Asia in Review Archive (2018)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

Web links

4 December 2018

Philippines: First conviction of police officers in drug war

(ls) A Philippine court sentenced three police officers to up to 40 years in prison for the murder of a 17-year-old high school student, the first to be convicted in President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war which has seen close to 5,000 people dead in police anti-drugs operations. However, unofficial estimates are significantly higher. Duterte’s government has repeatedly said there was no declared policy to kill drug users and pushers. [Reuters]

The boy’s death in August last year sparked calls for a tougher stand against Duterte’s drug war. Senators crossed party lines to investigate the killing. Human rights activists and church leaders mobilized rallies to draw public attention to allegations that police officers had been systematically executing suspected drug users and dealers. The outrage made Duterte withdraw the police from the drug war. However, three months later, he put them back on duty. [Straits Times]

4 December 2018

Editor of critical Philippine news website Rappler faces criminal charges

(ls) The editor of the Philippine online news site Rappler, Maria Ressa, turned herself over to the authorities at a regional trial court in Manila and was released on bail. The Department of Justice has filed five cases of violation of the Tax Code 1gainst Rappler Holdings Corporation and Ressa in relation to the funds it raised through Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) in 2015. Earlier this year, the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission had temporarily revoked Rappler’s registration for allegedly violating foreign ownership rules. Rappler and Ressa have been vocal in holding the Duterte administration to account, particularly over the deadly war on drugs which has claimed thousands of lives in the Philippines. [South China Morning Post] [Rappler]

4 December 2018

Philippines: Military and police recommend extension of martial law in Mindanao

(ls) The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) are likely to recommend extending martial law in Mindanao for another year. President Rodrigo Duterte has been waiting for the recommendation of the police and the military before he decides to ask Congress for a third extension of martial law in Mindanao. The extension of martial law is considered necessary by both military and police in order to secure two big events in Mindanao for 2019: the Bangsamoro Organic Law plebiscite in January, and elections in May. [Rappler]

27 November 2018

China-Philippine relations: South China Sea oil and gas agreement signed

(dql) Deepening the relations between China and the Philippines, both sides signed a memorandum of understanding on joint oil and gas development in the West Philippine Sea during President Xi Jinping’s Xi state visit last week. Beijing announced that it is ready to enter into a 60-40 joint exploration arrangement, with Manila receiving 60% of the oil and natural gas deposits and Beijing obtaining the remaining 40 percent. The MoU was one of 29 agreements aimed at boosting cooperation in trade and investment, infrastructure, agriculture, education, culture, as well as people-to-people exchanges. [Sunstar]

For the text of the MoU see [Rappler].

Meanwhile, recent satellite images show that China has installed a new platform on a remote part of the Paracel Islands which could be used for military purposes, according to the think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies which reviewed the images. [Reuters]

20 November 2018

Imelda Marcos granted bail after corruption conviction

(ls) Former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos, 89, was granted bail after convincing a court to defer her arrest following her conviction a week ago on seven counts of corruption, with the jail sentences adding up to 77 years (see last week’s AiR). The move leaves her free to prepare for what could be a lengthy legal challenge but might further fuel criticism of special treatment for a politically influential family. Her late husband, Ferdinand Marcos, ruled the Philippines for two decades, mostly under martial law during which thousands of opponents were persecuted, and billions of dollars were allegedly looted. The family was forced to leave the country in a 1986 popular uprising, but returned from exile after the former president’s death, and re-entered politics in the 1990s. [Straits Times]

The conviction is unprecedented in the Philippines. The South China Morning Post provides detailed accounts of the charges and the persons persecuted in this affair. [South China Morning Post]

13 November 2018

Philippines: News site Rappler to be charged with tax evasion

(jk) The Philippine Justice Department is to charge investigative news site Rappler with tax evasion. The news site is critical towards the Presidency of Rodrigo Duterte and to critical observers, the latest developments are all but a thinly veiled attempt to stifle press freedom. [BBC I]

Earlier this year, Rappler already faced problems including the temporary revocation of its registration for it had allegedly violated the country’s constitution over foreign ownership rules.

Rappler’s CEO denies the charges, saying they are intended to “intimidate and harass” journalists. If found guilty, she could be fined and face up to 10 years in jail. [BBC II]

13 November 2018

Philippine court orders arrest of Imelda Marcos for corruption

(jk) Sitting congresswoman and widow of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, now 89 years old, was sentenced to serve 6 to 11 years in prison for each of seven counts of violating an anti-corruption law in the 1970s as Metropolitan Manila governor.

Although the court disqualified her from public office, she can remain a member of the House of Representatives while appealing the decision. She has also registered to run for election next year to replace her daughter as governor. President Duterte has close ties with the Marcos family and has often spoken about the former strongman in positive terms. Should Marcos be convicted, he could issue a pardon. [SCMP]

13 November 2018

Philippines: Islamic State fighters rise again on Mindanao island

(jk) In May 2017, the city of Marawi was taken over by Isis fighters and it took the army five-month of fighting, with 1,200 lives lost, to regain control. Recent estimates show that once again, a relatively high number of fighters are assembling in the area.

Mindanao Island has long been a centre for Islamist militant groups and after 2014, a number of groups, including Abu Sayyaf formed a pro-Isis coalition. According to experts, “Foreign fighters are in the Philippines because they consider the country, particularly Mindanao, as a safe haven, alternative home base and a new land of jihad”. “ They train and learn from local fighters. They provide funds. They provide a global support network.” [The Guardian]

13 November 2018

Philippine navy for more engagements with China and Russia

(jk) After the conclusion of maritime drills between China’s and the Southeast Asian countries’ navies off the Chinese coast in October, the Philippine navy expressed interest in further cooperation with both China and Russia [Xinuha]. As for Russia, it was said the Navy is considering sending another ship to Russia after a successful first port visit to Vladivostok. [Mania Bulletin]

13 November 2018

Philippine – China joint development in the South China Sea?

(jk) Ahead of the scheduled state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping this month, the Philippine government is discussing to lift a moratorium on gas and oil exploration in the South China Sea. [Phil Star]

Experts however, see a concluding deal a long way off and find it more likely that during Xi’s visit there will only be a general statement without legal and implementation details. The Philippine constitution is one obstacle, for it states that “production costs are born 100 per cent by the contractor, zero per cent by the Philippines; while ownership of resources remains 100 per cent owned by the Philippines.”  These will not be acceptable conditions to the PRC and a swift conclusion of a deal is therefore unlikely. [SCMP]

6 November 2018

China and Japan competing over infrastructure investments in the Philippines

(jk) President Duterte, who wants to significantly increase infrastructure spending, is looking to both Japan and China for investment. Both have pledged to help the Philippines build new railways. While China has expressed willingness to bankroll long haul railway projects, the Philippines and Japan early this year signed a loan agreement for the construction of the Philippines’ first subway in Manila. [PhilStar]

6 November 2018

The Growing Role of the Military in Counter-Terrorism in Southeast Asia

(jk) In many Southeast Asian countries, but in particular Indonesia and the Philippines, the military has been heavily involved and supported law-enforcement agencies in combating terrorism. This happens due to lack of capacity and an increasing urgency to combat terrorism with IS attacks in Indonesia and the Marwai siege in the Philippines. While the Indonesian military (TNI) had lost much of its role in fighting internal security threats following the end of the Suharto administration, new pressures are bringing the TNI back to the fore. Whilst their capacity is welcomed in a government sanctioned fight against terrorism, concerns about past abuses of human rights by the military are valid and relevant. [ISEAS]

6 November 2018

New Mandala Podcast Series

(jk) New Mandala has this year begun recording regular podcasts with experts on many issues relating to Southeast Asia. There is for example a very interesting “Philippines beyond the Clichés” series, discussing issues such as Catholicism, crime, dynasties and beauty in the Philippines. [New Mandala]

30 October 2018

Philippines-China “backdoor diplomacy”

(jk) Ahead of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first-ever state visit to the Philippines, China’s State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited the country. In a slightly unusual move however, he went to the hometown of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Davao City, rather than Manila, where he was talking about infrastructure projects and a possible joint exploration agreement in the South China Sea with cabinet ministers and Duterte himself. [Rappler]

Going to the Philippines’ “alternative capital” when it comes to Philippines-China relations, despite unusual at first glance, is not that surprising after all if one considers that Davao has welcomed Chinese warships and aircraft visits and stop-overs previously, notably without formal defence agreement between Manila and Beijing. According to one Philippines observer, Duterte is “running his government’s China relations through his hometown of Davao, away from the prying eyes of opposition critics and a suspicious defense establishment”. [ATimes]

President Xi himself is expected to visit the country next month after the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ meeting in Papua New Guinea. He might unveil some of the projects and investments that may have been pre-negotiated with Wang Yi in the past days. [ABS-CBN]

30 October 2018

Philippines: News site Rappler to be charged with tax evasion

(jk) The Philippine Justice Department is to charge investigative news site Rappler with tax evasion. The news site is critical towards the Presidency of Rodrigo Duterte and to critical observers, the latest developments are all but a thinly veiled attempt to stifle press freedom. [BBC I]

Earlier this year, Rappler already faced problems including the temporary revocation of its registration for it had allegedly violated the country’s constitution over foreign ownership rules.

Rappler’s CEO denies the charges, saying they are intended to “intimidate and harass” journalists. If found guilty, she could be fined and face up to 10 years in jail. [BBC II]

23 October 2018

Family clans striving for power in the Philippines

(ls) Imee Marcos, Ferdinand Marcos’ eldest daughter, began her bid to secure a Senate seat, which she is likely to win, to solidify her family’s political comeback since the Marcoses fled in disgrace following a popular revolt more than 30 years ago. Imee Marcos is in her final term as governor of Ilocos Norte province in northern Philippines after being first elected as governor in 2010. In turn, congresswoman Imelda Marcos, Ferdinand Marcos’ widow, is running to replace her daughter as governor. Her running mate will be her grandson, Matthew Marcos Manotoc. The Marcoses also have close ties with the Duterte family. [Straits Times]

At the same time, 81-year old Joseph “Erap” Estrada, who started as a mayor, then became senator, vice-president and president of the Philippines, is now back to being mayor of Manila, where he is running for re-election. His wife has been a senator, his common-law partner is currently a mayor. Besides the Marcos and Estrada families, other political dynasties are also competing for power, demonstrating that the building block of Philippine politics is not the party, but the family. [South China Morning Post]

16 October 2018

Philippines wins seat at UN Human Rights Council

(jk) The Philippines won its bid for a reelection to a seat in the United Nations Human Rights Council last week despite heavy criticism of President Duterte’s war on drugs by several human rights defenders and human rights organizations. [Rappler I] To add insult to injury, the government now claims that the reelection of the Philippines to the council would constitute nothing less than a vindication of Duterte’s policies [Rappler II].

9 October 2018

Philippines: Tougher security laws, a new constitution amendment draft, and an ailing president

(ls) The Congress of the Philippines is about to approve changes to the Human Security Act that could give President Rodrigo Duterte and security forces wide-ranging powers. A section requiring law enforcement workers to keep a logbook on each detainee, and a section specifying that “no torture or coercion in investigation and interrogation” is allowed shall be removed. Suspected terrorists and “unwilling witnesses” could be arrested without warrants and detained for 30 days without charge during an “actual or imminent terrorist attack”. The death penalty will also be restored. The proposals come amid disputed claims by the Duterte administration that the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, the New People’s Army, and other groups have been plotting a coup called “Red October” to overthrow the president. [South China Morning Post]

At the same time, the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights (CHR) has announced to investigate a recent accumulation of drug-related killings in Cebu city. Witnesses have been taken into witness protection programs. [Rappler 1]

As regards the Philippines’ move toward constitutional reform and the introduction of a federal system, a House committee has recommended “without amendment” to the plenary the draft constitution introduced by Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and 21 other legislators. The new draft can be read here: [Rappler 2] It different from the draft constitution submitted by President Rodrigo Duterte’s 22-member Consultative Committee earlier this year. That draft’s major elements are summarized here: [Rappler 3].

