte´s war on drugs. President Duterte threatened to enforce visa requirement on US citizens should the US enforce sanctions against the Philippines. [Aljazeera]

24 December 2019

Duterte’s Coast Guard diplomacy

(ls) In a piece for the Diplomat, Jay Tristan Tarriela argues that the reappointment of Admiral Joel Garcia to lead the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) indicates how President Rodrigo Duterte wants the PCG to engage countries, not just for the purpose of strengthening the capability of the PCG but as a diplomatic instrument in managing the tension in the South China Sea. He analyzes the PCG’s role and potential in engaging with China, the United States, Japan, the EU and fellow Southeast Asian countries. [The Diplomat]


24 December 2019

Philippines: NATO report on four models of political trolling

(ls) The NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence published a report titled “Politics and Profit in the Fake News Factory: Four Work Models of Political Trolling in the Philippines” earlier this month. It identifies four emerging organization models of “fake news” factories affecting Philippine politics and public opinion: a state-sponsored model, an in-house staff model, an advertising and PR model and a clickbait model. [NATO STRATCOM COE] [University of Massachusetts Amherst]

24 December 2019

Philippines: Several attacks in the south

(lf) After President Duterte had announced to lift martial law in the Southern Philippines by December 31, the region has been struck by several attacks in different cities. Several people have been injured. It is yet unclear who has caused the attacks. The Southern Philippines had been under martial law since May 2017, when members of the terror organisation Da´esh seized the city of Marawi. While attacks are still present in the Southern Philippines, the intensity and nature has changed. In March 2019, the Philippines government and the separatist group Moro Islamic Liberation front had signed a landmark peace deal, which is expected to bring stability and prosperity to the region. However, many other groups have been excluded from this deal. [AlJazeera] [Reuters]

24 December 2019

Philippines: After 10 years, judges come to verdict on Maguindanao massacre

(lf/ls) After ten years of investigations and trials, 101 suspects in the Maguindanao massacre have received a verdict. The three masterminds were sentenced with the highest possible penalty of 40 years. The massacre occurred in November 2009 during the Maguindanao provincial election campaign, where several members of the media and supporters of the political rival of then provincial governor Andal Ampatuan Senior (who died in prison in 2015) were murdered.

Andal Ampatuan Sr. and his family had ruled Maguindanao through a reign of terror since 1986, unleashing violence and brutality on voters and his rivals while cultivating powerful patrons in Manila. At the peak of his influence under former president Gloria Arroyo, his private army numbered over 2,000 men. The massacre was also marked by particular brutality. Wielding a samurai sword, Ampatuan Jr. led the attack while his men shot at victims at point-blank range or mutilated their bodies with machetes. [Straits Times]

While the judgment has been an important step for justice for the family members of the 58 victims, 80 people accused are still on the run. Several witnesses had also been murdered during recent years. Amnesty and Reporters without Borders mark the Philippines as one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. 15 journalists have been killed this year alone. [Taz, in German] [Amnesty]

17 December 2019

Philippines: Martial law to be lifted by year end

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will lift martial law in the southern Philippines by the end of the year, more than two years after it was imposed in an attempt to fight the siege of the city of Marawi and to stop the Islamic State gaining a foothold there. Martial law is a contentious issue in a country ruled for 20 years by the late deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whom Duterte has hailed as the greatest leader the Philippines ever had. [The Guardian]

10 December 2019

Philippines-China dispute: ICC rejects jurisdiction

(ls/nj) The Office of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor has ejected the Philippines’ case against China for violations in the West Philippine Sea from the Court’s docket, citing lack of jurisdiction, stating that the crimes allegedly committed “do not fall within the territorial or otherwise personal jurisdiction of the Court” since the alleged actions took place outside the Philippine territory. Former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales had filed the communication in March on behalf of Filipino fishermen. They named Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials as respondents. [Rappler]

The office of President Rodrigo Duterte welcomed the ruling, saying that it will continue to pursue negotiations with Beijing to resolve existing disputes. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favor of the Philippines, invalidating China’s extensive claims to the South China Sea. Duterte, however, has refused to invoke the arbitral ruling and instead opted to seek engagement with Beijing about the unresolved maritime dispute. [Philippine Canadian Inquirer]

The ICC’s preliminary investigation against Duterte and other officials over allegations of crimes against humanity committed in the course of the government’s “war on drugs” continues meanwhile. 

3 December 2019

Philippines: Duterte’s promise more ‘build build build’ but doubts remain

(jk/nj) President Rodrigo Duterte wants to have started a hundred projects under his programme ‘build, build, build’ before he steps down in 2022. When Duterte took office in 2016 he promised to spend billions of USD to improve infrastructure by for example expanding roads, railways, dams and airports.  The program initially consisted of 75 key projects, out of which two have been completed, others recently “shelved” as they were deemed unfeasible.

His current plan is nevertheless to increase that number of projects and to steer away from developmental aid for financing and including more private funding from national companies. Besides bureaucratic delays and financial challenges, “build, build, build” faces problems like corruption and worker shortages. [South China Morning Post 1][Nikkei Asian Review 1]

The upcoming Southeast Asian Games which are hosted by the Philippines bring additional, unwanted attention to both the infrastructure problems in the country as well as the difficulties getting “build, build, build” properly off the ground. While athletes have complained about running short of food options or getting stuck at the airport, other accusations roam from unreasonable spending on new facilities to outright fraud. [Nikkei Asian Review 2] Duterte has announced that there will be an official investigation into the preparation failures surrounding the games. [Today Online]

In addition, concerns remain about increasing Chinese influence in the programme and whether it is wise to court Chinese investment more broadly. One opposition senator for instance fears growing control over the country’s power grid by Chinese stakeholders and wants to push investigations by the senate into allegations that China can randomly shut down the energy supply in the country.

