Asia in Review Archive (2019-2020)


Date of AiR edition

News summary

29 December 2020

Philippines: President Duterte names opposition lawmakers suspected of corruption

(dql) Reversing his last month’s decision, President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday revealed names of former and current lawmakers allegedly involved in corruption in the context of public works projects, while conceding that he was not in possession of evidence for these allegations. 

Targeted legislators and other critics condemned the claims as groundless and called them an attempt to deflect from real issues plaguing the country including the slow and ineffective response to the coronavirus pandemic, the daily number of deaths, police abuses, and the P15-billion missing Philhealth funds. [ABS-CBN] [Manila Bulletin]

29 December 2020

Philippines: Duterte-criticism flares up after police murder of mother and son

(dql) The brazen killing of a mother and her son by an off-duty officer has triggered a public outcry in the Philippines and reignited demands for a reform of the country’s police force. Graphic footage shows a plainclothes policeman arguing with his neighbour and her adult son before abruptly shooting them both from close range. The officer, who handed himself in to police, has been charged with two counts of murder.

The incident has also increased pressure on President Rodrigo Duterte who has been accused by rights groups of allowing police and the military to act with impunity. [BBC]

29 December 2020

Philippines: CPP, NPA labelled terrorist organizations

(dql) The Philippine Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) has formally designated the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing New People’s Army (NPA) as terrorist groups. The move comes three years after President Rodrigo Duterte issued Presidential Proclamation No. 374 in December 2017 declaring both organizations as terrorist groups. [Inquirer 1]

In spite of this decision, leaders of CPP and NPA – speaking on Saturday on the occasion of the 52nd anniversary of the founding of the CPP – called on the government to halt their all-out war strategy, to stop “blind red-tagging, slander, extortion, arbitrary arrests, torture and murder,” and to resume peace talks. [Manila Times] [Inquirer 2]

In response, Duterte, however, announced that he will not call for a ceasefire “ever again” with the CPP and NPA for the remainder of his term. [PIA]

29 December 2020

Philippine-US relations: President Duterte threatens to end Visiting Forces Agreement with US over coronavirus vaccine delivery

(dql) President Rodrigo Duterte last week announced that he would push through with his plan to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US unless it was able to provide the Philippines with a minimum of 20 million vaccines against the coronavirus. In an earlier move, Duterte had ordered the termination of the VFA earlier this year, after Washington invoked the American Magnitsky Act and denied the issuance of a US visa to Sen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa. The order, however, was suspended for the six-month countdown before the military agreement lapses. [Inquirer]

In force since 1999, the VFA allows the US government to retain jurisdiction over US military personnel accused of committing crimes in the Philippines, unless the crimes are “of particular importance to the Philippines.”

29 December 2020

India, Vietnam strengthen defense ties, undertake PASSEX exercise in South China Sea

(lm) Taking place against China’s growing assertiveness in the region, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc co-hosted a virtual summit on December 21, signing seven agreements in areas ranging from defense to petrochemical and renewable energy research, and calling for a peaceful, “open and rules-based” Indo-Pacific. India also handed over one of 12 high-speed patrol boats being made for Vietnam under a $100 million line of credit. [South China Morning Post]

In the same vein as a Vietnam-Japan summit held earlier this year [AiR No. 42, October/2020, 3], the India-Vietnam summit stressed the importance of ensuring maritime safety and security in the South China Sea as well as peaceful dispute settlement and the adherence to international law. Regarding the latter the joint statement referred to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and the aspired Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). [The Diplomat]

The summit marked the culmination of a series of high-level exchanges between the two sides throughout this year, including a visit by Vietnam’s vice-president to New Delhi, a phone conversation between the two prime ministers in April to discuss the COVID-19 situation, and an earlier online meeting in November on the sideline of the 37th ASEAN Summit [see AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3].

Separately, an Indian warship reached Ho Chi Minh City on December 24, delivering humanitarian relief supplies for people affected by floods in central Vietnam under New Delhi’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) III mission. What is more, the visit is also aimed at enhancing maritime cooperation between the two countries, as the warship will be partaking in a Passage Exercise (PASSEX) with the Vietnam People’s Navy in South China Sea, to be held between December 26 and 27. [Hindustan Times] [WION]

22 December 2020

Philippines: Possible ICC case on war on drugs

(nd) The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) commented to see a “reasonable basis” for crime against humanity probe in Philippines for the extrajudicial killings by police and government forces in the wake of president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. A decision to open an investigation or not will be rendered by the first half of next year.

The ICC report shows that the prosecutor agrees with activist that crimes against humanity were possibly committed. The case was triggered in 2017 with a complaint against Duterte by a Filipino lawyer. Following the ICC announcement of investigation, the government reacted with fury and pulled of the ICC. 

An investigation by the ICC could be avoided if the Philippines convincingly show, they are conducting “fair, serious and meaningful investigation” of the crimes themselves. The recently formed task force to investigate the crimes was labelled an obvious way to simply prevent an ICC investigation, specifically with respect to Duterte’s immunity under Philippine law despite the investigations. Contrarily at the ICC, heads of state do not enjoy immunity. [South China Morning Post]

22 December 2020

Philippines: Recent challenges to peace process in the south

(nd) Following decades of conflict and years of negotiations, which tasked the former rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) with leading a three-year transition period to result in the election of a regional government in 2022, calls to extend this period due to Covid-19 threaten to throw the peace process in the Southern Philippines off track. It forced the responsible to turn funds and human resources towards the mitigation of the pandemic. MILF supports those calls since this means a prolongation of their rule.

Peace agreements in 2021 and 2014 enabled this success story in the Muslim-majority Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The interim body, Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), led by MILF is aimed at creating institutions and transition over to regional elections. Challenges to this are the highly fragmented nature of the region, language, and armed groups as well as influential political clans, which also need to be accommodated to, or might challenge the legitimacy of the endeavor. Since the transition began, though, no major outbreak of violence was seen.

The political clans do not have a united stand on this issue yet. Arguments in favor of an extension are the expected stronger foundations for the administrative apparatus, so institutions can take roots. AN extension could adversely fuel skepticism about the process as such, or be perceived as undemocratic, since the BTA is appointed, not elected, and it will have to be extended for three years to keep it synchronized with national elections.

According to the law, duration of the transition period has to be legislated by the Philippine Congress, involving President Rodrigo Duterte, who voices his support for an extension. Still, the military is already concerned about the delay in the rebel’s disarmament and the remaining armed groups in Mindanao not involved in the peace process. To prevent the fragile situation from collapsing, MILF should reach out in a dialogue with governors and clan leaders, with the overall issue being a reminder that the success of the peace process is not guaranteed. [Asia Times]

A deeper analysis by Georgi Engelbrecht can be found [here].

22 December 2020

Philippines: ICC investigations in war on drugs in 2021 possible

(nd) The International Criminal Court’s (ICC) chief prosecutor sees a “reasonable basis” for crime against humanity probes in the extrajudicial killings by government forces in the wake of president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs that would also involve the President himself. A decision about a launch of investigations will be rendered by the first half of next year. After the case was triggered in 2017 with a complaint against Duterte by a Filipino lawyer and an ICC report saw a basis that crimes against humanity were possibly committed, the Philippines withdrew from the Rome Treaty on the ICC followed by repeated threats and insults against the ICC and its personnel. In July this year President Duterte said for instance he would hurl a grenade at the ICC so that “we’ll all go to hell together”.

While the Philippines’ government insists the ICC has no jurisdiction over Manila as a non-treaty state, an investigation by the ICC could also be avoided according to the treaty itself if the Philippines convincingly show, they are conducting “fair, serious and meaningful investigation” of the crimes themselves. A recently formed Philippine task force to investigate the crimes was, however, seen by critics as an obvious way to simply prevent ICC investigations, specifically with respect to President Duterte’s immunity under Philippine law despite the outcome of the domestic investigations. After all and contrarily to the ICC rules, he would enjoy immunity as the heads of state.

While the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that more than 8,600 people were killed in the war on drugs, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights estimates around 27,000 killings. [South China Morning Post]

22 December 2020

Philippines: Bid to raise minimum consent age

(nd) Currently, Congress is considering a bill to raise the age to be able to consent to sex from 12 to 16 years, in an effort to improve the protection of child rights. The low age has been in the penal code since 1930, with activist having lobbied for decades for an increase.

This effort comes amid rising issues with teen pregnancies and online child sex abuse. In 2015, a government-backed nationwide study highlighted one in five children aged 13-17 experienced sexual violence, while a quarter having been raped during childhood. Prosecution though is toughened by the low consensual age, which is used to argue in these cases. Opposing arguments point towards a possibility to push adolescents in impoverished areas into an illegal underground, for they might be reluctant to work with social workers. [South China Morning Post]

22 December 2020

ASEAN and the South China Sea in 2021

(nd) Against the background of ongoing tensions and significant developments in and regarding the South China Sea over 2020, a recent article in the [East Asia Forum] by Sourabh Gupta argues for an increased potential for ASEAN to play a more meaningful role in the conflict.

15 December 2020

Philippines: Concerns over China funded company hiring Philippine ex-soldiers to ensure cybersecurity

(nd) Philippine telecommunication company Dito in which Chinese state-run China Telecom (ChinaTel) holds a 38.9% stake is under increasing criticisms for risking the integrity of national security interests, not least for the fact that it is building facilities inside military camps as well. Now, the telecom company that claims to remain Filipino in nature faces even more concern as it has recruited at least 9 former soldiers from the Philippine’s armed forces to its cybersecurity team headed by a former general. While the company claims the soldiers would ensure loyalty to their country, critics see security risks greater endangered. [Rappler]


15 December 2020

ASEAN, US relations: challenges and prospects

(nd) A recent report analyzes the challenges for the incoming Biden administration to enhance US ties with Southeast Asian nations. The report sees a great deal of skepticism in the region with regards to the US commitment and wariness of China’s reaction. China has immense strategic interests in the region and advanced to become its major investor through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Such investments, although seen in all their ambiguity by many local observers, are badly needed by the region’s Covid-19-shaken economies. Also, militarily China is increasingly present in the region according to the report and demonstrated its willingness to use force when it comes to its geopolitical interests. The new administration’s call for multilateral engagement is therefore understood by the authors as a call to active participation with ASEAN nations rather than an attempt to develop US leadership as too much engagement is seen as potentially triggering more aggressive counter-moves by China. Given these obstacles, a revival of US-ASEAN ties requires a clear vision and assessment of limitations, patience and political will according the report. [East Asia Forum]

15 December 2020

Philippines, US gifting military equipment

(nd) The outgoing Trump administration gives defense equipment worth US$29 million to the Philippines, reinforcing both countries’ alliance, and following previous gifts of military equipment and aid for the victims of the most recent typhoon. It is part of US strategy to counter China in the South China Sea through bilateral security cooperation. Ahead of this, an article in The Philippine Star by US Defense Secretary Christopher Miller spiked conflict with China, for invoking the 2016 Hague arbitration ruling rejecting China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea and declaring it final and legally binding. He also supported the position of other claimant states in the disputed waters and called China’s actions coercive and destabilizing. [South China Morning Post]

8 December 2020

Philippines: Journalist summoned for cyber libel

(nd) For the second time this year, Philippine journalist Maria Ressa was summoned by court for charges of cyber libel for sharing a news screenshot. Both the Rappler reporter and the magazine itself face a bunch of criminal charges for publishing critical stories about president Rodrigo Duterte and his war on drugs. Time magazine named Ressa as a Person of the Year in 2018. [Channel News Asia]

8 December 2020

Philippines: Duterte rules out Christmas cease-fire with communist guerrillas

(nd) Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte denied the traditionally observed cease-fire with the communist guerrillas during the Christmas season and also rejected the resumption of long-stalled peace talks. “There will be no cease-fire ever again under my term as president. For all intents and purposes, the cease-fire is dead,” Duterte said. Military officials welcomed the president’s decision, claiming the rebels were “notoriously insincere.”

