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Politics

Duterte's peace hopes challenged in Mindanao

Declaration of martial law by Philippine president raises broader concerns

| Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law on the southern island of Mindanao on May 22. This came after a group of heavily armed men bearing the black flags of Islamic State stormed the mainly Muslim city of Marawi in the north of the island. They burned down a college, a hospital and prison, while taking hostages.

The army's slow progress in flushing out the militants and the alacrity with which Duterte seemed ready to suspend civil rights is a worrying sign of renewed instability in a part of the country that has been plagued by decades of war.

The crisis is embarrassing for Duterte. As the country's first president from Mindanao, there were high expectations that he would make progress in restoring peace in the troubled region. But the attack on Marawi has raised fears of a concerted IS effort to establish a foothold in the Philippines.

The martial law decree in Mindanao highlights the lengths that Duterte, the former mayor of Davao City, is willing to go to address security issues. He has already been harshly criticized by human rights activists for sanctioning the extrajudicial killings of more than 7,000 people, mostly poor slum dwellers, for allegedly being drug users or pushers. His threat to impose martial law across the country has left rights advocates even more worried. He has already threatened to wield martial law as harshly as did former President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s.

The root of the problem is the prevalence of armed conflict in Muslim-dominated areas of Mindanao, which had a long history of separatist rebellions against the country's Spanish and American colonial rulers. The current uprising began in the 1960s when Marcos used the army to quell unrest on the island. The conflict since then has killed an estimated 150,000 people and displaced at least half a million more.

Mindanao is not completely Muslim. Waves of immigration from other Philippine islands have increased the size of the Christian community, who comprise the majority and which complicates demands for autonomy. The Muslim Moros themselves are divided into groups based on strong bonds of tribal and territorial identity. This diversity explains the proliferation of armed groups. The Moro National Liberation Front is concentrated on the islands of Sulu and Basilan, while the breakaway Moro Islamic Liberation Front is active in coastal areas of the main island.

Both the MNLF and MILF have concluded cease-fire pacts with the government and each has, in fact, signed a peace agreement to end the armed struggle in return for promises of autonomy. But the painfully slow progress in implementing these agreements has created new disaffected splinter groups that roam the heavily forested landscape and live off lucrative smuggling and kidnapping.

Renewed insurgency

Domestic security agencies estimate that over the past year as much as $7.5 million in ransom payments have financed militant groups on the islands of Sulu and Basilan, which is home to the notorious Abu Sayyaf group, whose alleged leader Isnilon Hapilon joined the fight in Marawi along with members of another militant group, Maute.

Abu Sayyaf gained global notoriety for kidnapping Westerners, Malaysians and, more recently, Indonesian sailors and then releasing them for high ransom payments in a sophisticated operation that allegedly has involved pay-offs to local security and government officials.

Some fighters have found that by swearing allegiance to IS, they attract more recruits. By recording the beheadings of hostages for whom ransom was not paid, they also reap extra income from IS in the Middle East, which use the videos for propaganda purposes.

Duterte came to power last year vowing to bring peace and prosperity to his home province. He wisely abandoned the policy of the previous government of Benigno Aquino III to deal solely with the MILF, with whom it signed a comprehensive peace agreement in 2015. Duterte insisted on a broader path to peace with the MNLF, which had signed a peace agreement with the government in 1996. Duterte wants to introduce a decentralized federal system for the country, a position armed groups like the MNLF support. Duterte also revived formal negotiations with communist insurgents that have intensified operations in Mindanao.

Many of the challenges to peace are not of the president's making. The 2015 peace agreement with the MILF, facilitated by Malaysia with the help of the international community and millions of dollars of aid, was derailed when a January 2015 raid to capture a wanted Malaysian Islamic extremist went wrong, with 44 police commandos killed in a firefight with MILF forces, which lost 18 men.

The so-called Mamasapano incident immediately ended the drafting of a basic law to implement the peace agreement. Consequent delays, compounded by the national election campaign and change of government last year, sowed disaffection within the MILF ranks and resulted in the formation of splinter groups, which appear to be gravitating toward IS.

Martial law blowback

Martial law will almost certainly make it harder to address the situation. Critics warn that the likely use of harsh security measures will increase disaffection. Media reports from Marawi, supported by recent locally-conducted survey evidence, indicate the potential for a high level of local support for Islamic militant fighters.

The communist party of the Philippines issued a statement warning that martial law will embolden the military to "intensify its campaign of extrajudicial killings." The government responded by pulling out of peace talks with the communists that were set to resume in the Netherlands on May 29. Both sides are exploring a bilateral ceasefire in a low-intensity but persistent conflict that keeps Philippine army units chasing after bands of communist guerrillas in remote areas of Mindanao, Luzon and the Visayas, who fund their operation by levying revolutionary taxes on local businesses.

The most immediate impact of martial law, therefore, has been to derail an ongoing peace process and provide another excuse to delay implementation of existing peace agreements, which will further fuel the fires of Islamic militancy.

For the wider region, the most worrying aspect of the renewed surge in violence in Mindanao is the prospect of an IS foothold in Southeast Asia. Credible reports of the presence of foreign fighters in Marawi and a shift toward urban warfare by armed groups who normally operate in remote jungle areas point to a deliberate push to acquire and hold territory, similar to the strategy that IS has used in Syria and Iraq. Domestically, Duterte's suggestion that he may extend the scope of martial law beyond Mindanao evokes bad memories of the Marcos era and could begin to shake investor confidence that is rarely affected by events in far off Mindanao.

Asked about the threat of Islamic extremism and links to IS, a local MNLF commander in Davao insisted that the main motivation remains criminal activity and the pursuit of profits in this world rather than the next. Whatever the resurgent militants call themselves, he said: "Same banana: like a smart phone with different cases."

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. His new book 'Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia' is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in June.

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