Meanwhile, 73-year-old President Duterte has raised questions about his health as he said in a public address that he had gone to a hospital for cancer tests: “I will tell you if its cancer, it’s cancer. If it’s third stage, no more treatment. I will not prolong the agony in this office or anywhere.” [Reuters] Should he go, he said he would not hand the leadership to Vice President Leni Robredo, an opposition lawmaker who has been a critic of Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. Under the constitution, the president is required to disclose any serious illness to the public, and will be replaced by the vice president should he step down. [Asian Nikkei Review]

9 October 2018

Japan: Countering Chinese influence in Southeast Asia

(dql/ls) Reflecting Japan’s efforts to expand its economic foothold in the Mekong region to counter China’s growing influence, Japan at the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit in Tokyo together with the Mekong countries Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan vowed in a joint statement to promote development programs and further improve “connectivity” and “quality infrastructure” projects in the region while also confirming the importance of maintaining the rules-based order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. [Japan Times 1]

In a related development, Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Prayuth Chan-ocha ahead of the Mekong-Japan summit affirmed both countries’ cooperation in promoting free trade, with the latter voicing Thailand’s readiness to participate in the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. [Japan Times 2]

Meanwhile, Japanese troops participated in joint exercises in the Philippines with US and Filipino troops. The exercise, code-named Kamandag (Venom), marked the first time Japanese armoured military vehicles were used on foreign soil since the country adopted a pacifist constitution after its 1945 defeat. A US Marine communications officer said, “it has nothing to do with a foreign nation or any sort of foreign army. This is exclusively counterterrorism within the Philippines.” [South China Morning Post]

2 October 2018

“My only sin is the extrajudicial killings” – Duterte

(jk) The above quote by President Rodrigo Duterte is by some seen as an “admission” that he authorised extrajudicial killings as part of his war on drugs in the Philippines – which he has thus far denied and blamed on the police and those who executed the killings.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating allegations that Duterte had committed crimes against humanity as mayor of Davao as well as in his role as President. The statement, although immediately branded as “playful” and “not to be taken literally” by a spokesperson, could play a role in future investigations by the ICC. Duterte announced some six months ago that he would withdraw from the ICC, but the court has said it “retains its jurisdiction over crimes committed during the time in which the state was party to the statute and may exercise this jurisdiction over these crimes even after the withdrawal becomes effective.” [Independent]

2 October 2018

Pressure on Duterte? Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes now arrested

(jk) As reported on in the previous issues of AiR, the standoff between the Philippine President and Senator Trillanes, a vocal critic, has gone into another round. The Senator has now been arrested by the police on charges of rebellion that date back some 15 years for which he was initially granted amnesty. [Asian Correspondent] [For more background, see AiR Philippines]

Duterte is facing increasing pressures as his popularity is facing the biggest slump since he took office in a recent survey. Notwithstanding, the survey still found approval ratings of 75%. [Reuters]

Duterte also told a state-owned television network that he possessed a recording provided by a foreign country that a group of politicians from the opposition had banded together with Maoist rebels and former military officials to oust or kill him.

Asian Correspondent For more background, see AiR Philippines



2 October 2018

Increased US – Philippine military activities announced for next year

(jk) The Philippine military chief and US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral Philip Davidson, met at an annual meeting of the allied forces at the military headquarters in Manila last week. It was announced that there will be an increase in the number of joint military activities next year, including counterterrorism, maritime security and humanitarian aid. [Military Times]

2 October 2018

UN Human Rights Council to set up an independent body concerning Human rights violations in Myanmar

(cc) On September 27, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a new resolution on the situation of Human rights of Rohingya Muslims and other minorities in Myanmar. The resolution creates an independent mechanism tasked “to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011”, in order to facilitate future criminal proceedings. This resolution is the product of a joint initiative of the European Union and of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Out of the 47 members of the Council, 35 voted in favour and only three countries, China, Burundi and Philippines, opposed to it, the seven others abstained.  This international body is similar to the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism set up by the General Assembly in 2016 for Syria with the difference that the mechanism for Myanmar will be financed through the United Nations, as opposed to states’ voluntary contributions. The Resolution is following a report by the UN Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar released in August which found evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and “genocidal intent” from the Tatmadaw and recommended that the General Assembly should create such international body. The mandate of that fact-finding mission has also been extended by one year. Myanmar government continues to reject the report’s findings which it considers “unverified accusations”. [New York Times] [Reuters]

While the resolution has been welcomed by major international non-governmental organization such a Human Rights Watch and received wide international support [Human Rights Watch], China maintains that this issue should not be “internationalized” and that “the Rakhine state issue is in essence an issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh”. [Reuters] Amnesty International’s crisis director has described the resolution of “serious and constructive approach to pave the way for justice”. [Amnesty International]

25 September 2018

Philippines: Update and more backgrounds on Duterte-Trillanes standoff

(ls) The Makati Regional Trial Court is preparing to make its decision over the arrest of Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes after the Supreme Court referred his petition for a temporary restraining order on the arrest order issued by President Duterte to the local court. The Department of Justice (DOJ) filed separate motions asking the court to order the senator’s immediate arrest. But instead, the judges ordered a series of hearings to allow Trillanes and the state prosecutors to present their respective sides. The Inquirer has published an interesting portrait of the two judges called to decide the case. [Inquirer]

In another background piece, Rappler describes how Duterte took his own Cabinet by surprise when he issued the arrest order against Trillanes. The order bypassed two key Cabinet officials mandated to deal with the legal and security implications of an amnesty revocation. Rappler has also published a timeline of the events so far. [Rappler]

Time Magazine writes that the standoff comes at a trying time for Duterte: Amid pressure over high inflation and the rising cost of basic goods, planned church-led protests against the “rise of another dictator”, and the prospect of an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into the drug war, an embattled Duterte has doubled down on his enmity with Trillanes. [Time]

18 September 2018

Asian countries on UN’s shameful list over attacks on human rights activists

(am) A number of Asian countries found themselves on the UN’s list of 38 “shameful” countries displaying an “alarming” level of harsh reprisals and intimidation against those who cooperate with the UN on human rights issues. [Reuters]Pointed out are also practices of selective application of laws and new legislation that restrict or obstruct organisations from cooperating with the UN, including by limiting their funding capacity, especially from foreign donors.

Among the Asian countries listed with new cases are China, India, the Maldives, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. Other countries listed are Colombia, Hungary, Israel, Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela. [Times of India]

18 September 2018

Continued Duterte-Trillanes standoff in the Philippines

(ls) The standoff between Philippine President Duterte and Senator Trillanes, which we reported in last week’s AiR, is still ongoing. Duterte went on live television for a one-on-one conversation with a legal adviser. He dared those in the military who supported Mr. Trillanes and former President Benigno S. Aquino III, who granted Mr. Trillanes’s amnesty in 2010, to attempt a revolt, a day after the head of the armed forces warned soldiers not to take sides. [New York Times]

While the Supreme Court, seized by Trillanes, did not issue an injunction against Duterte’s order calling military and police to arrest Trillanes, the judges said they took “cognizance of the pledge by the military and police not to arrest the senator until a final ruling” was made by a lower court. It also noted what it called Duterte’s “categorical pronouncements” that the senator would not be detained until a court issued a ruling. Now, two Makati City Regional Trial Court branches have yet to act on the Department of Justice’s motions for an arrest warrant. [Rappler]

Providing additional background of the story, the South China Morning Post describes how the feud started. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trillanes accused Duterte of not declaring substantial assets. He also summoned Duterte’s son Paolo to a Senate probe on the smuggling of 6.4 billion pesos worth of crystal meth from China. President Duterte then, unsuccessfully, tried to frame Trillanes with money laundering in Singapore. However, the feud has now become also a test of allegiance for parts of the military who support Trillanes. [South China Morning Post]

18 September 2018

The politics of caring in the Philippines

(ls) To understand the popularity of the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Janus Isaac Nolasco describes that it is necessary to understand the impact and history of the politics of caring in the Philippines. He argues to treat the politics of caring not as deception or as a deviation from modern, rational, and institutional forms of politics. It should rather be seen as a framework on its own right, with different yet legitimate assumptions about the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, the mode of governance and the scale of political action. [New Mandala]

11 September 2018

Philippines: Duterte’s powerplay against a senator puts military to the test

(ls) In the Philippines, a major powerplay has unfolded last week with implications up to the country’s military. President Rodrigo Duterte first revoked an amnesty granted in 2011 by his predecessor Benigno Aquinoto to Senator Antonio Trillanes for his 2003 and 2007 coup attempts against former president Gloria Arroyo. Duterte’s revoke order simultaneously called on the military and police to apprehend the former naval officer despite his now civilian status. The Department of National Defense and the Department of Justice initially said the military had jurisdiction over Trillanes. [Bloomberg]

Then, however, Duterte decided not to seek the arrest without a civil court warrant. The Philippine National Police (PNP) chief declared that no police officer “in his rightful mind” would arrest him without court warrant, reaffirming that a presidential order, like Duterte’s proclamation against Trillanes, cannot be used as the sole basis to arrest anybody. [Rappler 1]

Analysts said that the military could split if Duterte pushed the armed forces to court martial Trillanes who still has support from his Philippine Military Academy batch and younger soldiers. Trillanes meanwhile refused to leave the Senate and asked the Supreme Court in a petition to declare Duterte’s order illegal. Senate President Vicente Sotto III promised to protect Trillanes from a warrantless arrest. [South China Morning Post]

Duterte cited the senator’s supposed failure to apply for amnesty and to admit his guilt for his revoke order. Rappler, however, claims that old documents show that Trillanes did both. [Rappler 2]

Trillanes is one of Duterte’s most prominent critics. He has accused him of large-scale corruption and involvement in illegal drugs and extrajudicial killings. Duterte once responded, saying “I will destroy him or he will destroy me. That’s the way it goes.” Trillanes is the second senator to face arrest after Senator Leila de Lima was detained in February 2017 on drug-trafficking charges. Gloria Arroyo, now a close Duterte ally, was made Speaker of the House last month. [AP]

In a separate development, a mayor on Duterte’s list of allegedly narcotics-linked officials was shot dead in his own office. The mayor of the town of Ronda is the latest among numerous local officials to be killed in recent months. [The Straits Times]

11 September 2018

China-Philippines relations: Is Duterte changing the tune on Beijing?

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has recently begun to speak more assertively about the disputes in the South China Sea. In particular, he criticized Beijing for its relentless reclamation activities and militarization of disputed land features in the area. Also, the Armed Forces’ chief of staff Carlito Galvez Jr. openly accused China of threatening routine Philippine patrols in the area on a daily basis. Duterte’s toughening posture on China has gone hand in hand with gradually improving relations with the United States, as the US had previously announced a substantial increase in foreign military financing for the coming year. Nonetheless, Duterte has also made it clear that the Philippines and China will continue with their plans to explore joint development agreements in areas of overlapping claims in the South China Sea. [South China Morning Post]

4 September 2018

Duterte appoints new Supreme Court chief justice, earns criticism for possible quid pro quo

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appointed Teresita Leonardo-de Castro as new chief justice of the Supreme Court. De Castro replaces Maria Lourdes Sereno, whose appointment was invalidated by the Supreme Court last May because of her failure to submit statements of assets, liabilities and net worth. Sereno’s ouster was widely criticized as both unconstitutional and politically motivated. [Rappler 1]

In the course of the Sereno saga, De Castro had appeared on a televised House hearing and heavily criticized then Chief Justice Sereno. She was then among the concurring votes dismissing Sereno from office. Her appointment is, by some observers, seen as a reward. These rumors have gained particular traction since De Castro will only be able to serve for about two months as she will turn 70 years old, which is the mandatory retirement age of a member of the judiciary, in October. [PhilStar]

Sereno, for her part, urged Filipinos to have the courage to stop the return of martial law in the Philippines, recalling the horrors of the years under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whose 21-year rule was marred by killings, torture, censorship, and corruption. President Duterte recently said one of his preferred successors is former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son of the late dictator. [Rappler 2] Nonetheless, public approval remains high for Duterte, which, according to a piece written by Jayeel Cornelio and Erron Medina, may even be connected to religious traits of his enduring popularity. [New Mandala]

In a separate development, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) pointed to the continued imprisonment of Senator Leila de Lima, stating that is “undermines both democracy and the rule of law in the Philippines.” De Lima was detained in February 2017 on drug charges, which APHR considers false and politically-motivated. [Politiko]

4 September 2018

Bomb attack in the Philippines’ south

(ls) A bomb blast killed one person and injured 15 in an internet café in the southern Philippines on Sunday, in the second such attack in days blamed by the military on pro-Islamic State militants. No group claimed responsibility. The recent blasts follow President Rodrigo Duterte’s government enacting a law to create greater autonomy for the Muslim minority in the south which is hoped to help end the conflict. Authorities worry that the law could encourage some militant factions to attack in an effort to derail the peace efforts. [Reuters] [The Straits Times]

4 September 2018

Philippines to receive biggest share of U.S. Indo-Pacific security assistance

(ls) The Philippines is set to receive the biggest part of security assistance from the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. In numbers that means $60 million of overall $300 million. The allocation reflects the United States’ long-term security partnership with the Philippines but also the rising tensions in the South China Sea over China’s militarization of islands and territorial claims. [Rappler]

4 September 2018

Article series on constitutional reform in the Philippines

(ls) The planned constitutional reform in the Philippines has sparked not only political, but also vivid scholarly debates. The New Mandala has published three particularly interesting views on the topic. John Paolo Villasor revisits the proposed changes’ main aspects including federalism and federated regions, the distribution of governmental powers and rights. [New Mandala 1] Bryan Dennis Gabito Tiojanco, drawing upon Ackerman’s classification of constitution-making, argues that the present push for charter is a textbook example of elite constitutionalism. [New Mandala 2] And Björn Dressel draws comparisons to Thailand’s frequent experiences with constitutional reform. [New Mandala 3]

21 August 2018

Philippines: The Duterte-Marcos dynasty in the making?

(ls) Nine months away from Philippine mid-term elections, President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, is fast emerging as a power-broker who is aiming to shore up support for her father’s policy agenda, as the mid-terms could determine the success or failure of his presidency. The question is whether she is getting prepared for his eventual succession. Rodrigo Duterte himself has repeatedly stated that he was not planning to finish his term. As AiR reported in July, Sara Duterte was instrumental in bringing together political factions to oust House speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, replacing him with ex-president Gloria Arroyo, a move that was also supported by Imee Marcos, daughter of ex-President Ferdinand Marcos who ruled the Philippines for two decades before being ousted in a 1986 uprising.  [Reuters 1]

Duterte himself said that he was prepared to step down if Ferdinand Marcos Jr., nick-named Bongbong and son of ex-President Marcos, could take over. Currently, Duterte was reluctant to do so because it would mean handing power to Vice President Leni Robredo who leads the opposition party. Robredo was not Duterte’s choice for vice president and was elected having narrowly defeated Ferdinand Marcos Jr. [Reuters 2]

14 August 2018

Russian military hardware sales to Southeast Asia 

(jk) Over the past five years, Russia has increasingly sold military hardware to Southeast Asian countries, including Kilo-class submarines to the major Russian arms-importer in the region, Vietnam.

As mentioned in last week’s AiR, the Philippines have declared an interest in purchasing Russian built submarines as well. The Department of Defence has said the country is still looking at other possible submarines suppliers, noting that the country’s submarine acquisition program will be most likely finalised in the next 12 months. Russia is keen on selling its Kilo-class submarines here as well though, offering “soft-loans” if the country is not able to purchase the submarines outright. [PNA] The Philippines have now also confirmed the Philippine Navy (PN) port call in Russia that AiR reported on last week. [PhilStar]

The Indonesian Air Force (IAF), which flies both Russian made SU 27/ SU 30 and US F5/ F16 fighter Jets is also looking to purchase more Russian built planes. The Ministry of Defence wants to purchase 11 of the newer SU-35 fighter jets but faces problems due to US sanctions this could lead to. Indonesia is negotiating with the US to have the sanctions lifted which the US implemented as a response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. [Jakarta Globe]

The Philippines face the same dilemma of course as U.S. sanctions were imposed last year against any country trading with Russia’s defence and intelligence sectors. With a huge arms-deal between India and Russia in mind however, US Congress reached an agreement at the end of July laying out conditions under which Trump can seek a waiver for allies. This does not mean of course, that he will do so.

14 August 2018

An in-depth look at Rodrigo Duterte

(jk) Two recent books look at Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his life before the presidency. “Duterte Harry” by Jonathan Miller and “The Rise of Duterte” by Richard Heydarian are two biographies that try to make sense of how such a controversial figure has risen to highest position in Filipino politics.

Taken together, the biographies paint a picture of a man who grew up both privileged as well as under difficult circumstances that may explain his harsh manners and negative predispositions towards the Catholic church or his anti-American sentiment. Heydrian’s work in particular also looks at a historical and political framework, finding that the people of the Philippines tend to choose “controversial” characters for the one time six-year presidential term. If you do not have the time to read both biographies, this is a good write-up [The Times Literary Supplement]

7 August 2018

The Philippines is looking at Russia as “possible sources” of submarines 

(jk) Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016, Russian warships have made four port visits to the Philippines and a visit of a Philippine Navy ship to Vladivostok is planned. The two Navies have vowed to increase cooperation and signed a MoU at a visit of the PN Vice Admiral to St. Petersburg at the end of July. The Philippines have also expressed interest in acquiring Russian submarines [Inquirer].

31 July 2018

China’s military gifts to Sri Lanka and the Philippines

(dql) In a latest attempt to increase its influence in the Indo-Pacific region, China will donate a frigate to Sri Lanka and four new patrol boats to the Philippines. While China will add to the frigate trainings for the Sri Lankan military and also build a auditorium complex at the Sri Lanka Military Academy, Manila will receive – besides the patro boats – 200 rocket propelled grenade launchers and ammunition. [South China Morning Post]

31 July 2018

Philippines: Ex-President Arroyo back as House Speaker – or was she never gone?

(ls) Former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was elected as speaker of the House of Representatives, the No. 4 position in the Philippine government. Arroyo is a close ally of President Rodrigo Duterte. She was president from 2001 to 2010 and was later detained for five years on corruption charges, but released in 2016. She now took the position of House Speaker from Pantaleon Alvarez, Duterte’s longtime friend and personal choice for the post after winning the presidency in May 2016. However, Davao City Mayor Sarah Duterte Carpio, Duterte’s daughter who has emerged as a national political force, campaigned to unseat Alvarez. Arroyo is expected to strengthen Duterte due to her political clout and good relations with some of his biggest critics, particularly among influential Catholic bishops. [Nikkei Asian Review] [Reuters]

In a piece titled “The women behind the fall of Alvarez”, Rappler investigates the circumstances of Arroyo’s takeover. It describes the behind-the-scenes efforts of Arroyo, Duterte Carpio and Imee Marcos, the eldest daughter of the late dictator and former President of the Philippines Ferdinand E. Marcos. The intriguing article ends by stating: “Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is back? No, she was never gone.” [Rappler]

31 July 2018

Philippines: The challenges after the signing of the Bangsamoro Law

(ls) As expected in last week’s AiR, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed a landmark law aimed at giving expanded autonomy to Muslims in the south of the country. The Bangsamoro Organic Law mandates the expansion of an autonomous region that would be led initially by a “transitional authority” before eventually being governed by its own parliament. [The New York Times]

Some in the mainly Catholic nation’s political elite had expressed kepticism about autonomy for southern Muslims after the occupation of Marawi City last year. But Duterte, a native Christian of Mindanao and formerly mayor of its biggest city Davao, said it was the only way forward. The Moro, a name coined by Spanish colonialists for Philippine Muslims, are unique in the country for having resisted the influence of Spanish and American colonization between the 16th and early 20th centuries. They consider Mindanao their ancestral homeland. [South China Morning Post]

On Sunday, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace deal with the government four years ago, gathered tens of thousands of supporters from all over the southern province of Mindanao to its base to begin a massive campaign for the law’s approval. The rebel group is expected to dominate the 80-member Bangsamoro transition government that will be formed after the referendum. [Reuters]

In an extensive background piece, Rappler points out that the signing of the law is just the beginning of an expected string of battles: constitutionality issues, possible dissatisfaction among certain groups, a plebiscite, and genuine and lasting change. The most controversial issues are the territory and plebiscite as it is still needs open which exact cities and villages will get the chance to vote. [Rappler]

24 July 2018

Is the Philippines a Catholic country?

(jk) A seemingly straight forward question – but as is so often the case, the reality is much more complex and diverse as statistic make believe. The question is being discussed as part of a podcast series which aims to look at “The Philippines Beyond the Clichés” hosted by the New Mandala Philippines editor. [New Mandala]

24 July 2018

Philippines: Duterte expected to sign Bangsamoro Organic Law, but last minute delay

(jk) As reported earlier in June, a bill laying out the process of setting up a self-administered territory in an area referred to as Bangsamoro on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where an estimated 4 million Muslims live, was passed by Congress. The bill, which allows the region to have its own executive, legislature and fiscal powers, but not oversee defence, security, foreign affairs, and monetary policy, was expected to be signed by President Duterte this week. The law will incorporate Islamic law into the regional justice system. The peace process that is to follow is expected to be difficult however. First, this is not the first attempt and previous strategies have failed. There are many armed rebel groups in the area who would slowly be decommissioned and compensated but this will be a complex and often controversial process. A referendum on the new law is also due to be held before the end of 2018. [Al Jazeera]

After the Senate had unanimously ratified the bill, House members adjourned early because of thus far unclear reports of a leadership challenge. Whatever the details of the challenge may be, the proposed autonomy deal has yet to be officially approved and will therefore not yet be signed by the President [Asahi Shimbun].

17 July 2018

Philippines: Two years after legal victory against China, Duterte increasingly under domestic pressure

(ls) Two years after the Philippines’ legal victory against China over claims in the South China Sea at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is coming under increasing pressure to make actual use of the ruling. In a survey conducted in June, 73% of respondents believed Duterte should assert the Philippines’ claims. Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario referred to Duterte as a “willing victim”. Duterte, who assumed the presidency less than two weeks before the ruling, has adopted a nonconfrontational approach on the issue in exchange for billions of dollars worth of economic deals. [Nikkei Asian Review]

The Philippines Senate, which has the constitutional power to concur – or not – in the executive’s ratification of treaties and which exercises oversight functions, has been silent in the matter as well. Out of seven resolutions calling for an inquiry, the Senate has only heard one. Rappler has gathered the different resolutions and provides insights into the politics of the Senate. [Rappler]

In addition, Duterte caused his approval rates to plummet by mocking God and central elements of the Christian belief. “Who is this stupid God? This son of a bitch is (…) really stupid,” Duterte said in a speech in Davao, and added that he would immediately resign if anyone can prove that God exists. The Philippines’ population is largely Catholic. [South China Morning Post]

10 July 2018

Philippines: 15 Mayors and Vice Mayors killed since 2016

(jk) The killing of a vice mayor on Saturday has brought the number of mayors and vice mayors killed since the beginning of the “war on drugs” in the Philippines to 15 [South China Morning Post]. In addition to an obvious erosion of the rule of law, some human rights advocates fear that President Duterte is using the drug war as a cover to crack down on the opposition or local leaders that do not fall in line [Time Magazine]. The Philippines of course has a history of political killings and it is possible that “drug-war” related killings are not always that.

10 July 2018

Southeast Asia’s presence at RIMPAC largest since the naval drills began in 1971

(jk) The US-led Rim of the Pacific exercises (RIMPAC) in 2018 involves 25 countries, 25,000 military personnel, as well as over 50 warships and 200 aircraft [RIMPAC]. It was designed to enhance interoperability among navies and consists of activities ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to counter-piracy training and more complex warfighting exercises including air defence or anti-submarine warfare.

While the biggest news about this year’s RIMPAC was undoubtedly the disinvitation of China over its behaviour in the South China Sea, it is also important to point out that 2018 sees a record of seven Southeast Asian countries participate. Vietnam participates for the first time in the exercises amid growing military to military relations with the US. The Philippines and Malaysia have both for the first time send warships to participate. The three missing ASEAN countries are under sanctions by the US and therefore limited in terms of military cooperation (Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar) [CNN]. All ten ASEAN members are also expected to participate in a maritime exercise with China later in 2018 as publicised by Singapore’s defence ministry last year [South China Morning Post].

10 July 2018

Constitutional reform in the Philippines

(jk) The Consultative Committee, established by President Duterte to review the 1987 Constitution and suggest a new charter which changes the unitary political system in the Philippines to a federal one, is ready to submit a draft to the President this week. The draft Charter seeks to create at least 18 federated regions. In order for the constitutional reform to take place, President Duterte needs to accept the draft, pass it on to Congress for consideration before it will eventually be put to the people in a plebiscite to be adopted [The Philippine Star 1].

The reform is controversial. Some argue it would lead to a reduction of the power of the national government and a more efficient government system. Other observers however, fear that politicians in Congress and the president himself will use the move to amend the 1987 Constitution to benefit their own political interests, e.g. an extension of the presidency beyond 2022. According to the draft, the President could run again for president in 2022 and allows presidents, senators and representatives to serve two consecutive four-year terms [The Philippine Star 2]. It also grants him to rule by decree, which is what former dictator Marcos used to extend his powers indefinitely [South China Morning Post 1]. Critics may find refuge in the fact the very recently Duterte has offered to resign – if anyone can show him a selfie or some evidence that proves that a human was able to talk to and see God [South China Morning Post 2].

3 July 2018

The Philippines: A Catholic country?

(ls) As the Philippines are currently debating whether divorce should be legalized or not, it appears worthwhile to have a look at the country’s religious configuration. In an interview with the New Mandala, Jayeel S. Cornelio, author of “Being Catholic in the Philippines: Young People Interpreting Religion” (Routledge 2016), unpacks the statement that “The Philippines is a Catholic country”, and shines light on the under-appreciated level of religious diversity in the Philippines. [New Mandala]

26 June 2018

Philippines grow increasingly angry over Chinese behaviour at Scarborough Shoal

(jk) Even though Scarborough Shoal rests firmly within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the South China Sea and was part of the Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal ruling in 2016, it is administered and controlled by the People’s Republic of China after a prolonged naval stand-off in 2012. At the time, many expected the US as a treaty ally of the Philippines to defend Philippine claims against an assertive China, but it instead chose to stand back and help broker a deal which was supposed to see both parties withdraw until an agreement is reached. Whilst the Philippine Navy withdrew, the PLA Navy maintained a presence at the shoal and entrenched its control of the area.

