As the clean-up of Marawi gets underway, this Muslim city in Lanao del Sur in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao – devastated by five months of battle between Islamic militants and government forces – has brought into full focus the urgency of reaching a political settlement with the region’s 5 million Muslims.
This issue needs to go to the top of the Congress agenda, for if it isn’t finally resolved, Marawi could end up being little more than a taster for a Mindanao-wide insurrection with moderates and extremists uniting in an all-out drive for independence and the break-up of the Philippine Republic.
In short, the creation of a fully autonomous homeland – which also guarantees fiscal autonomy for the Moro (Muslim) people – can’t be used as a political football any more. It needs to be fast-tracked through Congress by men and women with a will to make it happen. This isn’t some remote trouble 33 road-hours away from the seat of government in Manila; this is a national problem.
The days of stalling the passage of all legal instruments that will create the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region (BAR) are over; so either Congress gets down to dealing with the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) – the legal underpinning of the future BAR government – or it’ll be handled as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s broader roadmap for replacing the country’s unitary government by establishing a federal Philippines.
Right now, there’s little clarity for which track Bangsamoro is on; passage of the BBL had been targeted for the end of this year. Obviously that’s not going to happen. Certainly, the Bill under consideration is lengthy and complex and there are concerns that still need to be addressed – rejection of the BAR by some of the region’s ethnic and Christian communities; homosexuals fearful of Shariah Law penalties for their lifestyle – but all that is very minor to what’s at stake here.
The previous government of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino deserves credit for reaching the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro – the peace accord beaten out by his administration and the Muslim paramilitary Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on 15 October 2012. This told the Moro that they’d be getting their homeland; that the struggle that had raged for centuries – and in the modern era since 1969 – was coming to an end with the promise of a full-fledged Muslim region that would replace the unsatisfactory, only semi-autonomous ‘Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao” (ARMM) which Aquino described as “a failed experiment”.
Since then there have been countless government deliberations and hearings at regional and central level, Congressional debates, the establishment of committees and working groups to probe particular aspects of transition, roadmaps and development plans and any amount of press pushing the case for and the case against.
But we’re now in a very different place, and creating the reality of Bangsamoro has become critical following the events of 23 May to 23 October in Marawi City. Those five month of bombing and bloody skirmishes that turned a peaceful lakeside community into a facsimile of war-scarred Aleppo in Syria exacted a high price.
The casualty toll from that conflict was 1,225 dead, with more than 1,400 government troops wounded – and the displacement of around 1.1 million civilians. Meanwhile, the cost of the rebuilding and rehabilitation of Marawi, tentatively, has been set at PHP 90 billion.
But all that will pale to nothing if a major insurrection developed in Mindanao – not one with a few hundred jihadists from a neighbouring town, but a region-wide one with a combined Muslim force totaling tens of thousands of well-armed, well-equipped fighters who know the terrain like the back of their hands and who can source funds, weapons and “guest” fighters from around the world. In fact, the president has warned of this very scenario.
Ten days before his troops regained control of Marawi City, Duterte said this in Davao City: “If we fail [to find a solution] then I assure you that there will be fighting everywhere in Mindanao. For then, the mainstream rebel groups would now be joining with the extremist groups”.
Mindanao right now is on a knife edge. Certainly, the Maute Group which spearheaded the Marawi assault has been virtually wiped out; its co-plotters, the Abu Sayyaf Group, has also been decimated by government troop actions over the past year.
But the two big elephants in the room – the MILF and the Moro National Liberation Front which presently are working closely with the government to figure out a way forward – remain armed and ready should there aspirations be dashed. Like two large dormant volcanoes, they could quickly erupt and send a lava flow of rebellion right across the region.
As Duterte remarked: “If their common determination, their dream, ends in failure or disappointment, magkaisa itong lahat [it will come together] against the Republic of the Philippines. And I have it in good authority that they will declare an independence. They would declare an independent Mindanao”.
If that happens, there’ll no longer be any moderate Muslim factions in Mindanao; no one for the government to work with for the pursuit of peace. There’ll be no peace talks, just councils of war. Congress will then be irrelevant; it’ll have fumbled its moment and precipitated the break-up of the country’s south.
And Bangsamoro, by a unilateral declaration of independence, will no longer be a collection of provinces enriching the tapestry of a united archipelago; nor a federal entity under one national flag. It will be a sovereign state geographically locked within the state it rejected. And as that process unfolds, there’ll be no shortage of Marawis as Congress looks on and scratches its head and perhaps wonders what it could have done differently – whether the breakaway of the Muslim lands could have been prevented by fewer delays, less inaction; greater urgency, more will.
Right now, Duterte and the leaderships of the MILF and the MNLF are partners in peace. They’re all working towards the same end. They understand, too well, what’s at stake here. In Duterte’s words the groups’ leaders are “hanging on to the reins of their horses … hoping that what they have been asking for centuries will be given,” in a headlong race to Bangsamoro.
And they’ve certainly shown good faith. They’ve fought alongside government forces; shared intelligence on extremist groups, negotiated hostage releases from the Abu Sayyaf; established peace corridors for citizens fleeing Marawi. They’ve put their men’s lives on the line in the national interest.
The MILF and the MNLF are not in some ideological struggle with Manila; they’re seeking a homeland for their people – a Muslim state for Muslims where they can protect their culture and pursue their faith. They have nothing in common with the death cults of Islamist extremism – in fact, they’re their sworn enemy. It’s really not much more complicated than that. It only gets complicated when that hope is taken from them. Then it gets very complicated, and very deadly.
Like Duterte, these organisations are under no illusion of what the future holds if Bangsamoro isn’t delivered. They’ve urged that peace agreements reached between each of them and respective governments – for the MNLF in 1976 and 1996; for the MILF in 2012 and 2014 – be fully implemented.
If they’re not, they say, “we will become irrelevant” sending a signal to the extremist groups that the government’s word is worthless – a message they can exploit in recruiting fighters to their cause. According to Mohagher Iqbal, who heads the MILF peace panel, if historic injustices against the Moro aren’t fully addressed, “the extremist groups, the violent extremist groups would still multiply because they have so much reason to fight the government”.
And at that stage, these two organisations would have little reason to support the government. Certainly, they’re opposed to Islamic extremism and in a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region their own security forces would stamp that out. But in the absence of a BAR, the danger is that their foe will become their ally – at least where government forces are concerned.
That’s a frightening prospect – Marawi City on max-strength steroids. And while the political opposition to Duterte whinges and whines about his continuance of martial law in Mindanao – despite the self-evident fact that this region is presently a tinderbox just waiting for a spark – Duterte himself knows that a Mindanao war would be crippling.
If you look back at the bill in terms of human life and treasure that Marawi City delivered, and factor in the time it took to relieve that city – add a row of zeros after it and multiply that by the number you first thought of, and you’d get an idea of just how crippling it would be.
That’s what was in Duterte’s mind when he said this: “We are not ready to embark on another war again. This time on a large scale throughout Mindanao. I just know what will happen”. And he also warned about losing MILF and MNLF support: “If there is a status of belligerence given to them, then it becomes very, very, very serious for all of us”.
That’s a sobering message and hopefully it’ll be heard by all those who have any influence over establishing Bangsamoro. Given the current climate in Mindanao; and the designs of the jihadists – home-grown and foreign – to snatch it and turn it into a brutal caliphate where kidnappings and killings become a currency in their own right, it’s time for all parties to focus on this issue. If they don’t, they could be sleepwalking the country into a conflagration of Biblical size.