In 2016, Duterte offered key cabinet position to left-wing activists to initiate peace negotiations. His hard stand now reflects his drastic deviation from this initial position after fights between military and rebels resumed again and again. For over half a century, the communist insurgency has raged mostly in the Philippine countryside, with an estimated 3,500 armed guerrillas remaining. [Channel News Asia]


8 December 2020

Philippines: Complaint against Supreme Court Justice

(nd) Supreme Court Associate Justice Mario Victor Leonen is facing an impeachment complaint for a constitutional violation for allegedly delaying pending cases, not disposing of at least 37 cases within 24 months as mandated by Section 15 (1), Article VIII, in relation to Section 16, Article III of the Constitution, which mandates the prompt action and speedy disposition of cases.

Additionally, Leonen did not file his Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) during his tenure at the University of the Philippines, as mandated by Section 17, Article XI of the 1987 Constitution, thereby betraying public trust, according to the complaint. [Manila Times]


8 December 2020

Vietnam condemns both China and Taiwan’s ‘illegal’ acts in South China Sea

(lm) Vietnam has condemned Taiwan for holding live fire drills in what Hanoi considers its rightful waters in the South China Sea, saying the military exercises conducted on November 24 off the disputed Spratly Islands archipelago constituted a ‘grave violation of Vietnamese territory.’ [Hanoi Times] [VN Express]

Hanoi also protested Chinese authorities’ decision to grant permission for two domestic cruise ships to depart on an itinerary to the disputed Paracel Islands, further condemning the deployment of a newly commissioned hospital ship to the South China Sea. [The Maritime Execute] [Janes] [The Star]

1 December 2020

Philippines, India to cooperate in maritime defense

(nd) In a recent interview, India’s Ambassador to the Philippines emphasized his country’s commitment to fight terrorism by widening cooperation in maritime defense. The envoy referred to India’s efforts to set up a coastal surveillance system and emphasized the necessity to set up infrastructure to protect the Philippines’ coastline of 36,000 kilometers.

In October,  Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Indian Navy signed an agreement to enhance their cooperation and to strengthen security “through the sharing of information on nonmilitary and non-government shipping vessels between the Philippines and India.”  As well as India, the Philippines were a target for terrorist attacks, most recently with the bombing in Jolo, Sulu in August 2020. [Manila Times]


1 December 2020

Malaysia, China to standoff in South China Sea

(nd) Tensions arise from a newly standoff over oil and gas drilling in the South China Sea between the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and Royal Malaysian Navy. The Chinese vessel approached the jack-up rig working for  Thailand’s national upstream company PTTEP off Sarawak, East Malaysia, which impacted the rig and its support vessels. Malaysia deployed a naval vessel in response.

China could aim to further escalate the standoff with further deployments to drilling sites off Malaysia, since it claims some 80% of the Luconia Shoals. On the other hand, it entails serious provocation to Malaysia, this close to its shores. [Upstream]

24 November 2020

Asian countries divided over UN death penalty moratorium

(dql) In a poll on a resolution which calls for a moratorium on the use of capital punishment eleven countries from the Asia-Pacific region were among the 39 countries which voted against the resolution in the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly. They include Afghanistan, Brunei Darussalam, China, India, Japan, the Maldives, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Tonga.

120 countries voted for the resolution, including over 15 Asia-Pacific countries. Among them are Sri Lanka and the Philippines. 24 countries abstained from the vote. Asia-Pacific countries among these are Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. [Human Rights Watch]

24 November 2020

Philippines: Rise in requests by government, Facebook reports

(nd) According to Facebook’s latest transparency report, the Philippine government made 131 “preservation requests” for about 1,100 users and accounts in the first half of 2020, in comparison to such requests for 1,099 accounts from 2016 to 2019.

The request is for Facebook to take a temporary snapshot of the account to preserve content that is potentially relevant to criminal investigations. The information will only be disclosed within legal proceedings, requiring a subpoena, a court order and a search warrant. In 2020, the Philippines passed the controversial anti-terror law to fight drug crime, which was criticized by many countries and human rights organizations. [Rappler]

24 November 2020

Philippines, India, Russia to reach missile deal early next year

(nd) The Philippine government might sign an agreement for the purchase of the Indian built BrahMos cruise missile. With an initial expression of interest late 2019, the pandemic seems to have delayed the purchase, which is likely to take place early 2021 as part of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) modernization program.

BrahMos is part of BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between India and Russia, which was set up in 1998, and can be launched from both land and air. Apart from the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia have expressed interest to purchase the BrahMos cruise missile. The missile could be used to protect Filipino claims in the disputed South China Sea and deter China from further aggression. India and the Philippines have earlier agreed to intensify both countries’ military and maritime cooperation, in light of regional conflicts. [The Diplomat]



24 November 2020

Philippines: US military assistance in jeopardy?

(nd) A Filipino envoy in Washington commented military aid to the Philippines might end under the leadership of President-elect Joe Biden. The ambassador referred to a democratic-party-proposed bill to suspend military aid “on the issue of human rights”, with respect to the anti-terrorism law and alleged human rights abuses in the wake of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. According to the Ambassador, the Philippines received more than $550 million in military assistance from 2016 to 2019. Filipino officials commented, however, they were assured the US-Filipino military alliance would remain unchanged under a Biden administration. The alliance is important for both countries to counter-balance Chinese assertiveness in the region, including the South China Sea. [Philippine Inquirer]

Still, this week, the US under defeated President Trump donated $18 million worth of weapon systems to the Philippines to fight Islamist militants in Mindanao. The outgoing US administration also welcomed president Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to extend the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) until early 2021, while arguing for a longer period of extension. [Philippine Inquirer] [See also AiR No. 46, November/2020, 3]

17 November 2020

East Asia Summit: Deepening cooperation in pandemic response

(dql) Leaders of participating countries at the East Asia Summit on past Saturday stressed the need for countries across the Asia-Pacific to cooperate in tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the current economic crisis.

The Summit brought together Asean’s 10 members plus Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States. [Straits Times]

17 November 2020

South-East Asian leaders to discuss travel corridor

(nd) During the ASEAN summit, Southeast Asian leaders discussed a regional “travel corridor” in order to boost the region’s Covid-sticken economies, with the first quarter of 2021 as possible start date. The Corridor would include generalized regional health protocols to facilitate the exchange of people between the countries.

This move follows several bilateral steps taken earlier to enable traveling, with Singapore establishing “green lane” arrangements, setting up a reciprocal green lane with Indonesia for essential business and official travel [see also AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], also with Hong Kong, Brunei, Malaysia, China, and Japan. A corridor would help enhance the economic outlook for the Southeast Asian nations, which were hit heavily by the pandemic, with regional integration and mobility having been key to Southeast Asia’s rapid growth over the past three decades, although analysts warned the timeline might be too optimistic. [The Diplomat

17 November 2020

Philippines, US agreement on joint defense to remain for another six months

(nd) A decision to end the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US was suspended a second time, referring to the US role in keeping peace and stability in the South China Sea amid growing tensions with  an expansive-minded China. President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to pull out of the agreement of 1999 early this year but plans to terminate it were put on hold in June with a deadline until December 2020. The new extension of six months will end after the inauguration of newly elected US president Joe Biden. The Philippine foreign affairs secretary commented they needed more time to “enable us to find a more enhanced, mutually beneficial, mutually agreeable, and more effective and lasting arrangement on how to move forward in our mutual defense”, praising the stability reached by the ongoing security alliance. The US welcomed the decision. [Manila Standard]

Several actions in the past months were seen as signs of a renewal of a close US-Filipino defense partnership, among which were Duterte’s pardon for a former marine convicted of killing a transgender Filipina and Duterte’s prominent referral to a 2016 The Hague ruling, which rejected China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea [See also AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5]. He reemphasized the latter during the ASEAN summit. [Manila Standard] In an US administration led by Biden, security ties are expected to stabilize and deepen. [South China Morning Post] [Radio Free Asia]

17 November 2020

ASEAN signs RCEP, biggest trade agreement globally

(nd) The 37th ASEAN Summit concluded past Sunday with some 30 declarations, statements, plan-of-actions and summaries, covering a wide range of issues including stalled connectivity initiatives, environmental concerns, regional trade and integration, multilateral security frameworks, among others.

A dominant issue at the Summit was a joint response to the COVID-19 pandemic where cooperation initiatives were announced and put into operation, including the ASEAN COVID-19 Response Fund, the Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies, the ASEAN Standard Operating Procedures in response to Public Health Emergencies and the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases. [Vietnam Investment Review] [Malay Mail]

Opening the Summit, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc addressed the South China Sea issue, commenting ASEAN member states were not “drawn into the maelstroms” of the US-Chinese rivalry yet, but challenges to multilateral systems remain urgent.

At the sidelines of the Summit, the ASEAN member states along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), resulting in the world’s biggest trade agreement [See also AiR No. 43, October/2020, 4], covering around 30% of the global GDP. India pulled out last year. The agreement will rather focus on trade and the practicalities of commerce, foreseeably to the detriment of labor and environmental issues.