China holds a 40 percent stake in the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP) which is responsible for the energy supply in the country. However, the NGCP denied those allegations and labeling it ‘baseless’ and ‘purely speculative’. The company’s president and CEO stated that remote access will only be granted to a Filipino CEO in case of emergency after passing a highly confidential approval process. [South China Morning Post 2]


26 November 2019

Philippines: Update on ISIS militants returning to SEA

(nj) The death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi gave rise to the fear that many ISIS sympathizers could be returning to Southeast Asia, as recently reported in [AiR No. 45, November/2019, 1]. According to a U.S. counterterrorism official, however, the numbers so far have been low. Nonetheless, the U.S. and the Philippines declared that they stayed alarmed for regional terror groups and militants to continue with Middle East-inspired terror tactics, including suicide bombings. The two countries cooperate to improve border security, especially on the southern Philippine island, Mindanao, which served in the 1990´s as a paramilitary training camp for al-Qaeda. [South China Morning Post] [The Straitstimes]


26 November 2019

Philippines: Disinformation as an export good?

(ls) In the Philippines, candidates and government officials routinely pay vast cyber-troll armies that create multiple fake social media accounts to smear opponents and prop themselves up. Now, observers warn that the Philippine disinformation industry could spread to other countries, the U.S. in particular, given Filipinos’ proficiency in English, facility with social media and the incentive of money from campaigns looking for a new way to get an edge over the competition. [Los Angeles Times]


26 November 2019

Philippines: Duterte dismisses Robredo as co-chair of anti-drug body

(ls) Less than one month after designating her as co-chairperson, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has dismissed Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo from the Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD). A spokesman accused Robredo of using her post “as a platform to attack the methods undertaken by this administration.” When Duterte offered the post to Robredo at the beginning of this month, many observers already considered it a trap and not a genuine transfer of responsibility. [Rappler]

Earlier last week, Duterte called Robredo a “scatterbrain” with “kneejerk” impulses whom he would not entrust with confidential matters as she could “jeopardize” the republic. He said the actions of Robredo, including planning to invite human rights investigators and talking to certain individuals critical of his war on drugs, were “not inspiring”. [Manila Times]


19 November 2019

Philippines: VP Robredo to be on watch for revealing state secrets on “war on drugs”

(jk/nj) Following Vice President Leni Robredo – one of Duterte’s main critics – accepting a lead position in Duterte’s “war on drugs” against the advice of some close to her [Asia in Review, No. 46, November/2019, 2], she is publicly considering to seek help from the international community, including from the United Nations and International Criminal Court (ICC) if the government won’t intervene in the extrajudicial killings committed by the police.

In response, President Duterte warned and threatened Robredo to remove her from the post if she reveals any state secrets to foreign individuals or entities concerning the “drug war”. [South China Morning Post]


12 November 2019

Philippines stamping Chinese “Nine-Dash Line” passports again

(ls) The Philippines has resumed stamping Chinese passports with pages that display a map showing Beijing’s expansive claim (the Nine-Dash Line) over the disputed South China Sea. In 2012, the Philippines had stopped stamping the passports during a months-long stand-off over a disputed shoal. Immigration officials were instead ordered to stamp a separate sheet of paper inserted into Chinese passports. The Philippines now cited “security concerns” for resuming the stamping and insisted that it was not a diplomatic retreat. [Straits Times]


12 November 2019

Philippines: Alleged suicide bombers killed

(nj) On the Philippine island of Jolo, Sulu Province, two Egyptian nationals got killed in a gunfight with Philippine troops. They had been suspected of being involved in an attempted suicide bombing with links to an ISIL-aligned group. [Al Jazeera]



12 November 2019

Philippines: Duterte offers Robredo influential position in drug war

(nj/ls) The Philippines´ President Rodrigo Duterte offered one of his main critics, Vice-President Leni Robredo, a lead position in the “drug war”. Though several of her allies advised Robredo to turn down the position of a joint chair of a panel on illegal drugs, warning that it was a trap to ensure her embarrassment and failure, she accepted the role, referring to the chance to save lives. [Reuters]



12 November 2019

Philippines: Non-governmental groups labeled as communists

(ls) The Philippines’ armed forces have designated several non-governmental groups, including the local arm of Oxfam, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) and an organization that advocates for women’s rights as fronts for “communist terrorism”. Such “red-tagging” has in the past often resulted in violent attacks and killings. The labeling practice was first introduced by Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, as a way of targeting his critics and opponents, but succeeding governments have also produced their own list of communist enemies of the state. [South China Morning Post]

In a related development, dozens of activists have been arrested over the course of the last week. All those arrested were accused of undergoing firearms and explosives training to sow discord and destabilize the government. Leftist groups had backed President Duterte in the 2016 national elections but later withdrawn their support. [Straits Times]



5 November 2019

Human rights groups criticise East Asia Summit for not including human rights issues

(jk) Rights groups criticised the state of human rights protection in Southeast Asia in particular over the weekend as they pointed out that the big summits, such as the East Asia Summit, do not include official discussions or statements on the deteriorating human rights situation in the region.

Human rights watch and other organisation expressed grave concern over the fact the Rohingya crisis, the war on drugs in the Philippines, the punishment of the LGBT community or enforced disappearances of activists were largely ignored throughout the summit. [Bangkok Post]

The Rohingya refugee crisis, although not in these terms, was mentioned at length in the final statement of the 35th ASEAN Summit however. ASEAN leaders noted their desire to

facilitate the safe, secure and dignified return displaced persons currently in Bangladesh to

Rakhine State from which they fled. [Chairman’s Statement Of The 35th ASEAN Summit] At the same time, they commended the work of AICHR, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [for background on AICHR, see this article in CPG’s COM Online Magazine 4/2019]



5 November 2019

RCEP: 15 countries (RCEP minus India) declare they have agreed and will sign in 2020

(jk) During the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) summit in Bangkok on Monday, 15 countries (The ASEAN-ten, Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) agreed to all 20 chapters of the RCEP and stated that they were “willing to sign” the deal in 2020.

