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The Philippines: Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao
The Philippines: Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao
Philippines: Addressing Islamist Militancy after the Battle for Marawi
Philippines: Addressing Islamist Militancy after the Battle for Marawi
MILF rebels attend a rally in support of the peace agreement inside Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat town, on southern island of Mindanao, 27 March 2014. AFP PHOTO/Ted Aljibe
Report 281 / Asia

The Philippines: Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao

Hopes are high that one of the world’s longest-running civil conflicts can be resolved in the Philippines. The newly-elected president must act on his commitment to the outgoing administration’s promise of autonomy for the southern Bangsamoro (Muslim Nation) population. Failure to do so risks more lawlessness or reigniting the insurgency.

Executive Summary

The southern Philippines is potentially closer to peace than at any time in the four decades since Muslim insurgents started fighting for independence, but the substantial progress over the past six years is also fragile. President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office on 30 June, needs to build quickly on the foundations laid by President Benigno Aquino’s administration or the process risks collapsing. Duterte has suggested a new enabling law could be drafted by an ad hoc convention that brings together members of different southern ethnic, religious and political groups. The idea has some advantages, but not at the cost of prolonged delay. The greatest danger to peace is that the restive south, sceptical after watching at least three other agreements founder, will lose faith in the process and return to guerrilla warfare or tip deeper into lawlessness. The most effective way of avoiding these dangers is for the new government to pass enabling legislation quickly that delivers at least as much autonomy as was promised by the outgoing administration.

At the beginning of 2015, the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) seemed on the brink of an historic peace to end a conflict in which more than 120,000 people have died. After years of neglect, factionalism and talks in bad faith, Aquino’s government and MILF leaders had broadly agreed on a package that would grant the five southern provinces, collectively called Bangsamoro (Muslim Nation), a large degree of political and financial autonomy in return for the MILF disarming and dropping independence demands. The Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro in October 2012, followed by the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) in March 2014, laid out the architecture, but finalisation was contingent on Congress approving the enabling legislation before Aquino’s term ended. That did not happen, the result of a bungled police operation and politicking ahead of the May 2016 elections. 

Duterte, the mayor of the southern city of Davao who won that election, was one of the peace deal’s most vocal supporters during the campaign. Though he has said he favours autonomy for Bangsamoro, all indications are that he will not follow the same route as the previous administration to deliver it. It is unclear whether he envisages the settlement for the south as an advance model for his broader plans of national federalisation or as an integral part of them. A long delay, or an autonomy bill that delivers less than the CAB’s promises, risks alienating key sections of the Bangsamoro population. A particular danger is that young people, disillusioned by failure of political negotiations, would seek alternatives, such as joining one of the militant groups waiting in the wings or turning to anarchic criminality.

There was no contingency plan for failure to pass the bill under Aquino, and by law the new government must start the process of drafting and approving legislation over. While doing so, it needs to put in place measures to preserve the gains of the previous administration and make significant good-will gestures fast to boost damaged confidence in the deal. Both sides need to prepare for the coming autonomy. The MILF leadership has invested most of its political capital in the negotiations and to maintain its credibility has to be able to show that the new administration will continue it in good faith. A number of interlocutors within the process and outside suggest the government should boost confidence through increased development assistance to local bodies in the south.

The south is ill-prepared for autonomy. Although the delay presents a threat to the process, it is also an opportunity. It allows the MILF and other groups, such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), time to transition from guerrilla organisations to political parties; create an inclusive political platform bringing together Mindanao’s disparate population; and convince sceptics within their own communities to support social change for a lasting peace.

Mindanao’s peace process has been innovative: it includes an International Contact Group to coordinate outside support and, at least on paper, commitment to involve women, minorities, and civil society during the negotiation and implementation of agreements. International partners, in particular Malaysia and the member states of the European Union (EU), have been a vital, constructive force in the peace process, facilitating and assisting as needed, but resisting the temptation to insert themselves so far into the mechanism as to detract from its essentially home-grown nature. Foreign governments, diplomatic missions and NGOs should now help escort the process through the delay, publicly supporting measures such as development aid and education programs, while impressing upon Manila’s political elite that Congress needs to build on the achievements of the previous administration.