Following a retreat from the region and uncertainties caused by an erratic foreign policy, the US engagement was put into question for a long time, enabling China to enhance its position. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to continue Barack Obama’s stance on Asia and make it a pivotal region of the US foreign policy. [South China Morning Post 1] [Radio Free Asia]

The trade deal puts China in a comfortable position in the region, with the possibility to shape it according to its rules, solidifying China’s geopolitical agenda together with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).The Trump administration was represented by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien who stressed the importance ASEAN-US ties in times of the global pandemic. [South China Morning Post 2] [9News]

Malaysia’s prime minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said he respects India’s decision but noted India was a strategic partner for ASEAN, and their trade volume increased, with India being the sixth largest trading partner. In order to facilitate trade, the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement (AITIGA) was proposed, which is being reviewed currently. [Bernama]

10 November 2020

Philippines: 8,000 killed in drug war, government figures state

(nd) According to the Chief of Philippines National Police, 8,000 people have been killed in the Philippines’ controversial war on drugs since 2016, with 357,000 people arrested. He announced the operations will continue. While the government claims it is fighting drug crime, the operations were heavily criticized by human rights groups. Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed earlier more than 12,000 lives were taken, mostly from urban poor groups, among those at least 2,555 were attributed to unlawful killings by the police. [Anadolu Agency]

10 November 2020

Philippines: Journalist shot dead

(nd) A Filipino journalist was shot dead six times by motorcycle-riding gunmen. The commentator for radio station DWPR in the northern province of Pangasinan survived a previous attempt outside his home in 2016. According to the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), it was the 18th such killing since President Rodrigo Duterte took power in 2016. The Philippines ranks seventh in New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual Global Impunity Index. [Bangkok Post]

10 November 2020

Philippines: Push to use domestic election systems

(nd) Sixty organizations and seventy individuals urged the Commission on Elections (Comelec) to use an alternative automated election system (AES), which is more accurate, transparent and Filipino-made for the local and national polls in May 2020. Currently, London-headquartered Smartmatic provides the AES, which was criticized inter alia for changing the transparency server script on the evening of election day, without authorization by the Comelec En Banc, as required by the Election Law, arguably eroding trust in the reliability of the voting result.

A Comelec Spokesman announced last month the present vote counting machine provided by Smartmatic will be used for the elections in 2022. [Manila Bulletin]

10 November 2020

Philippines: Sinas appointed Chief of Police

(nd) Police Major General Debold Sinas was appointed as chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP) by President Rodrigo Duterte, to succeed Lt. Gen. Camilo Cascolan on November 10, taking into consideration Sina’s contribution to the war on drugs.

Sina graduated from the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) in 1987, and currently serves as director of the National Capital Region Police Office (NCRPO). Sina was criticized for violating rules of social distancing after pictures of his birthday celebration circulated virally this May, and is also facing charges for the action. [Manila Bulletin]

Human rights groups Karapatan and Amnesty International both criticized his appointment, commenting it fits into Duterte’s culture of impunity and tolerance, even promotion of violence. Sina is closely linked with the violence and killings in Central Visayas, in which no one was held responsible, according to the regional office of the Commission on Human Rights. During his tenure, at least 320 killings were recorded in Cebu, with at least 120 during police operations. [Rappler]

10 November 2020

Philippines to support Chinese candidate for ICJ

(nd) Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin told the UN mission to support the Chinese candidate to fill one of the five vacant seats at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) next year. Earlier, the Philippines  nominated a Japanese Judge, commenting now it is possible to support more than one candidate. The ICJ is composed of 15 judges elected for a nine-year term, with a possible re-election.

President Rodrigo Duterte has been working towards better relations with China, despite disputes in the South China Sea. [South China Morning Post]

10 November 2020

Philippines: Resource-rich Reed Bank can be explored without Chinese company

(nd) Following President Rodrigo Duterte’s lift of a six-year ban on oil and gas exploration in the contested South China Sea, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi announced PXP Energy Corp. could proceed without partnering with China. A unit of the company holds the right to drill at the potentially resource-rich Reed Bank – part of the Indonesian EEZ -, which was negotiating with state-run China National Offshore Oil Corp.

The ban was imposed 2014 due to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Duterte lifted the moratorium after he defended an international arbitration tribunal’s decision in 2016, which rejected China’s claims in the disputed waters. According to Cusi, the lift of the ban has no effect on a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China from 2018 to jointly explore the resources in the area. [Radio Free Asia]

Meanwhile, the idea to deploy Filipino fishermen as militia forces in the South China Sea has been put on hold, according to defense officials, referring there was no state of war with China. The idea originated in a Senate finance committee hearing in October. Philippine national security adviser downplayed the security threat posed by China and named the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, New People’s Army, as well as the corona virus pandemic as biggest national threats, highlighting China as a market and economic partnership. [South China Morning Post]

10 November 2020

ASEAN and China discuss humane mutual treatment of fishermen

(jn) ASEAN members and China discussed ways to promote cooperation in humane treatment of fishermen as part of the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC of 2002 obligates the parties intensify efforts to build trust and confidence and ensure just and humane treatment of all persons who are either in danger or distress at sea. [Hanoi Times]

3 November 2020

Philippines: Manila to move against LGBTQ+ discrimination

(nd) The Manila mayor signed an ordinance to protect the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgenders, queers and intersex (LGBTQ) in the city of Manila against discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, expression. The ordinance includes passages on physical and verbal harassment, the formation of groups and activities to incite discrimination and involves possible imprisonment of a fine and imprisonment between six months and a year, the latter being compulsory for subsequent offenders. [Inquirer]


3 November 2020

Philippines: Petition against continuing emergency powers

(nd) In a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court (SC), former Government Corporate Counsel Philip Jurado argues for a halt on president Rodrigo Duterte’s exercise of emergency powers under the so-called Bayanihan 2, a law which seeks to cushion the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jurado argues the emergency powers expired on October 12, when Congress adjourned, following the provision in Section 18 of the Bayanihan 2. The mentioning of December 19, 2020 as expiration date was related to the date Congress was scheduled to adjourn. In the midst of the power struggle between then-Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and current Speaker Lord Allan Velasco, a suspension of sessions until November 16 was announced, which prompted Duterte to call for a special session from October 13 to 16 on the national budget. While some provisions in the Bayanihan 2 remain in force beyond its expiration, emergency powers for the president were not among those. Jurado also asked the SC to declare void disbursements of public funds made after October 12. [Philstar]

3 November 2020

Former senior Singaporean diplomat triggers controversy over ASEAN membership

(jn) Former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, Bilahari Kausikan, triggered an international controversy on Octoer 23, suggesting ASEAN might have to terminate the membership of Cambodia and Laos given the enormous political and economic influence of an outside power, arguably alluding to China. He uttered the idea at a webinar of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, after referencing a proposed communiqué between ASEAN and China from 2012, which failed due to Cambodia’s resistance. Mr. Kausikan also said that both countries “must care” about who controls the Mekong River which he called an existential issue for people’s livelihoods.

The comments were rebuked by current and former Cambodian diplomats who attacked Mr. Kausikan as “arrogant and condescending”, said he destroyed ASEAN unity and questioned whether he was an “agent”. [South China Morning Post]

27 October 2020

Philippines: Panel on further corruption in Bureau of Immigration

(nd) Following the uncovering of a scam involving officers of the Bureau of Immigration (BI) taking bribes from incoming Chinese nationals at the airport, a senate panel was installed to investigate ongoing corruption in the department. This applies especially  to the exit of the country, suspecting the outbound trafficking of women and children to abroad syndicates.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) admitted the difficulty to trace such undocumented payments, which is only possible indirectly by scrutinizing the 19 suspects’ lifestyle. Immigration personnel usually earn low salaries, possibly giving a reason to engage in corruption. A modernization bill to raise their wages has been pending in the legislature since 2017.

In the so-called pastillas scheme, immigration officials are alleged to have allowed the easy entry of Chinese nationals, intending to work for Philippine offshore gaming operators, and earned around P40 billion in bribes since 2017. Following Department Order No. 41 issued in 2017, Chinese nationals could enter the Philippines without their visa being issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs. [Inquirer]

27 October 2020

Philippines: Possible momentum for same-sex civil unions

(nd) Following Pope Francis’ remark on the possibility of same-sex civil unions, presidential spokesman repeated president Rodrigo Duterte’s support for the subject matter and the Congress’s duty to pass a respective law. Congress repeatedly opposed the legalization of same sex marriages. Currently, House Bill No. 2264 or the “Civil Partnership Act,” is pending at the House Committee on Women and Gender Equality, and includes solutions to property relations between same-sex partners, child care and adoption, inheritance, donations, social security and insurance. Almost 90% of the Filipino population is Roman Catholic. [Philstar] [Channel News Asia 1]

The Pope’s statement – “Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.” – was uttered in a documentary called Francesco, which premiered at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore, as well as bishops in other countries, said, the comment therefore does not constitute an official teaching. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines have not issued a reaction. [Channel News Asia 2]  The interview was given in 2019 and did not include the contested quotation originally. [Rappler]

27 October 2020

Philippines: Military red-tagging and surveillance of left-leaning lawmakers

(nd) A military official warned an actress and 2018 Miss Universe to cut alleged links with left-leaning group Gabriela Youth, which invited the former to speak at an event. The official warned that both could share the same fate as Josephine Anne Lapira alias “Ella”, former Deputy Secretary General of Gabriela Youth, who was killed in an armed encounter. The official added not to “red tag” them, which is an official government tactic to denounce individuals of having “known or suspected communist sympathies”, which often led to violent actions by private actors. [Manila Times 1]

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said he would summon Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade Jr., the Southern Luzon military commander known for his hardline stance against communist rebels, over the matter, and organize a meeting with the officials of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). Parlade had earlier named the actress as having alleged links to communist groups. [Manila Times 2]

The military official also disclosed that six members of the House of Representatives in the Makabayan bloc and a human rights lawyer are under the surveillance of the Philippine military under the anti-terror law for having close ties to the Communist party, a military Lieutenant disclosed. The Makabayan bloc is a group of progressive lawmakers of left-leaning political parties. The House Minority Leader reiterated that solely committing terrorist activity constitutes to a crime, and that surveillance actions need authorization from a court. [Rappler 1]

Meanwhile, activists pleaded to the Supreme Court for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) or a preliminary injunction against the implementation of the anti-terror law, whose Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) were recently released. Since its enactment three months ago, 37 petitions against the anti-terror law failed.

The anti-terror council (ATC) can designate groups and people as terrorists, and freeze assets. Activists fear this is used to detain and silence opposition groups without evidence and due process. Activists have tried to argue in front of the Court that the method of red-tagging by the military is directly linked to the harassment and murders of their members. [Rappler 2]

27 October 2020

Japan’s Suga pledges security assistance for ASEAN’s coasts

(jn) Japan’s Prime Minister Suga announced in Jakarta on Wednesday that his country will provide patrol boats to Southeast Asian governments, like Indonesia and Vietnam, presenting an effort to help these countries secure their waters around the disputed South China Sea. Mr. Suga stressed the importance of adhering to the rule of law and peaceful conflict settlement in international waterways and lamented recent breaches of maritime law in the region. He explicitly pointed out combating illegal fishing as a reason to supply ASEAN countries with patrol boats. [Radio Free Asia]

The rhetoric and the agreement’s content match the overall strategic play of Mr. Suga during his South East Asian round trip, namely boosting Japan’s economic and security ties to ASEAN members that themselves are facing Chinese encroachment in what they see either as territorial or international waters. [Asia Times]

27 October 2020

South China Sea sees semi-permanent Chinese presence

(nd) According to the recent analysis of ship-tracking data and satellite imagery, Chinese vessels have stayed almost without interruption five months at the Scarborough Shoal off the Philippines; for three months at Vanguard Bank off Vietnam’s southern coast; and seven months at the Union Banks, which feature outposts for both China and Vietnam. This highlights a semi-permanent, enduring presence in the disputed area and economic zones, which China claims almost entirely. [Radio Free Asia]

Recently, a Filipino fishermen’s group reiterated the respect for fishing security and rights of the Filipino and vicariously for other claimant nation’s fishing rights and their EEZ, which they see threatened by rising Chinese presence. [Radio Free Asia]

Also, Chinese fishing boats have repeatedly and illegally entered other countries EEZs in the region. China’s historical claims are not valid under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), following a ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in 2016. Yet, there is no common ASEAN action to curb Chinese presence, also in light of the mostly tight economic ties with China following infrastructural investments within China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI). Despite that, US security alliances were strengthened recently. [The Diplomat]  

27 October 2020

Philippines: Possible charge against US waste exporter

(nd) After intercepting a container of potential illegal imported waste materials at the Subic Bay International Terminal Corp. by the Bureau of Customs (BOC), they announced to cooperate in the matter with the Department of Justice and Department of Environment and Natural Resources for filing possible criminal charges against the US exporter.

The waste materials found in the container were in violation of DENR Administrative Order 2013-22 or the Revised Procedures and Standards for the Management of Hazardous Waste, as well as the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal, prohibiting the trans-boundary movement of hazardous waste and import of mixed and municipal waste. Environment groups Greenpeace Philippines and EcoWaste Coalition urged the government to ratify the Basel Ban Amendment, which prohibits the export of hazardous waste from developed to developing countries, and upgrade the status of pending bills to ban waste importation. [Philstar]

27 October 2020

Philippines: Raise of minimum age for special retiree’s visa

(nd) Presidential spokesman urged young Chinese retirees to invest in a business and employ Filipinos. The Philippine Retirement Authority (PRA) announced plans to repeal the current policy, which provides a special retiree’s visa and has a minimum age of 35. Plans are to raise it to 50 years, as it was before it was changed in 1993 to open it to military servicemen who retire earlier.

Around 26,969 Chinese nationals lead a December 2019 list of foreign retirees in the Philippines, followed by 13,912 Koreans; 5,951 Indians; 4,801 Taiwanese; and 3,950 Japanese. Of the total number of Chinese retirees, around 8,130 are aged 35 to 49. [Manila Standard]

27 October 2020

US to send coast guard to tackle Chinese illegal fishing in South China Sea

(dql) In the line with increasing international criticism of China’s illegal fishing in waters around the world [AiR No. 41, October/2020, 2], the US announced the deployment of Coast Guard patrol ships in the western Pacific to counter “destabilizing and malign” activities by China in disputed fishing grounds of the South China Sea. White House National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien cited for this decision China’s “illegal” and “unregulated” fishing, along with “harassment” of fishing boats from regional countries. [News 18]

20 October 2020

Philippines: Moratorium on energy exploration lifted

(nd) Six years after its imposition, the 2014 moratorium on energy exploration in the South China Sea, which the Philippines refer to as West Philippine Sea, was lifted unilaterally by the Philippines due to the need for a national energy source, according to Philippine Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi. The moratorium came about due to disputes between the Philippines and China over the waters, which were followed by a ruling in 2016 by an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague, striking down China’s entire claim of the waters. The ruling was for the first time prominently defended by president Rodrigo Duterte in September [See also AiR No. 39, September/2020, 5]

In 2018, China and the Philippines signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with respect to the joint oil and gas exploration in the disputed waters, giving a 60 % stake in resources extracted from the Reed Bank to the Philippines and the remaining 40 % to China, which was followed by street protests claiming a sell-out to the Chinese. Analysts commented the share deal was in violation of the Philippine constitution.

The Reed Bank lies within the Filipino EEZ, approximately 50 kilometers northwest of Palawan, Malampaya, and is believed to contain vast and yet untouched natural resources. Additionally, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping claims or boundaries with China in the disputed area. [Radio Free Asia] [Philstar]

20 October 2020

Philippines: Military Chief calls situation in South China Sea “very tense”

(nd) Philippine armed forces chief, General Gilbert Gapay, labeled the situation in the South China Sea as “very tense”, with China conduction unilateral exercises and firing missiles in August this year. Since China claims almost the entire waters, it forces the claimant states – Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam – into conflict for they have to react to China’s creation of facts. China has been building artificial islands and militarizing atolls in the disputed territory. In conjunction with a state visit, Malaysian and Chinese foreign ministers released a press statement on their determination for peace and stability in the disputed waters and their continued effort together with ASEAN members to agree on a Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea, which has been unresolved for almost two decades.

While both top diplomats of China – comparing the US-led “Quad”-initiate with “old-fashioned Cold War mentality“ – and the US blame the respective other, General Gapay highlighted both nation’s fault at creating uncertainty and aggression. [Thailand News]

20 October 2020

Philippines: Army General denies security risk

(nd) Following criticism by former Supreme Court judge Antonio Carpio, that  China “will surely want to eavesdrop” on military communications, Philippines‘ armed forces chief General Gilbert Gapay reassured that the communication kit on bases would not pose a security threat.

DITO Telecommunity Corp, a joint venture between state-run China Telecom and a tycoon with close relation to President Rodrigo Duterte, was allowed to build towers on military land for its market entry, including 5G technology. There are further 22 military sites in negotiation for the installment of communication kits.

While Gapay said there was no risk and emphasized that the Philippines‘ two largest communication companies, Globe and PLDT, also have communication kits using Chinesy technology on military ground, some lawmakers warned the equipment could be used to spy on the US-allied Filipino military. [Philstar]


20 October 2020

South Korea-Philippines relations: Strengthening cooperation

(dql) During the inaugural session of the Joint Defense Cooperation Committee between the two countries, held via video conference, South Korea Vice Defense Minister Park Jae-min and his Philippine counterpart Ricardo David agreed to deepen cooperation on various security issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic as well as peace efforts on the Korean Peninsula.

Park, furthermore, request the Philippines’ support for his country’s hosting of the UN Peacekeeping Ministerial Conference next year, as well as for the cybersecurity unit under the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus which South Korea is going co-chair with Malaysia from 2021 to 2023. [Korea Herald]

20 October 2020

Philippines:  Deployment of militiamen to West Philippine Sea

(nd) Following the announcement to deploy militia to the West Philippine sea and criticism thereof, Navy chief Vice Admiral defended the decision, which was necessary due to the inadequately equipped and staffed status of the navy. The planned modernization of the military was further slowed down by the pandemic. This step comes in response to Chinese militia patrolling in the West Philippine Sea and subsequent clashes with Filipino fishermen in the last months and years.

Two Citizen Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU) companies, each about 120 men, will be deployed to the disputed waters, one supporting the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Command in the Kalayaan Island Group, the other in support of the AFP Northern Command in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, according to Vice Admiral Bacordo. He added, that the militia can stay longer and more focused in specific areas, where they are based at, whereas the regular navy vessels are pooled and sent to an area, from which they have to move on at some point.  [Rappler 1] [Rappler 2]

20 October 2020

Philippines: Communist party announces targeting Chinese firms

(nd) The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) announced it has directed its armed wing to target Chinese firms involved in infrastructure projects in the Philippines, claiming the constructions harm the environment, threaten national minorities , and displacing farmers from their land. CCP stated it directed the guerrilla units to “mount more frequent tactical offensives” against the government and the Chinese firms.

Earlier, the Philippine government announced it would not cut ties to Chinese companies building military installation in the disputed South China Sea, as the US suggested. At least one of 24 firms sanctioned by the US is involved in Philippine infrastructure projects.

The CPP’s New People’s Army (NPA) , a guerilla group, disposes about 5,000 fighters scattered over the country, has been waging a rebellion against the Filipino government since 1969 and was originally inspired by the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. In the midst of the Cold War, China supplied Filipino communists with weapons against US-backed Marcos administration, after which the CPP has repudiated links with Chinese communist doctrine in favor of an own ideology. Once a college student of CPP founder Sison, initially, there was hope President Rodrigo Duterte might find a peace deal with the group, which were disappointed when he broke off talks in 2017. [Radio Free Asia]

20 October 2020

Philippines: Fast-tracked proposal to enable President to cut down permit requirements

(nd) Filipino senate unanimously passed a proposal enabling the president to limit requirements for national and local permits, licenses and certifications during a national emergency, such as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, significantly shortening regulatory process and control, including the power to remove those employees who fail to comply with the president’s orders.

President Duterte labelled the proposal as urgent, allowing Congress to pass it on second and third reading on the same day. [Philstar]

13 October 2020

Philippines: Cooperation with UN on human rights violations

(nd) Following investigations that found tens of thousands of killings in the so-called war on drugs and perpetrators treated with “near impunity”, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to provide help to the government of Rodrigo Duterte, who pledged compliance. The joint program shall strengthen investigation and accountability mechanisms, establish a compliance monitoring system for the national police and  highlight engagement with civil society.

Amnesty International’s Philippines researcher Rachel Chhoa-Howard said the technical assistance of the resolution fell short of their appeals to establish an international investigative mechanism: “A full international investigation to effectively address the pervasive impunity in the country is urgently needed.” Government spokesman Harry Roque denied the “rehashed claims” of impunity in the report. [Bangkok Post] [Philippine Inquirer]

Analysts say the implementation will be tricky, though. The Philippine National Police (PNP) faces accusations of corruption, often acknowledged by President Duterte, and will be very reluctant to share information. With the example of numerous killings, including politicians, in Negros Island, they argue the potential involvement of security forces and question the integrity of local government. Additionally, following the newly passed Anti-Terrorism Act, state security forces enjoy protections from scrutiny.  They can also be sure of the indirect support of the Duterte administration, whose denouncing political opponents and critics as communist terrorists, and thereby “red-tagging” those individuals, has led to numerous politically motivated murderers, often beyond the actual governmental control, most recently seen with the murder of human rights activist Zara Alvarez in August. She was among other 600 people listed as communist terrorists by the Duterte administration in 2018. [The Diplomat]

13 October 2020

Japan: Rare solo maritime exercise in South China Sea

(dql) At a time when India and China are about to edge towards a war and ‘Quad’ cohesion is growing, Japan just deployed three warships to the West Philippine Sea for anti-submarine exercises including one of its light helicopter aircraft carriers. To replenish supply, the warships will use Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay. [Japan Times]

The exercises are one of rare occasions in decades in which Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Forces embark on a solo mission outside Japanese territorial waters.