All participating countries agreed to make efforts to resolve the remaining issues surrounding India’s concerns, so it too, can participate. [The Korea Herald]

Despite the positive spin on this development, it will remain a disappointment that RCEP could not be completed and signed by the end of this year as it was initially (if very optimistically) stated.

This disappointing if not entirely unexpected outcome was underscored by the US decision to downgrade US representation at the East Asia Summit, also held in Bangkok this past weekend. It was the first time since the EAS was established in 2005, that a country at the summit was represented by an official below the rank of foreign minister. Instead the US sent the new National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as the Special Envoy to the upcoming EAS and the US-ASEAN Summit. [ISEAS Commentary]


5 November 2019

Philippines: Baghdadi’s death affecting SEA, return of ISIS sympathizers 

(nj) The recent reports on the death of Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi led Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines to take precautions for possible retaliatory attacks from radical sympathizers and Southeast Asian militants returning to the region. Baghdadi’s death is a massive backlash for Isis, however, many people still believe in the ideology hoping to find a solution for their problems as economic hardships and discrimination remain.

In Isis largest attack in Southeast Asia in 2017 pro-Isis-cells and groups managed to control territory and obtain military experience for five months due to large ungoverned spaces and poorly secured areas on the southern Philippine island Mindanao. While government troops taking back control that Oct. 1.100 people were killed in the fights. Terrorist experts are therefore assuming that Isis sympathizers are likely to travel to the Philippines as a “hotbed” for terrorist and separatist groups. [The South China Morning Post]


29 October 2019

Russia boosts up Philippines’ defence industry

(nj) Less than a month after Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte´s second state visit to Russia, latest developments have revealed that defence relations between the two countries are improving. Russia is eager to provide their arms technology in order to support the Philippines in developing their own defence industry. Though some of the defence equipment might not be compatible with the ones provided by the U.S., the Philippines is likely to cooperate. [The South China Morning Post]


29 October 2019

South China Sea: Philippines lifts moratorium as Vietnam prepares for new tensions with China

(ls) The Philippines will lift a 2018 moratorium on foreign scientific research in its exclusive economic zone so it can exploit marine resources. The previous ban was issued in February 2018 on an area called the Benham Rise, which the United Nations in 2012 declared part of the Philippines’ continental shelf. This year, two Chinese research vessels were spotted in Philippine-controlled waters, which became the subject of a diplomatic protest in August. In another incident, the Philippines protested the presence of more than 100 Chinese fishing vessels. Earlier this month, however, the Philippines welcomed the Russian oil firm Rosneft to explore the waters. [Reuters 1]

Meanwhile, a Chinese oil survey vessel that has been in the center of a tense standoff with Vietnamese vessels in the South China Sea left Vietnamese-controlled waters after more than three months. According to observers, it is likely that now China will send an oil rig to drill in the area where the vessel had conducted seismic surveys in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, which could result in a sharp rise of tensions. However, also Vietnam has partnered up with Rosneft. [Reuters 2]


29 October 2019

Philippines: Mayor who is on Duterte’s “narco list” is killed

(ls) The mayor of a town in Misamis Occidental province in the Philippines was shot dead on Friday. David Navarro was killed outside the Office of the Ombudsman while in police custody and being transported to the city prosecutor’s office for inquest proceedings on an assault complaint. Navarro was tagged by President Rodrigo Duterte as a “narco-politician.” In March, Duterte released a list of 46 local government officials, including Navarro, allegedly linked to illegal drug activity. In the Philippines, local politicians and journalists are frequent victims of attacks. [PhilStar] [Rappler]


22 October 2019

Maritime terrorism in Asia: An assessment 

(ls) A paper published by the Observer Research Foundation evaluates the possibility of an increase in maritime terrorist violence in Asia. Based on an analysis of recent incidents, it argues that the vulnerability of high seas shipping to criminal acts of violence and the weak and inconsistent nature of maritime governance raises the possibility of a terrorist strike in the Asian littorals. [ORF]


22 October 2019

India and Philippines enhance navy cooperation

(ls) The Philippine Coast Guard and the Indian Navy will enhance their cooperation according to an agreement signed during the state visit of Indian President Ram Nath Kovind to the Philippines. The “Memorandum of Understanding on the Sharing of White Shipping Information” aims to facilitate the sharing of information on non-military and non-government shipping vessels. In a recent months, the Philippines have, on several occasions, blamed Chinese fishing vessels of intruding in what Manila considers its territorial waters. [Rappler]

15 October 2019

Philippines: Increased poverty due to drug war, study finds

(ls) According to a report by development researchers, hundreds of families in the Philippines have plunged deeper into poverty amid the drug war, which was launched by President Rodrigo Duterte about three years ago and in which more than 20,000 people have been killed, according to some estimates. In June 2019, the Philippine National Police put the number at 6,660. The report points out that the death of the male heads of households has reduced the families’ incomes for food, clothing, shelter and health. And it left the children at a greater “risk of child labor and exploitation”. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, President Duterte’s top police chief, General Oscar Albayalde, has been forced to resign following allegations in a Senate hearing that he intervened as a provincial police chief in 2013 to prevent his officers from being prosecuted for allegedly selling a huge quantity of seized drugs. Some of Duterte’s political opponents also claim that his son, Paolo, a congressman, and his son-in-law were involved in the shipment of narcotics to the Philippines. [Al Jazeera]

15 October 2019

Duterte, following Vietnam, invites Rosneft to explore oil and gas field in South China Sea