Failure to pass an acceptable autonomy law would risk exacerbating disenchantment with negotiated change, fuelling criminality and facilitating religious radicalisation. Global jihadist movements like Islamic State (IS) have shown a clear ability to exploit social disorder in Muslim communities elsewhere to gain new recruits and have already gained some adherents among smaller and more opportunistic rebel groups in Mindanao.

Years of negative national media coverage of Muslim aspirations have had a harmful impact on how the rest of the Philippines views southern autonomy. The new government under Duterte must remember that ignoring or derailing the existing process would lead not to a return to the status quo ante but to an unpredictable, potentially much more violent future.

Recommendations

To maintain the momentum of the peace process

To the Philippines authorities: 

  1. Use the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB) as the basis of any future process. 
     
  2. Expedite the passage of enabling legislation to create a CAB-compliant autonomous region in Mindanao.
     
  3. Ensure strong coordination with Mindanao-based security forces to avoid confidence-shaking clashes.
     
  4. Use high-profile developmental and social investments, funnelled through local groups, to show goodwill, with a focus on infrastructure, education and health. 
     
  5. Develop a public communication strategy to prepare the rest of the country for Bangsamoro autonomy.
     
  6. Establish a National Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission on Bangsamoro to deal with past injustices.

To the MILF:

  1. Continue to show flexibility in negotiations with the new government on how autonomy is going to be delivered.
     
  2. Reach out to non-Muslim constituencies, particularly Christian and indigenous groups, to ensure they do not feel threatened by the prospect of living in an autonomous Bangsamoro.

To the MNLF:

  1. Do not attempt to renegotiate the CAB from scratch.

To international partners and donors: 

  1. Focus financial, programmatic and monitoring support on three main areas: governance and capacity building, strategic communications and peace diplomacy, and justice and rule of law.
     
  2. Establish in coordination with various levels of government and the MILF a multi-donor normalisation trust fund to help pay for the transition.
     
  3. Help facilitate inward investment in Bangsamoro to boost the local economy through jobs and commerce.

To prepare for autonomy

To the Philippines authorities:

  1. Ensure that MILF fighters who agree to demobilise get their full socio-economic assistance package, so as to encourage other fighters to follow. 
     
  2. Extend the offer of amnesty and a demobilisation package to fighters of other once-secessionist groups, including the MNLF.

To the MILF:

  1. Broaden the political base of its political vehicle, the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP), to give a greater voice to women, young people, Christians and members of the Lumad indigenous group.
     
  2. Help build capacity for governance in Bangsamoro by identifying and nurturing talent across all ethnic, social and religious groups and genders, and seeking assistance and advice as necessary.

To international partners and donors: 

  1. Focus on boosting the technical capacity of the Bangsamoro bureaucracy, with specific emphasis on new areas of governance they will inherit with autonomy, including taxation and fiscal governance, investment policy, and land management.

Manila/Brussels, 6 July 2016

A tattered Philippine flag is seen near ruined houses, after battle between government troops and Islamic State militants, at the Islamic city of Marawi, Philippines April 19, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Commentary / Asia

Philippines: Addressing Islamist Militancy after the Battle for Marawi

The Philippine city of Marawi, on Mindanao island, remains in ruins more than a year after a five-month jihadist takeover. To avoid fuelling militancy, Manila must involve locals in reconstruction, implement a 2014 deal with Mindanao separatists and go beyond efforts to counter jihadist ideology.

In May 2017, Muslim militants acting in the name of the Islamic State (ISIS) seized Marawi, a lakeside economic hub in the Lanao del Sur province of Mindanao, the second-largest island in the Philippines. It took the Filipino military five months to regain control of the city. Now, more than a year after the siege began, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration in Manila appears overwhelmed by the task of reconstructing the destroyed city.