13 October 2020

Indonesia: Vaccine cooperation no influence on South China Sea position

(nd) Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said the recent cooperation with China on Covid-19 vaccines will not influence its position on the South China Sea. Despite not being a claimant state in the heavily disputed waters, Indonesia and China battle over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands in the southern part. Last month, a Chinese coastguard vessel entered Indonesia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off northern Natuna islands and left after radio communication.

Indonesia also cooperates with the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and the United Kingdom, in developing its own vaccine. Indonesia is one of few candidates participating in a late-stage human trial of China’s Sinovac Biotech Covid-19 vaccine candidate, and also works together with Chinese company Sinopharm. [Channel News Asia]

6 October 2020

Southeast Asian nation’s critical potential

(nd) With the economic and political repercussions of Covid-19, Southeast Asia has entered a period of potential crisis that mirrors developments around the “Arab Spring” and the economic situation that lead to the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, mobilizing both public and political opposition to demand fundamental political reform to change institutions of governance.

In the World Bank’s latest economic outlook, ASEAN nations’ economy could contract by as much as 4.7 percent. According to an estimate of the International Labor Organization, nearly 85 percent of youth employment within the Asia-Pacific is within the informal economy, which is not reached by governmental support and not included in official numbers. The many regional protest movements illuminate the frustration of younger populations with ineffective governance and high levels of unemployment.

Already, a political legitimacy deficit can be seen, which turns into trying to mute or quash dissidents and critics through authoritarian leadership, as seen prominently in Myanmar, the Philippines and Cambodia, facing criticism by UN representatives and human rights advocates. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo finds himself increasingly pleasing powerful Islamic constituencies that threatened to galvanize public discontent. Ever since February, Malaysia has been struggling with political stability, yet again following an unresolved claim of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to form a new government. In Thailand, the unprecedented student-led protests and their criticism of the monarchy institution is gaining ever more momentum. Additionally, Thai protesters expressed solidarity for Taiwan and Hong Kong, fueling a vision of “pan-Asian alliance for democracy”, named “Milk Tea Alliance,” continues to trend on social media.

A recent study by British-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft – the Right to Privacy Index (RPI), rated 198 countries for privacy violations, including mass surveillance operations, retention of personal data, home searches and other breaches. According to this, Asia was the world’s highest-risk region for violations with a deterioration in recent years. Among the worst-scoring Asian nations were Pakistan, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, India and the Philippines. The study advocated data privacy legislation and a transparent surveillance system.

The backdrop for these developments is a raging pandemic with sometimes haphazard public health responses additionally undermining credibility and trust. [The Diplomat] [Jakarta Post]

6 October 2020

Philippines: DOJ personnel to apply for judge position

(nd) Assistant Secretary Neal Vincent Bainto, deputy spokesperson of the Department of Justice (DOJ), is applying to be a judge at a metropolitan trial court (MeTC) in the National Capital Judicial Region, according to the Judicial and Bar Council (JBC).

If his application is successful, his departure from DOJ will be the second, following the sudden resignation of Undersecretary Markk Perete over “serious and personal reasons”. [GMA Network]


6 October 2020

Philippines: House speakership debate resolved

(nd) Alan Peter Cayetano’s offer to resign as Speaker was rejected by the House of Representatives, delaying deliberations on the budget 2021. Initially, president Rodrigo Duterte brokered a gentleman’s agreement involving the position of the speakership, which was contested by Cayetano, Lord Allan Velasco, and incumbent Majority Leader and Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez. Under the agreement, Cayetano was given the first 15 months, Velasco was to serve the remaining 21 months. The recently agreed upon hand-over date was October 14, after the pass of the budget 2021. [Manila Bulletin 1] [Manila Times 1] [Manila Times 2] [Manila Bulletin 2]

6 October 2020

Philippines: PhilHealth Chief against privatization

(nd) The chief of allegedly corruption-riddled national healthcare insurer PhilHealth opposed plans backed by president Rodrigo Duterte to privatize the corporation. He claimed the members would have no coverage and the message sent would be that public officials cannot be trusted. Representative Stella Quimbo (Marikina) who has filed the bill allowing for its privatization denied that. Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra emphasized the investigation task force only recommended a reorganization. Labor coalition Nagkaisa warned against the privatizing, claiming this step would only reverse the gains from the government’s universal health care program. Accusations of rampant corruption in the government-controlled national health insurer have been voiced since 2012. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed the first batch of criminal complaints against officials of PhilHealth in connection with fund irregularities. [See also AiR No. 37, September 2020, 3] [Philstar] [Manila Bulletin]

6 October 2020

Philippines: Body camera for policy officers

(nd) Following the presentation of the 2021 budget, the Philippine National Police (PNP) announced that 2,600 body cameras shall soon be distributed to the police. It remained unclear how and which police stations will be prioritized. Body cameras are seen as deterrence to use police abuse. Yet, policemen are not required to use the cameras during the controversial anti-drug operations but only “encouraged”. The topic of body cameras rose in September 2017, when a CCTV camera recorded what allegedly were Caloocan cops dragging a teenager in an alley before killing him. A first implementation delay occurred due to a lack of budget, in 2018 it was further delayed due to a disqualified bidder following an alleged bribery attempt by policemen. [Rappler]

29 September 2020

ASEAN states commit to more military cooperation 

(jn) The 17th ASEAN Chiefs of Defense Forces Meeting (ACDFM-17) was held virtually on September 24th with participants pledging to boost military cooperation, to build trust and enhance solidarity among the member states’ armed forces.

At the meeting themed “Military Cooperation for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN,” the participants agreed that the joint efforts will help the organization to keep peace and stability in the region, and that the region is facing traditional and non-traditional challenges namely cyber security, terrorism, transnational crime, climate change, and diseases. [Hanoi Times]


29 September 2020

Philippines: Military chief of staff to ask Facebook to restore account

(nd) After Facebook took down more than 100 fake pages and accounts linked to the Philippine army and police targeting activists and dissidents as well as China-based accounts backing President Duterte, General Gilbert Gapay, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Philippines’ Armed Forces highest ranking officer, has asked Facebook head of public policy in the Philippines to restore the accounts, specifically the Hands Off Our Children (HOOC) page. According to Facebook, however, the pages had engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” and, among other activities, “artificially boost[ed] the popularity of content.”

Facebook in an earlier statement deemed the account as part of systematic propaganda against “communism, youth activists and opposition, the Communist Party of the Philippines and its military wing, the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines”. Their action intensified between 2019 and 2020. The page in question was administered by Army Capt. Alexandre Cabales, chief of the Army Social Media Center, who was the operator of a network of accounts with a similar agenda as the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) of the US-based Atlantic Council found. The request made by General Gapay to restore the HOOC page was a “clear admission” of the AFP’s hand in maintaining a “troll army”, member of the House of Representatives Gabriela Arlene Brosas said.

Meanwhile, progressive members of the House of Representatives warned that there are hints that China might meddle in the next presidential election, and referred to its Facebook account based in Fujian, China, which was also removed, allegedly supporting the presidential bid of President Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte, who is a member of the House of Representatives for Davao City. [Philippine Inquirer] [The Diplomat] [Manila Standard]

29 September 2020

Philippines: Duterte’s first UN speech criticizing China indirectly

(nd) During his first speech at UN General Assembly at the 75th session, president Rodrigo Duterte for the first time since he assumed power in 2016 mentioned the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling in favor of the Philippines, saying China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are in breach of international law.

Duterte said the decision “is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.” Without naming China, Duterte said “we firmly reject attempts to undermine it [and…] welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for — the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition.” Last week in a verbal note, Germany, France and Great Britain reaffirmed their support for the implementation of the ruling, again rejecting China’s historical claim over the waters. The Permanent Court of Arbitration nullified China’s nine-dash line claim over the disputed waters in 2016.

While his initial approach was knitting closer ties to China and separating from its biggest military ally, the US, Duterte’s speech can be seen as part of the government shift back towards the US, with China continuing to move aggressively in the South China Sea. Additionally, China has not fulfilled its promise of billions of dollars for infrastructure projects. Earlier this year, a decision to end a 22-year old agreement on joint military exercises with the US was suspended. This month, a US marine found guilty of killing a transgender Filipina in 2015 was pardoned by Duterte. Still, China is not completely off Duterte’s list, announcing China and Russia will be prioritized in sourcing a Covid-19 vaccine over Western drug makers.

Still, Duterte is accused of seriously violating them since he initiated his controversial war on drugs, killing 9,000 people. According to a Human Rights Watch report, those numbers rose by 50 % during the Covid-19 lockdown. Human rights advocates claim Duterte suppresses critical media outlets. Last week, the European parliament passed a resolution condemning human rights violations and threatening to revoke its trade benefits. This week, a bill was proposed to the US Congress – HR 8131 or the Philippine Human Rights Act – to block funding for security forces in the Philippines until the government puts an end to human rights violations. Most recently, Amnesty International emphasized in a report that stronger measures from United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and International Criminal Court (ICC) are “required to end human rights violations in the country, provide justice and reparations for thousands of families of victims, and hold those responsible to account.”

Yet, in his speech, Duterte upheld his policy, claimed anew he was protecting human rights against some who would “weaponize” them. He emphasized the lingering threat of terrorism and violent extremism against which his government is committed to protect the people from.

Additionally, Duterte uttered his commitment to ratify the United Nations Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Such a treaty will only come into effect upon the concurrence of at least two thirds of all members of the Senate, following the 1987 Constitution. Until now, 45 countries have ratified the treaty, five short of the 50 required for the pact to enter into force. The Philippines, among 122 other UN member-states, voted in favor of such a treaty in 2017. [FAZ (deutsch)] [Manila Times 1] [Borneo Bulletin] [Philippine Inquirer][Manila Bulletin] [Manila Times 2][Manila Times 3][Chiangrai Times] [Philstar] [Rappler]


29 September 2020

Philippines: Western powers will remain in South China Sea

(nd) Despite efforts of Southeast Asian nations to draft a Code of Conduct (CoC) in conjunction with China, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin reassured this will not result in Western powers kept away from the disputed waters.

Tensions between the US and China, inter alia in the South China Sea, are on the rise and were last voiced prominently during recent ASEAN meeting [See also AiR No. 37, September/2020, 3] [Bangkok Post]

22 September 2020

Philippines: FLAG lawyer, human rights advocates say death penalty has no place in an imperfect justice system

(nd) Former Supreme Court Spokesperson and Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) rights lawyer Theodore Te has joined in the critique of President Duterte’s advocacy of a re-imposition of the death penalty. Most recently expressed during his state of the nation address in July 2020, Duterte has lobbied continuously for the killing of convicted criminals by hanging since before his presidency. This would not only apply to drug-related crimes, but also, for instance, to crimes like plundering. 

The critique joins those of many other national and international organizations, pointing out that the absolute nature of the death penalty has no place in an “imperfect” justice system. Further, a 2004 FLAG study has shown that those accused will most likely not have the resources needed to conduct a proper legal defense for a death penalty case, as most come from lower-income backgrounds.

Capital punishment was abolished in the Philippines in 2006, amidst wide support from Congress, and the country has signed and ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – which commits its members to the abolition of the death penalty. A law proposed by President Duterte had been passed by the House of Representatives, but failed to gain the required majority in the Senate in 2017. The lawmakers’ reaction to the recent proposal has once again been described as lackluster, with the Senators’ applause rising only after prompting. [Philstar 1] [Philstar 2] [Philstar 3]

22 September 2020

Philippines: IT lawyer Peloton to join poll body

(nd) IT lawyer Michael Braganza Peloton was appointed by president Rodrigo Duterte as commissioner of the Philippines’ poll body, the Commission on Elections (Comelec). With the elections coming up in 2022, the Comelec is dominated by Duterte appointees. The only Aquino-appointed commissioner is known dissenter Commissioner Rowena Guanzon. [Rappler]


22 September 2020

Philippines: Restrictions to public officials’ finance disclosure, a blow to government transparency

(nd) The Ombudsman office, the independent government body tasked with overseeing the release of officials’ statements of assets and liabilities, has effectively ended the practice of freely releasing the information. Under the recently published new guidelines, such statements can only be released if ordered by court or if the Ombudsman office explicitly approves the request.

A former Senator has stated that the right to unrestricted access to public officials’ financial statements is made explicit in the Constitution, with further critique of the restrictions coming from the public and media representatives. 

The Ombudsman’s move comes amid renewed discussions about the release of President Duterte’s statements of assets and liabilities, who despite calls to do so, for the 2018 and 2019 statements, has refused the publishing. To this effect, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism stated that the non-release of Duterte’s form marked the first time in 30 years that a President of the Philippines failed to do so.

The Ombudsman office is an entity founded on President Duterte’s (2016) initiative to fight government corruption by increasing transparency. It facilitates the release of public officials’ statements of assets and liabilities to the public. The policy applies only to members of the executive, efforts to extend it to the other two branches of government have not manifested. [Manila Standard] [Philstar] [Newsinfo 1] [Newsinfo 2]


22 September 2020

Asian financial leaders agree to make ‘all policy efforts’ to fight pandemic

(jn) Financial leaders from China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia vowed on Friday to redouble their efforts to help the region recover economically from the coronavirus and to defend a multilateral system of trade and investment. In a joint statement they vowed to “remain vigilant to the continued downside risks [and to take] steps to reduce vulnerabilities to these risks and […] to continue to use all available policy tools to support the sustained recovery.” They also said they remain committed “to uphold an open and rule-based multilateral trade and investment system, and strengthen regional integration and cooperation.”

The statement followed the annual meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors from China, Japan, South Korea and the 10-member ASEAN. The meetings were held via teleconference on the sidelines of the annual gathering of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). [Reuters]

22 September 2020

Philippines: The complex sentiments about US armed presence 

(nd) Built originally by the Spanish colonial empire, the Subic Bay base, together with Clark Airfield, was home to US navy ships and personnel for much of the 20th century. Amidst growing sentiments about a colonial-like dependency of the U.S., which had ruled the Philippines as a colony until 1946, the Philippine Senate, in 1991, rejected a proposed extension of the lease that had allowed the US to station troops.

Today, the event is marked by a monument, celebrating the stern message of independence the 12 Senators’ votes had sent. Yet, the actual effect was short-lived, as the U.S. and Philippines re-opened the door to a US deployment with the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement and joint military exercises. This was augmented, in response to Chinese pressure in the South China Sea, by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement in 2014. Following the agreement, US ships are once again berthed in Subic Bay base.

The renewed US presence continues to cause ressentiment in Filipinos, recently displayed in the discussions around President Duterte’s pardon of a US Marine, convicted of murdering a transgender woman near Subic Bay base. Duterte himself has, nevertheless also expressed criticism of past US actions in the Philippines, and the government’s foreign policy towards China is decidedly independent from the US line. [The Diplomat 1] [The Diplomat 2] [Subic]


22 September 2020

Philippines: Lawsuit against China over South China Sea

(nd) Retired Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio will legally support the team suing Chinese president Xi Jinping for crimes against humanity for illegal incursions in the South China Sea. The lawsuit was filed by Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales in March 2019 before the International Criminal Court (ICC) over near permanent destruction in the West Philippine Sea claimed by the Philippines as its exclusive economic zone. The ICC stated the case might not be within its jurisdiction. However, del Rosario emphasized the described act were not only within their exclusive economic zone (EEZ) but also within Filipino territory. Additionally, they cited the ramming and sinking of a Filipino fishing boat in June 2019 that occurred within their EEZ. [Daily Express] 

15 September 2020

ASEAN foreign minister meeting held virtually with focus on South China Sea Dispute, pandemic and Rohingya crisis

(jn/nd) ASEAN’s foreign ministers conducted their annual summit by video on Wednesday to discuss how to overcome the immense challenges presented by the pandemic, rising tensions by the US-China rivalry in the South China Sea dispute while also touching on the continuing plight of the Rohingya refugees. The ministers were also scheduled to meet Asian and Western counterparts, like China and the US. The talks kicked off a four-day string of ASEAN meetings that were delayed by a month and were now held online to avoid COVID-19 exposure. Vietnam hosted the talks as this year’s chairman of the group. 

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc opened the conference with a speech pointing out the repercussions of the pandemic on people and businesses while also acknowledging the “growing volatilities that endanger peace and stability” in the South China Sea, all of which required regional solidarity. Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi addressed US and China representatives to not trap Indonesia in a regional struggle between the two. [Jakarta Post] Tensions between the two powers rose recently, not only with respect to trade and sanctions but because of the status of the South China Sea. Having become not only one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways, these waters are also subject to various territorial claims with Chinese military maneuvers establishing facts on the ground. [See also AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1]

China accused the US of becoming “the biggest driver of militarization” in the resource-rich waters. [Manila Times] This year, the US intensified “freedom of navigation” operations in South China Sea, including bringing two aircraft carriers into the region for the first time since 2014 and lifting submarine deployments and surveillance flights.

In fact, Marsudi referenced a joint statement given last month by all 10 ASEAN foreign ministers, showing they are united in their focus on peace and not taking sides as China-US relations are deteriorating. The latter fact was earlier emphasized by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He was promoting an inclusive regional structure, with important regional powers such as Japan and India on the rise, and emphasized the importance of strong ASEAN cooperation, despite inward looking tendencies of the member countries. Because of its own claims and ethnic involvement, China was not able to fulfill the security role of the US. Still, the Belt and Road Initiative, he stressed, if carried out with financial prudence, is a step towards needed multilateral cooperation and to develop connectivity and infrastructure, which was neglected before. [Foreign Affairs]

In another virtual meeting on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged ASEAN leaders to reconsider deals with Chinese companies that have been blacklisted by the US for building island outposts which he said Beijing was using to “bully” rival claimants in the disputed South China Sea. [South China Morning Post] The Philippines referred to their need of Chinese investments, despite the two nation’s dispute over one of the region’s richest fishing grounds, Scarborough Shoal. [Manila Standard]

In their communiqué, the ministers reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security and freedom of navigation in, and overflight above, the South China Sea and underscored the need for giving effect to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). They also commended the progress in negotiations with China on an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. First COC talks occurred in 2002 but have so long been without a result. [Hanoi Times] The text also mentions the concerns by some ministers on land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the South China Sea which, it states, have eroded trust, increased tensions, and may undermine peace and security in the region. [AP] [Al Jazeera] [ASEAN FM Communiqué] [Bangkok Post] [Nikkei Asian Review] [The Diplomat]

Another key project was establishing a COVID-19 response fund to help ASEAN member states buy medical supplies and protective suits. A regional stockpile of medical supplies has also been approved, and a study to be financed by Japan will research the possibility of establishing an ASEAN center on public health emergencies. The communiqué also calls for “enhanced collaboration and sharing of experience with ASEAN’s partners in research, development, production, and distribution of vaccines, providing access to medicines for COVID-19 and other diseases in future public health emergencies, and making them available and affordable to all as global public goods.”

Referring to diminished regional movement and trade due to the pandemic, the statement also noted that members encouraged “the maintenance of necessary interconnectedness in the region” by facilitating a resumption in the cross-border movement of people.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. During the last meeting, ASEAN reached a consensus agreement with four more states, France, Italy, Cuba and Colombia. [VN Express]

15 September 2020

Philippines: Withdrawal of ABS-CBN frequencies

(nd) The Duterte administration withdrew the frequencies of the country’s biggest broadcasting network. Two months ago, the National Telecommunication Commission (NTC) recalled the frequencies after ABS-CDN’s franchise application was denied on July 10. The franchise renewal bills have been pending since 2014. A petition challenging the decision by NTC was dismissed by the Supreme Court August 25. [GMA network] The 25-year franchise ended on May 4. ABS-CBN has since shifted its focus on businesses to free-to-air broadcast, which does not require a legislative franchise to operate such as streaming and digital business. [Manila Times] [GMA network 2]

15 September 2020

Philippines: SC rejects request of SALN against Justice Leonen

(nd) Unanimously, the Supreme Court in an en banc decision a request to obtain Statements of Assets, Liabilities and Net Worth (SALN) of Associate Justice Marvic Leonen. The request was brought by the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) in order to prepare a Quo Warranto petition, which is a legal action to determine whether a person is legally entitled to hold the public office he or she does. Leonen is a consistent dissenter in the Court, scolding colleagues when deciding in favor of president Rodrigo Duterte. In a SC decision from 2018 to remove former chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno via an unprecedented Quo Warranto petition, Leonen dissented, stressing the Constitution allows removal of justices trough impeachment only. With the SC denied the request, voices say the decision could put an end to Quo Warranto threats against the judiciary.  [Rappler]


15 September 2020

Philippines: Marcos’ Birthday anniversary fuel petitions against ATA

(nd) Amid plans of declaring Sept. 11 a public holiday in the Ilocos Norte province, in honor of the the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, civil rights groups have petitioned the Supreme Court to nullify the 2020 anti-terrorism act (ATA) on the basis that it violates basic rights and harms democratic discourse.

The law allows enforcement agencies to detain suspects of terrorism for up to 24 days without a court charge. This allegedly contravenes the Constitution, which allows holding for 3 days. 

Many groups fear the ATA will lead to forced confessions, torture, and abuse of power, and the latest petition joins 30 others previously filed to the Supreme Court.

