Will the Philippines become a failed state?

JAYA PRAKASH  –  Jul 25, 2017

Singapore has offered military assistance to the Philippines. By all reckonings, the offer is little more than an affirmation of solidarity by the Association of South-East Asian Nations, even as ASEAN has traditionally maintained a strict policy of non-interference in another's internal politics.

Though the situation in the Philippines does not resemble what is happening in Iraq and Syria, ground readings say it is getting precariously close to becoming a failed state, something Asia should not ignore.

For years what has happened in the Philippines has caused angst in the world. In 1983, then U.S. president Ronald Reagan grimly predicted the nation may turn communist because of its inability to battle insurgents in the south of the country. Fortunately that did not come to pass.

Seemingly in the grip of some midsummer madness, its then president Corazon Aquino drove U.S. troops out of her country in 1992. And now, with China’s constant taunts following the ‘loss of face’ over the Scarborough rulings last year from the International Court of Justice (ICJ), coupled with its ability to turn baiting into an art-form, Manila may be longing for a return of American troops.

It is too soon to call the Philippines a ‘failed state’ but, somewhat akin to the hobbled efficiencies of militaries in failed states, the Philippine military took three days to clear a single building of ISIS militants.

And now, in a throwback to what Reagan said in 1983, Philippine newspapers have been scathing of the inability of its troops to secure roads, buildings and cities, and other infrastructure in its long and drawn out campaign to flush ISIS-inspired militants out of the predominantly Muslim populated southern provinces of the country.

Since the 1970s, the Philippine military has mostly engaged in jungle warfare (ambushes etc. in the jungles). That was an easy type of fighting because mines and booby traps are incredibly effective when fighting in the jungle. Filipino forces were hardly, or never, prepared for the ISIS-type of brutal street fighting and warfare in built-up areas.

Singapore has the experience that Manila needs. Its conscript army trains its troops in the art of fighting in built-up areas, and is perhaps what sets it apart from Vietnam and Korea. Though Singapore’s aid amounts to nothing more than the lending of drones and a cargo plane, its forces have never seen any real action – except when they were in peacekeeping operations. That did surprise many who have wondered aloud why Manila did not consult the far more battle-hardened armies of Vietnam and Korea which, with their proven expertise, could better afford to advise and tackle a rising insurgency.

But what is little known of these armies, is their expertise in fighting in built-up areas, which is just the kind of know-how Manila needs if it is to save itself from yet another embarrassing episode of taking days to secure and free a single building for the safety of its citizens!

– Jaya Prakash is a defence and security journalist based in Singapore