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has invited the Russian company Rosneft to conduct oil and gas exploration in the Philippines, including the contested South China Sea (West Philippine Sea). The development needs to be seen against the background that Russian companies, including Rosneft, are already helping Vietnam explore for oil and gas in similarly contested waters. Despite warnings from Beijing, Russian firms have not abandoned the projects. Thus, it appears that Duterte may have adopted Vietnam’s strategy in this regard. [Rappler]

8 October 2019

Philippine President Duterte visits Russia

(jk) Philippine President Duterte went to Russia last week for a five-day official visit and  meetings with the Russian President and Prime Minister. According to a spokesman, Duterte views this second visit as a “good occasion to broaden Philippines-Russia cooperation in a wide range of areas, such as trade and economics, defense and military, health, and science and technology, among others”. [Manila Bulletin]

During the visit, the two countries agreed to explore commercial aviation deals, but relations have seen an uptick in the defence sector, too. Earlier this year, two Russian warships docked in Manila and conducted joint drills with the Philippine Navy. While this was not the first ever visit by a Russian vessel to the Philippines, later in July a Philippine Navy ship sailed to Vladivostok for a naval parade in the second Philippine port call to Vladivostok after the inaugural visit in October 2018. [National Interest]


1 October 2019

South China Sea: Statements at UNGA and related developments

(ls/td) At the United Nations General Assembly, Vietnam voiced its concerns over the recent developments in the South China Sea, including incidents that Vietnam considered infringements of the country’s sovereignty. Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh said that relevant states should exercise restraint and refrain from conducting unilateral acts. [Bloomberg]

At the same time, the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin Jr. referred to a Code of Conduct (CoC) to cover disputed waters of the South China Sea which is targeted for signing in 2022 by ASEAN member states and China, as “a manual for living with a hegemon, or the care and feeding of a dragon in your living room. (…) even a good [CoC] is still a Chinese code of conduct.” At the same time, Locsin praised a “rock-solid relationship” between the US and the Philippines. [PhilStar]

Meanwhile, Singapore and the United States formally renewed an agreement of 1990, renewed once in 2005, that grants U.S. forces access to Singapore’s naval and air bases. It now runs until 2035. Despite a strong military relationship, the two countries do not refer to each other as “allies”. Neither do defense officials refer to U.S. facilities in Singapore as American bases. [South China Morning Post]

1 October 2019

Philippines: Steep rise in killings of land activists

(ls) In the Philippines, murders of environmental activists and land defenders have risen sharply since President Rodrigo Duterte took office. According to information from the NGO Global Witness, the toll was at least 113 since Duterte became president in mid-2016, while no fewer than 65 were killed in the three years before his rule. The report refers to a serious of incidents, also involving disputes over land that is used to grow fruit for multinational companies. [Straits Times]

24 September 2019

Philippines’ hedging strategy?

(jk) A couple of weeks ago, the Philippines and the US concluded this year’s Mutual Defense Board meeting, agreeing to increase joint security activities for 2020. The activities are supposed to go up from 281 planned security cooperation activities this year to “more than 300” for the next. [PhilStar]

At the same time, the Philippine army has signed a deal with a Chinese state telecommunication company that will allow communications equipment to be installed at military bases. While Duterte’s office insists that the fears are bordering on paranoia, many lawmakers and outside observers are afraid of possible espionage. [Reuters]

President Duterte’s behavior, bizarre as it at times is, is viewed by this pundit as a fairly traditional  hedging strategy, and not as bandwagoning with Beijing. [Bloomberg]

17 September 2019

South China Sea: New arrangements between Philippines/Malaysia and China

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said his that Xi Jinping has offered Manila a controlling stake in a joint energy venture in the South China Sea if it sets aside the 2016 international arbitral award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration which did not recognize the Chinese claims. Under this condition, China would agree to be the junior partner in a joint venture to develop gas deposits at the Reed Bank, located within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said that a preliminary agreement between China and the Philippines would avoid stating which country was entitled to the gas. [Reuters 1]

If the arrangement is realized, the decision will also be of relevance for Malaysia and Vietnam, who are in similar disputes with China over the extension of their EEZs. Malaysia, for its part, has agreed to set up a joint dialogue mechanism with China for the disputed parts of the South China Sea. In July, China and Malaysia already resumed construction on a train project in northern Malaysia, which is part of China’s Belt and Road plan. [Reuters 2]

17 September 2019

Philippines: Attack on newspaper’s printing house illustrates continued threat to journalists

(ls) In the latest attack against the press in the Philippines, the printing house of a leading Philippine tabloid was stormed and burned by armed men. The incident is the first attack of its kind on a news outfit in recent history. Most attacks against Philippine media have been focused on journalists themselves, including legal cases, bans, harassment, and killings. [Rappler]

The Philippines was placed 134th out of 180 countries this year on the World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders. In 2018, the country ranked 133rd. According to a report released by various Philippine-based media groups, there have been 128 cases of attacks and threats against Philippine press from 30 June 2016 to 30 April 2019. [PhilStar]

17 September 2019

Philippines will not allow U.N. “bastards” to investigate drug war

(ls) The Philippines will not allow visits by United Nations representatives to investigate its bloody war on drugs. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. called the human rights experts “bastards” who had already demonstrated prejudice. The United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution in July to compile a comprehensive report on President Rodrigo Duterte’s three-year crackdown, during which thousands of people have been killed. The International Criminal Court is also currently conducting a preliminary investigation into the killings that could amount to crimes against humanity. [Reuters]

10 September 2019

China offers funds for Philippines infrastructure drive

(jd) As China-Philippine relations continue to sour over China’s increased presence along the disputed islets in the South China Sea, China has pledged to help fund a $169 billion infrastructure renewal drive.

