Despite appearances, President Duterte may be the best person to pacify his home area, argues Richard Cockett

Rodrigo Duterte wants to be known as a tough guy. He looked every inch the part as he choppered into Marawi on July 20, sporting combat fatigues and a holstered pistol, and spoiling for a fight. It was the first time that the pugnacious president had visited the city in the southern Philippines since it was stormed by Islamist militants towards the end of May.

Back in the capital, Manila, the president, never afraid to provoke, had promised to eat the livers of any terrorists he caught, seasoned with salt and vinegar; now he looked ready for lunch, and breakfast and dinner too. Officials say that at least 565 people have been killed in the urban uprising, including about 100 soldiers and policemen, and 400 militants. About half a million people have been made homeless. Duterte has declared martial law in the south, and wants to extend this to the end of the year.

It has been the most extraordinary event of Duterte’s extraordinarily eventful presidency so far, and could well turn out to be the most consequential of his six-year term of office. For the Marawi siege could herald not only the opening of a new front in the worldwide campaign of Islamic State (IS), it also threatens the wider peace process in war-ravaged Mindanao, inherited from Duterte’s predecessor. It might also dash any hopes that the president has of moving towards a more federal form of government, something he has often spoken about.

Duterte is the first Filipino president to hail from Mindanao, the second-largest island in the Philippines, so he, more than anyone, should grasp what is at stake. It has a significant Muslim minority that has for decades largely been in conflict with the central authorities in this predominantly Catholic nation. If peace, regional autonomy or a new federal arrangement can be achieved in Mindanao, then there must be some hope that the Philippines can leave behind some of the worst of the civil conflicts that have bedevilled the country for the past decades, killing thousands. If not, Duterte, and probably his successors, can only look forward to more of the same.

Certainly, the storming of Marawi by about 700 militants on May 23 took the government, and almost all observers, by surprise. The fact that they were still holding the town over two months later, against a determined military counter-attack, attests to the militants’ strengths; they were well-armed, well-trained and well-led. Some Filipino politicians sought to dismiss these militants, primarily from the Maute group, as little more than petty gangsters, IS ‘wannabes’ rather than the real deal. But as a new report from the highly respected Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) shows, this attitude woefully underestimates what the Filipino, and other regional governments, are now up against.

UNDER FIRE: The attack on Marawi in May (l) and IS-linked militants raising their flags on the city's streets
UNDER FIRE: The attack on Marawi in May (l) and IS-linked militants raising their flags on the city’s streets

The takeover of Marawi, the report begins, ‘will have ramifications for the region long after the Philippines military retakes the city. These could include a higher risk of violent attack in other Philippines cities and in Indonesia and Malaysia; [and] greater co-operation among South East Asian extremists.’ It confirms what some had already suggested, that at least some of the funding for the military seizure of Marawi (running to tens of thousands of dollars in a very poor part of the world) came directly from IS central command in Syria.

The success of Maute in Marawi has put the Philippines very much on the map as a locus for the expansion of militant activities

Thus, although its founders might have started out as petty criminals, Maute can now be considered to be an organised arm of IS, and seems also to have united other militant groups, such as the more established Abu Sayyaf, under one banner for the capture of Marawi. Maute has also drawn in fighters from Indonesia and other parts of South East Asia.

Furthermore, the success of Maute in Marawi has put the Philippines very much on the map as a locus for the expansion of militant activities, at a time when IS continues to suffers setbacks and defeats in Syria and Iraq. The dramatic images of the militants celebrating the takeover of Marawi, holding guns and the black flags of IS aloft, seems to have persuaded IS supporters, as well as locals, to join the battle.

According to IPAC, the Marawi battle has ‘lifted the prestige of the Philippine fighters in the eyes of IS central, although it has not yet earned them the coveted status of wilayah, or province of Islamic State. It has inspired young extremists from around the region to want to join. All of this suggests an increased incentive for jihad operations.’

Even if, or when, Marawi is recaptured by the army, that will by no means signify the defeat of IS in Mindanao. The task after that will be just as difficult, if not more so; to address the underlying problems in the southern Philippines that constantly persuade young men to join militant Islamist groups. This is the wider context of the Marawi battle.

More economic development is certainly needed: Mindanao contains 11 of the 20 poorest provinces in the Philippines. But another big step towards achieving this would be to get the earlier Mindanao peace process back on track, designed to establish a new, autonomous Muslim Bangsomoro state in the region, in exchange for a cessation of hostilities by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Mindanao contains 11 of the 20 poorest provinces in the Philippines

Negotiations between the MILF, an earlier group called the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and the Philippines government had been dragging on for almost two decades before an outline agreement was finally signed in March 2014. After that, there were hopes that the new state of Bangsomoro would be established by 2016. But subsequent progress on passing the implementation of the required legislation in congress, the Bangsomoro Basic Law (BBL), slowed, particularly after 44 troops were killed by the MILF in a botched counter-terrorist operation.

There is little doubt that some disillusioned, restless MILF fighters have rallied to the IS cause in Marawi in the absence of any signs of progress in their decades-long struggle for a Muslim state. According to Michael Vatikiotis, Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which worked on the peace process, the fighting in Marawi is ‘a by-product of not implementing a perfectly good agreement quickly enough’.

Mindanao, the second-largest island in the Philippines, has seen decades of conflict
Mindanao, the second-largest island in the Philippines, has seen decades of conflict

So, can the peace process be rescued from the bombed-out wreckage of Marawi? The fear is that the bloodletting there may have so sharpened the animosity between the government in Manila and Islamists on Mindanao that any wider co-operation on issues like the peace agreement might now be out of the question. Much may depend on how the army conducts itself in the aftermath of Marawi; if they act too vengefully against the local population, they will provoke more people into joining the militants. As the APAC report warns, IS ‘recruiters were able to build on the narrative of state brutality long before the battle of Marawi began … [and] the military’s reliance on airstrikes after it was under way enabled the fighters to blame the government for the city’s destruction.’

Equally, however, all is not yet lost. It is clear that MILF fighters do not automatically associate themselves with Maute and IS. The group was happy to get humanitarian supplies through to Marawi residents, the victims of the fighting. Many, it seems, will still distinguish their own negotiated struggle for a Bangsomoro state from the IS uprising in Marawi.

Fortunately, Mr Duterte himself also recognises this. He may be brutally uncompromising when it comes to drug-pushers, but campaigning in the presidential election last year, as a Mindanaon himself he was the only candidate who seemed to support the peace process. Since the Marawi fighting began, he has been pushing it as hard and as fast as he can.

The president met representatives of the MILF to agree on a revised Bangsomoro bill. Given his enormous popularity among Filipino voters, his express backing for the bill boosts its chances of passing into law, finally creating a Bangsomoro state. The MILF is certainly optimistic; its first vice-chairman, Ghazali Jaafar, says the bill is the ‘best antidote’ to violent extremism in the Philippines – a sentiment Duterte would probably agree with.

If the government can handle the aftermath of Marawi with some tact and intelligence, IS’s great coup de thèâtre might yet be for nothing. Indeed, it could have provoked legislators into ending precisely the sort of political instability and sectarianism in the southern Philippines that IS thrives on. Duterte the peacemaker? There have been stranger turnarounds in political history.

Dr Richard Cockett was South-East Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold: The changing face of Burma. He is now a London-based staff writer for The Economist

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