Until 2016, Filipino fisherman were indeed restricted from entering what they refer to as a traditional Filipino fishing ground well within its EEZ. Amid improved bilateral ties between the PRC and the Philippines under President Duterte’s administration, however, China has relaxed restrictions on the entry of Filipino fishermen in the area.

However, in a recently aired documentary broadcast on a major Filipino television channel, Filipino fishermen accused Chinese at the shoal of forcibly taking large parts of their catch [GMA News]. The Chinese side has initially referred to the incidents as more of a “barter trade” since the fish was taken in exchange for other items such as cigarettes and instant noodles, but according to Filipino fisherman the “trade” was forced upon them and less than favourable. President Duterte, trying to uphold his approach of quiet diplomacy and attempting not to confront China outright, went along with this characterisation and arguably made matters worse by claiming that the unfortunate reason that the trade may be unfavourable to the fishermen is that they are not able to determine the real value of the fish [ABS-CBN News 1]. Contrary to this assumption were statements during a media briefing where journalists asked the fishermen directly how they felt about the incident [ABS-CBN News 2].

The Chinese foreign ministry has said that it had been allowing fishermen to enter the shoal “out of good will”, further irking many in the Philippines. Additionally, over the past weekend, satellite images were released in [The Philippine Star], showing the damage that has been done to the shoal by Chinese diggers since 2012. While the Duterte administration is not keen on stoking tensions, some Filipino lawmakers call for a louder response. These include calls for Philippine Coast Guard vessels to be sent to protect fishermen and showing China that the Philippines are serious about defending their people as well as their territory. One Congressman accused China of treating the Philippines as her vassal state and urged the government to  act in order to stop this invasion by China [AEC News /The Philippine Star].

26 June 2018

Philippines: Supreme Court hears gay marriage case

(jk) After three years wait, a Supreme Court hearing was convened to discuss a petition to allow same-sex marriage.  The 1987 Philippine Constitution does not say that marriage should be between a man and a woman, however, in the predominantly catholic country, the issue is very controversial. Despite careful support from President Duterte, a presidential spokesperson has said he would doubt a favourable decision by the court. According to him, the country is not yet ready for the same-sex marriage proposal and even the President were not too steady in his support [The Philippine Star]. In any case, the decision is not expected to be made anytime soon as the issue “may take years” to resolve [South China Morning Post].

26 June 2018

Philippines: ICJ joins calls for UN to investigate war on drug killings

(jk) The International Commission of Jurists has joined a number of other NGOs in a call to the UN Human Rights Council to establish an investigation into extrajudicial killings in the Philippines [International Commission of Jurists]. In 2016, they had published a briefing note on the issue, detailing both the obligations of the State to investigate such killings as well as their recommendations on the investigations [International Commission of Jurists: brief].

26 June 2018

Political Dynasties: Ferdinand Marcos Jr plans on succeeding President Duterte

(jk) The son of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr is making no secret out his plans to run for the Presidency when Duterte’s single six-year term comes to an end in 2022. Despite the controversial and often bloody rule under martial law of his father, recent developments have shown that Marcos Jr has substantial support in the Philippines, in which political dynasties have long played huge and successful roles. The two previous presidents for instance were both children of former presidents and the current president’s daughter is the mayor of Davao and possibly not at the end of her political career yet [Financial Times].

Marcos Jr is an active politician and in fact only lost his bid for the Philippine Vice Presidency in 2016 by a very small margin of less than 1%. Back in April, the Presidential Electoral Tribunal started to recount [ABS-CBN News] the votes for the election after protest of former Senator Marcos, Jr. against vote rigging and “massive cheating”.  He might still become vice-president if the recount turns out in his favour. Despite some rumours that the recount already indicates just that, no official results have been published and no timeframe has been given. The recount is ongoing [Rappler].

17 June 2018

Philippines & South China Sea: Cautious complaints against China

(ls) The Philippines have demanded that China stop confiscating the catch of Filipino fishermen in the disputed South China Sea, calling the practice “unacceptable”. China controls several reefs in the sea including Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing seized from Manila in 2012. The remarks by presidential spokesman Harry Roque were a rare public rebuke from Manila, which has taken a non-confrontational approach with Beijing. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, acting Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio has called on the government to bring China to court for violating the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea with the destruction of coral reefs in a disputed part of the South China Sea. He said the government should seek arbitration and compensation from China. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague rejected China’s extensive claims in the South China and ruled that Scarborough Shoal was a traditional fishing ground of Filipino, Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen. [Reuters]

17 June 2018

Philippines: Duterte’s plan to arm community leaders

(ls) The Philippines’ interior ministry plans to acquire pistols for community leaders willing to fight crime and drugs. Also, President Rodrigo Duterte said he was considering arming community leaders, known as barangay captains, after consulting with the police and intelligence community. The announcement prompted concern the measure could fuel even more violence in the country’s notoriously bloody crackdown. Duterte said that such community leaders “will never go to jail” if they shot suspected criminals in the performance of their duty. [Reuters]

3 June 2018

Duterte’s red lines in the South China Sea?

(jk) Philippine President Duterte has laid down some red lines this past week, going as far as claiming that the Philippines would go to war if those were to be crossed. It was reported that “the Philippines warned China that it will go to war over natural resources in the South China Sea — and it identified other ‘red lines’, or actions, Manila would find unacceptable.” The actions also include any Chinese construction at disputed Scarborough Shoal or anything that brings harm to Philippine troops. [South China Morning Post 1] The warnings come at a time of increased criticism for Duterte’s government not responding accordingly to increasing militarisation of the SCS on behalf of China as described in recent AiRs. [e.g. AiR] 

At the same time, the Philippines is seen to slowly take some measures of its own to assert its claims. It is apparently upgrading its military island construction on Thitu Island that was last year the scene of a stand-off between Chinese and Philippine vessels, as reported by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative [South China Morning Post 2], and at least careful rhetoric about modernising its navy [South China Morning Post 3]

3 June 2018

Philippine Congress passes autonomy bill for volatile Muslim region

(jk) On Wednesday, lawmakers in approved a bill eventually allowing self-rule for the country’s Muslim minority in the south. The bill lays out the process of setting up a self-administered territory in an area referred to as Bangsamoro on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, where an estimated 4 million Muslims live. Previous administrations have tried to initiate similar processes but have repeatedly failed to come to a lasting conclusion. The recent significant fighting in the area, particularly Marawi, has reinvigorated a sense of urgency to resolve the issue and the President is very familiar with the issue having been mayor of southern Philippine city for over 20 years. Should the process go ahead and a law eventually be signed, the region would have its own executive, legislature and fiscal powers, but not oversee defence, security, foreign affairs, and monetary policy [Reuters].

3 June 2018

Philippines: Ousted Chief Justice lodges appeal 

(jk) Former Chief Justice Sereno said the vote that ousted her from the Supreme Court earlier in May should be reversed for a lack of due process. She cited a constitutional principle that top judiciary officials can only be removed by congressional impeachment. Her fellow Supreme Court judges had voted 8-6 in favour of her expulsion, a development which she sees as a grave danger for judicial independence in her country and one that violated due process as some of the judges were significantly biased against her. In her 205-page appeal, she also referred to a recent Senate resolution to review the decision, which over half of the 23 members signed [Rappler 1, Rappler 2].

27 May 2018

China, the Philippines, Vietnam and the South China Sea

(ls) A spokesman for Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte voiced “very serious concern” over reports that China has landed long-range bombers on its islands in the disputed South China Sea. The foreign ministry said it is taking “appropriate”, but low-key, diplomatic action to protect the country’s claims and to continue to do so in the future. The Philippines did not condemn China’s action “to avoid any drawbacks and challenges”. [The Straits Times]

Facing criticism over his apparent inaction, Duterte questioned where his country would end up should war erupt in the region. “What will we arm ourselves with if there’s a war? (…) How will we even fight with the Chinese?” Instead, he emphasized his goal to forge a joint exploration pact with China to harness the disputed sea’s potential. [Bloomberg]

Debasish Roy Chowdhury describes in the South China Morning Post how Duterte’s popularity has held so far but if it starts to give way, the opposition and the military brass may start mounting pressure to confront Beijing. Duterte is left with little room to maneuver in the face of China’s military capabilities. If China gets too aggressive, however, Manila may turn more and more to the US for support. [South China Morning Post]

At the start of his administration, Duterte threatened to scrap defense treaties with the US in favor of closer ties with China and perhaps Russia. However, as Rappler writes, alliances among militaries, especially one as longstanding as the Philippines and the US, cannot be broken or built overnight. It takes years or decades to synchronize tactics, techniques, and procedures to achieve interoperability. According to military analysts, there have been “cosmetic” but no significant changes in the country’s ties with the US military. Cooperation during the siege of Marawi put this on display. [Rappler]

China’s and Vietnam’s opposing interests in the South China Sea are becoming more and more visible as well. Last week, Rosneft Vietnam BV, a unit of Russian state oil firm Rosneft, was concerned its recent drilling in one such block could upset Beijing. Vietnam’s foreign ministry responded asserting that the blocks are “entirely under Vietnamese sovereignty and jurisdiction”, whereas Beijing warned to respect its sovereign rights. China’s claims in the South China Sea overlap the exclusive economic zones of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. If China’s nine dashes were connected as one continuous line, it would bisect or incorporate 67 of Vietnam’s oil blocks. [Reuters]

In the face of such tensions, Vietnam has reinforced cooperation with Australia. Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang and Australian Governor-General Peter Cosgrove agreed to boost cooperation to maintain peace in the region. “The two nations are on the same side about disputed issues in the East Sea and will work together to initiate the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP),” President Quang said. [VN Express]

27 May 2018

Philippines: The dismantling of a liberal democracy

(ls) For long, Philippine president Duterte’s war on drugs has been the center of international attention. However, in the face of recent developments, with the removal of Supreme Court chief justice Soreno being the latest incident, Cristina Regina Bonoan and Björn Dressel write in the New Mandala that impeachment and judicial politics in the Philippines may say much more about the future of Asia’s oldest democracy. They hold that Soreno’s removal and threats against other high-ranking officials have the potential to erode the Philippines’s democratic liberal institutions and threaten to push the country further into illiberalism. Bonoan and Dressel analyze past impeachments under the 1987 constitution, impeachments under the Duterte administration and trace back the increasing politicization of the country’s highest court. [New Mandala]

In the New York Times, Miguel Syjuco points to the reign of celebrity, dynasties and nepotism, which makes Philippine democracy the opposite of a meritocracy. Describing the country’s political culture, he writes that incompetence is forgiven in return for fidelity to the rulers, while fame and its pursuit are spun as competence. [The New York Times]

20 May 2018

Duterte says Xi will not allow his removal from office

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping had provided him with a personal assurance that Beijing would not allow him to be removed from office. Duterte, who did not say when Xi made the remarks, met with Xi on the sidelines of the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan Province in China on April 10. Politicians of the opposition questioned whether Xi’s assurances were the reason why Duterte was making use of substantial Chinese loans, and his reluctance to criticize Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. [Bloomberg]




20 May 2018

Philippines: Fights against Abu Sayyaf; autonomous region about to be approved

(ls/am) Philippines security forces killed 11 Muslim militants in clashes in southern Sulu province, stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf extremist group. Three special forces soldiers died. Abu Sayyaf has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It has capitalised on decades of instability in the war-torn southern island of Mindanao to generate tens of millions of dollars from piracy and ransom payments. A faction of the group took part in the assault on Marawi city in May last year. [The Straits Times]

The Philippine Congress is about to approve an Islamic autonomous region on the southern island of Mindanao. Both houses of the legislature are putting the finishing touches on the Bangsamoro Basic Law . Three key committees in the lower house accepted the proposal on Tuesday, and the measure looks to become law by May 30, the de facto end of the legislative session.  Establishing a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region would let residents of a predominantly Muslim section of western Mindanao set up an elected government of their choosing, with the power to develop natural resources and levy taxes. [Nikkei Asian Review]

20 May 2018

Philippines: Supreme Court chief justice removal produces constitutional crisis

(ls) The removal of Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno continues to produce political uproar in the Philippines that is developing toward a constitutional crisis. More than half of the Philippine Senate asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to review its decision to oust its chief justice, calling the ruling a “dangerous precedent” that infringed on constitutional powers of Congress to impeach senior officials. Fourteen of the 23 senators signed the resolution, including eight who are allies of President Rodrigo Duterte. [The Washington Post]

Opposition lawmakers want to impeach the eight Supreme Court judges who voted for Sereno’s removal as chief justice. A majority of lawmakers in the House, however, are supporters of Duterte, who had publicly declared Sereno as his “enemy” and told Congress to fast-track the impeachment complaint against her. [Rappler]

The Manila Times writes that the ouster by her own colleagues was “a catastrophe for democratic institutions and the rule of law in the Philippines.” [Manila Times]

13 May 2018

South China Sea: Vietnam presses China as Philippines remain silent

(ls) Vietnam has asked China to withdraw military equipment from the South China Sea, following media reports this month that China had installed missiles there. “Vietnam requests that China, as a large country, shows its responsibility in maintaining peace and stability in the East Sea,” a Vietnamese foreign ministry spokeswoman said. U.S. news network CNBC reported this month that China had installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its outposts in the South China Sea. [Reuters]

While Vietnam has protested China’s alleged missile deployment in the disputed waterway, the Philippine administration of President Rodrigo Duterte has yet to say what it intends to do about the installation of high-tech weapons on Philippine territory. Several lawmakers have urged Duterte to protest the missile deployment, but presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the government has yet to verify the information. [Inquirer.Net]

Nonetheless, US and Philippine forces have begun their largest annual military exercises so far under President Rodrigo Duterte. The decades-old exercises opened on Monday and involve combat drills in mock urban settings to train special forces in battling terrorists in cities, following an Islamic State-linked siege on southern Marawi city last year. Duterte initially vowed to scale down America’s military presence and involvement in combat drills as he sought closer ties with China and Russia. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said China is committed to a peaceful settlement of bilateral disputes with ASEAN nations over the South China Sea, despite differing views. Li made the remarks after holding talks with Indonesian President Joko Widodo in West Java, in his first visit to Indonesia as Prime Minister. China is the third-largest foreign investor in Indonesia, with investment amounting to US$3.4 billion (S$4.5 billion) in 2017. [The Straits Times]

13 May 2018

How sustaining is Duterte’s foreign policy shift toward China?