This offer comes a week after Philippine President Duterte met with Chinese President Xi and Chinese Premier Li. During the meeting, Xi also mentioned that this should be accompanied with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. [VOA News] [AiR 36, September/2019, 1]

10 September 2019

Philippines: Rebels hand in armory according to Muslim peace deal

(jd) Muslim rebels from the southern Philippines officially began handing their guns to independent foreign monitors as per a peace treaty aimed at ending the decades-long Muslim insurgency in the country’s south. The peace treaty aims at transitioning the Moro Islamic Liberation Front from one of the country’s largest insurgency forces into a regular political party. 

The first phase of the decommissioning process is expected to see a third of the forces retiring. [Channel News Asia] President Duterte has also reassured that the government is ready to assist in the decommissioning process, as well as reintegration process for the fighters. [CNN Philippines]

Meanwhile, a bomb blast, occurring hours before the decommissioning process began, adds another incident in the country’s recent surge of bombings. It has wounded at least eight people. [South China Morning Post]

3 September 2019

Philippines and China agree to put aside South China Sea dispute as Duterte meets Xi

(ls) On the occasion of the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte visiting China’s Xi Jinping in Beijing, the two leaders agreed to continue dialogue, work on a code of conduct for the South China Sea by 2021 and operationalize a joint oil exploration deal. Regarding the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 decision, rejecting China’s wide-reaching claims over parts of the South China Sea, Duterte told Xi that the ruling was “final, binding and not subject to appeal”. Xi, however, reiterated China’s decision to ignore it. [Straits Times 1]

The two presidents eventually “agreed that while their variant positions will have to remain,” they should not derail the “amity” between their two countries. [Rappler]

Despite Duterte’s strategy of rapprochement over the recent years, Sino-Philippine relations suffered a major blow in June after a suspected Chinese militia vessel sunk a Filipino fishing boat in the Reed Bank, followed in recent weeks by growing incursions by Chinese surveillance vessels and warships into Philippine waters. Ahead of Duterte’s visit, however, China eased bilateral tensions by issuing a formal apology for the incident. [Straits Times 2]

The two sides are currently exploring a two-track approach, exploring first a non-controversial deal in “undisputed” areas as a confidence-building measure towards a brokering a more contentious deal in areas of overlapping claims, particularly the energy-rich Reed Bank. Under a service contract, the Philippines would retain sovereignty to the maritime area and reap 60% of the project’s profits. [Asia Times]

Date of AiR edition

News summary

Web links

16 July 2019

UNHCR passes resolution to investigate Philippines’ drug war

(jd) Last week, Iceland submitted a proposal to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) calling for an international probe into Duterte’s drug war. [AiR 9/7/2019] Amnesty International followed, releasing a report urging the UNHRC for an investigation into the “gross human rights violations” and “possible crimes against humanity” committed under the anti-drug campaign. [Amnesty International] The report additionally doubts the credibility of police reports of drug raids, as well as the legitimacy of ‘watch lists’, which lists drug suspects. [Associate Press]

In a vote on Thursday, the UNHRC narrowly passed Iceland’s resolution, authorizing a “comprehensive” report to be submitted within the following year. While not a full-fledged international probe, the report paves the way for greater accountability on the part of the Philippine government as it allows for the international community to implement tougher follow-up actions should abuses continue. This result comes despite the Philippine delegation’s intense lobbying against the resolution, which the local government deems “hostile”. [The New York Times]

The Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Locsin rejected the resolution, calling it “one-sided” and “detached from the truth”. He further hinted at Philippines’ withdrawal from the UNHRC as a protest against the resolution, contradicting an earlier statement promising Philippines’ compliance with the investigation because of its dedication to human rights. [The Philippines Star] [The Guardian

16 July 2019

First Philippine suicide bomber confirmed

(jd) At the end of June, two suspected suicide bombers detonated a bomb in front of a military base in southern Philippines, resulting in at least eight dead. [Manila Bulletin] DNA tests now helped Philippine security forces confirm that the attack was conducted by a Filipino suicide bomber. Being the first case of a suicide attack conducted by a local, the attack marks an escalation in the use of force by Islamic militant groups in the country, revealing the Islamic State’s rising influence in Southeast Asia. [Channel News Asia] [The Straits Times]

16 July 2019

Philippines: Clooney joins international legal team defending Maria Ressa

(ls/jd) As Maria Ressa, the CEO and executive editor of the Philippine independent news website Rappler, faces several lawsuits for cyber libel, security fraud and tax evasion, she was now able to secure international legal counsel from Amal Clooney and a colleague, who specialize in international law and human rights. Clooney also defended two Reuters journalists jailed for more than 16 months in Myanmar and freed in May. [Rappler]

Since the beginning of the year, Ressa has posted bail eight times and has been arrested twice. Her first arrest was on the grounds of cyber libel in relation to a 2012 story linking a Philippine businessman to illegal drug trade and human trafficking. Her second arrest is on the charges of a violation against a ban on foreign media ownership. These arrests have been criticized by the international community to be a part of a broader clampdown on news media under Duterte’s administration. [The New York Times] [Philippine Star]

Illustrating the general level of violence against reporters, gunmen shot dead a radio station manager in Kidapawan City, a day after another station manager from the same network was hit by human waste in nearby Cotabato City. The victim, who anchored a commentary program in the same station, was the 14th journalist killed under the current administration. Since 1992, at least 80 journalists have been killed in the Philippines, with 66 of the victims murdered with impunity. [Inquirer]

Moreover, Indonesian police have arrested a member of the Muslim Cyber Army, a self-proclaimed cyber-jihadist network, for spreading fake news and hate speech via social media. [South China Morning Post]

