Philippines, a nation under siege?

As the situation in Marawi begins to wind down, the Philippines and Southeast Asian region must brace themselves for newer problems. President Duterte must look beyond the military formula to bring lasting peace to Mindanao.

by Tan Jieying

Seeing Marawi is already “like looking at Syria and Aleppo,” said Mindanao Assemblyman Zia Alonto Adiong, after merely two weeks of fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Maute militants. As the situation in Marawi begins to wind down, there are cases for optimism.

“Almost 90 percent of the whole city is well controlled by our forces and have been cleared of the remnants of this group,” said Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla.

The AFP has rescued 1,271 civilians trapped in the crossfire. While civilian death toll has recently gone up to 30, significantly more militants than government troops have been killed in the ongoing clashes. According to Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella, the Maute group has incurred 120 casualties, while the government has 38 so far.

These numbers bode well for the Philippine government’s efforts to reclaim the entire city. But developments in Marawi are a reminder of greater problems that the country has to contend with after the crisis ends.

The Maute group’s links to IS are still questionable

In 2015, the Maute group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS).

The group is led by two Maute brothers, Abdullah and Omar Maute, who have a history of fighting to secede from the central government in Manila. The brothers started out as “petty small-time criminals” and formed the Khalifa Islamiah Mindanao in 2012 to engage in all-out military operations.

There are still conflicting judgements on whether the Maute militants truly have links with IS.

“You know this rebellion in Mindanao, it’s not Maute. It’s purely ISIS, they have different branches because they were the ones who started this,” said President Duterte.

Not all decision makers in the country share Duterte’s sentiments. Former Butig Mayor Ibrahim Macadato asserted that the Maute group were merely armed residents and were not allied with ISIS. The AFP spokesperson Colonel Edgard Arevalo also insisted that groups like the Maute “are merely courting the acclamation of ISIS,” and denied that IS was in the Philippines.

The Maute group’s links to IS can be a double-edged sword

IS has not proclaimed that the Maute group is operating as its affiliate.

But this does not mean that the Maute group is any less of a threat than it is right now. IS has a list of militant groups that it recognises as affiliates. If the Maute group is able to gain indisputable control over an area in Mindanao to establish an IS stronghold, IS may well add it to the list of IS affiliates.

IS supporters from around the region are flocking to Mindanao to join the fray. These supporters are supporting the Maute group’s armed campaign because “they find difficulty in going to Iraq and Syria,” said Solicitor General Jose Calida. At least 40 Indonesians are already operating in Marawi. The AFP confirmed that several terrorists fighting alongside Maute militants came from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Such foreign support reinforces Maute militants’ fighting capacity and delays the government’s plan to reclaim the entire city.

But the Maute group’s alleged links to IS can be a double-edged sword. Southeast Asian countries are intensifying cooperation to avert the spectre of an IS stronghold in the region. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have agreed to carry out joint air patrols this month in the Sulu Sea to complement ongoing maritime patrols. Indonesia recently invited Singapore to take part in the patrols. The continuing siege of Marawi possibly unites a region that is long fractured by unresolved disputes in the South China Sea.

Intensified interstate cooperation is necessary because an IS stronghold in Marawi risks a spillover to nearby states. Indonesia has the greatest reason to worry thanks to the growing strength of Muslim conservatives and the recent suicide bombings in Jakarta. The substantial presence of Indonesian fighters in Marawi also highlights the possibility that Indonesia would be on the frontline of the fight against Indonesians joining the IS camp. Indonesia has more to lose than any other country if Marawi falls to Maute militants.

Duterte’s conduct during the crisis is worrying because it resembles Marcos’

President Duterte’s management of the Marawi crisis is unsettling not because it indicates a slide to authoritarianism. The resemblance between Duterte’s shift towards authoritarianism and Marcos’ tyrannical rule is the greater concern for many Filipinos.

Such anxieties stem from a decade of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos. While Marcos was in power for at least two decades, the tyranny of his increasingly authoritarian rule peaked during the decade of martial law that began in 1972. A decade of martial law saw at least 3,257 extrajudicial killings, 35,000 individual tortures and 70,000 individuals incarcerated.

Duterte likened his intention to extend martial law in Mindanao to Marcos’ decade of martial law. “It would not be any different from what President Marcos did,” Duterte said, when referring to his intent to extend martial law if the threat in Marawi is still not neutralised. The 1987 Philippine Constitution explicitly limits any declaration of martial law to have a 60-day effect.

Duterte’s admiration for Ferdinand Marcos is not new. His controversial decision last year to give ill-famed dictator a hero’s burial triggered protests. Protestors, many of whom were victims of Marcos’ repressive rule, saw the former leader as undeserving of such a noble treatment. While Duterte explained that he did so “not because he is a hero but because he was a Filipino soldier,” this did not stop ridicule about the two leaders being a “match made in hell.”

The Philippine Congress and Supreme Court have not been actively keeping Duterte in check since he took power last year. The President has been able to flex his muscles in his “war on drugs,” employing extra-legal means “if only to get rid of drugs.” If this impotence persists, both institutions may simply fail to revoke Duterte’s unilateral extension of martial law. This would bring Duterte’s rule one step closer to Marcos’ decade of military rule.

Prolonged martial law is not effective to establishing peace in Mindanao

Duterte’s handling of the crisis in Marawi so far reflects his belief in the long-term viability of military solutions to pacify the Mindanao region. Duterte has pledged to extend martial law in both duration and reach in order to neutralise the threat in Marawi. Extension in either duration and scope gives the AFP more discretionary powers.

But prolonged military law can be ineffective to pacifying the region. This is because the uprising in Marawi is a symptom of the Mindanao region’s neglect.

Being a minority in the country of predominantly Christians, the Muslims in Mindanao have been suffering from poor governance and negligence. Lanao del Sur, a province in the Mindanao region, had the highest poverty incidence among the population.

Duterte is the first Mindanaoan to hold office. While his credential as a Mindanaoan has garnered him support from the neglected region, Duterte must look beyond military solutions to bring lasting peace to the region. Much has to be done to address Mindanaoans’ grievances.

Duterte can start with the ongoing negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The government must be firm with ensuring that the MILF has no intention of supporting other militants in the country. Duterte has proven himself capable of fulfilling this.

But government negotiators must also consider the MILF’s interests, particularly those relating to Mindanaoans’ grievances. A peace agreement that only ceases fighting is nothing more than an armistice. A neglected Mindanao remains ripe for its inhabitants to take up arms to fight for their rights.