Commentary: Has the war in Marawi killed the Philippines peace process?

Commentary: Has the war in Marawi killed the Philippines peace process?

The quiet allure of the Mautes amid the Moro Islamic Liberation Front's edgy relationship with the president is changing power dynamics among separatist groups, argues Sidney Jones.

JAKARTA: For years, the common wisdom about conflict in southern Philippines was that the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was the best antidote to radicalisation.

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.

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 adopted by the Philippine Congress.

But deadlines for passing the basic law 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, it is the war in Marawi that killed it.

Now in its fourth month, the prolonged battle between the Philippine military and a coalition of pro-Islamic State (IS) fighters has weakened the MILF, almost certainly exacerbated Islamophobia within Manila's political elite, and laid the groundwork for increased radicalisation in the south.


Before this, the MILF was 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 IS, and left others reluctant to fight their kinsmen. Many Maranao also view the MILF as unable to protect them, either from the Maute brothers who command the IS forces in Marawi or from the military's bombardment.

FILE PHOTO: A view of the Maute group stronghold with an ISIS flag in Marawi
A view of the Maute group stronghold with an IS flag in Marawi City in southern Philippines. (File photo: REUTERS/Erik De Castro)

A senior MILF leader I met with 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 the one given to fight illegal drugs – the chances of a misstep are huge.

While true, it is also the military’s uncertainty of MILF loyalties in the Marawi area that makes such a request unlikely to be forthcoming.

In early August, MILF fighters found themselves fighting fellow Maguindanaon in the MILF heartland. A pro-IS group brought several dozen fighters into MILF territory.

The MILF’s special force backed by the Philippine army, resisted the incursion. This engagement, while also without a formal request, had posed a direct threat to the MILF and thus was a clear case of self-defence, according to an MILF leader.

A Philippine government official said that the MILF’s fighting was useful for the peace process, “because it shows that the MILF can be a reliable partner”. But the MILF joining the government to fight fellow Maguindanaon may not play well within its own constituency. Mindanao is under martial law. IS propaganda has also accused the military of destroying Marawi through airstrikes.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels gather inside their camp, as thousands of its members
Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels gather inside their camp, as thousands of its members and residents arrive for a rally in support of the peace in 2014. (Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe)


Further, the MILF has been weakened by its edgy relationship with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Many voters in the MILF heartland had preferred his rival Mar Roxas in the 2016 election.

When the new president appeared to be in no hurry to press the basic law, the MILF did not push back. A new version of the bill was finally sent to the Philippine Senate on Aug 17 but without a certificate of urgency to fast-track it, there remains many technical hurdles to clear before it has any chance of being adopted.

It is clear that the MILF is wary of any action that could alienate a volatile president.

Yet the decision to let the president set the agenda 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.

The Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, which under former President Benigno Aquino III had been a creative, energetic body that was at once chief advocate and political strategist for Bangsamoro, has become almost a ceremonial office under Duterte. It appears to have no strategy of its own to bring the basic law forward.

Duterte meanwhile, has other priorities, including his lethal war on drugs that has led to more than 8,000 reported extrajudicial killings since he took office. He is also committed to a hazy notion of federalism that has never been fleshed out and whose exact relationship to the Bangsamoro Basic Law has never been made clear.

The truth is that the basic law 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 signing on – especially among a younger generation, for whom the organisation, with its ageing leadership, seems anything but revolutionary.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrives at the military camp in Marawi city
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrives at a military camp in Marawi city, southern Philippines in July. (File photo: Reuters)


In this context, 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 broadcast 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” in comparison.

While the Mautes’ message has resonated with only a small minority of Mindanao's Muslims thus far, it may be gaining ground, particularly among university students and those displaced by the Marawi fighting.

In an evacuee centre in Iligan, some children regard the Mautes as heroes.

Reports also say that the displaced are angrier with the government than at the Mautes, largely because of airstrikes that have caused so much destruction.

Pro-IS recruitment is likely to outlast the Maute's control of Marawi, particularly if the IS' “East Asia Wilayah” manages to find a steady source of funding. With the proven ability to cross traditional regional and ethnic lines, the danger is that pro-IS groups could morph into a new, more militant insurgency than anything the Philippines has seen before.

A graffiti is seen on a wall of a back-alley as government soldiers continue their assault against
Graffiti is seen on a wall of a back-alley as government soldiers continue their assault against the Maute group in Marawi City, Philippines in June. (File photo: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco)

There is no point sitting around hoping that BBL and a new Bangsamoro polity will be the antidote to extremism. Extremism has already arrived.


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.

This 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 restore normalcy in the neighbourhoods largely unaffected by the fighting, such as the barangays bordering Mindanao State University.

Understandably, the military is worried about pro-IS 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.

Civil society organisations have made several useful recommendations to counter extremism, from developing youth programmes 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.

Anti-riot police officers stand on guard in front of a placard while activists protest against the
Anti-riot police officers stand on guard in front of a placard while activists protest against the declaration of martial law in Mindanao during a rally in front of the Supreme Court in Metro Manila on Jul 4. (Photo: REUTERS/Dondi Tawatao)

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.

The war on drugs has also undercut efforts to fix the dysfunctional criminal justice system, encouraging vigilante killings and planted evidence. It is also diverting the attention of the president and his advisers from moving forward on Bangsamoro autonomy.

If Duterte is not careful, his legacy to the Philippines will be two newly revitalised insurgencies, not just one.

Sidney Jones is director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta. This piece first appeared on The Interpreter. Read the original commentary here.

Source: CNA/sl