Southeast Asia End of the Month Report – December 15th – December 31st
Metro Manila, in the second part of December, saw for the most part two types of incidents: shootings and arrests. Regarding shootings, there was no significant common motive for them, as there was in the earlier months of the year when the war on drugs was significantly more violent. However, the majority of the shootings were perpetrated by motorcycle-riding gunmen, with one driving and the back-rider opening fire on the victim before fleeing the scene. In regard to arrests, the majority of incidents recorded were of drug dealers and users being arrested by agents from the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency. Regarding the location, the bulk were made in Quezon City, particularly in the barangays bordering Caloocan City North.
Elsewhere in Metro Manila, the Manila Metro Rail Transit System saw a continuation of problems that have occurred since the beginning of the month. The problems for the most part stemmed from electrical failures in the trains’ engines due to worn out electrical sub-components. Each failure meant hundreds of passengers having to be offloaded, the train being taken out of service, and a back-up train being deployed. A new maintenance provider for the system is expected to be selected in May 2018 with the help of Japan.
Activity from major non-state armed actors such as Abu Sayyaf Group, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and the New People’s Army continued to be seen through the end of the month. The bulk of the violence was concentrated with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Maguindanao, and the New People’s Army in Mindanao.
While government forces launched airstrikes in Carmen, Cotabato, against positions held by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, the bulk of the incidents were recorded around Datu Saudi, Datu Unsay, and Datu Hoffer in Maguindanao. Government forces used artillery pieces and air assets to bombard BIFF positions, while BIFF fighters retaliated by killing a Teduray tribe chieftain, burning a dozen homes belonging to local residents, and being suspected of throwing grenades at two military checkpoints in Cotabato City. The most significant incident involved BIFF fighters kidnapping 6 indigenous farmers in Datu Hoffer. Four of the farmers kidnapped were able to run away when the group took a break from walking, while the other two were found dead later on by pursuing troops. Datu Hoffer is also the area where two roadside bombs detonated on December 31st and January 1st, 2018. While these bombings have not been claimed by any group, their location suggests a high likelihood that they were perpetrated by the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. In these two bombings, 1 policeman was killed, 5 policemen wounded, and 2 soldiers wounded.
As for the New People’s Army, activity continued despite unilateral ceasefires being declared by both the government and the communist rebels in observance of Christmas and the New Year celebrations. The communist rebels’ ceasefire spanned from 6 PM on December 23rd to 6 PM on December 26th, and from 6 PM on December 30th to 6 PM on January 2nd. The government’s ceasefire is similar, but for a slight change in the hours. On Christmas day, a skirmish took place in Barangay Melale, Compostela Valley, while the rebels also attempted to kidnap a militiaman in Tubaon, Tarragona, Davao Oriental. Tubaon was also the scene of several skirmishes on December 28th before and after an incident involving a landmine explosion damaging a military truck. In all, three soldiers were wounded. The continued incidents during the periods of ceasefire, as well as the skirmishes taking place between the two ceasefire periods, shows that the new year will see continued fighting between the groups.
Finally, the year ended with one of the most significant bombings recorded in the Philippines in 2017. On December 31st, an hour before midnight, an improvised explosive device detonated inside a tricycle on the national highway in Barangay Buenaflor, Tacurong City, while heading towards Isulan, the capital of Sultan Kudarat province. The blast killed 2 people and wounded 16. An investigation is underway to determine whether the tricycle was the target, the means of delivery, or whether it was a premature explosion and the IED was carried by one of the passengers on the tricycle. This IED explosion was significant in the number of killed and wounded compared to other IED detonations in 2017, even if it could have been an accidental detonation.
