Starting the New Year with a bang

SPYBITS - The Philippine Star

Recent developments seem to indicate that 2016 – the year of the Red Fire Monkey – will indeed be very fiery with the New Year literally starting with a bang as Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) attacked several Army detachments in Mindanao. This was followed by clashes between Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) forces in Matalam, North Cotabato which resulted in the displacement of more than 1,000 residents from affected barangays.

According to reports, the skirmish between the MNLF and MILF was triggered by a land dispute despite a peace treaty signed in 2013 by warring clans that they will not resort to violence in solving the dispute. Meantime, the fighting has renewed fears among residents once more, with many reluctant to return to their homes because they might be caught in the crossfire, if the hostilities start again.

Peace in Mindanao is still a major challenge, and despite denials, it would seem the clashes between government troops and the rogue BIFF, plus the clan wars involving MILF and MNLF commanders will affect the passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law. For one, the BIFF had said it does not recognize the ongoing peace efforts between the Aquino administration and the MILF, saying they will continue their struggle for an independent Islamic state.

Observers also suspect that the spate of bombings on several NGCP (National Grid Corp. of the Philippines) facilities could be the handiwork of the BIFF in a bid to sabotage the passage of the BBL – which now goes by a much lengthier name of BLBAR or the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region which now has amendments on several provisions contained in the original BBL draft. Several amendments were deleted because they were deemed unconstitutional by many congressmen. The MILF has also rejected what it called the “watered down” BBL draft. According to Cagayan Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, the NGCP bombings could be the work of “saboteurs” who want the old BBL draft without the amended provisions.

Just before the New Year, improvised explosive devices damaged an NGCP tower in Lanao del Norte – the fourth one to be bombed since the Dec. 23, 2015 blast in Maguindanao which destroyed a tower in Tacurong. This will definitely exacerbate the brownouts that Mindanao residents have been experiencing in the last four years.

In fact, the NGCP has put Mindanao under a yellow alert status because of the tower bombings, with the power reserves now falling below required levels as two hydropower plants in Lanao del Sur – the Agus 1 and 2 hydropower plants – are still isolated from the Mindanao grid. Compounding the problem is the refusal of the landowner, on whose property the bombed Tower 25 in Ramain, Lanao del Sur stands, to allow for repairs to be conducted, demanding government pay him first for his earlier right-of-way claims.

The Christmas break bombings is not the first time NGCP power towers have been targeted by lawless elements. In November last year, NGCP placed the Mindanao grid on red alert, pointing to the intermittent bombings that have caused power interruptions in several areas in Mindanao. In fact, it seems there has been no let-up in the sabotage of the transmission lines, with seven blasts recorded from January to October last year. Adding to the fear is the discovery of undetonated bombs placed under several towers – and there’s a possibility more could have been planted in various areas.

But it’s not only Mindanao residents who bear the brunt of the damage (due to brownouts that also result in economic disruption, with businesses especially those that are highly dependent on electricity suffering from losses) but also even to Metro Manila residents because of the subsidies incorporated in electricity bills.

Mindanao is clearly a hot spot and we’re not only referring to the power tower bombings, but also to the upcoming elections in May, with murmurs of dissatisfaction getting more persistent due to strengthening suspicions that efforts are deliberately being made to “limit” the people’s choices for the next president. In any case, the next administration will also have its hands full not only with domestic issues, but also foreign policy concerns as well.

China continues with its provocative actions when it landed a plane on the new airfield it built in the disputed territories in the Spratly Islands – which observers took as a sign that it is trying to flex its military muscles. The test flight has drawn a protest from Vietnam which accused China of serious violation of sovereignty. A Vietnamese official has also called the artificial airfield at Fiery Cross Reef as having been “built illegally” – an accusation that China roundly rejected.

The Philippines has also signified its displeasure over the test flight, with the DFA to file a protest in due time. The Philippines earlier filed an arbitration case against China before a UN Arbitral Tribunal, protesting the massive reclamation activities in the disputed territories in the South China Sea, among them Fiery Cross Reef.

The US has expressed concern over this latest development, saying it could heighten tension even more. Certainly, China’s actions over the disputed territories have set a negative start for the new year, with many expressing concern over China’s growing “militarization” of the Spratlys despite its repeated avowals the reclamation activities are for civilian use. Aside from the Philippines and Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei are also claimants to territories in the South China Sea – an important and strategic maritime passageway through which over $5 trillion in annual trade and commerce passes, aside from the fact the territories are believed to be rich in gas and oil deposits as well as other natural resources such as fish and other marine species.

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