For years, the common wisdom about conflict in the southern Philippines was that the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was the best antidote to radicalisation. We all said it – analysts, activists, donors, diplomats, anyone who cared about making Mindanao a better place.
Now it's time to face facts: the peace process in Mindanao may be dead, and no one has a Plan B. Thinking about alternative options is now critical.
Since 1997, the agonisingly slow process toward autonomy has been aimed at the creation of an autonomous territory called Bangsamoro that would replace and have greater powers than the current Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). The basis would be a comprehensive agreement worked out in 2014 between the MILF and the government that was supposed to be enshrined in a Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) adopted by the Philippine Congress. Deadlines for passing the BBL have come and gone – a new version is now with Congress, but it might stay there for months (or forever) as political dynamics in Mindanao change for the worse.
If the peace process is dead, the war in Marawi has killed it. Now in its fourth month, the prolonged battle between the Philippine military and a coalition of pro-ISIS fighters in the country's only 'Islamic city' has weakened the MILF, almost certainly exacerbated Islamophobia within Manila's political elite, and laid the groundwork for increased radicalisation in the south.
In recent years, the MILF has been able to position itself as the future leader of Bangsamoro because it could plausibly claim to represent Muslim Mindanao's main ethnic groups, including the two largest, the Maranao from around Marawi and Lake Lanao, and the Maguindanaon, from Maguindanao and North Cotabato provinces.
The Marawi war has weakened the MILF's hold over both. It drew some Maranao fighters into ISIS and left others reluctant to fight their kinsmen (though many MILF volunteers also risked their lives to open the 'peace corridor' in June that enabled hundreds of trapped civilians to get out). Many Maranao, however, reportedly saw the MILF as unable to protect them, either from the Maute brothers who command the ISIS forces in Marawi or from the military's bombardment.
A senior MILF leader I met last week in Cotabato argued that they could not take on the Mautes because they had no formal request from the government to do so. Without a clear mandate (such as they have with the government to fight illegal drugs) the chances of a misstep were huge, he said. That's certainly true, but with the military also uncertain of MILF loyalties in the Marawi area, a request for help was unlikely to be forthcoming.
Then in early August, MILF fighters found themselves fighting fellow Maguindanaon in the MILF heartland. A pro-ISIS faction of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) led by Abu Torayfe (whose death in recent days has been reported, but not confirmed) brought several dozen fighters into MILF territory. The MILF called up its special forces (known as Task Force Ittihad) and resisted the incursion, backed by the Philippine army. When asked why this engagement required no formal request, the MILF leader explained that Abu Torayfe's men posed a direct threat to the MILF and that it was a clear case of self-defence. 'They are out to destroy us,' he said.
A Philippine government official said that the MILF-BIFF fighting was useful for the peace process, 'because it shows that the MILF can be a reliable partner'. But the MILF joining with the government to fight fellow Maguindanaon may not play well within its own constituency when Mindanao is under martial law and when ISIS propaganda is accusing the military of destroying Marawi through airstrikes.
The MILF and Duterte
The MILF has also been weakened by its edgy relationship with President Rodrigo Duterte. Many voters in the MILF heartland supported Duterte's rival, former cabinet minister Mar Roxas, in the 2016 election. When the new President appeared to be in no hurry to press the BBL, the MILF did not push. The President's office finally submitted a new version of the bill to the Philippine Senate on 17 August but without the so-called certificate of urgency that could lead to its being fast-tracked – there are many technical hurdles to clear before it has any chance of being adopted.
An MILF leader excused Duterte's delays by pointing out that he was in the early days of his six-year presidency and believed he had all the time in the world. At the same time, it was clear that the MILF as an organisation is wary of doing anything that could alienate a volatile president. 'With the past [Aquino] administration, we could suggest things for consideration,' said one member. 'With Duterte, the moment he dislikes us, we're out. We have to be very, very careful.'
The decision to let the President set the agenda, however, has deprived the MILF of leverage. In the past, the MILF held out the implicit threat of a return to violence if its concerns were not met. Now it has all but taken that possibility off the table. Chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said the most frequent question he gets these days is what the MILF will do if the BBL collapses:
They want us to say we'll go back to war. I say, 'We will continue to assert our right to self-determination.'