2 July 2019

Terrorism: Attack at Philippine military base; arrests in Indonesia

(cl/ls) According to the Philippines Army, the bomb that killed eight people at a military base in southern Philippines on Friday was likely a suicide bombing. [Arab News] The prime suspect is Abu Sayyaf, a militant group that President Duterte had vowed to crush after decades of banditry, kidnapping and countless attacks on civilian and military targets. Radical factions of Abu Sayyaf have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who through its news agency, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying its fighters had infiltrated the base. [Rappler]

If these suspicions are confirmed, this would be the Philippines’ third suicide bombing in a year, which all occurred in Abu Sayyaf’s stronghold and includes a twin bombing of a church in January. In response, the director has stepped up security and policing efforts in Metro Manila, placing the entire region under a “full alert status” despite detecting no threats within the national capital. [Philippine Star]

In Indonesia, a man believed to be the top leader of the Southeast Asia terror group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) was arrested in a West Java province after a 16-year long hunt. [Straits Times] The JI network is affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The network was behind Indonesia’s most deadly attack in Bali in 2002 and the 2009 attacks on the JW Marriot and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta. [The Diplomat]

Although the group was initially believed to have been decimated in Indonesia following a series of operations by security agencies, counter-terrorism experts had warned that young militants were being recruited and hat the JI network in the country may have expanded to become a 200-strong force.

Moreover, Indonesian police have arrested a member of the Muslim Cyber Army, a self-proclaimed cyber-jihadist network, for spreading fake news and hate speech via social media. [South China Morning Post]

2 July 2019

Duterte backtracks on statement that China can fish in Philippines’ exclusive waters

(cl) On Friday, Philippines’ President Duterte walked back statements that China could fish in Philippine waters after he was accused of waiving his country’s rights to its territories, which his critics say exposes him to impeachment. His remarks came as debates raged over the sinking early this month of a small Philippine fishing boat by a steel-hulled Chinese trawler. [Straits Times] The Philippines President has also threatened opponents with prison if they try to impeach him. [Reuters]

Previously on Wednesday, Duterte said that China could fish in parts of the South China Sea where the Philippines holds exclusive rights, claiming that he was giving China this “privilege” out of friendship, and for the funding and trade relations it extended to his government. [Bloomberg]

Despite Duterte’s reassurance that he would not yield his country’s sovereignty, government officials warned that allowing China to fish in Philippines’ exclusive economic zone violates the Constitution. In particular, a top court judge said that Duterte does not have the authority to waive economic rights to areas that can be utilised only by Filipinos under the Constitution. [Inquirer.Net]

Previously, Senators had objected to Duterte’s decision to agree to China’s suggestion for a joint inquiry into the June 9 ramming incident. A presidential spokesperson said Duterte agreed to China’s proposal for a joint inquiry only with the help of a “neutral country”. [Straits Times]

11 June 2019

Philippines assails United Nations rights exports for “unpardonable intrusions”

(cl) On Sunday, the Philippine government assailed UN human rights experts for their “unpardonable intrusions” into the country’s sovereignty after they called for an investigation into alleged unlawful killings brought about by President Duterte’s drug war. UN human rights experts, in a statement released last Friday, said it was time for the UN Human Rights Council to take action against “sustained attacks on people and institutions defending human rights” in the Philippines because the government has failed to address the issue. [New York Times] Since 2016, more than 5,000 suspected drug pushers and addicts have been killed in police operations under the government’s aggressive campaign against illegal drugs. The presidential spokesman stressed that Mr Duterte’s war on drugs was pursuant to the primary duty of the state to protect the people, rejecting the UN human rights experts’ allegations. Mr Duterte added that he never ordered police to kill suspects in his campaign against illegal drugs, but merely called for police to “destroy the apparatus of the drug organisation”. [Aljazeera]

11 June 2019

Gay rights in focus in the Philippines

(cl) President Duterte has a wavering record when it comes to gay rights. While he voiced support for same sex marriage during his campaign for president in 2016, he is notorious for his foul-mouthed speeches that include insults, threats to perceived enemies and references to rape that he casts as jokes. In his subsequent three years as president, he has frequently invoked homosexuality as an insult, using it to describe Communist rebels, Catholic priests and the former United States ambassador to his country. [The Times] However, at the same time, Mr Duterte has expressed other views that have won him support from Filipino gay rights activists, and is also critical of the country’s powerful Roman Catholic Church. The Philippines has a reputation for openness towards homosexuality, but watchdogs warn legal protections are lacking. [New York Times]

In a recent appearance before the Filipino community in Tokyo last week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sparked outrage after claiming that he “cured” himself of being gay with the help of beautiful women. [The Sun] The World Health Organisation stopped classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder almost 30 years ago. [South China Morning Post]


4 June 2019

Philippines, Japan urge cool heads to prevail in trade and South China Sea as tensions escalate

(cl) At a recent conference in Japan themed “Seeking a New Global Order – Overcoming the Chaos”, looking at the deepening global uncertainties as well as military and security tensions in technology and the South China Sea, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte voiced his exasperation with China as he urged her to quickly conclude a code of conduct on the South China Sea with ASEAN. He stated that the South China Sea is on the verge of becoming a “flashpoint for trouble”, given the arms race under way with a military build-up of Chinese ships and those from the West. [Channel News Asia] Previously, Beijing and ASEAN had tried to hammer out a code of conduct to govern the disputed waters, however, the process has been slow. [South China Morning Post]

Mr Duterte, aiming to attract trade and investment from the Asian superpower, mostly withheld his early criticism of Beijing’s expansive claims to the sea. However, in April, he had warned Beijing to not intrude on a disputed island in the sea, implying the possibility of military action otherwise. In a major victory for Manila, an international maritime tribunal had ruled that China’s claims to the area have no legal basis. However, he has largely set aside that ruling and backed off on their once tense territorial dispute, prompting criticism at home that he has been soft on China. [Reuters]