Manila faces significant challenge in restoring its writ, enabling the 200,000 civilians displaced by the fighting to return home and, more broadly, preventing a militant resurgence in Mindanao. Thus far, the government has tended to view jihadism in the archipelago as mostly ideologically motivated. Its policies, as a result, focus mostly on promoting counter-narratives, often through hand-picked local religious leaders who typically lack local legitimacy. In reality, jihadism’s roots lie in decades of separatist insurgency and dysfunctional local politics. Carrying out the provisions of a 2014 peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest armed group on Mindanao, would better suck the oxygen from jihadists than attempts to counter their ideology. Manila also should involve local communities in reconstruction, so those efforts do not fuel anger at the state.

Muslim Mindanao

Muslims are a minority in the Philippines, making up about 11 per cent of the population. On Mindanao, however, that proportion rises to roughly 23 per cent. In 1989 the government formed the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao with Lanao del Sur and three other provinces. This west-central part of the island has a rich Islamic heritage, embodied by Marawi with its concentration of historic mosques. When, in 1980, the city council designated Marawi an “Islamic city”, many of the city’s inhabitants saw that step as a welcome acknowledgement of this history. Now the city centre, including the Marawi Grand Mosque, has been reduced to rubble and is littered with unexploded ordnance, preventing the displaced from returning. Manila’s vision of reconstruction is a showcase of promenades and resorts built by a China-led consortium in the ruined commercial district.

The struggle to retake Marawi was the largest urban engagement for the Philippines armed forces since the Battle of Manila during World War II. The Maute Group, a jihadist group hailing from Lanao del Sur seized the city in an operation ISIS propagandists likened to the capture of Mosul in Iraq. It remains unclear how much operational guidance the Maute Group received from the ISIS core in Iraq and Syria during the battle. Open source evidence showed the Maute leaders, brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, calling the shots during the final stages of attack planning.

This group of largely college-aged and, in some cases, particularly among the leadership, college-going militants held the city for months, thanks to a combination of local knowledge and planning capacity, funds generated locally and abroad, the arrival of dozens of foreign fighters and propaganda support from ISIS-linked media. The militant’s infiltration of the city before they seized it suggested the presence of sympathisers among Marawi’s inhabitants. Disenfranchised youth frustrated with the protracted Mindanao peace process and local clans who take an adversarial stance toward Manila-imposed policies provided a permissive environment for the Maute Group.

The protracted battle to oust the group highlighted limitations within the Philippines security forces in information gathering and urban warfare. These weaknesses, in turn, result at least partly from Manila’s struggle to adapt to the growing threat posed by jihadist cells adept at decentralised operations, after years fighting more hierarchical Mindanao secessionist groups whose structure emulates conventional military forces.

Jihadism in Mindanao should be understood against the backdrop of the 40-year Moro separatist conflict that has killed more than 120,000 people and displaced millions, and faltering efforts to find a political solution to that conflict. In 2014, the Philippine government and the MILF signed a peace deal – the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro – which pledged increased political autonomy, more equitable resource sharing and the demobilisation of former secessionists.

The Maute Group appears to have recruited former MILF fighters and has ties to armed factions previously aligned with the MILF.

Since then, however, the agreement’s implementation has faltered due to factionalism among militant groups, objections from some legislators to the autonomy it envisaged for Muslim Mindanao and breaches of a ceasefire between the Philippines and the MILF. Prior to the Marawi siege, MILF commanders had warned that the longer the peace process remained mired in the legislature, the more receptive their junior cadres could grow to ISIS propaganda. Indeed, the Maute Group appears to have recruited former MILF fighters and has ties to armed factions previously aligned with the MILF.