The late Ferdinand Marcos is still a controversial figure in Philippine politics. He ruled the country for close to two decades, until a 1986 military-backed uprising. Previous Philippine governments have held him responsible for widespread human rights abuse, with thousands of people killed and tortured. President Duterte, however, is understood to hold Marcos in high regards, supporting the controversial decision to give the late dictator a hero’s burial with military honors in 2016. [Rappler] [Philstar] [The Guardian] [Manila Standard]

15 September 2020

Philippines: “Fast lane” for Chinese workers 

(nd) The governments in Manila and Beijing agreed to a “fast lane” for Chinese personnel working in projects under the Duterte administration’s Build, Build, Build (BBB) program.

At the moment, there are 70 projects fully or partly financed by China through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), mainly infrastructural and transportation projects, involving roads and bridges, airports, seaports, railways, communication and flood control. [Manila Times]


8 September 2020

Philippines sending signs of de-escalation in SCS tussle with China

(nd) In the ongoing conflict with between China and the Philipines over the control of sea zones, Phil. Armed forces Chief Gapay stressed the continued pursuit of a peaceful solution. While Philippine officials maintain that China has committed breaches of their territorial integrity and have protested against what has been called Chinese provocations in the region, the Duterte government maintains that the country will not join the US in blacklisting or terminating existing contracts with Chinese companies involved in the ongoing construction and improvement of artificial islands in disputed sea zones. This applies, among others, to the Sangley airport project, a flagship project and joint venture of the Philippines and a Chinese state-owned construction company said to also be involved in the construction of the disputed artificial islands. Amidst voices within the government and from the opposition calling for sanctions to be imposed, Defense Secretary has also recently signed a cooperation agreement with Chinese-backed telecommunications provider, which would allow the latter to build cell sites within Philippine military camps. [Manila Standard]  [Phil Star 1] [Phil Star 2] [Rappler]


8 September 2020

Malaysia: Entry ban on citizens of India, Indonesia and the Philippines imposed

(nd) Malaysia imposed an entry ban on citizens of India, Indonesia and the Philippines from September 7 to fight the spread of Covid-19. Philippine presidential spokesperson Harry Roque called it a sovereign decision they regret. The Philippines currently has a number of over 226,000 infections, Indonesia more than 180,000. India to date has recorded 3.7 million cases, the third highest in the world after the United States and Brazil. [Global Nation]

8 September 2020

Philippines: New senate president

(nd) Tan Sri Dr Rais Yatim has been elected the new president of the Dewan Negara, the Upper House of Parliament. The former Information, Communications and Culture Minister replaces Tan Sri S. A. Vigneswaran whose term of office ended on June 22. [Daily Express]


8 September 2020

Philippines: Corruption scandal of national health insurer affects government

(nd) In the ongoing corruption investigations of Phil Health, house representatives have suggested to give emergency powers to President Rodrigo Duterte to be able to resolve the situation, with members of the Senate quickly rejecting the idea. Amidst rumors of an offer of resignation over the affair, President Duterte has expressed his confidence in Secretary of Health Duque. Accusations of rampant corruption in the government-controlled national health insurer have been voiced since 2012. Multiple congressional probes have since been effected. With the resignation of CEO Ricardo Morales in August 2020, after being in office for one year, the matter is now again under discussion, with another task force’s report due on Sept. 14. [Manila Bulletin 1] [Manila Bulletin 2][ Manila Bulletin 3] [Manila Bulletin 4]

1 September 2020

South China Sea: Philippines warn China of invoking Mutual Defense Treaty with United States

(lm) Amid ongoing tensions with China, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr warned on Wednesday that Manila would invoke its seventy-year old Mutual Defence Treaty with the United States in the event of a Chinese attack of naval vessels in the South China Sea. Mr. Locsin further said that the Philippines will continue air patrols over the Spratlys in the South China Sea (SCS), ignoring Beijing`s calls to stop what it had described earlier as “illegal provocations”. [The EurAsian Times]

Just days earlier, China had confiscated a Filipino fishing vessel near the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal which Beijing has occupied since 2012. In response, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had called the alleged historic rights invoked by China to justify its maritime claims in the SCS a fabrication. [South China Morning Post] [The Straits Times] [AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4]

Earlier this month, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had ordered the Philippines` navy not to join US-led military exercises in the South China Sea, with analysts describing it as a move to trade Manila’s maritime claims with a Chinese COVID-19 vaccine [see AiR No. 33, August/2020, 3]. More recent developments, though, seem to reflect Manila’s shifting geopolitical calculations as previous warming-ups with Beijing have proven unsuccessful and China’s strategic opportunism over the past six months has fueled anxieties over Beijing’s expansionism. For an apt analysis of the Philippines change of heart, see Jay L. Batongbacal`s article in [ASEAN Focus pp.24f.]

1 September 2020

Malaysia rejects Philippines` Sabah claim in new diplomatic note

(lm) Malaysia submitted a note verbale to the United Nations on August 27 refuting the Philippines’ territorial claims over Sabah and the Kalayaan Island Group, which covers most of the disputed Spratly Islands. Lodging the diplomatic note, Kuala Lumpur responded to a note verbal filed by Manila in March, where it protested Kuala Lumpur’s bid to extend the limits of its continental shelf, covering portions of the Kalayaan Island Group, which the Philippines considers part of its Palawan province. [Malay Mail 1] [Malay Mail 2]

This is the second diplomatic note Malaysia submitted to the United Nations this year, following a note verbale issued on 29 July that rejected China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea “encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘nine-dash- line’”. [AiR No. 32, August/2020, 2]

Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr who via Twitter had revived earlier this month the decades-old territorial dispute between the two countries [see AiR No. 31, August/2020, 1] on Sunday rejected calls for the Philippines to abandon its claim over Sabah. The following day, Mr. Locsin followed-up on his tweet saying that he would revive the Department of Foreign Affairs’ North Borneo Affairs which is dedicated to efforts to reclaim Sabah. [The Inquirer] [Malay Mail 3]

Earlier last week, the Philippines` House Committee on Foreign Affairs had approved a substitute bill seeking to amend the Passport Act by printing a revised version of the country`s map, including its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and Sabah, on Philippine passports. [Phil Star]

1 September 2020

Philippines: President Duterte rejects call to establish a ‘revolutionary government’ 

(lm) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte last week rejected a call from a group of his supporters to overturn the constitution and install a “revolutionary government” until the end of his term in 2022. Mr. Duterte – who has on two previous occasions threatened to declare such a government – said on Tuesday that while “many people” were calling on him to do so, he would not because doing so was “not my job”. [South China Morning Post] [Bloomberg]

The announcement comes at a time when rumors about President Duterte’s health have swirled. Recently, reports had claimed he had been airlifted to a medical facility in Singapore purportedly to seek emergency treatment. The President has denied the rumors but has also refused to reveal his medical records or allow his official physician to talk about his health. [The Diplomat]

1 September 2020

Philippines consider to re-impose martial law after latest bombings

(lm) Following the twin suicide blasts in Sulu province last week that killed at least 15 and injured more than 75 [see AiR No. 34, August/2020, 4], President Rodrigo Duterte will consider recommendations to re-impose martial law. [South China Morning Post] [Bangkok Post]

Martial law was lifted at the end of last year in the southern Philippines’ Mindanao region, which includes Sulu, two-and-a-half years after it was imposed to fight the Abu Sayyaf militants, an Islamic state-inspired group that took over Marawi City. [AiR No. 51, December/2019, 3] [AiR No. 52, December/2019, 4]

25 August 2020

Cross-strait relations: Beijing’s military muscle flexing in the South China Sea (Vietnam+Philippines)

(dql/ef) China is concurrently conducting four military exercises in various coastal regions in this week amid high tensions with the US and Asian countries over territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Among them are drills in the Taiwan Strait which – according to statements of the Chinese military – are held in the South China Sea in express response to recent US military activities in the Taiwan Strait and aimed to deter separatist forces in Taiwan and the USA. [Global Times][Radio Free Asia]

The drills are the latest in an almost consecutive series of military activities of the People’s Liberation Army in the South China over the past months accompanied by aggressive rhetoric, further pushing speculations about Beijing preparing for re-unification by force. The speculations have been reinforced by the former vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the former acting CIA director under President Obama who argued that China’s invasion of Taiwan could happen as soon as next year and warned that China would be capable of seizing Taiwan in three days and that the USA would be too paralyzed by political turmoil to stop it. [Forbes]

In this light Robert Kagan at [Brookings] assumes that China – seeing that economic and diplomatic pressure have not yielded the goal of re-unification – might opt for a military takeover of Taiwan, and raises the question whether in such a case the USA would respond, adding that “American policies in the two decades before World War II were shaped by what in retrospect looks like a stunning naïveté about other nations’ willingness to resort to force. One wonders if we are any less naive today”. 

The drills come after the de facto U.S. ambassador in Taiwan attended on Sunday for the first time a ceremony commemorating a key military clash between Chinese and Taiwanese forces back in 1958, a highly symbolic move reflecting currently deepening US-Taiwan relations while worsening already frosty US-China/cross-strait relations. [Focus Taiwan]

25 August 2020

Philippines: Human rights lawyer and peasant activist killed

(ls) A legal worker for a human rights group and a peasant activist have been killed in the Philippines over the course of the last four weeks. The two cases illustrate the practice of so called red-tagging. Both worked in leftist grassroots organizations. Authorities often allege these to be linked to the communist insurgency and label them communists. Red-tagging often results in the death of the persons so labelled. In this particular case, the Department of Justice had even listed the victims on a terrorist list, though their names were subsequently removed. [Human Rights Watch]

25 August 2020

Philippines: IS-linked bomb attacks in Jolo

(ls) Two bombs exploded in Jolo, Sulu province, in the southern Philippines on Monday, killing at least 14 people and injuring dozens more. Among the dead were seven soldiers, six civilians and one police officer. The second of the two explosions was carried out by a female suicide bomber. Jolo is the main town on Jolo island and a stronghold of the Abu Sayyaf militants, who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. For several months, the Philippine military has been conducting an offensive against the group. [DW]

Monday’s explosions happened near the place where a suicide attack in January last year killed at least 23 people and wounded 109 others. The bombers were an Indonesian couple with links to the Abu Sayyaf. [Rappler]

Monday’s bomb attacks are seen in connection with events less than two weeks ago when one of Abu Sayyaf’s top leaders, Abduljihad “Idang” Susukan, was handed over to the police by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a Muslim political organization in the southern Philippines which has negotiated an increased level of autonomy with the Duterte administration. In 2018, the Organic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao was passed. It provides for the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region.

