More than military

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There is more to the armed conflict in Mindanao than its military operations–the bloody images of which never fail to make the evening news. Now that President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law over the entire island, it should be questioned whether his aggressive military approach is the appropriate strategy to ease tension with those who take up arms against government forces.

It is important to distinguish government-recognized movements such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), from extremist threats such as the Abu Sayyaf and Maute Group. This dynamic collection of entities, all fighting for their own objectives, is the culmination of years of neglect, secular differences, and the weaponization of ideology. What solutions then, are suited for the complexity of the issue?

The story behind the story

The conflict in Mindanao can be traced back to colonial times, according to Social Action Learning Advocacy for Atenean Muslims (SALAAM) Institute President Datu Amir Wagas. The roots of this conflict are mainly due to the clashing of land ownership claims, distinct religious differences, and cultural disparities. This situation gave rise to the MNLF in the ‘70s and eventually solidified the presence of this conflict, along with the MILF later on. But a more recent phenomenon is the dangerous development on the rise of violent extremist groups, specifically the Maute group.

Macabangkit Lanto, a former politician who has done firsthand work with the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), explains that “any tribe in the given national society who are victims of injustice, discrimination, and neglect by government has the tendency to rebel.” He states that the rise of separatists like the MNLF, MILF, and Bangsamoro Liberation Organization (BMLO), are due to this very fact. According to Lanto, these separatists differ in terms of region: MNLF from Tausug, MILF from Maguindanao, and BMLO from Maranao.

“We should not generalize all Muslim Moro fighters as extremists,” says Wagas. “The MNLF and MILF are legitimate nationalists acknowledged by the government and even by the international community.”

Meanwhile, the existence of extremists, such as the Bangsomoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), Abu Sayyaf, and the Maute group, is the “product of the failure of the government to fulfill their part of the agreement [in peace treaties].” According to Lanto, there were peace negotiations with the MNLF during the Ramos administration, but these ultimately amounted to nothing.

President Benigno Aquino III administration’s answer was the BBL, which would create an autonomous region in Mindanao for the Moro people. The peace agreement signed between the Philippine government and the MILF back in March 2014 was a monumental step towards the goal of peace in Mindanao. Aquino was even controversially nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the passing of the peace agreement. But Aquino, despite his best efforts, was unable to get the bill passed in Congress.

Lanto believes that the BBL was a victim of the circumstances and political atmosphere at the time. “It was an electoral season with election just around the corner. When the reelectionists saw that the measure was not popular among the majority of the electors, they took turns attacking and blocking its passage. The last nail to the coffin was the unfortunate Mamasapano massacre of 2015 which really caught the emotion and sympathy of Filipinos.”

On January 2015, 44 Special Action Force members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) were killed in a botched operation to capture Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Abdhir in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. Aquino, who was president at the time, faced homicide charges over two years after the incident. Although he was eventually cleared of those charges, the Ombudsman still found him liable for allowing then-PNP Chief Alan Purisima to play a role in the operation.

Although some politicians and administrations have shown sincerity in aspiring for peace in Mindanao, most–if not all–have backed out on their promises. “[Lofty] pronouncements of respecting the rights of the Moros for equal treatment should not be mere lip service,” says Lanto.

‘A necessary evil’

On May 23, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao after the Maute group attacked Marawi. The declaration of martial law as well as the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus divided public opinion, partially due to the negative connotations of the term “martial law” in the Philippines’ historical context.

During the campaign, Duterte promised radical change and marketed himself as the antithesis of the previous administration. Therefore, the failure to pass BBL in the final years of Aquino’s term meant that the task of achieving peace in Mindanao with the Moros was now in Duterte’s hands.

At first glance, it seemed as if Duterte was continuing his front as Aquino’s opposite, declaring martial law and waging war in Mindanao. It was different from his predecessor’s approach, who persistently lobbied for peace and negotiation. But to say that Duterte is a man of war while Aquino is a man of peace is faulty at best. The contexts and concerned parties behind the issues they dealt with are completely different.