Implementing the Bangsamoro deal is thus essential to efforts to curtail the influence and spread of jihadism, as well as the MILF’s splintering or return to combat. On 31 May, after an almost three-year delay, the Philippine legislature approved the bill that would enact a future Bangsamoro Basic Law, the most important component of the 2014 deal. Once signed into law by President Duterte, the bill would allow for the creation of a “new, political entity” – called Bangsamoro – in Mindanao to replace the existing Autonomous Region. This would address the MILF’s demands for self-rule and for Bangsamoro to benefit from a share of the wealth from Mindanao’s natural resources. Government surveys estimate natural gas reserves in the Liguasan Marsh at 68 billion cubic feet, leading some Maguindanao politicians to refer to the province as the “next Dubai”.

President Duterte is expected to sign the bill this month, which should check the growing impatience of younger MILF commanders. But while autonomy for Bangsamoro will be a good start, Manila also needs to rethink some of its core assumptions about what drives many Muslim Filipinos to militancy.

Domestic Roots of Mindanao Militancy

In the case of the Marawi takeover some observers solely attribute the Maute Group’s ability to occupy the city and then withstand the siege through foreign cash and fighters. Certainly foreign funds and the apparent reinforcement of the group’s ranks with seasoned fighters from abroad seem to have helped. But the full story is more complex. Mindanao’s jihadist milieu has its origins in local clan and electoral politics, as well as the grey economies that sustain militants such as the Maute Group.

Prior to pledging allegiance to ISIS, the Maute Group was in effect a private militia for the eponymous clan headed by matriarch Farhana Maute, intimidating other clans that contested in local elections in the province. It used coercion to mobilise votes and extort contractors involved in public works projects. This provided the group with experience in purveying violence that would prove useful during the Marawi siege. In 2016, after candidates backed by Farhana suffered losses, the Maute Group appeared to adopt ISIS-related imagery, less because of any particular affinity for ISIS’s ideology than to burnish its fading image as a tough enforcer. It also began to attract former fighters from MILF, especially younger members who felt that the peace process with Manila was taking too long.

In the past, other militants in Mindanao have similarly deployed jihadist rhetoric to promote a more ferocious image. Best known is the Abu Sayyaf Group, formed in the early 1990s by Abdurajak Janjalani, a Filipino veteran of the anti-Soviet mujahidin in Afghanistan. After Janjalani’s death in a 2006 police raid, the Abu Sayyaf Group became infamous for kidnapping-for-ransom activities under the guise of jihad. Kidnapping for ransom is a lucrative supplement to communities that would otherwise derive their incomes from fishing and subsistence farming. The lack of law enforcement and the challenging agricultural environment in western Mindanao incentivise kidnapping.

Abu Sayyaf leaders have long been connected to jihadist movements elsewhere. In its early years, the group’s leaders enjoyed al-Qaeda links and the global movement provided seed funding for attacks in the Philippines. Since mid-2014, Abu Sayyaf factions, particularly in the western Mindanao province of Sulu, have used ISIS-associated iconography such as black flags, apparently in part to extract larger ransoms from foreign governments.

Involvement in jihadist militancy is often the result of a vocational decision within a family or a village, rather than an individual’s epiphany.

Factors that motivate people to join Mindanao’s jihadist groups are complex. While ideology undoubtedly plays some role, motives among those in outfits like the Maute Group tend to be more material. As described, some local militias adopt the ISIS brand to intimidate rivals or project greater ferocity. Among the rank and file, involvement in jihadist militancy is often the result of a vocational decision within a family or a village, rather than an individual’s epiphany. Not a single Filipino Muslim has attempted a suicide bombing in nearly five decades of insurgency in Mindanao. The rewards in the afterlife promised by jihadist ideology have yet to trump the real-world needs of militants and their kin.

Nor have local jihadist groups produced ideological texts that indigenise the global jihadist movement. Compare this to the prolific writings of other non-state armed groups in the Philippines, such as the Communist Party of the Philippines and its New People’s Army, which outline what form locally-rooted communism might take. Or compare it to jihadists in Indonesia, who have long produced original vernacular material in various formats including books, pamphlets and DVDs. No such material exists in the Philippines.

Thus far, Manila has not invested seriously in understanding the origins of jihadism in Mindanao. Since the election of President Duterte, the Filipino policy response has veered from military operations to policies framed through the lens of “countering violent extremism” (CVE) – mostly involving efforts to counter jihadist propaganda and indoctrination – despite the absence of a national policy that defines “violent extremism”. CVE framing tends to reduce the complex interaction of political and socio-economic factors that underpin Mindanao’s ongoing conflict to the single cause of jihadist ideology.

The dominance of CVE discourse is likely to render Manila’s policy in Mindanao ineffective. The government’s effort to promote Muslim clerics it views as “moderate”, for example, may further alienate a populace that derides them as mere mouthpieces. Strategic communications campaigns to counter extremist content on social media do not resolve the real-world issues such as dysfunctional politics and economic deprivation that jihadists tap to win recruits.

Aftermath

In the shattered city of Marawi, civil society and neighbourhood collectives eye Manila’s reconstruction plans warily. Many fear that reconstruction, which will most likely be carried out by a Chinese-led consortium, may mean permanent exile for the displaced.

The Duterte administration has declared it wants to build a “new Marawi”, which includes plans for transforming the battle area into an “economic zone”, though precisely what this would entail remains unclear. Its plans appear to ignore the murkiness of land ownership in the city, where competing deeds and informal property claims have sparked periodic clan and family disputes for decades. Many residents of the area that saw the worst destruction, known as the “most affected area”, do not have deeds to their houses, many of which now lie in ruins. They may lose the right to rebuild their homes, while potentially receiving no compensation from the government. Manila cannot solve the problem by paving it over.

Mishandling Marawi’s reconstruction, notably by carrying it out in a manner than angers inhabitants, also risks amplifying the idea, pushed by the Maute Group and its allies, that Islam is under attack in Mindanao. A botched reconstruction could also impugn the autonomy-centric political stance of mainstream groups such as the MILF, potentially driving more of its younger members toward jihadism.

Locals take considerable pride in the city’s heritage as the centre of Islamic education in Mindanao. Should the government disregard that sentiment – and proceed with plans to gentrify the city centre in order to lure tourists – it could further alienate inhabitants of the city from the state. It also could entrench the sentiment of some influential clans that deployment of state security forces in the city was tantamount to foreign occupation. This, in turn, would play into the hands of Maute Group remnants or other violent rejectionist movements that may emerge.

Instead, Manila should enhance measures to involve Marawi’s inhabitants in its reconstruction. Substantial local input would signal a deeper commitment by the central government to Mindanao’s autonomy, even beyond the provisions of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which itself should be enacted without delay. The Bangon Marawi (Rise Marawi) inter-agency task force supervising reconstruction should become an active partner of affected residents, rather than simply promoting the Chinese-backed plan.

Meanwhile, the Duterte administration should avoid pronouncements that cast Mindanao militants as “desperate” individuals driven to crime or hardcore terrorists who should be “eaten”. The Filipino security forces should instead refocus on intelligence analysis and build on their experience of peacebuilding, gained while the MILF was still in negotiations with the Philippine government. Nor should those officials who spearhead CVE policies pick which community or religious leaders will represent Marawi or Mindanao. Rather, they should focus on addressing the grievances that jihadist movements exploit, thus empowering individuals and communities that promote peace and support a political solution to the Mindanao conflict.

The jihadist takeover of Marawi, with the Maute Group able to leverage frustration at the gaps in governance and stalled peace process, was a jarring reminder to Manila of the depth of Muslim grievances in Mindanao. What started as militants’ tactical use of ISIS iconography ended in a protracted siege that brought into question the Philippines’ ability to attain peace in Mindanao. The government should take a holistic view of the drivers of conflict, being careful not to lose sight of those that predate the emergence of jihadist cells, notably the demands of many Muslims in Mindanao for a greater say in running their own affairs and reaping the benefits of the region’s natural resources. The Maute Group, for now, appears weakened, but if Manila mishandles the aftermath of the battle for Marawi and the reconstruction of that city, similar forces could easily arise in the years to come.

Joseph Franco, Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security, helped with research and preparation of this commentary as a Crisis Group consultant.