Will Duterte heed the message inherent in Marawi’s Islamist uprising?
Gwynne Dyer says the failure of Rodrigo Duterte’s government to reach a compromise with the moderate Moro group may well foster radicalisation among discontented Muslims in Mindanao, creating fertile ground for extremist outfits such as Islamic State
A month ago, hardly anybody outside the Philippines had heard of Marawi. Now it’s the latest front in the war against Islamic State. “We have actually pre-empted the establishment of a wilayat [a province of IS],” said the spokesperson of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, which is definitely overstating the case. The response of the armed forces was slow and clumsy, and government policy has been lax and inattentive.
It’s not even clear that the attempt by the Maute group of Islamist fighters to take over Marawi, a city of 200,000 people on Mindanao island in the southern Philippines, was actually a bid to create a wilayat. It is necessary to control some territory to declare a wilayat, so they had a motive, but this fight started almost accidentally.
The fighting broke out after a failed bid to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a leading figure in a bigger Islamist group called Abu Sayyaf, that has also pledged allegiance to IS. Their fighters and others joined the Maute group that predominates in the Marawi area in an uprising on May 23 – and the army’s reaction was so hesitant that 400 to 500 fighters were able to take over the city. The insurgents weren’t numerous enough to hold the whole city once the army got its act together, but for the past month they have controlled 10 to 20 per cent of it. The government claims to have killed 280 militants for the loss of 69 soldiers and 29 civilians, and promises it will be over soon. But it has been a profoundly unimpressive performance.
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Equally unimpressive has been the performance of the government led by Duterte. Like every government before it, it has paid little attention to monitoring the seas, so it is easy for foreign militants to slip into the country. But it has been far worse than any previous government in its disregard for the law: Duterte’s “dirty war” on drugs has involved thousands of extra-judicial killings and effectively de-professionalised the police. Death squads do not do effective police work.
Watch: Duterte’s deadly war on drugs
Above all, Duterte has failed to push for ratification of the 2014 peace agreement with the largest Muslim separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The MILF is not extreme Islamist, and the agreement granted it considerable autonomy in the area of central Mindanao under its control. But legislation to implement the deal stalled in Congress in 2015, and has not been put back on the agenda.
With nothing to show for its attempt to reach a peaceful compromise with the government, the MILF leadership has been unable to stop its more hardline members from defecting to other, more radical groups that reject the agreement. Most of those are associated with IS or at least share its ideology, so the situation in Mindanao is worse than it was when the peace deal was signed.
The siege of Marawi will be over in a week or so: the army claims there are only 100 fighters left in the city. The larger problem of radicalisation among discontented and disadvantaged Muslims in Mindanao will continue, and may well grow. The only thing that would stop it is good governance, which is not on offer under Duterte.
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The demand for a “Muslim homeland” in the Muslim-majority parts of Mindanao has been strong for decades, and a sensible Filipino government would have made the necessary compromises long ago. That’s not going to happen under Duterte, but the worst that can happen is an ugly local problem that need not concern the world.
That is more than can be said for next-door Indonesia, which is 90 per cent Muslim and has 2½ times the population of the Philippines. As its military chief Gatot Nurmantyo said, there are IS-affiliated sleeper cells “in almost every [Indonesian] province”.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist