Without exception, the Islamist rebellion in the Philippines southern island region of Mindanao is the biggest single challenge facing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration. Unlike the Muslim wars of the past in which insurgent forces fought to reclaim a patch of territory they could call their homeland, what’s going on there now is about very different ambitions. This is not a simple localised turf war; this is uncompromising, non-negotiable new-age barbarism founded on ancient brutality which could threaten the entire nation.
Muslim insurgency in the south has been a problem faced by successive governments in Manila; indeed, the roots of sectarian conflict there precede the modern state. The Moro (Muslim) people of this region have fought all comers – from the occupation forces of Spain to those of America to those of Japan – who’ve sought to control what they regard as their traditional ground.
No quarter given, as far as they’ve been concerned this is their heritage; their land – historic Muslim soil that was ruled by sultans a century and a quarter before Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, even first cast his eyes on the Philippine shores.
What’s going on there now has little to do with any of that. It’s not about soil or history; this is about jihad and the putting to the sword of any who dare to stop its progress. The best part of three decades ago when the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group first emerged this was about secessionism – the carving out of an independent (as opposed to an autonomous) state. Today, that goal has been replaced by Islamist regionalism – a pan-Southeast Asian plan that would bring together a myriad of like-minded terror groups which presently live under different national flags and speak different languages.
So it’s not local; in the first instance its ambition is the establishment of a caliphate that will run the length of Maritime Southeast Asia. Depending on the success of that, and the success of other jihadist projects elsewhere, its ambition is to go global. And in all this, Mindanao is little more than a building block – maybe a corner stone.
Up until eight years ago, 3,400 nautical sea miles to the West, another island was faced with a similar problem. It wasn’t Islamic State-sponsored as the present upheaval in Mindanao is; that organisation didn’t exist when this war kicked off. It wasn’t a Muslim fight in any sense. But in most other ways the enemy which the Philippines faces in Mindanao today is very similar to the insurgent army that held sway over that island.
That Island was Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean; the rebel army was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), a well-organised and well resourced militia which held the country in the grip of a bloody civil war that lasted for 26 years. And there’s the thing – the writing on the wall: if Mindanao isn’t dealt with properly now it too could escalate into a civil conflict spanning the next quarter century. Duterte and his military chiefs are well aware of that and for that reason alone they won’t be rushing to end martial law in that region.
It’s likely that the Philippine Army will now soon regain control of Marawi – the city in Lanao del Sur which was invaded and taken over by Islamic State-linked fighters two months ago. That could happen within the week. But Marawi is just one flashpoint, and there will be others. That’s the nature of conflicts like this and was certainly very much the case in the Sri Lankan theatre.
Of course there are big differences between these two insurgencies. The LTTE was fighting for an independent state; it was seeking secession from the rest of Sri Lanka; its fight was for a homeland for the Tamil nation. There were no religious/ideological goals. In these senses, the Sri Lankan civil war more closely mirrored the struggles in Mindanao of the Moro National Liberation Force and its later offshoot, the Moro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
Terrorist groups like Abu Sayyaf with its strongholds in the Sulu Archipelago, off the western shores of Mindanao, the Maute with its stamping ground in Lanao del Sur province, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters with bases in Maguindanao and elsewhere in central Mindanao – a terrorist patchwork that’s been loosely sown together to form the Islamic State of the Philippines quilt – have little interest in ancient land rights and the protection of the Moro people.
Their motivation is the subjugation of those living where they operate to a primal strain of Islam – one that calls for homosexuals to be executed; for women and girls captured, to be sold in slave markets like disposable household products such as brooms; for people to recite passages from the Quran, the Holy Muslim book, or face a public lashing or possibly death.
But let’s turn to the similarities between the LTTE and the Philippine terror groups, particularly Abu Sayyaf. The Tamil Tigers’ stock in trade was piracy, arms smuggling, illegal drugs, money laundering, extortion, the execution of captives, and the use of child soldiers. All these are practiced by Abu Sayyaf. They’re how they fund their operations and how they project their terror.
The waters around Sri Lanka were rarely safe from LTTE pirates – more than a score of large merchant vessels, cargo ships, even a passenger ferry were waylaid by the Sea Tigers, the organisation’s naval wing, between 1996 and 2007 alone. The waters of the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea between Mindanao and neighbours, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have come under the same piracy from Abu Sayyaf marine units which have become increasingly well equipped with fast craft. Their main targets have been cargo vessels and barges – such a problem now that tri-national patrols have been set up in an attempt to contain it.
