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PH military grappling with insurgency amid China tension

AFP chief General Emmanuel Bautista leads a closed-door command conference with senior military leaders to discuss the country's security environment

COMMAND CONFERENCE: Armed Forces chief General Emmanuel Bautista leads a command conference with senior mlitary leaders. Photo from the Armed Forces of the Philippines

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine military has declared it will shift its focus to territorial defense as tension from maritime disputes with China is fast escalating. It is proving to be a difficult task, however.

The military continues to grapple with insurgency at home, especially with the communist Left, which recently declared it is abandoning peace talks with the government.

Armed Forces of the Philippines chief General Emmanuel Bautista on Friday, January 17, led a closed-door command conference with senior military leaders to discuss the country’s security environment. They discussed both the internal and external security environments, according to military spokesperson Major General Domingo Tutaan.

The AFP vows to “vigorously conduct internal peace and security operations” to meet the objectives of IPSP (Internal Peace and Security Plan) Bayanihan. “We must consolidate our gains and sustain our momentum. In the face of any challenge, the cohesiveness of the entire AFP will always be our best assurance,” Bautista said in a statement.

Citing national security, he refused to discuss external security issues.

China has a new law requiring foreigners to seek its permission if they want to fish in certain areas that include the West Philippine Sea. This happened after China angered Japan over its Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) requiring foreign aircraft to also seek its permission if they fly over an area that includes Japanese-controlled islands. 

The Philippines declared it is ignoring China’s fishing rules. Security officials committed to escort local fishermen “if necessary.” (READ: Ignore China’s fishing rules, PH military chief tells local fishermen and PH security forces to escort fishermen ‘if necessary’)

NPA the biggest threat

The New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines CPP), remains the biggest threat. “The CPP-NPA is still the most potent challenge,” Tutaan said.

Asia’s longest-running insurgency in Asia celebrated its 45th anniversary in December 2013. Unofficial estimates put the NPA’s numbers to “less than 4,000” following the “neutralization” (deaths, arrests, or surrenders) of 824 members last year. 

INSURGENCY-FREE: Armed Forces chief Gen Emmanuel Bautista signs a MOA turning over security operations to Pampanga Governor Lilia Pineda. Photo by Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler

The military claims it’s making headway in achieving its goal to make insurgency irrelevant by 2016 even as the communist rebels have abandoned peace talks under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III and threatened to grow their numbers back to 25,000.

“It is a dream,” said Tutaan. (READ: CPP gives up on peace talks, calls for Aquino ouster)

Pampanga was declared “insurgency-free” on January 15, Wednesday. It is the 43rd province and the last of the 22 provinces under the Northern Luzon Command (Nolcom) to be declared insurgency-free.

Security operations have become the concern of the police. A total of 75 provinces used to have insurgency problems. 

It’s a symbolic declaration for the military because the rebellion is rooted in Pampanga. The Hukbalahap communist rebels fought government forces after World War II. 

“The insurgency was rooted here. We were able to show that we can change the situation here,” Bautista told local stakeholders during the signing of the memorandum of agreement there. 

Bautista also highlighted the national importance of the peace situation there. It is near business centers in Subic, near the expressways, and very near the country capital.

The phrase “insurgency-free” tag is making others uncomfortable, however, because it might only invite “NPA remnants” to attack the province.

The NPA activities have been concentrated in Eastern Mindanao, according to Eastern Mindanao Command (Eastmincom) chief Major Ricardo Rainer Cruz III. He estimated the NPA presence in his area at 2,000 fighters, or around half of the current strength of the movement. 

Other threats

The other threats to the country’s internal security include the following:

  • Rogue Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) members, a bulk of whom the military clashed with in the September 2013 Zamboanga City Crisis. The military claims it is confident the rebels were diminished, following the death of 200, capture of 270, and surrender of 24.
  • Abu Sayyaf Group
  • Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that opposes the ongoing peace negotations with the Philippine government
  • Royal Security Force of the late Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III. The group figured in a standoff in Sabah in March 2013. Kiram has since died but the fighters are facing criminal charges in Malaysia and Sabah

Elite anti-terror troops

Learning from the lessons of the Zamboanga siege, the military has increased its elite anti-terror Light Reaction troops from a battalion of about 300 troops to a regiment of less than 1,000 troops. (READ: PH to double size of elite anti-terror troops)

ELITE TROOPS: The Light Reaction troops grow into a regiment. Photo by Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler

“We can use them in several operations. We do not need a big deployment but we can have at least one anti-terrorist unit in every major area or major region. We should have units in Visayas and Mindanao so we won’t need to move them when needed,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told reporters during the activation program of the Light Reaction Regiment (LRR). 

The LRR will deal with terrorist groups like the Abu Sayyaf, rogue MNLF, and possible foreign terrorist personalities in the country, said Gazmin.

As the name connotes, they move with speed and carry only the most essential weapons with them. They are trained to clear buildings. They are experts in counter-sniper tactics. They can fight in total darkness using modern gadgets and equipment.

The troops were originally trained by the Americans after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks and started as a Light Reaction Company of two dozen troops.

Gazmin said they are not discounting the possiblity that urban warfare like the Zamboanga siege will happen again. –

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