(hg) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who refuses American hegemony in Asia has put much effort over the last two years to normalize bilateral relations with China that he sees as a geopolitical reality that cannot be ignored.

Still, however, this very China’s assertiveness extent also to what the Philippines claim as its own territorial waters. Earlier this year, the Philippine military chief implied that unilateral Chinese deployment of military assets on Philippine-claimed land would constitute a direct betrayal of China’s promise not to militarize the disputed area consequently exploited by corresponding accusations of “aggressive unilateral action” towards militarization by the US ambassador in Manila. It remains to be seen in how far President Duterte will be able to play the China card if China is continuing to entrench its presence in the contested waters. [South China Morning Post]

13 May 2018

Philippines: Supreme Court chief justice removed by her own colleagues

(ls) The Philippines’ Supreme Court on Friday forced out its chief justice, removing a fierce critic of President Rodrigo Duterte. Voting 8-6, the Supreme Court justices removed Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, approving a petition filed by the government’s lawyer that questioned the validity of her appointment on the ground that she had failed to fully disclose her wealth. The decision came ahead of a planned impeachment vote by the House of Representatives, which was expected to impeach the chief justice on corruption allegations that she has denied. [The New York Times]

This is the first time that the Supreme Court removed its own chief, in a petition widely criticized for violating Sereno’s constitutional right to an impeachment process. However, she is the second chief justice to be removed from office after Renato Corona was ousted in 2012. He was found guilty of betraying the public trust and committing culpable violation of the Constitution. [Rappler]

The Supreme Court’s decision stands in apparent contradiction to the Constitution’s Article IX, which stipulates that Supreme Court judges can be removed by impeachment. Prior the Court’s decision, over a hundred law professors, led by deans and former deans of law schools in different parts of the country, had published an advertisement calling on the Supreme Court not to move forward with removal. [Inquirer.Net]

6 May 2018

Chinese military build-up in the South China Sea

(ls) China has, for the first time, installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missile systems on three of its outposts in the South China Sea, CNBC reported on Wednesday, citing sources with direct knowledge of U.S. intelligence reports. China has made no mention of any missile deployments but says its military facilities in the Spratlys are purely defensive, and that it can do what it likes on its own territory. [Reuters 1]

At the same time, the Philippines have completed the purchase of their first-ever ship-borne missile systems, boosting its maritime deterrent as part of a military modernization program. A senior naval commander said the Philippines would now be more of a force in patrolling the South China Sea and its pirate-plagued southern waters. The missiles have a maximum range of eight km (5 miles). [Reuters 2]

29 April 2018

Philippines: Foreign critics are deported on personal orders from President Duterte

(ls) A politically active Australian nun has been detained in the Philippines and is expected to be deported. President Rodrigo Duterte claimed to have personally ordered her detention. Her arrest came a day after an Italian official with the Party of European Socialists who has also been a critic of Mr. Duterte’s antidrug campaign was deported as well. [The New York Times] Duterte has often complained about what he considers foreign interference, particularly where human rights issues are concerned. In response to preliminary investigations by the International Criminal Court into his war on drugs, he declared the Philippines’ withdrawal from the court.

29 April 2018

Philippines: Duterte sets deadline for talks with communists

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte set a 60-day timeframe for peace talks he is seeking to revive with communist guerrillas, urging the rebels’ exiled leader to return and negotiate a deal. Earlier this month, Duterte ordered his cabinet to work on a truce to enable talks, but the communist rebels have rejected any preconditions. Ending the conflict was among Duterte’s priorities when he took office in 2016. But he abandoned peace efforts in November, infuriated by repeated rebel attacks during the talks. [Reuters]

29 April 2018

South China Sea: Philippines quiet over Chinese advancements

(ls) The Philippines’ have opted to say little for now about China’s recent activities in the South China Sea, including its erection of a monument on Kagitingan Reef and landing military planes on Mischief reef within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Philippine lawmakers said the landings were not just an affront to Philippine sovereignty but could be a precursor to the deployment of long-range bombers and fighter aircraft to the reefs that China has transformed into artificial islands. [The Straits Times]

22 April 2018

EU and Human Rights in SEA

(jk) The European Parliament adopted a resolution on the Philippines this week, calling for an end of extrajudicial killings under the ongoing war on drugs.  The resolution also calls for the release of detained Senator Leila de Lima, and to take human rights defenders off its list of terrorists. It furthermore urges the President to stop banning the entry into the country of persons who are perceived as critics of his policies. Some days ago, the Philippines blocked an EU party official from entering the Philippines, and Duterte admitted ordering a probe into an Australian nun who fights for human rights [Inquirer.Net, Rappler, South China Morning Post].

On a more general note, Fraser Cameron from the EU-Asia Centre argues that whilst the European Union has a long tradition of promoting democracy and human rights in Asia, often in informal cooperation with the United States, the fight has become a lone battle and the Presidency of Donald Trump is detrimental to its efforts [East Asia Forum]. The efforts have over the last years in Asia become even more of an uphill battle, and while methods and strategies need to be assessed regularly, the normative mission remains unchanged.

22 April 2018

Facebook in SEA

(jk) News on Facebook this past week have much focused on its CEO’s testimony before the US congress. A lot is happening in Southeast Asia as well:

Authorities in Indonesia recently threatened to ban Facebook unless the company gets a handle on privacy and fake news. The government may be worried about fake accusations about President Joko Widodo’s alleged communist sympathies or collusion with China ahead of next year’s elections [Bloomberg]. Much like Zuckerberg in the US Congress, Facebook employees in Indonesia had to face tough questions from lawmakers [The Straits Times 1].

In the Philippines, where Facebook has appointed two online news platforms (Rappler, which continues to operate pending an appeal over its shutdown, and VERA Files) for a joint project to monitor and stop the spreading of fake news, its choice has been criticized by the government, alleging the selected news organisations are biased against President Duterte [The Straits Times 2]. The government also said it is investigating the social media firm over reports information from more than a million users in the Philippines was breached by British data firm Cambridge Analytica [Voice of America].

In Cambodia, Facebook is in the middle of a lawsuit (filed in California in February) by former leader of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy alleging that Prime Minister Hun Sen has used the social network to deceive Cambodia’s electorate as part of a broader campaign to destroy the political opposition and free media [Reuters].

Moreover, in Myanmar, Facebook was accused of facilitating the incitement of hatred and spreading hate speech during the genocide. A recent UN Fact-Finding Mission concluded that social media has played a “determining role” in the crisis [TechCrunch].

22 April 2018

Philippines: President Duterte´s goes on to blatantly neglect international human right standards

(hg) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who compared himself to Adolf Hitler and vowed to kill millions of drug dealers, has shown his disregard for the international human rights discourse more than clear since he is in office.

After his War on Drugs prompted the International Criminal Court to announce in February that it would begin a preliminary examination, President Duterte responded by withdrawing the Philippines from the Court’s Rome Statute. Now he has threatened to arrest the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor if she enters the Philippines to begin investigating.

Last month the Duterte administration compiled a list on which more than 600 socialist activists are designated as terrorists after the government had already declared the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, to be terrorist organizations in December last year. [The Wire]

See the corresponding interview with leftist intellectual and former Senator Walden Bello on the human right situation in the Philippines on Youtube [Walden Bello Interview]

Meanwhile, the newly appointed commander of the Philippines´ police pledged to keep up President Duterte’s bloody anti-drug war one day after having entered office. [Channel News Asia]

22 April 2018

Annual Philippine-US military drills to include Japan and Australia

(jk) This year’s US-Philippine “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) military exercises will include Japanese and Australian forces for the first time. Last year, the US – Philippines exercises were scaled down amid some strategic re-alignment under President Duterte who has also invited Chinese and Russian forces for exercises [The Straits Times].

22 April 2018

South China Sea

(jk) With increased Cross-Strait tensions and Taiwan climbing up the list again of most-concerning flashpoints in East Asia, the attention of international news reporting has slightly shifted away from South China Sea issues. Notwithstanding, there are plenty of stories that are worth keeping an eye out for.

Last month, state-owned enterprise PetroVietnam withdrew its consent for Spanish energy firm Repsol to move ahead with a drilling project in Vietnman’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the South China Sea. This is the second time that Repsol could not move on with an already well prepared and heavily invested in drilling project after a similar incident in July last year.

It is reported that coercion by the PRC, such as the threatening of military clashes should the drilling go ahead were to blame for the sudden pull of the plug of the project by Vietnam. Observers are concerned that for a second time, the PRC has coerced a littoral SCS state into not exploring resources within their EEZ.  Apparently, recently improving ties between Vietnam and the US did not instill enough confidence in Vietnam’s leadership for them to go ahead with the project [BBC News; South China Morning Post 1]. It is worth remembering that as we have noted in AiR before, Vietnam has become the most forward leaning of the claimant states in the SCS vis-à-vis China. Now, after the Repsol episode, Vietnam is negotiating with China on joint exploration and production efforts.

In the meantime, Vietnam and Indonesia are working towards a mechanism to deal with fishing violation in their respective territorial waters which could turn into a positive example of cooperation amongst claimant states and so-called “interested parties” such as Indonesia. Over the past few years, Indonesia has destroyed hundreds of fishing vessels from Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, for violating its waters. Last week, the two nations sat down as part of their third installment of a bilateral cooperation committee meeting which focused on maritime security in particular [South China Morning Post 2].

In the Philippines, photographs of Chinese military aircraft on one of the artificially developed islands within the Philippines’ EEZ have raised doubts about China’s official line not to further militarise any of the South China Sea features it has built. The pictures were allegedly taken in January this year and have now been verified by the government in the Philippines which is now considering filing an official complaint. China’s seems to keep to its successful strategy of creating facts on the ground [The Straits Times]. Despite its competing claims in the Spratly chain, the Philippines is increasing its economic ties with China. This includes plans for joint developments of gas and oil.  President Duterte and President Xi agreed on this last week in a meeting in Hainan.