28 May 2019

Philippines bans official travels to Canada over garbage spat

(cl) The Philippines government has confirmed on Sunday that it has banned all government officials and employees from making official trips to Canada, a move that the country is serious in diminishing diplomatic relations with Canada over a trash dispute. [Rappler] The memorandum issued by the Executive Secretary further directed heads of Philippines government agencies to reduce official interaction with representatives of the Canadian government. [The Philippine Star]

In an apparent move to avoid the deterioration of diplomatic ties with the Philippines, Canada said last Thursday that it was ready to ship back the trash, which has been rotting for up to six years in two Philippine ports, by end of June, but Manila rejected the offer and declared that the country will ship back the trash immediately by itself. [Canada’s National Observer]

28 May 2019

Militants attack soldiers in southern Philippines, leaving two children dead

(cl) Six Abu Sayyaf militants were killed in a gun battle last Saturday in a remote village in Jolo in the Philippines. Five soldiers and two civilians were wounded. [Benar News] The soldiers had been sent to the area, where local Islamist insurgencies have long battled the state, to discuss development projects with village elders. According to Commander of the Joint Task Force, the militants were trying to keep the government from establishing a stronger presence in the area. [New York Times]

This battle came five months after an Abu Sayyaf faction bombed a cathedral in Jolo, killing 23 people and wounding about 100. The church had been a frequent target of militants, some of whom pledged allegiance to ISIS. President Rodrigo Duterte had since deployed additional forces in the region to search for the perpetrators of the church attack. [BBC News]

19 March 2019

Philippines officially leaves International Criminal Court

(ls/zf) Within two weeks after Malaysia became the 124th country to join the International Criminal Court (ICC), the Philippines have officially left the institution. The Philippine government had notified the United Nations Secretary General of its withdrawal last year, but it takes a full 12 months to become effective, barring any new developments in the process. This week the Philippine Supreme Court shut the door on any reversal on president Rodrigo Duterte’s decision by refusing to overrule his directive. [New York Times]

With that said, there is little evidence that the withdraw announcement has been a broadly popular move. Indeed, it has been widely condemned by a diverse set of players and institutions, including those who represent both domestic and international interests. Internationally, some organizations urged the U.N. Human Rights Council to intervene in order to keep a spotlight on any suspected abuses and extrajudicial killings that might occur under the guise of anti-drug crackdowns. [Rappler]

The ICC is the only permanent international body with the proper resources, institutional capacity, and clout to investigate such allegations. It had been in the process of making preliminary investigations into claims of crimes against humanity against Duterte and his administration in the run up to the decision. [Amnesty International] [Al Jazeera]

In a CPG video special, Lasse Schuldt and Phongchisanu Sakkiettibutra discuss current issues related to the International Criminal Court in Southeast Asia and beyond. [YouTube]

19 March 2019

Philippines: Rodrigo Duterte announces “Narco List” including several political rivals

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday publicly named 46 government officials, including three congressmen, he said are involved in illegal drugs, and added that criminal investigations against them are underway. The officials have so far not been found guilty by court verdicts, but Duterte cited his “trust in government agencies”. Coincidentally, many of the officials, including 33 mayors, eight vice mayors and three members of the House of Representatives, are running in mid-term elections in May. Since Duterte became president in 2016, between 5,000 to 20,000 people have been subject to extrajudicial killings in a “war on drugs”. [South China Morning Post]

19 March 2019

Philippines: Senate to investigate water shortages in Manila

(zf) The Philippine Senate is set to investigate severe water shortages that have affected large swaths of Manila and a nearby province. A spokesman for a local water company that is in charge of regulating water-usage in the areas claimed over six million people will be affected until the return of the rainy season in May and June, which should refill water reservoirs. Under current plans, water will be turned off for these populations for six hours each day in order to make attempts to save and properly distribute a weakened supply across the affected areas. As the companies which run the water supply are sanctioned by the government, many residents have laid the blame on official mismanagement. [South China Morning Post] [Bloomberg]

19 March 2019

The role of the Catholic Church in Philippine politics

(ls) Whereas today, the Catholic Church in the Philippines is rather clear about its role in politics – bishops and priests have the moral duty to speak, but they should leave partisan politics to the laity – there have been times in Philippine history, when the Catholic hierarchy flexed political muscles. Rappler takes an exciting look at the past and present role of the Church in Philippine politics. [Rappler]

11 March 2019

Philippines: Changes to Filipino work policy regarding both foreign in-country workers and domestic workers abroad

(zf) According to an official statement made by the Philippine’s Department of Labor and Employment, foreign workers will be required to secure a work visa prior to their employment in-country. The government says the move is intended to help curb high levels of illegal immigration, and especially those who overstay tourist visas and work undocumented. The new requirements will also stipulate that the employer must be able to demonstrate that the potential employee will assume a role unable to be filled by Filipinos. [Philippine Star]

In related news, it was announced that Manila plans to cut back the number of domestic skilled workers that are eligible for foreign employment by as much as 90%. The policy change will be enacted as a move meant to reduce labor-shortage problems in a fast-moving economy, and as a means to promote Duterte Administration “Build, Build, Build” initiatives that look to keep the fast-moving construction boom moving apace. The new rules will especially effect workers in the infrastructure sector, including those in construction, architecture, and engineering. [Gulf News]

11 March 2019

Philippines: Drug war in the spotlight as midterm elections draw near

(zf) As the Filipino midterms slated for May draw near, President Rodrigo Duterte is highlighting his hardline—and often violent—policy against the illegal drug trade. In the latest move, Duterte has vowed to publicly expose elected officials who he alleges are complicit in the trade. The statement, however, has garnered a backlash among some observers who claim that it would be a threat against the basic rights of accused individuals, and especially due to the threat of violence against the accused, irrespective of whether that person might stand trial for alleged crimes. These concerns are not without merit, as three out of the nine mayors and vice mayors murdered by vigilantes in the country last year were accused of participating in the drug trade. Duterte claims that the public’s right to know outweighs concerns over the individual rights of the accused. However, that view doesn’t seem to be the consensus view in Manila, and already there has been some walking-back of the potential announcement, with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency chief expressing doubt over the utility of divulging the names of suspected persons before thorough investigations are complete. Over the course of his term, Duterte has made the drug scourge a defining issue of his presidency, and has repeatedly vowed to rid the country of those who are a part of it. As the midterms move closer, it is expected that Duterte continue to emphasize what he perceives to be substantial anti-narco accomplishments. [NPR]