Lanto believes that the imposition of martial law is justified given the “ferocity, viciousness of the jihadists, and the destruction of Marawi City.” In a similar vein, Wagas adds, “It is the Muslims who will suffer first should [the Maute Group] advance.”

However, both Lanto and Wagas are cautious about the potential danger of martial law abuses. “What [Muslims] seriously object to is the abuses and excesses by the martial law administrators and implementers,” Lanto explains.

“There are civil institutions, which I think if properly developed, [that are] sufficient to protect the rest of Mindanao. We simply cannot forget the atrocities Muslim Mindanao suffered from the Martial Law years,” says Wagas.

From the rubble

Marawi City, the biggest Muslim-majority city in the Philippines, was “a proud center of Islamic culture, not only for the native Maranaos, but the whole Muslim community in the Philippines.” From the beginning of the Marawi siege, damages from armed fighting and airstrikes have destroyed most of the city and displaced more than 400,000 people.

As of August 31, the 100th day of the Marawi conflict, the total death toll has reached a staggering 801, which is made up of 136 government troops, 620 Maute fighters, and 45 civilians.

While the recent advances by the Armed Forces of the Philippines are a positive development, it is important to realize that the situation in Mindanao is not merely a military problem.

The immediate issue is the how the government will rebuild and rehabilitate Marawi once the conflict reaches its resolution, while the complex, long-term issues are addressing the root causes of violence spawned from Moro insurgency and preventing future situations similar to the conflict in Marawi.

The Department of Budget and Management is looking to spend at least Php 20 billion for the rehabilitation of Marawi. Meanwhile, the Department of Finance has announced it will sell Php 30 B in bonds to fund the city’s rehabilitation efforts.

Duterte has also approved the creation of a task force designed for the “recovery, reconstruction, and rehabilitation of Marawi City.” China and the United States have also expressed support for rehabilitation efforts in Marawi.

The pursuit of peace

The extremism ravaging Mindanao did not happen overnight, according to Lanto. “Its gestation took decades, starting with the historical injustices which the Moros were subjected to and the discriminatory policies of the government.” This creates social deficiency–a source of radicalism and extremism which Wagas says “produced the loss of social identity, livelihood opportunities, and proper education.”

Lanto says that BBL and federalism are viable solutions to these problems in Mindanao. He also believes that the Duterte administration should shepherd the enactment of the BBL in order to achieve peace. Furthermore, he went on to commend Duterte’s approach, saying: “[Duterte] has shown early signs of sincerity in addressing the festering Moro problem.”

Meanwhile, Wagas believes that an autonomous region for the Moro people “is a must,” and criticized the previous administration’s imposition of a nationalism Moros could not identify with.

“I am hopeful that the new administration’s BBL written by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission shall do more justice to Muslim Mindanao, and can truly make the Moros a part of the Philippine nation.” Wagas continues.

“Once President Duterte succeeds in uniting these different revolutionary forces, then it will hopefully pave the way for the implementation of corrective measures that the Moros have been fighting for,” says Lanto. “Federalism, as advocated by President Duterte, is [the] best antidote for the separatist aspirations of the Moros.”

Since Mindanao itself is politically heterogeneous in nature, the separatist and extremist movements should not be seen as a monolith. It is wrong to consider this time to be the culmination of events that defines Marawi’sor even Mindanao’shistory.

Wagas believes that the historical friction between mainstream nationalism and Moro nationalism has evolved to a discourse that is “no longer [about] the fight to separate from the Republic, but [a] fight for a better, more inclusive democracy, and socio-economic development.”

The conflict is not simply militaristic in nature; the reconciliation of issues regarding education, land ownership, and religious differences is paramount. Addressing these issues can harbour a new era of peace, harmony, and inclusiveness for all Filipinos in Mindanao, Muslims and Christians alike.

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