15 April 2018

South China Sea II: China-Philippines joint exploration in disputed areas on the way

(dql) China and the Philippines have agreed to work on a legal framework for joint explorations in the South China Sea, including disputed areas. While the agreement confirmed by Philippine President Duterte upon his return to Manila from the Boao Forum (see above) is in line with the Duterte’s rapprochement with China and earlier talks on joint exploration of gas and oil in the South China Sea, it will complicate regional talks for a code of conduct for the South China Sea. [Nikkei Asian Review]

In a related move, Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque announced Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the Philippines, scheduled for November. It the first time Xi will come to the country under the more friendly administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. [Inquirer.Net]

8 April 2018

“Fake news” vs. freedom of expression and free elections in Southeast Asia

(ls/thn) As expected, Malaysia’s parliament has approved the law prohibiting fake news. As AiR reported last week, it is the first measure of its kind in the world and would allow for up to six years in prison for publishing or circulating misleading information – this means „any news, information, data and reports which are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form of capable suggesting words or ideas.“ This also concerns fake news generated outside the country, as long as Malaysia or Malaysians are affected. [The New York Times 1]

“This law is not intended to restrict freedom of speech but to restrict the dissemination of fake news,” said de facto law minister Azalina Othman Said. Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams said that “the Malaysian government has no monopoly on the truth, but it is attempting to be the arbiter of what can and can’t be said and written.” [The Straits Times 1]

In an intriguing piece, Alwyn Lau examines the new fake news legislation from a Zizekian perspective, holding that the fight against fake news may prove fatal to reality itself as the social world cannot survive without its fictions. Against the background of the fact that most observers suspect that the primary motif behind the law to be the suppression of news critical of the ruling regime, he writes that, ironically, in order to protect its own lies, the government employs a law about ensuring only the truth is disseminated. [New Mandala]

Certainly, the Malaysian law needs to be seen in a wider Asian context. Reuters has compiled a factbox about actions by Asian governments to crack down on fake news. [Reuters]

The Indonesian Communications Minister threatened to shut down Facebook and other social media platforms if there is any evidence that the personal data of citizens is being harvested or if the platforms fail to crack down on “fake news” during upcoming elections. [The Straits Times 2]

In Myanmar, civil society groups on Thursday criticized Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, arguing that he mischaracterized his company’s effectiveness at detecting and quashing messages encouraging violence in the country. Facebook has become a major channel for the spread of hate speech and propaganda in Myanmar that has encouraged and obfuscated ethnic cleansing of the country’s Muslim Rohingya, according to human rights groups. [The New York Times 2]

Moreover, the parent company of Cambridge Analytica allegedly helped put the Philippines’ president Rodrigo Duterte into office, according to media reports and information pulled from the firm’s website. The company said on their website that in the run up to the 2016 election its client, Duterte, was perceived as kind and honourable, but that the firm rebranded him as a strong, no-nonsense man of action to win. [South China Morning Post]

8 April 2018

Philippines: Justice minister resigns – new national police chief – release of drug war records – peace talks with Maoists

(ls) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday that he has accepted the resignation of his justice secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre, the eighth member of his Cabinet to leave since last year. Duterte gave no reason, but it is speculated that Aguirre, a close friend of Duterte, was made to leave over his performance. Duterte also named Metro Manila police chief Oscar Albayalde as the new head of the national police force, replacing Ronald dela Rosa, whose extended tenure ends soon. The outspoken strongman dela Rosa was instrumental in Duterte’s war on drugs. [The Straits Times 1]

The Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the police to hand over full records of thousands of deadly encounters in the country’s war on drugs. The ruling thwarts the government’s efforts to keep operational details of the bloody crackdown secret. The move comes just a few months after the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced it had started a preliminary examination into the drug war for crimes against humanity. Duterte has since withdrawn the Philippines’ membership of the court in protest. [The Straits Times 2]

In an unexpected move, Duterte on Wednesday asked his cabinet to work on a ceasefire with Maoist rebels in order to resume peace negotiations, four months after he called off talks and vowed to crush the insurgents. The defence ministry and the military said in separate statements, they would support the resumption of talks provided the rebels agreed to a truce and to stop extortion. [Reuters]

8 April 2018

Philippines President Duterte: ‘If my plane explodes, ask the CIA’

(hg) President Duterte announced that he turned to China and Russia for firearms after US blocked his request for supply. Duterte has been seeking to acquire assault rifles to step up the fight against Islamists which the US refused amid concerns over human rights violations.

Russia ‘donated’ instead around 5,000 Kalashnikov rifles and around a million rounds of ammunition as well as 20 military trucks, China thousands of rifles and ammunition too. Yet, Duterte insists that there is no military alliance between the countries: ‘To this day, Russia and China have yet to even ask for a piece of paper or pencil.’ He is reported to have added in dramatic fashion, ‘If my plane explodes, ask the CIA’, a quote resounding rather vague allegations previously made at CIA´s address that nevertheless has been widely spread in the Southeast Asian press. [Daily Mail]

8 April 2018

Rohingya crisis: UN Security Council to visit Myanmar – Duterte speaks of “genocide”

(ls) Myanmar has agreed to a visit by the UN Security Council after months of resistance. Peruvian Ambassador Gustavo Meza-Cuadra, who holds the council’s rotating presidency, said details of the itinerary had yet to be finalized, including whether the government would allow the council to visit Rakhine state. [The Straits Times 1]

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday that “genocide” was taking place in Myanmar and he was willing to accept Rohingya Muslim refugees fleeing from it, though Europe should help too. So far, other ASEAN countries have refrained from referring to the incidents in Rakhine as genocide, following ASEAN’s policy of non-interference with internal affairs. [The Straits Times 2]

8 April 2018

Complexities of Constitutional Change in the Philippines

(ls) Cheryl Saunders and Michael Henry Yusingco provide useful background on current efforts in the Philippines to change the constitution in order to adopt a federalist system. They hold that the future of constitutional change under President Duterte is uncertain for a series of constitutional and political reasons. In particular, some of the most pressing of these concerns is the process of constitutional change itself. [Verfassungsblog]

1 April 2018

Updates on South China Sea conflict

(ls/dql) In a move aimed to put Washington on notice, Beijing has put on a show of force in the South China Sea after satellite images showed China’s only operational aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, accompanied by dozens of other vessels in the South China Sea, conducting exercises at sea and in the air south of the Chinese island province of Hainan on Monday and Tuesday this week. Prior to this move, the Liaoning aircraft carrier, last week on March 21, sailed through the Taiwan Strait towards the South China Sea. [CNN] Meanwhile, Leslie Fong, in South China Morning Post, examines the Chinese standpoint against the background of the latest “Freedom of Navigation Operation” by the US Navy 12 miles off Mischief Reef, which China called a “serious military provocation”. According to China’s view, the US are playing up the fortification of islands as a prelude to Chinese intimidation of its neighbours, so that America can maintain or even increase its armed presence in waters not far from China’s 14,500km coastline. However, whereas China considers the South China Sea its “backyard” (comparable to the Gulf of Mexico for America), Fong argues that the US insist on freedom of navigation despite having themselves disregarded a rule-based order several times in the past. [South China Morning Post] Meanwhile, Secretary of National Defense of the Philippines, Delfin Lorenzana, said that the Philippines’ territorial dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea remains a security challenge despite an improvement in bilateral ties. The Philippines received three donated second-hand TC90 planes from Japan to boost the navy’s capability to gather intelligence in the disputed South China Sea. [The Straits Times]

18 March 2018

Philippines to withdraw from International Criminal Court

(ls) On 14 March 2018, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced that the Philippines will withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC, the Court) “effective immediately.” Discarding official withdrawal procedures, the move came about a month after the ICC opened preliminary examinations into Duterte’s war on drugs to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to establish jurisdiction over the case. In his withdrawal announcement, Duterte complained, in particular, about a lack of respect for the principles of complementarity, due process and the presumption of innocence, and argued that the Rome Statute had not been properly published in the nation’s official gazette. [Rappler] [The New York Times]

In a Trump-like statement, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said: “No new countries will join because we are recognized as probably the number one defender of human rights and democracy in the world.” Roque himself was a prominent advocate for the Philippines joining the ICC in 2011. “This is the beginning of the end of the court,” he said. [The Straits Times]

When the Philippines withdrawal becomes effective, Raul Cano Pangalangan [portrait on the ICC Website], the current Philippine Judge serving at the Court, will need to terminate his service as well.

Duterte’s intention to reject the ICC’s jurisdiction exemplifies the Court’s fragile foothold across Southeast Asia. Cambodia and the Philippines have been the only two ICC members among the ten ASEAN countries. Thailand signed the Statute in 2000, but not yet proceeded to ratification. An explanation of this Southeast Asian hesitation may be found in distinct attitudes and principles within and between the ASEAN countries, with the principle of non-interference in particular, as CPG’s Lasse Schuldt explains. [Verfassungsblog]

11 March 2018

Philippine’s supreme court chief justice (and judicial independence?) under fire

(jk) As we explained in last week’s AiR, for not properly declaring assets and problems as to her “integrity” the Philippine’s chief justice of the supreme court is under continued fire from the government seeking to expel her from her position. She is currently on leave for an indefinite period. The chief justice, alongside another high profile anti-graft prosecutor who had last year looked into the President’s hidden wealth, have long been a thorn in the eye of Duterte’s who last year alleged they would discredit his administration. Now, the House of Representatives has launched the impeachment process against her, which she sees as an assault not only on her, but on judicial independence in her country, reiterating her claim that President Duterte has little respect for the separation of power. In a reaction to the developments, the United Nations human rights chief criticised Duterte for his “authoritarian approach to governance” [The Straits Times; ABC News].

11 March 2018

South China Sea

(jk/ls) The South China Sea remains one of the main flashpoints in Asia, continuing to involve littoral, regional as well as extra-territorial actors. The situation on the ground is changing mainly for two reasons. On the one hand, extensive land reclamation and military build-up of islands and other features in the SCS by the PRC have created new facts on the ground and essentially present the world with a fait-accompli on behalf of China. On the other hand, unsuccessful policies and growing uncertainties regarding the commitment of the US and a significant policy change in what used to be the most forward-leaning claimant state other than China, the Philippines, have led to political circumstances facilitating Chinese actions. For an update on the island-building and reclamation activities of all five claimants, please refer to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative out of the Center for Strategic Studies who have overhauled their Island Tracker. It now includes imagery of every outpost in the South China Sea which amounts to over 90 facilities at nearly 70 features [AMTI].

In more recent developments, the second iteration of the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea between China and the Philippines has made some headlines. The bilateral meeting – the preferred cooperation modus by China who opposes any extra-territorial nations to be involved- is in a way an outcome of the Philippine’s softening stance on the SCS dispute since 2016, although the idea of joint development projects – which the meetings discussed – has been around much longer and their success is questionable. Major ‘breakthroughs” that are announced more often than not fail to extend beyond very low hanging fruits and carefully worded statements that do not change facts on the ground or go beyond what has already been achieved in an ASEAN wide context [ISEAS, The Diplomat 1].

Another relevant development is this week’s US aircraft carrier port call to Vietnam – a first since the end of the Vietnam War over 40 years ago. Since the Philippines has changed its stance on the SCS, Vietnam has taken over as the claimant that is seen to challenge China most, with the US intensifying ties to it [The New York Times].

The response by Beijing to the port call- although critical, was not overly aggressive with the People’s Daily acknowledging the fact the Hanoi engages in a hedging strategy and that it long has done so. It did find however that the US move was all but a “waste of money” [Asia Times].

In a related development India and Vietnam have, in a high-level joint statement, once again affirmed their support for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where Vietnam is a claimant along with five other states — China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan. Hanoi has been particularly pro-active in the dispute in recent years. In addition to approaching India, Vietnam has grown closer to the United States as well. [The Diplomat 2]

In the meantime, the UK has announced that it will send a Royal Navy vessel to conduct a “Freedom of Navigation” voyage in the SCS [The Times UK].

4 March 2018

Philippines: Will divorce become legal?

(ls) A bill legalizing divorce in the Philippines has been approved at the committee level in the House of Representatives and is set to be heard at a plenary level. It is the first time since 2005 that a bill pushing for divorce has come this close to being passed into legislation. The Philippines is the only country in the world apart from the Vatican that does not allow divorce. More than 80 percent of the country’s population is Catholic. Only the country’s Muslims — about 10 percent of the population — can exercise divorce under the Muslim family laws. [Deutsche Welle]

4 March 2018

Rule of law in the Philippines: Supreme Court impeachment – Drug war and human rights – Duterte vows to step down in 2020

(ls) The Philippine Supreme Court’s chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno expects to be impeached by the House of Representatives next month and will go on leave to prepare for the trial. She drew the anger of President Rodrigo Duterte over allegations of undeclared wealth in bank accounts. The grounds for impeachment against her include alleged corruption and culpable violation of the constitution. Sereno has sought dismissal of the complaint, calling the allegations totally false and “nothing short of an impeachment exercise based on fake news”. Duterte last year already accused the Ombudsman anti-graft agency of allowing the use of illegally obtained or fabricated information to investigate allegations that he kept undeclared wealth in past bank accounts. [South China Morning Post 1]

Meanwhile, against the background of an investigation of the International Criminal Court into possible crimes committed in Duterte’s proclaimed war on drugs, the Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano warned the United Nations not to “weaponize” human rights and urged it to send an impartial investigator to assess the anti-drug war. Cayetano said, “human rights becomes a human wrong when the ridiculous assertion is taken seriously that drugs are harmless (…) and that taking the most vigorous measures to stop the evil trade constitutes genocide. That puts drug dealers and drug pushers on the same moral level as the victims [of] holocausts.” [South China Morning Post 2]

At the same time, President Duterte said he would likely retire several years before the end of his term in 2022, in a bid to dispel concerns he will cling on to power and become a dictator. “I will step down by 2020, I will not wait for 2022,” he said in a speech. “I am old. I have no more ambition. I really would like to rest.” [Asian Correspondent]