The problem is, what if no one is listening? The Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP), which under President Aquino had been a creative, energetic body that was at once chief advocate and political strategist for the Bangsamoro, has turned into almost a ceremonial office under Duterte. It appears to have no strategy of its own to bring the BBL forward.
The President, meanwhile, has other priorities, including his lethal drug war that has led to more than 8000 extrajudicial killings of suspected dealers and users since he took office (some estimates are far higher). He is also committed to a hazy notion of federalism that has never been fleshed out and whose exact relationship to the BBL has never been made clear.
The truth is that the BBL is stalled, and possibly dead. If it resurfaces in a Congress newly wary of security problems in the south, it may be so watered down that the MILF would further lose credibility by signing on – especially among a younger generation, for whom the organisation, with its aging leadership, seems anything but revolutionary.
Into the breach...
Into the breach come the young, charismatic Mautes, with their message of a universal caliphate promising justice and equality and their goal of establishing a pure Islamic state. They have mastered the art of propaganda, sending messages and videos over social media and relying on mass decentralised dissemination to carry images of their improbable capture of Marawi to the rest of Southeast Asia and beyond (one young MILF member called his own organisation's communication strategy 'Jurassic' by comparison). That message resonates with only a small minority of Mindanao's Muslims but it may be gaining ground, particularly among those displaced by the Marawi fighting and university students. The head of the Philippine Sports Commission came back from a visit to an evacuee centre in Iligan saying the dream of some children there was to join ISIS, seeing the Mautes as heroes. Others report that the displaced are far angrier with the government than with the Mautes, largely because of the airstrikes that have caused so much destruction.
The pro-ISIS recruitment is likely to outlast the Maute's control of Marawi, particularly if those who call themselves the 'East Asia Wilayah' of Islamic State can manage to find a steady source of funding to cover operational costs. The danger is that with their proven ability to cross traditional regional and ethnic lines (Abu Torayfe's forces reportedly included Maranaos, Tausugs, a few Muslim converts and one foreigner), the pro-ISIS groups could morph into a new, more militantly Islamist insurgency than anything the Philippines has seen before.
There is no point sitting around hoping that BBL and a new Bangsamoro polity will be the antidote to extremism. Extremism has already arrived.
What to do
There are many ways to strengthen Muslim Mindanao even in the absence of a BBL. The most pressing need is to get the reconstruction of Marawi right, as failure to do so will aid extremist propaganda and recruitment in the area already most receptive to it.
That means listening to the concerns and priorities of the displaced, ensuring that professionals among them have a role in decision-making and keeping the process accountable and as free of corruption as possible.
Addressing security concerns without undue militarisation is going to be tricky, particularly under martial law. It will be important to quickly try to bring life back to normal in the neighbourhoods largely unaffected by the fighting (the barangays bordering Mindanao State University) but the military reportedly is worried about pro-ISIS fighters seeping back into communities if it allows people to return too soon. Some infiltration will inevitably occur, but a functioning community with jobs and schools can also be an important buffer.
Countering extremism is important, and civil society organisations have made several useful recommendations, from developing youth programs to addressing the 'shadow economy' of guns, narcotics and smuggling. But an obsession with extremism at the expense of addressing other pressing needs in Mindanao, such as improving education and government service delivery, will be counter-productive. Even if the Bangsamoro state does not materialise anytime soon, much can be done.
One final note – Duterte's war on drugs has been as much of a disaster for Mindanao as the Maute brothers. In Marawi, it may have sent some dealers into the arms of the extremists for protection, though there is no evidence to support Duterte's assertion that the Mautes themselves were long involved in the drug trade. It has undercut any efforts to fix the dysfunctional criminal justice system, encouraging vigilante killings and planted evidence. With most of the victims from poor neighbourhoods, it has reportedly led to a spike in recruitment for the Communist New People's Army (NPA), which in any case is taking full advantage of the massive deployment of military forces to Marawi and the Sulu archipelago. And it is diverting the attention of the president and his advisers from moving forward on Bangsamoro autonomy.
If the President is not careful, his legacy to the Philippines will be two newly revitalised insurgencies, not just one.