Guest Voices

Philippines Faces Growing Muslim Insurgency

There has arguably never been a president like Rodrigo Duterte, even in a country used to sometimes outrageous political personalities. To call him undiplomatic is putting it mildly.

He is uncouth, goes into tirades, and breaks all the rules of statecraft, even using profanity to criticize other world leaders, as he did in 2016, when he told Barack Obama to “go to hell.”

He also has no compunction in telling the world he intends to rid his country of criminals and drug dealers by murdering them.

Rodrigo Duterte

Elected president last year, he vowed that the fight against drugs would be “relentless.” He has ordered thousands of extrajudicial killings as part of his campaign.

Duterte had dealt with drug crime during his 22 years as mayor of Davao City. There, too, he has boasted, he used death squads to kill people without bringing them to court.

Yet he remains very popular among many Filipinos, and even in the large Filipino diaspora in the United States, there are those who like him. In fact, U.S. President Donald Trump, who has invited him to the White House, has praised Duterte.

Duarte now also faces a growing insurgency on Mindanao, one of the country’s main islands.

Though the Philippine islands are located in southeast Asia and its people are a mix of Asian backgrounds, especially Malay, some 86 percent of Filipinos are Catholics, the legacy of Spain’s almost four centuries of rule over the archipelago. They were named for King Philip II of Spain.

As a result, its political culture resembles that of Latin America. Indeed, until 1821, the Philippines was administered not directly from Madrid but by the Viceroy of New Spain, in Mexico City. That only ended when Mexico became an independent country.

But there is also a Muslim minority concentrated on the southern islands of Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan. They remained impervious to Catholic proselytization.

Mindanao, the country’s second-largest island and home to 22 million people, one-third of the country’s population, has been the scene of a longstanding separatist and Islamist insurgency, led by a number of groups, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front.

The Filipino Muslim (Moro) minority has had to contend with the triple challenges of the Spanish inquisition, American colonisation, and coercive assimilation in modern times.

In the late 1960s, the Moros rose up again against the government, after years of settlement by Christians from other parts of the Philippines had left Muslims a minority on Mindanao.

Devastated by civil strife, terrorism, and all-out armed conflict, Mindanao suffers from one of the highest rates of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment anywhere in the world, which has been exploited by extremist groups. Tens of thousands have been killed over five decades of armed conflict.

While the major Moro rebel groups have recently engaged in peace negotiations with the Philippine government, their breakaway factions have joined other violent groups.

These include the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, organized in 2010; Abu Sayyaf, founded in 1991, and the Maute group, also known as IS Ranao, formed in 2012.

The latter two have links to the Islamic State organization, which in mid-2016 endorsed a jihad in Mindanao. The group released a video urging militants who could not reach Syria to go to the Philippines instead.

There are about 1,200 Islamic State group operatives in the Philippines, Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu on June 4 told the 16th Shangri-La Dialogue, an international security forum, meeting in Singapore.

Ryacudu called the militants “killing machines” and urged full-scale regional cooperation against them.

The conference was attended by diplomats representing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis.

Recently, large-scale battles raged in Marawi City, which has a Muslim-majority population. Some of the men killed have been from Chechnya, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Duterte, on May 23, imposed martial law on Mindanao for two months. Islamic State is now also a Southeast Asian problem.

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Henry Srebrnik