Finally, the news website Rappler, whose license was repealed by the Security and Exchange Commission earlier this year, operates normally pending an appeal against the decision. Rappler claims that the charge is baseless, because its foreign investors neither owned shares nor had a say in its operations. Nonetheless, an American investor transferred its interests to local partners to remove an “artificial barrier” being used by the government to stifle Rappler’s operations. [South China Morning Post 3]

4 March 2018

China-Philippine relations: Energy deals solely commercial, not government-to-government agreement

(dql) Against the background of an agreement between the Philippines and China last month to establish a special panel to work out joint exploration oil and gas in part of the South China Sea that both sides lay claim without having to address the touchy issue of sovereignty, Harry Roque, spokesman of President Rodrigo Duterte, Thursday announced that any potential deals between Manila and Beijing on energy exploration in the South China Sea should be agreed with a company and not the Chinese government. This announcement is the latest sign of warming ties between the Philippines and China under Duterte who, in exchange for trade opportunities and financing in key infrastructure projects, has put aside territorial disputes with Beijing. [South China Morning Post]

25 February 2018

Philippines: Government pursues designation of Communist Party as terror organization

(ls) The Philippine government on Wednesday asked a court to formally designate the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, as terrorist groups. The development shows that chances of a resumption of stalled peace talks are at their lowest point. President Rodrigo Duterte resumed peace talks with the guerrillas and granted concessions by appointing three left-wing activists to his Cabinet in 2016, but the cordial relations rapidly deteriorated as rebel assaults on troops and policemen continued. Last year, Duterte canceled the peace talks and signed an order declaring the rebel groups as terrorist organizations in a prelude to his government’s formal move on Wednesday. [ABC News]

25 February 2018

Philippines: Inside the political trolling industry

(ls) In the Philippines, influential online personalities and troll armies are credited with winning Rodrigo Duterte the presidency in 2016. Even after carrying Duterte to victory, trolls, or “Dutertards” as his fanatic supporters have been dubbed, continue to vociferously share fake news and silence dissenters. Jonathan Corpus Ong and Jason Cabanes describe how anonymous influencers are in charge of building their politician client’s image on social media and creating artificially trending hashtags. Followers then amplify messages until mainstream news outlets pick them up. Other tasks might involve digital black ops such as seeding revisionist history narratives or sowing divisiveness in online communities. [Open Democracy] These developments reflect a global trend toward a weaponization of information.

25 February 2018

Philippines: U.S. intelligence report considers Duterte a threat to democracy

(ls) A report produced by the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence has placed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte alongside Cambodia’s Hun Sen, the Rohingya crisis and Thailand’s military-backed constitution as impediments to democracy. Reacting to the report, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said, “we view this declaration from no less than the intelligence department of the United States with some concern.” [Reuters]House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez responded by demanding the Philippines shall file a diplomatic protest to the United States. At the same time, he called for the abolition of the United Nations, arguing that instead, the Philippines should join a “United Nations of Asia” that will protect the interest of the region. [Rappler] As AiR reported last week, the International Criminal Court has opened a preliminary examination into Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign.

Meanwhile, after a helicopter purchase from Canada was subjected to heightened scrutiny by the Canadian government last week, possibly axing the deal, the British government has come under fire for selling spyware to the Philippines that most likely was used in Duterte’s war on drugs. The equipment purchased by Duterte’s government included IMSI-Catchers, which are used to eavesdrop on telephone conversations, and surveillance tools to monitor internet activity. [The Guardian]

25 February 2018

Philippine claim on Sabah may undermine regional security efforts

(ls/lh) A recent proposal in the Philippines’ Consultative Committee on constitutional reform to include the Malaysian state of Sabah within a federal system may, though unlikely to be realized, risk unsettling Malaysia-Philippine bilateral relations, argues Alexander Mcleod. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman criticized the proposal, reiterating that Malaysia does not recognize the Philippines’ claim. Sabah is recognized under international law as part of Malaysia since it was formed in 1963. The committee’s proposals, however, resonate with members of the southern Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a strong advocate of federalism. MNLF champions an independent ‘Bangsamoro Republik’ – covering Sabah, Sarawak, Mindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan and Palawan. [Global Risk Insights]

President Duterte has vowed in recent weeks and months to provide more autonomy for the southern parts of the country, which are his political strongholds. Whether the Philippines are indeed ready for the adoption of a federal system, however, remains doubtful. Even Duterte himself, speaking in December last year, said “the problem is the Filipinos are not ready for a federal type.” [The Philippine Star] The plans for constitutional reform have often been described as a mere political campaign to please Duterte’s supporters in Mindanao, his home.

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s counter-terrorism police have detained ten people – seven Filipinos and three Malaysians – suspected of helping terrorists enter the southern Philippines from Sabah. The smuggling of militant Islamic State (IS) fighters aims at facilitating efforts in conducting military trainings to set up an IS cell in the southern Philippines. [Channel News Asia]

18 February 2018

Philippines: International Criminal Court launches investigation into Duterte’s drug war

(ls) The International Criminal Court (ICC) has launched an initial inquiry into allegations of crimes against humanity committed by Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president, in his war on drugs. ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement that her office would “analyse crimes allegedly committed … since at least 1 July 2016 in the context of the ‘war on drugs’ campaign”. The inquiry will be the ICC’s first preliminary examination in a Southeast Asian nation. [The Guardian]

The majority of ASEAN countries have so far been reluctant to join the Rome Statute of the ICC. Cambodia was the first among them to ratify the Rome Statute in 2002. The Philippines became the second ASEAN country to join when it ratified the Statute on 30 August 2011. Thailand signed the Statute on 2 October 2000 but has yet to ratify it. Compared with other world regions, the relationship between Southeast Asia and the ICC can be described as one of particular hesitation. CPG’s Lasse Schuldt has examined this state of affairs against the background of ASEAN’s policy of Non-Interference, “Asian values”, the referral mechanisms and the principle of complementarity. [German Law Journal]

President Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque said that the ICC investigation would undermine the sovereignty of the Philippines “because the domestic courts are functioning and willing to entertain this matter … and the alleged deaths, if true, were because of a legitimate police exercise.” Before Roque became the President’s spokesperson, he was a private lawyer who earned a reputation for being a fighter for the poor and underprivileged, for human rights, press freedom and international humanitarian law. In an in-depth report, Rappler portraits Roque who claims that, as spokesperson, he has “no personal opinions”. [Rappler]

Meanwhile, neighboring Indonesia awarded Philippine National Police Director-General, Ronald dela Rosa, its highest honor, the Medal of Honor. Indonesia’s National Police Chief, Gen. Tito Karnavian, praised dela Rosa for his “rock star-like inspiration to the Indonesian national police and the Indonesian people on how to fight the war on drugs.” [Human Rights Watch]

18 February 2018

Philippines: Escalating conflict with Kuwait over treatment of workers

(ls) The Philippines on Monday barred its citizens from traveling to Kuwait for employment, accusing the gulf state’s government of turning a blind eye to the abuse and even killing of domestic workers and other Filipinos. The development followed reports that the body of a Filipino domestic worker had been found in a freezer in an apartment in Kuwait. The Philippine economy is heavily dependent on remittances, with 10 percent of the country’s population working overseas and sending money home. [The New York Times]

Kuwait’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah said he was surprised and that “we condemn statements from the Philippine president, especially as we are in contact with the Philippines on a high level to explain the workers’ conditions in Kuwait.” [Arabian Business]

18 February 2018

South China Sea: Philippines wants to stay out of great power rivalry as U.K. supports the U.S.

(ls) The Philippine government on Wednesday rejected Chinese names given to some undersea features in a vast offshore region where the Southeast Asian country holds undisputed sovereign rights. [South China Morning Post 1] As AiR reported last week, President Duterte ordered an end to all foreign scientific research missions in Benham/Philippine Rise after officials said the Philippines’ undisputed sovereign rights in the potentially oil- and gas-rich water off its northeastern coast came under question.

However, China has insisted that the military assets it is deploying on disputed islands in the South China Sea are not aimed at the Philippines and other neighboring countries. According to statements of the Philippine ambassador to Beijing, “it is part of the rivalry between a rising China and the US over the South China Sea,” and that the Philippines want to stay out of this great power conflict. [Straits Times] As AiR reported last week, latest surveillance photos show that Beijing has nearly finished building air and naval bases on the seven islands it has occupied in the Spratly and Paracel island chains. At the same time, both China and the Philippines have agreed to push on with plans to jointly explore for oil and gas in the waterway.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom announced that it will launch a freedom of navigation operation in March, supporting the United States’ approach on the issue. A British submarine-hunting warship will sail from Australia through the disputed South China Sea next month. “The US is looking for other countries to do more. This is a great opportunity for the UK and Australia to do more, to exercise leadership,” British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said. [South China Morning Post 2]

18 February 2018

Philippines: Security hardware supply problems may result in turn to China and Russia

(ls) A helicopter deal between Canada and the Philippines has come under increased scrutiny. Within the Canadian government, concerns continued to mount about how the aircraft will be used. On Wednesday, Canada’s International Trade Minister Champagne announced that he had ordered a review after a senior member of the Philippine military said the aircraft would also be used in “internal security operations” and not only for search-and-rescue missions. [CBC]

Against this background, the Philippines are likely to turn to non-Western defense manufacturers. After Canada’s announcement to put the helicopter deal on hold, Philippine Air Force officials said Russia’s Kamov and China’s Z-series helicopters are comparable models to Bell’s 412 medium lift. South Korean’s Surions were also an option. [The Straits Times]

This development is part of the Philippines’ security forces struggling efforts to modernize their hardware. Last year, a major frigates project of the Philippine Navy stumbled after disputes with a Japanese contractor, leading to the early retirement of the Philippine Navy chief over allegations of corruption. A detailed Rappler report recounts the events. [Rappler]

18 February 2018

Security in Southeast Asia: Increased cooperation since Marawi

(ls) After years of lukewarm security cooperation between Southeast countries, last year’s five-month siege of Marawi by Islamic State-aligned militants proved to be a game-changer, argues Michael Hart in the Asian Correspondent. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines began conducting naval patrols to restrict the movement of jihadist fighters to-and-from Mindanao. These measures were later bolstered by the addition of coordinated air patrols to spot suspicious activity from the skies. In mid-November last year, the Southeast Asian Counter-Terrorism Financing Working Group (SACTFWG) was established, and last month, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand signed up to a new intelligence-sharing pact labelled the “Our Eyes” initiative. [Asian Correspondent]

11 February 2018

Philippines: Drug war resumes as rule-of-law ranking plunges

(ls) Nearly 50 people suspected of using and selling drugs were killed by officers in the past two months, the Philippine National Police said last week, contradicting earlier pronouncements that the government’s war on drugs would become less deadly. Last year, President Rodrigo Duterte temporarily placed the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency in charge, but later handed the responsibility back to the police. The government says fewer than 4,000 suspects have been killed in Duterte’s war on drugs, but Human Rights Watch estimates the figure at more than 12,000. [The New York Times]

In the 2018 Rule of Law Index published by the World Justice Project, the Philippines experienced the biggest drop in the rule-of-law ranking of all countries worldwide over the last 12 months. The index calculates weighted scores across eight categories, among them corruption, constraints on the government, fundamental rights, and open government. [Asian Correspondent]

11 February 2018

China’s relations with regional political entities: ASEAN and African Union

(ls/dql) A gathering of ASEAN foreign ministers in Singapore ended on Tuesday. They agreed on the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in activities in the South China Sea to avoid raising tensions in the disputed waters. Francis Chan opines that this is a promising sign of unity as ASEAN begins negotiations with China next month on a code of conduct to manage tensions. [The Straits Times 1]

In a parallel meeting, ASEAN defense ministers discussed ways to improve cooperation between China and ASEAN, and said they would conduct an inaugural ASEAN-China maritime exercise at the end of the year. Besides, the defense ministers agreed to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation, identifying terrorism as the region’s most serious security threat. [The Straits Times 2]

At the same time, recent surveillance photos show that China is nearly done building air and naval facilities on seven islands it claims in the South China Sea. The photos show that the runways for the three biggest islands – Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief – have been completed or are ready for use. Lighthouses, radar domes, hangars and multi-storey buildings have been built on them, while helipads, wind turbines and observation and communication towers can be seen on four smaller islands – Burgos, Calderon, McKennan and Johnson South. [The Straits Times 3]

The Philippines, for their part, have disallowed groups from China and other countries to undertake scientific research in disputed waters. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte issued the respective order in a Cabinet meeting late Monday after doubts were raised over the country’s sovereign rights in the offshore region called Benham Rise, which the government has renamed Philippine Rise. About 30 research permits are revoked. [South China Morning Post]

Meanwhile, at the seventh China-African Union strategic dialogue in Beijing this week, African Union (AU) Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi jointly confirmed to deepen cooperation between both sides, with Wang stating China’s readiness to become AU most reliable strategic partner. Cooperation between China and Africa has grown significantly in the last two decades, with the latest boost in 2015 when President Xi Jinping pledged investment in Africa worth 60 billion USD under the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). [The Diplomat] [Brookings]