The LTTE were prolific arms smugglers. At its height this organisation commanded an army of 11 divisions which it needed to equip – and it did so by a sophisticated network of smuggling which included links to Taliban Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan. Abu Sayyaf established similar links to the Taliban for arms shipments as well as with the al-Qaeda terror group which effectively funded Abu Sayyaf’s start.
“Loose arms” are a problem in the Philippines; there’s thought to be well over a million of them washing around the country at any given time – often coming through from Indonesia. Many of these find their way to criminals and drug gangs in Manila; but many also end up in the hands of terrorist-militia foot soldiers in Mindanao – specifically in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao where all these groups have safe-places if not bases.
In the last eight years of its existence – it was finally defeated in 2009 – the LTTE was believed to have had 5,794 child soldiers in its ranks. Child soldiers have a long tradition in the Muslim wars of Mindanao, a tradition that’s being continued by Abu Sayyaf and the Maute who recruit them through “hafiz” (memorizing) Quranic study classes. Orphans of rebel parents killed in the conflict is another source.
The Maute makes no secret of this – far from it; it’s posted online videos of its child soldiers wielding firearms in front of its black flags, presumably in the hope of luring more children to its ranks.
The trade in illegal drugs carried out by the LTTE – using its merchant ships to transport them to India and as far away as Europe and Canada – was believed to be a main component of the organisation’s U$300 million annual income. Military operations in the Sulu region which targeted Abu Sayyaf over the past year have uncovered large amounts of methamphetamine – shabu, the Philippine addict’s drug of choice, while a number of Abu Sayyaf personnel seized in police actions are known to have connections to local drug syndicates.
In 1990, the Tamil Tigers executed 600 Sri Lankan police officers who’d surrendered to them. Three years later they executed 200 Sri Lankan soldiers of the Sri Lankan Army whom they’d captured at a naval base. The scale may be different, but Abu Sayyaf has routinely executed captives. More often than not these have been people whose families have failed to pay the ransom for their release. Kidnapping – particularly foreigners – for ransom has always been a big dollar earner for this group. High-visibility executions – beheadings on video – serve as publicity promos for the group.
The other parallel between these two conflicts is how respective successive governments in Manila and Colombo handled them. In both cases there were a series of failed peace attempts; periods when the problems were downplayed for political-expediency reasons; sporadic highly publicised government campaigns to control the insurgencies and to appease an increasingly restless public.
And then in 2006, five months after being elected as the country’s president, Mahindra Rajapaksa launched an all-out assault against the LTTE. Three years later, the last LTTE stronghold fell. Now in the Philippines, the current president has taken a similar vow to eradicate the extremists. And like Rajapaksa – also criticised by the United Nations and Western politicians for his actions – Duterte is committing the resources needed to get the job done.
Islamic State is a master of exploiting conflict situations. It spawned in Iraq amid the clash between Sunni and Shia Islam following the removal from power of the nation’s strongman, Saddam Hussein, and the vanishing of US forces which left behind a tantalising power vacuum primed for occupation.
It did the same in Syria amid a bloody civil war which pitched opposition forces against those of the government as the West promoted this ancient land as the next venue for an Arab Spring which it had hoped would bring with it new shoots of leadership more acceptable – more in tune – with Washington and Europe.
Again, Islamic State rose in Libya which had been left as a failed state after Western powers backed the overthrow of its leader, Muammar Kaddafi – a man who’d renounced terrorism and become a firm ally in the global war on terror. Its return to tribalism was like a welcome mat to Islamic State.
And now in Mindanao – a region where conflict between Muslim secessionists and successive governments has spanned hundreds of years – the soil has been made fertile for the jihadists.
Here there’s no Sunni-Shia conflict, Mindanao like the rest of Southeast Asia is overwhelmingly Sunni. It’s also been a region in many ways isolated from the centre in the Philippines. The current president is the first ever in the country’s 70-year history as a democratic constitutional republic to have come from Mindanao. That isolation over the decades has also helped to make this place a ripe fruit for the picking.
None of this is lost on Duterte; he knows the stakes of this game better than most. He’s a son of the same soil. Hopefully though, those in Manila, far removed from the realities of what the country is facing on the ground in Mindanao, will this see this turmoil in the Philippines south as a clarion call to rally behind the government and defeat the threat.
The death toll from the Sri Lankan civil war is estimated to be between 80,000 and 100,000 – among those were tens of thousands of civilians. In the recent conflict in Marawi City, some 400,000 people from the city and surrounding countryside have been displaced by the fighting. That’s a staggering statistic, but it’s a drop in the ocean to the potential homelessness which this tinderbox has the capacity to ignite. And that’s just the homelessness. (Photo: the “Pink Mosque” at Datu Saudi-Ampatuan in Maguindanao province, Mindanao).