11 March 2019

South China Sea tensions: Vietnam, Philippines, US, China

(jk) Tensions have gone up again this past week with regards to the South China Sea. Vietnam is investigating the sinking of a fishing vessel, which according to a local rescue agency was rammed by a Chinese vessel causing it to sink. The incident happened near the Paracel islands, claimed by both Vietnam and China [NewsCorpAustralia]. The reports have not been confirmed by the Chinese side, instead there was a claim that a Chinese vessel had approached the sunken ship after it capsized and issued a distress call. According to some experts, (ramming) incidents like this happen regularly but are rarely reported widely in the international news media [VOA].

In the Philippines, the focus was on US Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit after the Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana has repeatedly said that the mutual defense treaty between the two countries would need to be reviewed. There is not only the questions of whether the US would come to the Philippines defence in the case of a war over South China Sea features, but also vice-versa, so whether it is wise for the Philippines to being bound to come to the US’ help should they be involved in a shooting war in the region. [Stripes]

Pompeo during his visit, gave assurance in Manila on the applicability of the treaty to Philippine forces in the South China Sea. “China’s island building and military activities in the South China Sea threaten sovereignty [of the Philippines], security and therefore economic livelihood, as well as that of the United States”. He went on to say that “as the South China Sea is part of the Pacific, any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea will trigger mutual defense obligations under Article 4 of our mutual defense treaty”. [Rappler] The Chinese ambassador in the meantime assured that the People’s Republic of China was not out to attack anyone in the South China Sea, stressing that the PRC is seeking peace and stability but they were worried about attacks from “the other side”. [Manila Times]

11 March 2019

Philippines: Extremist foothold remains stubborn scourge in the restive south despite ISIS failures in the Middle East

(zf) As ISIS continues to haemorrhage territory and influence in the Middle East, some areas in the southern Philippines remain stubborn hotspots of extremist ideology. Despite concerns from analysts and observers, however, the government has mostly sought to downplay the issue, claiming that the groups consist of misguided and disillusioned young people, not international terrorists. The reality is much more complicated: reporting has confirmed the existence of international money and personnel flows among the groups, and some openly display the ISIS flag while claiming to be members of ISIS’ East Asia province. This piece gives some background information on these issues, highlighting the different reactions and responses to the scourge of Filipino extremism. [New York Times]

4 March 2019

Philippines: Ressa’s trial postponed after motioned filed to dismiss libel case

(zf) Maria Ressa, an outspoken critic of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and founder of the independent newspaper Rappler, filed a motion this week to dismiss the controversial libel case that has been brought against her by the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation. As a result of the motion, Ms. Ressa’s court date has been postponed in order to give the prosecution enough time to respond.

Since her arrest last month, Ressa has been consistent that the case is politically motivated, even going as far to say that the government is sending a signal to Rappler because it does not like its reporting. The developments come amid an international spotlight on the state of press freedom, especially as a result of incidents in Myanmar and Saudi Arabia. It could take up to 30 days for the courts to consider Ms. Ressa’s motion. [CNN]

4 March 2019

Philippines: President Duterte vetoes bill on children’s rights

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has vetoed a bill that would have banned physical, humiliating, or degrading acts of punishment or discipline by parents or teachers on children. The bill took more than ten years to pass in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Duterte said that his country should resist trends in Western nations. Last month, the House passed a controversial bill lowering the minimum age of criminal liability to 12. That bill still awaits approval by the Senate. [Straits Times]


4 March 2019

Philippines: U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo visits Manila, promises support in the South China Sea

(zf) U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a scheduled trip to Manila this week to discuss relations between the two allied nations, and especially concerns over continued Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. In the meeting, it was reported that Secretary Pompeo assured officials that the Trump Administration would provide Manila military support if under attack by Chinese vessels, as well as promising to ensure that the maritime region stayed open for international trade and commercial transit. He emphasized that any forceful aggression toward Philippine assets would result in the triggering of mutual defense treaties.

In response to Mr. Pompeo’s statements, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman reiterated the Chinese view that their vessels are there to maintain territorial sovereignty and that the U.S. and other foreign ships should have no trouble in the region as long as they refrain from starting trouble. [Guardian] [The Hill]

The treaty emphasized by Pompeo is a 68-year old Mutual Defense Treaty between the two countries stating that an attack on one of the signatories should be considered an attack on the other. Interestingly, however, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has been openly dismissive of U.S. support on the international stage in the past. Several years ago Duterte announced an intended military and economic separation from the U.S.; he has publicly commented on a loss of faith in America on several occasions. With that said, some analysts emphasize that besides the bluster, Duterte has made little substantive efforts to seriously hurt the relationship.

For example, despite threats to scrap treaties like the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that gives the U.S. authority to construct facilities on Filipino army bases, the status quo largely remains in place. While some have criticized Duterte’s handling of affairs in the South China Sea as too friendly to Chinese interests, others argue that his statements should be seen a balancing act that reflects the changing nature of hegemonic power in the region: as the economic rise of China becomes more alluring and difficult to ignore, it may be in the Philippines’ best interest to try and deflect the wrath of Beijing while being careful not to totally marginalize its relationship with the U.S. for security reasons. [Rappler] [Philippine Star]