Defense chief Lorenzana 'losing sleep' over Abu Sayyaf

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Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Terrorists, drug lords, communist insurgents, an intrusive neighbor and rumored destabilization plots — these occupy the mind of the country's defense chief.

But what's leaving him on edge are the bandits — members of the Abu Sayyaf group — down south.

"The problem in the Southern Philippines, piracy and kidnapping, is actually giving me, personally, a headache. Sometimes I could not sleep at night thinking about how to solve the problem there," said Delfin Lorenzana, Secretary of National Defense.

"Kidnapping has not abated. When the President was inaugurated on June 30, there were only 18 hostages being held by the Abu Sayyaf. Now, there are 31. So dumami pa [it has increased]," Lorenzana added. "It's very embarrassing to the whole world."

Just last week, Abu Sayyaf bandits beheaded a German hostage, Juergen Kantner.

Read: AFP confirms: Abu Sayyaf beheaded German victim

Speaking to reporters and alumni at the National Defense College of the Philippines, Lorenzana said he hopes to "solve the Abu Sayyaf problem" by June, adding he is willing to give the Armed Forces a two-month leeway.

Related: Military aims to defeat Abu Sayyaf by June

Secure sea lane

Lorenzana said the Department of National Defense (DND) is working with its counterparts from Indonesia and Malaysia to drive out pirates and kidnappers from the waters around Western Mindanao and Borneo Island — where the bandit group had been attacking and abducting victims.

Read: Duterte, Widodo agree to chase drug dealers, blast off pirates

The Armed Forces is planning to set up a permanent station on Jolo Island in hopes of driving bandits away for good. Lorenzana said a task force will be formed to guard the area using fast seacraft and drones.

In April or May, navies of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia plan to begin joint patrols in the waters in and around Sibutu Passage. Their goal is to create a secure sea lane for civilian vessels.

Lorenzana admitted that beating the Abu Sayyaf may be a long shot "but we are doing a lot of things within our power," he added.

Chinese ships spotted

But bandits are not the only problem out at sea.

Lorenzana revealed that, from July to December 2016, marine patrols spotted Chinese survey ships in the areas of Recto Bank and Benham Rise.

Recto Bank lies 80 nautical miles northwest of Palawan. It lies within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, as affirmed by the arbitral ruling on Manila's maritime case against Beijing.

Read: PH wins maritime arbitration case vs. China

Benham Rise lies 135 nautical miles east of Aurora, near the Philippine Trench. The United Nations declared it part of Philippine territory in 2012.

Both Recto Bank and Benham Rise are thought to be rich in minerals, natural gas and oil — not to mention marine life.

Lorenzana said the Chinese may have been eyeing Benham Rise as a passage for their submarines.

'Keep protesting'

"The thing here is we should protest," Lorenzana said, referring to notes verbales, a way of diplomatically protesting another country's actions in one's territory.

Read: Philippines exercising diplomatic options over South China Sea issue: DFA

"Because, you know, what happens if we do not protest is we just lose by default what belong to us … They wear us down so that after one generation, Filipinos will get used to their presence and come to accept that they own those," he said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Lorenzana said the government has so far sent Beijing at least a dozen notes verbales — but they ended up being ignored or the allegations they contain, denied.

Second wave

Lorenzana is counting on a "second horizon" in the Armed Forces' modernization program — another wave of weapon and asset acquisitions that he hopes will parallel the 'first horizon," which cost ₱94 billion.

Lorenzana is hoping for a new budget of around ₱100 billion.

He said if the Philippines is to ever get out of being bullied by larger countries, it needs to achieve a credible defense posture. That means enough planes, ships, tanks and guns to "bloody the nose" of any intruder.

He said of China, "We cannot drive them away; we do not have the armaments or the might to dislodge them from those areas. But we keep on protesting."

Destabilization?

The DND is also busy fighting Communist insurgents and helping out the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency and the Philippine National Police carry out the government's "war on drugs."

Lorenzana said he hopes peace talks between the reds and the government would resume soon, to end the bloodshed on both sides.

Read: Death toll in AFP-NPA clashes rises to 26 amid botched peace talks

As for the anti-drug campaign, he promised the military will not do the "knocking and pleading" with drug suspects and leave that to PDEA and the PNP.

Related: PNP relaunches 'less bloody' Oplan Tokhang

When asked if there is credence to rumors of a destabilization plot against the Duterte administration, whether from drug lords or other enemies of the government, Lorenzana said there are none.

Related: Andanar: Alleged $1000 media bribe part of plot to oust Duterte

"Destabilization? It always comes out in the papers and when I am asked, sabi ko, we do not have that information in the Armed Forces. There's zero, actually," he said. "Now, sometimes, there are violent reactions to criticism of the President. Criticism of the President is not destabilization."

Lorenzana added that public officials like himself must learn to live with criticism — and use it as a gauge of how well they are doing.