The second half of the December, in Myanmar, has seen a number of incidents involving journalists. On December 20th, a local journalist working for the ROMA Time was stabbed by unidentified assailants in Sittwe, Rakhine State. A motive has not been determined in the attack. A week later, on December 27th, two Reuters journalists from Myanmar were seen in court for the first time since their arrests on December 12th in Mingalardon Township. The journalists are facing charges of the Official Secrets Act for having been found in possession of sensitive government documents, which they say they were given by government sources. The documents were relating to the incidents in Rakhine which began on August 25th. Two days after, on December 29th, a Singaporean cameraman and a Malaysian reporter working for Turkey’s state broadcaster (TRT World Television), along with a local journalist interpreting for the pair, and their driver were released from jail. The four had been in jail since their arrest on October 27th for attempting to fly a drone near Myanmar’s parliament building. They had all been charged under a colonial era law, the Aircraft Act, and were facing additional charges which would have lengthened their sentence significantly. Reports have said that the charges were dropped so as to not hinder relations between Myanmar and Malaysia and Singapore. Also on the 29th, a journalist was arrested at the O Shit Pin checkpoint for being caught smuggling in 6 illegal migrants believed to have come from Bangladesh. Incidents such as the arrests of the two Reuters journalists have led some observers to be worried that the government is returning to a more repressive time, and targeting the media using archaic laws. Journalists covering Rakhine State could be specifically targeted, as the government tries to minimize the coverage of alleged human rights abuses they’ve committed in response to the attacks perpetrated there in August by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.
Elsewhere in Myanmar, the most significant incidents have been recorded in Kachin and Shan States. Around December 13th-14th the government began an offensive against the Kachin Independence Army which continued through the second half of the month. Reports say that the government typically launches offensive around this time of the year as the wet season ends. In 2016, the military offensive led to a counter offensive by the Kachin Independence Army, but this month has not seen a rise in skirmishes between the groups. The majority of the incidents were artillery fire recorded in the Muse 105-mile trade zone in Shan State. Additionally, the Myanmar Army deployed fighter jets to launch airstrikes on Kachin Independence Army positions in Mansi township. An increase in clashes between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army may be seen in the beginning of 2018 as the cool season continues and transitions into the hot season starting around March.
While the number of incidents recorded in Vietnam during the second half of December is quite low, what is significant is the number of drug trafficking related incidents recorded. Only one drug trafficking incident had been recorded in the first half of the month compared to five in the second half. The first of these incidents was recorded on December 16th when two drug traffickers were arrested in Mai Son district of Son La province in possession of 20kg of opium and 3,000 pills of a synthetic drugs. Also on the 16th, a Laotian national was arrested while heading towards the Cha Lo border gate in Quang Binh province. The man was arrested in possession of 32,000 tablets of an unidentified synthetic drug. In both instances, the pills are most likely ecstasy or methamphetamine. A week later, on December 23rd, a man was arrested at the Cat Bi International Airport in Hai Phong, while trying to smuggle drugs to Ho Chi Minh City. The man was arrested in possession of 767.82 grams of ketamine, with 667.82 grams of it smuggled in milk powder bags hidden in his checked luggage. Additionally, the man was found in possession of an undisclosed amount of ketamine, marijuana, and ecstasy in his carry-on bag. Elsewhere on the 23rd of December, three drug traffickers were arrested in Muong Cha district, in Dien Bien province. The men were in possession of 30kg of heroin and 60,000 tablets of ecstasy. The seizure was one of the largest seizures of heroin in the province. Finally, on December 25th, a woman was arrested after police found three heroin cakes in her suitcase when they searched the bus she was travelling on. The woman was heading to southern Vietnam to sell the heroin. Drug trafficking has been one of the most common types of incidents recorded in Vietnam by Intelligence Fusion over the course of 2017. This is due to its proximity to landlocked Laos, which is part of the Golden Triangle along with Thailand and Myanmar, and sees a high amount of opium production.
The second half of December, in Malaysia, saw a similar trend in the types of incidents seen in the first half of the month. Incidents related primarily to criminality. The first half of December had seen nine murders being committed in Peninsular Malaysia, which was a significant increase to the five murders recorded in the whole of November. The number of murders for December increased in the second half, with six more incidents being recorded, all in Peninsular Malaysia. The most high-profile murder that took place was at a gas station along Jalan Sri Pelangi, Taman Pelangi, in Johor Baru. Several men attempted to grab a man and put him in their car, but during the struggle the victim was stabbed. As the suspects fled, they ran over the victim twice. The murder gained notoriety because it was filmed and went viral online. Authorities have said that it looks like the case happened because of a drug related debt between two triad groups.
Besides murders, arrests were the second most common incident recorded in the second half of the month. The arrests stemmed from various crimes including drugs, assault, illegal gambling, sexual assault, robbery, and terrorism among others. The lone terror related arrest was that of a North African man at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Details regarding his arrests were sparse, but he’s been described as having terror related links. His arrest, on December 15th, came on the tail end of an operation by the police which arrested 20 suspected militants between November 30th and December 15th.