11 February 2018

Counter-Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Philippines and Singapore

(ls/ek) The Philippines have vowed to crush the ‘weakened’ Abu Sayyaf terror group in the south of the country. Military operations will continue against the Islamic State-inspired militants, officials said Monday, claiming the enemy’s strength has been weakened with over 350 members killed since last year. In May 2017, Abu Sayyaf and other Islamist groups attacked Marawi City in a bid to establish an Islamic province there. The five-month war displaced more than 350,000 civilians and killed some 1,100 individuals. [Asian Correspondent 1]

In a 10-5 decision, the Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday approved a one-year extension of President Rodrigo Duterte’s martial law decree covering Mindanao, home to a population of 20 million people. Opponents argued that extended martial law violated a constitutional provision limiting the initial period to 60 days. However, the Supreme Court said the constitution was “silent” on how many times Congress may extend martial law. Martial law is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, after dictator Ferdinand Marcos used military rule to hold on to power a generation ago. [The Straits Times 1]

Meanwhile, the largest Moro rebel group in Mindanao has called on legislators to approve a law creating an autonomous area, the new Bangsamoro region, to prevent violent further Islamic extremism. A senator from Mindanao who chairs the Senate subcommittee on the issue said they are hoping to approve the measure before Congress goes on break by the end of March. President Rodrigo Duterte urged the bill to be passed, which he said seeks to address the historical injustices committed against the Moro people. [Asian Correspondent 2]

Meanwhile, Singapore will boost its security spending to tackle terror threats in 2018. Terror and defense have always been important issues for Singapore’s government. In the last few years, Singapore spent a up to 30 percent of the state budget on defense. About 65,000 public cameras have been installed throughout the city state. The police also trained specialist teams, who would be the first to respond in the event of attacks. [The Straits Times 2]

4 February 2018

South China Sea: China grows its influence as U.S. relies on freedom of navigation

(ls) After another “Freedom of Navigation Operation” by the U.S. navy, China has vowed to take “necessary measures” to protect its sovereignty. The missile destroyer USS Hopper had sailed within 12 nautical miles – an internationally recognized territorial limit – of Huangyan Island, which is also known as Scarborough Shoal and subject to a rival claim by the Philippines. The U.S. argued that the “innocent” was in accordance with international law. China’s defence ministry said the repeated dispatch of US warships to the region was “undermining regional peace and stability” and hurting bilateral relations. [The Guardian]

The Philippines, though defending the destroyer’s passage, are trying to avoid being caught up in the power game between the U.S. and China. Philippines Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said, “that is really a problem of America because we have come to a point that we now have an independent foreign policy, (…) the problem of America today is no longer the problem of the Philippines, (…) we are now trying to make friends (with China)”. [The Straits Times]

Against this background, Mark Valencia examines the decline of U.S. influence in the South China Sea, describing how U.S. allies such as Australia, Japan, and the Philippines have so far declined U.S. requests to join its freedom of navigation operations, and how Indonesia has expressed disapproval over such U.S. “power projection” in the area. [The Diplomat] In a similar vein, Gregory Poling holds that, with China’s growing influence across Southeast Asia, a diplomatic breakthrough is unlikely. From a U.S. perspective, he suggests that the Trump administration should begin giving the South China Sea as much attention as North Korea during diplomatic engagements with ASEAN states and other regional partners. [Foreign Affairs]

However, regarding China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia, Alvin Camba urges to not oversimplify bilateral relations along the lines of “play nice with Beijing, gain investment and aid”.  He argues that the pitfall in this theory is the assumption that states are the main actors in determining the flows of foreign direct investment. Choosing the case of the Philippines as a case study, he holds that the relationship between Philippine and Chinese leaders is surely important, but that it ultimately falls short of explaining the variations in the types of investments, and across different Philippines presidential administrations. [New Mandala]

4 February 2018

Six ASEAN countries form “Our Eyes” intelligence network

(ls) Six Southeast Asian nations launched an intelligence pact on Thursday aimed at combating Islamist militants and improving cooperation on security threats, overcoming what analysts described as a high level of distrust. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Brunei – all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – have signed up to the “Our Eyes” pact according to which senior defence officials will meet every two weeks to swap information on militant groups and develop a common database of violent extremists. [South China Morning Post]

26 January 2018

Philippines: Police to wear body cameras in drug raids

(ls) Philippine police will soon have to wear body cameras during anti-narcotics operations and visit suspects’ homes only in the daytime. A date by which the cameras are expected to be made available to police has, however, not been specified. [South China Morning Post]

26 January 2018

Philippines: With media freedom under threat, Philippines insist on “sovereignty”

(ls) After news website Rappler lost its license to operate in the Philippines (see last week’s AiR), critical investigative journalism website “Vera Files” has been hit by a distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) after a story critical of President Rodrigo Duterte appeared on the site. The story dealt with Duterte’s and his daughter’s non-disclosure of financial details held at a bank when the pair were mayor and vice-mayor of Davao City. Whether pro-Duterte agents were behind the DDoS attack or not is effectively impossible to ascertain, and therefore motives remain unclear. [Asian Correspondent]

The New York Times has published a timely portrait of Jover Laurio, a 38-year-old law student who runs an influential blog in the Philippines. After Laurio having been chronicling extrajudicial killings and dissecting false claims made by President Rodrigo Duterte and his circle, she now lives under constant protection by armed bodyguards. [The New York Times]

The Philippines this week formally rejected about P380 million (6.1 million euros) in aid from the European Union, with another P2.4 billion (39 million euros) in aid for sustainable energy projects likely to be rejected as well. Philip-pine Foreign Secretary Cayetano said that the Philippines will reject foreign donations that come with “conditionali-ties that will affect our sovereignty.” President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly criticized the EU for supposedly med-dling in his war on drugs, which has killed thousands. [Rappler]

19 January 2018

Philippines: The next step on the way to constitutional reform

(ls) In its effort to deliver on President Rodrigo Duterte’ promise to reform the country’s constitution and introduce a federal system of government, Philippine lower house lawmakers voted on Tuesday to convene the chamber as a constitutional assembly. Besides federalization, the constitutional reform aims at an expansion of the two legislative chambers, longer terms for all elected officials, greater fiscal autonomy for provinces, a prime minister as the head of government, and a separately elected president. [Reuters]

In response to criticism President Duterte might want to prolong his tenure through the constitutional reform, Du-terte responded that he is not interested in extending his six-year term or canceling elections next year. Duterte’s term ends in 2022. [Voice of America]

19 January 2018

Philippines: Critical news website Rappler loses licence

(ls) On Monday, the Securities and Exchange Commission of the Philippines (SEC) ordered the closing of the inde-pendent online news website “Rappler”. The SEC stated that Rappler had circumvented a constitutional rule that re-stricts ownership of media entities to Filipinos. The ruling will take effect after 15 days. Additional criminal charges against individuals might be brought. Since the beginning of its existence in 2012, Rappler has reported Philippine and Indonesian politics with a pronounced and critical view. Particularly, the news website tracked and traced the bloody “war against drugs” ordered by Duterte. [The New York Times]

In response to criticism about the SEC’s decision, Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque urged Rappler reporters to rein-vent themselves as bloggers, rejecting allegations Manila was cracking down on the free press. He added, however, that they would then have to seek government accreditation as bloggers. [The Straits Times]

In an interesting piece, Lauren Etter describes how the Duterte administration turned Facebook into a weapon. From inside the Malacañang Palace, a special team of social media officers is methodically taking down opponents, includ-ing Rappler’s co-founder Maria Resser. The phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “patriotic trolling,” involves the use of targeted harassment and propaganda meant to go viral and to give the impression that there is a groundswell of organic support for the government. [Bloomberg]

19 January 2018

Terrorist arbitrage in Southeast Asia

Quinton Temby describes how transnational terrorists engage in a type of triangular arbitrage in Southeast Asia to exploit the geopolitical differences between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. He argues that, instead of being motivated by profits, the terrorists seek to marshal scarce resources for attacks against their ideological enemies, and rely on the failure of the three major states to cooperate as well as on their knowledge of the different costs of mobilising resources across the fragmented archipelagic geography of maritime Southeast Asia. [New Mandala]

12 January 2018

Philippines: The end of an affair? Duterte’s romance with the Reds

The longest communist insurgency in Asia has been ongoing for decades in the Philippines. President Rodrigo Du-terte adopted different strategies to curb the problem. When only a few months into his term, he released top lead-ers of the communist rebels. However, he failed to complete a peace agreement by the 2nd year of his term. Then, late last year, he declared the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) as well as the New People’s Army (NPA) ter-rorist organizations. In this piece, Rappler examines Duterte’s strategy toward the communist insurgency in Min-danao, evaluating also his relations with the military and the role of backchannel talks [Rappler].

12 January 2018

Philippines: The rocky road to constitutional change

President Rodrigo Duterte wants to deliver on his election campaign promise for a constitutional change toward federalism. For that purpose, he has eyed a possible cancellation of midterm elections and extensions to terms in office, including his own. Filipinos are expected to elect 12 senators, about 300 congressmen and thousands of local government officials in next year’s elections. The opposition has now fiercely criticized Duterte’s plans. Critics also submit that the real goal of the constitutional make-over could be to suit the interests of the clans and dynasties in Congress [Daily Times].

12 January 2018

Philippines-China relations: Manila’s protest over apparent airbase on manmade island

The Philippines will make a diplomatic protest to China, citing China’s promise not to militarize artificial islands in the South China Sea waterway. Late last year, aerial footage by the official China Central Television (CCTV) showed Fiery Cross Reef which appeared to have been transformed into an airbase. China’s foreign ministry spokesman said the construction was on the country’s territory and was intended to aid peace in the region, as well as maritime safety and disaster prevention. Under a “status quo” agreement brokered by Manila, China assured the Philippines it will not occupy new features or territory in the South China Sea [The Straits Times].

12 January 2018

Terrorism: Indonesia and Philippines cooperate in fight against violent extremism

(ls) As violent extremism has been a constant issue in the Philippines over the course of the last years and decades, neighboring Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, pledged assistance to Manila. Jakarta will grant 100 scholarships each year to students of Islamic schools in Mindanao to study in Indonesia. Last year, the siege of the city of Marawi triggered Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to place all of Mindanao under martial law, which was extended by Congress upon the request of the president who said threats from the extremists remain. [Asian Correspondent]

Moreover, the two countries are joining forces to increase maritime security and stop Islamic State sympathizers from crossing the porous sea border. Indonesia is known to have sleeper cells of IS sympathizers. Philippine officials suspected that Indonesians as well as Malaysians had reached the southern island Mindanao last year to support a battle being fought by local IS-inspired rebels [Voice of America].

5 January 2018

Philippines: Martial law in Mindanao under scrutiny as human rights abuses continue

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s extension of martial law in Mindanao, which was approved by the Philippine Congress, is under scrutiny by the country’s Supreme Court, after opposition lawmakers field a petition last month. Within the Supreme Court, the petition has been assigned to Associate Justice Noel Tijam, Duterte’s second appointee to the high court [The Philippine Star]. Due to an alleged continued threat by violent extremists, Martial law was extended even though the city of Marawi had previously been declared liberated.

Meanwhile, a Muslim indigenous community in the southern Philippines has suffered widespread human right abuses that could intensify with the martial law extension, U.N.-appointed experts said. The government, however, fears that mountainous, jungle-clad Mindanao, a region the size of South Korea, could attract foreign militants [Reuters].

Against this background, Ana P. Santos reports for Deutsche Welle that 2018 will be “dangerous” for the Philippines. One expert foresees that a dictatorship will be formally established through a declaration of a revolutionary government. Another submits that the government’s single-minded focus on the war on drugs led to the miscalculation of other imminent security threats. Moreover, if the political situation deteriorates, then it could have a negative impact on the economy as well [Deutsche Welle].

5 January 2018

Forces shaping Southeast Asian regional security and geopolitics

This week, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi paid a visit to the Philippines, where she met with top officials including President Rodrigo Duterte. Though the agenda itself was more wide-ranging, her trip put the spotlight on the progress both sides are trying to make on some common security challenges [The Diplomat 1].

Li Jie Sheng, analyzes the United States National Security Strategy (NSS) and its repercussions for Southeast Asia. However, the NSS makes only little mentioning of US security relations to Southeast Asian countries. Taking into account the general direction in US foreign and security policy, Li describes the Trump administration’s agenda as aggressive, narrow-minded, and perhaps isolationist [The Diplomat 2].

Finally, Professor Yee-Kuang Heng of the Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Tokyo, examines Japan’s hard and soft power in Southeast Asia. It highlights Japanese military cooperation with the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam, while also exploring soft power projects throughout ASEAN [New Straits Times].