25 August 2020

Vietnam and Philippines push back against Chinese claims in South China Sea

(jn/ls) Vietnam’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that the presence of Chinese bombers on the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea would jeopardize peace in the region and violate Vietnam’s sovereignty. China has boosted its presence in disputed parts of the strategic waterway in recent months and conducted exercises, further heightening tensions in the longstanding conflict at a time when other claimants are battling coronavirus outbreaks. Only recently, intense Chinese pressure had led to cancellations of drilling contracts of Vietnamese companies with international corporations. [South China Morning Post 1] [AiR No. 30, July/2020, 4]

The Philippines’ Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana accused Beijing of illegally occupying Filipino maritime territory surrounding the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. The Department of Foreign Affairs lodged a diplomatic protest. In addition, Lorenzana said that China’s nine-dash line used to claim most of the South China Sea is a fabrication. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague did not recognize the nine-dash-line under international law. [PhilStar] [Inquirer]

Possibly also having this precedent in mind, Vietnam submitted a list of nominated arbitrators to the U.N. Secretary General earlier in May. For the first time in the history of the country, a foreign international law expert was among the nominated persons, a professor from the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law. Moreover, in November last year, a Vietnamese diplomat announced that his country was considering to bring China to arbitral court over Chinese intrusions into Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), in particular the oil-rich Vanguard Bank. [VERA Files]

However, China argues that ASEAN claimants are bound by the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea which requires them to settle the dispute bilaterally rather than through multilateral bodies such as the U.N. However, as the sea dispute is becoming a proxy arena for the strategic battle between China and the U.S., Southeast Asian countries may feel emboldened to take legal action. [South China Morning Post 2]

In June, Singapore and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) signed a model agreement recognizing the city-state as an alternative seat for the tribunal. [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3]

18 August 2020

Philippines: Labor NGO demands end of state fascism under Duterte

(dql) Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), a non-governmental development organization in the Philippines, has demanded to hold the Duterte administration accountable for the killings of two Philippines peasant rights defenders last week. EILER also accused the government of “[u]sing the pandemic as a guise to attack critics, activists and ordinary people,” and demanded an “[e]nd of state fascism under the Duterte administration.” [Scoop]

Meanwhile, Philippine authorities announced that the commander of the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, who executed two Canadians more than four years ago in the Philippines, was arrested. [Global News]

18 August 2020

Philippines-USA relations: Manila undermining Washington tougher stance against China on South China Sea?

(dql) Amid the US determination to go ahead with a hardening stance against China over the South China Sea – reflected in US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration as illegal China’s vast maritime claims on the South China Sea – recent statements of Philippine President Duterte and Philippine Defense Secretary Lorenzana have weakened Washington’s position in its rivalry with Beijing over the disputed region.

While Lorenzana cited a standing order of Duterte, under which the Philippines “should not involve ourselves in naval exercises in the South China Sea except in our national water, the 12-mile distance from our shores,” Duterte on his part declared himself being not in the position to assert the Philippines’ claims as “China has arms, we not.”

Analyst suggest that Duterte is trying to trade Manila’s claims in the South China Sea with the coronavirus vaccine which he hope to receive from Beijing. [Financial Times]

11 August 2020

Asian countries protesting, cooperating over Chinese posture in South China Sea

(ls) Vietnam is going to purchase six patrol boats from Japan to boost its Coast Guard’s maritime law enforcement capabilities. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) signed a $345 million loan agreement with the Vietnamese government at the end of July. It is the first deal of this kind between the two countries as Japan had previously only sold fishing vessels to Vietnam.

The deal comes at a time when Vietnam has been at odds with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea. In a corresponding statement, JICA said the project would contribute to “the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific”, a term that has initially been coined by the United States. The development demonstrates Vietnam’s increasing alignment with the United States and its ally Japan in defense of its interests against China. [Japan Times]

JICA has already signed similar agreements for the construction of patrol ships and boats with the Philippine Coast Guard under the joint Japanese-Philippine Maritime Safety Capability Improvement Project (MSCIP) program. [Naval News]

Meanwhile, the Philippine navy chief has called for a diplomatic protest against the presence of two Chinese research ships in a disputed area surrounding the Reed Bank. The Reed Bank is an energy-rich area of the South China Sea that the Philippines claims within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This claim was essentially confirmed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in 2016. China, however, does not recognize the ruling. [South China Morning Post]

In a related development, Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said after a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that matters relating to the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully based on universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on The Law of The Sea (UNCLOS). However, he also emphasized that Malaysia should not be caught up in the geopolitics of superpowers, emphasizing the need to maintain good relations with all sides. [Malay Mail] [Benar News]

Malaysia submitted a note verbale to the United Nations on 29 July, rejecting China’s claims to historic rights, or other sovereign rights or jurisdiction, with respect to the maritime areas of the South China Sea “encompassed by the relevant part of the ‘ninedash line’”. [United Nations]

4 August 2020

Philippines, Malaysia in diplomatic row over Sabah state

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

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

28 July 2020

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

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

28 July 2020

Philippines: Tax evasion charges against Maria Ressa

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

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

28 July 2020

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

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

21 July 2020

Philippines and China easing tensions, superpowers´ ties deteriorate

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

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

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

21 July 2020

Philippines defend anti-terror bill, announce controversial coronavirus measures

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

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

14 July 2020

Philippines: Lawmakers shut down ABS-CBN network

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

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

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

7 July 2020

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

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

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


7 July 2020

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

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

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

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


30 June 2020

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

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

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

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

30 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 June 2020

Philippines: Police kills four soldiers in the south 

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

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

30 June 2020

Philippines: Child victims of the drug war

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

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


30 June 2020

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

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



23 June 2020

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

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



23 June 2020

Philippines: Businessman and political influencer Danding Cojuangco dies at 85

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



23 June 2020

Philippines: Wirecard´s missing billions not in the Philippines

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


16 June 2020

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

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

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

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


16 June 2020

Philippines: Continuing protests overshadow Independence Day

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

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


16 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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



16 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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



9 June 2020

Philippines: Hit by surge of Facebook fake accounts

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

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



9 June 2020

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

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

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


9 June 2020

Philippines: Protests flare over new Anti-Terror-Law

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

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


9 June 2020

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

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

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

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


26 May 2020

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

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

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


26 May 2020

US-Philippines defense relations 

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

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

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

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

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


26 May 2020

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

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

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

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


19 May 2020

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

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

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


12 May 2020

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

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


12 May 2020

Philippines biggest broadcaster forced off air 

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

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

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


5 May 2020

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

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

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


5 May 2020

Philippines releases about 10,000 prisoners

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


5 May 2020

Philippines: Media and journalists under ever-increasing pressure

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

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

5 May 2020

Philippines cleared to buy US attack helicopters 

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

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

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

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


5 May 2020

Is the Philippines-US Defense Treaty at stake?

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

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


28 April 2020

INTERPOL crackdown on terrorist routes in Southeast Asia

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


21 April 2020

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

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

21 April 2020

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

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

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

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

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

14 April 2020

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

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

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

14 April 2020

Philippines: Harry Roque returns as presidential spokesperson

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

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


7 April 2020

How the corona crisis threatens poor children throughout Southeast Asia

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


7 April 2020

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

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

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


31 March 2020

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

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

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

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


24 March 2020

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

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

17 March 2020

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

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

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

10 March 2020

Philippines: Senators challenge withdrawal from US defense agreement

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

3 March 2020

Philippines: New Anti-Terror Bill

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

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

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

18 February 2020

Philippines lifts travel ban on visitors from Taiwan

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

18 February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

18 February 2020

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

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

11 February 2020

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

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

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


4 February 2020

U.S.-Philippines tensions continue 

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

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

28 January 2020

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

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

28 January 2020

U.S.-Philippines tensions over political visa bans

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

7 January 2020

Philippines evacuates citizens from the Middle East

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

31 December 2019

Philippines US relations tense over Senator de Lima case

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

24 December 2019

Duterte’s Coast Guard diplomacy

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


24 December 2019

Philippines: NATO report on four models of political trolling

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

24 December 2019

Philippines: Several attacks in the south

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

24 December 2019

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

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

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

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

17 December 2019

Philippines: Martial law to be lifted by year end

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

10 December 2019

Philippines-China dispute: ICC rejects jurisdiction

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

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

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

3 December 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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


26 November 2019

Philippines: Update on ISIS militants returning to SEA

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


26 November 2019

Philippines: Disinformation as an export good?

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


26 November 2019

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

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

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


19 November 2019

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

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

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


12 November 2019

Philippines stamping Chinese “Nine-Dash Line” passports again

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


12 November 2019

Philippines: Alleged suicide bombers killed

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



12 November 2019

Philippines: Duterte offers Robredo influential position in drug war

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



12 November 2019

Philippines: Non-governmental groups labeled as communists

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

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



5 November 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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



5 November 2019

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

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

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

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

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


5 November 2019

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

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

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


29 October 2019

Russia boosts up Philippines’ defence industry

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


29 October 2019

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

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

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


29 October 2019

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

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


22 October 2019

Maritime terrorism in Asia: An assessment 

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


22 October 2019

India and Philippines enhance navy cooperation

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

15 October 2019

Philippines: Increased poverty due to drug war, study finds

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

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

15 October 2019

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

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

8 October 2019

Philippine President Duterte visits Russia

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

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


1 October 2019

South China Sea: Statements at UNGA and related developments

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

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

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

1 October 2019

Philippines: Steep rise in killings of land activists

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

24 September 2019

Philippines’ hedging strategy?

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

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

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

17 September 2019

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

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

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

17 September 2019

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

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

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

17 September 2019

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

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

10 September 2019

China offers funds for Philippines infrastructure drive

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

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

10 September 2019

Philippines: Rebels hand in armory according to Muslim peace deal

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

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

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

3 September 2019

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

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

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

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

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

Date of AiR edition

News summary

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16 July 2019

UNHCR passes resolution to investigate Philippines’ drug war

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

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

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

16 July 2019

First Philippine suicide bomber confirmed

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

16 July 2019

Philippines: Clooney joins international legal team defending Maria Ressa

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

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

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

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

2 July 2019

Terrorism: Attack at Philippine military base; arrests in Indonesia

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

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

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

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

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

2 July 2019

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

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

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

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

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

11 June 2019

Philippines assails United Nations rights exports for “unpardonable intrusions”

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

11 June 2019

Gay rights in focus in the Philippines

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

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


4 June 2019

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

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

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

28 May 2019

Philippines bans official travels to Canada over garbage spat

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

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

28 May 2019

Militants attack soldiers in southern Philippines, leaving two children dead

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

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

19 March 2019

Philippines officially leaves International Criminal Court

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

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

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

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

19 March 2019

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

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

19 March 2019

Philippines: Senate to investigate water shortages in Manila

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

19 March 2019

The role of the Catholic Church in Philippine politics

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

11 March 2019

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

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

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

11 March 2019

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

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

11 March 2019

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

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

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

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

11 March 2019

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

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

4 March 2019

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

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

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

4 March 2019

Philippines: President Duterte vetoes bill on children’s rights

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


4 March 2019

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

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

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

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

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