Filipinos can finally relax. On October 23, the Secretary of National Defense Major General Delfin Lorenzana announced that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) had captured the Islamic State–affiliated command center in the besieged city of Marawi, in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). After nearly five months of fierce fighting, the insurgency appears to have come to an end. It may now be time to draw a few lessons from an armed conflict which has seen more than half a million people flee the war–torn city.
From the moment when the Moro guerrilla movements took up arms in the 1960s until the reactivation of peace talks in 2012, the escalation of violence between government forces and rebels has always been closely related to setbacks in the Moros’ campaign to achieve independence for the Bangsamoro nation. The very outbreak of the conflict between the AFP and the Maute and Abu Sayyaf jihadist groups on May 23, 2017, was the result of a failed attempt to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a notorious terrorist often considered to be the leader of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia. The botched operation provided once again conclusive evidence that Manila had failed to carry out the peace process with the Muslim majority–Moro in a satisfactory manner.
The Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB), signed on March 27, 2014, between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), indeed fell short of living up to the Moro people’s aspiration for freedom. Most notably, it failed because the Senate did not pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law designed to ensure greater regional autonomy. Armed secession movements, as a result, continued to thrive in the ARMM. But the foremost reason behind the Moros’ enmity towards the central government is rather simple: there are disquieting economic and social inequalities in the country that overlap the religious divide. Mindanao has been the Philippines’ most impoverished region for years.
With this in mind, perhaps the first lesson to learn from the recent unrest in Marawi is that the Bangsamoro peace process is, more than ever, a work in progress. It remains that some around the negotiating table, whose anger is at least partially legitimate, will not hesitate to resort to violence in order to advance their cause.
Secondly, the security crisis has prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to proclaim martial law in Mindanao in order to quell the rebellion. This adds to the pre-existing Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007, an anti–terror law aimed at tackling protracted terrorism in the country. The HSA, critics contend, has occasionally licensed security forces to kill the state’s political opponents.
The extended martial law has raised additional concerns about an already worrisome human rights record. There are now compelling reasons to fear an increase in the number of extrajudicial killings targeting Moro people indiscriminately labelled as “rebels” or “terrorists.”
The authoritarian tendency of President Duterte’s administration sparked great outrage from the international community when he initiated his “War on Drugs” last year. The Battle of Marawi and, in particular, its aftermath call for continuous attention to be paid to the actions of the Philippines government security forces.
Third, the violence in Marawi has exposed the Philippines’ inability to combat terrorism alone. The Philippines government first reported on June 1 that foreign fighters had come from as far away as the Arabian Peninsula and the Caucasus to fight alongside the Maute and the Abu Sayyaf groups. At the time, Manila feared a full–scale invasion and urgently turned to the U.S. for assistance.
The Islamic State pushed the Philippines back to its estranged ally, and the U.S. swiftly provided Special Operations forces to fill the AFP’s capability gap. As Washington’s “War on Terror” could stretch to Southeast Asia at lightning speed, even after Operation Enduring Freedom had ceased to exist, it became clear that Washington had taken the threat of radical Islam in the Philippines seriously all along.
Manila is clearly vulnerable and indeed terrorized — not so much by the Islamic State–affiliated militants on its soil, but by the mere possibility of becoming a global hub for Islamic terrorists.
But is this a viable option? From the account of the AFP’s latest victory, combined with the late realization that there were only a few hundred jihadists fighting in Marawi, there is in fact little chance of a caliphate being established in Mindanao. This at least strikes a decisive blow against the myth that Southeast Asia will become the Islamic State’s new front after Iraq and Syria.
By sending ground troops, the U.S. made it clear that Southeast Asia, especially the Philippines, had the potential to be a second front in its War on Terror. But the reality of the Marawi Siege teaches one last lesson: The threat posed by the Islamic State in the region is not nearly as great as it might have seemed at first.
Still, following the government’s victory in Marawi, there may be momentum to confront the long–term security challenge emanating from the Moro insurgency. Filipino jihadist movements feed on long–lasting socioeconomic grievances. The likelihood of their recurrence is inversely proportional to the probability of a negotiated political settlement. The ability of President Duterte to preempt another insurgency hinges in large measure on his efforts to fully implement the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement. This is achievable with a number of reforms. The human rights situation is still fragile in the region, and it is unclear how much time will pass before the security situation deteriorates again. Manila is playing a high-stakes game and would be well–advised to learn from the Battle of Marawi. ♦
Pierre H. N. Martin is a graduate of Sciences Po.