Ahead of Peace Deal, an Island in the Philippines Braces for War

The southern Philippine island of Mindanao is on the verge of a hard-won peace deal but civilians fear the rise of ISIS-linked extremists could spoil the prospect of stability, writes journalist Wes Bruer for IRIN news.

Written by Wes Bruer Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Blindfolded suspected self-styled Islamic State (I.S.) group members are transported in a police vehicle after being captured in a village in Marawi City on the southern island of Mindanao on June 3, 2017. NOEL CELIS/AFP/Getty Images

After years of bloodshed, the southern Philippine island of Mindanao is on the verge of a hard-won peace deal granting greater autonomy to minority Muslims.But on the edges of sprawling Liguasan Marsh, civilians like Tamano Bandila are bracing themselves for more violence. He fled his home last year, after hearing rumours that militants linked to the so-called Islamic State (I.S.) were near.

“I’m worried that I.S. will come back and recruit the youth and there will be more conflict,” he said, adding that civilians, again, would be the collateral damage.

Bandila’s home sits in the middle of resource-rich marshland in central Mindanao that is also a stronghold of the island’s largest Muslim armed group – the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). For more than 40 years, grievances among the island’s Moro Muslims have fueled a separatist movement that has battled the armed forces of the majority-Catholic Philippines.

The backdrop is the specter of last year’s five-month siege of Marawi, about 75 miles (120km) north of here, where fighting between the army and Islamist militants leveled the city and uprooted 360,000 people. The destruction both deepened long-held frustrations with the government among Muslims – and raised fears that further missteps in the peace process will only fuel extremism here.

The government declared an end to the Marawi siege in October, but clashes with Islamist militants continue in places like Liguasan Marsh. Here, the MILF has done what was once unthinkable: formed an uneasy alliance with its former enemy, the Philippine army.

Partners against extremism

IRIN recently accompanied MILF fighters as they patrolled their territory in search of militants who had scattered into the area after government forces reclaimed Marawi.

Weaving through canals on narrow canoes and speeding by patches of mangroves, the soldiers passed signs of recent clashes: a shed with an artillery shell-sized hole through the sheet metal roof, a madrassa seized from militants, a MILF fighter still nursing a bandaged gunshot wound to the stomach.

Today, the MILF and the military coordinate operations in the vast marshlands in a tenuous alliance of former adversaries: the army providing airstrikes while MILF fighters lead the charge on the ground.

“We are the one who assaults the enemy directly,” said Von Al-Haq, spokesman for the MILF’s military arm.

It’s another turn in the protracted peace process on Mindanao, where the separatist movement has morphed and fractured over decades of instability and collapsed accords.

Many groups oppose the deal

Over the years, the MILF has tempered its demands for outright independence in favour of more political autonomy. It signed a peace treaty with the government in 2014 after years of negotiations, but other factions rejected the deal.

On Thursday President Rodrigo Duterte signed the landmark Bangsamoro Organic Law, implementing the peace accord and granting greater autonomy and fiscal powers to a Moro Muslim homeland on Mindanao. But many people here – local activists, displaced civilians, the MILF, and other militant groups – warn of more violence to come.

Waiting in the wings is an array of armed factions opposed to the peace deal – including a new generation of extremist militants who claim allegiance to I.S. In June, clashes between the army and insurgents displaced more than 23,000 people in the marshlands, and another 15,000 people elsewhere.

“What happened in Marawi City … is one offshoot of the frustration of the people, especially the young people,” Mohagher Iqbal, a senior member of the MILF and its chief peace negotiator, told IRIN.

“When people are frustrated and the frustration is extreme, then people will go to extreme measures.”

Abu Sayyaf, known for kidnapping and beheading foreign hostages, reportedly pledged allegiance to I.S. in 2014, as did another group led by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute. Both Maute brothers and former Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon were killed in Marawi.

“We have to drive them away so that the incident in Marawi will not be repeated,” said Grand Mufti Huraira Abdulrahman Udasan, the highest-ranking Islamic religious figure in central Mindanao, who issued an edict condemning violent extremism during last year’s siege. “We have been permitted by Islam to take a temporary drastic measure in order to quell the violence. Sometimes, only violence can quell violence.”

No Jobs for Disenchanted Youth

Many here condemn the newer groups, but they are also quick to add that such extremism is rooted in generations of marginalization rather than in jihadist ideology.

Though Mindanao is believed to be rich in untapped mineral deposits and natural gas reserves, poverty rates in Moro Muslim areas hover over 50 percent – more than double the national average, according to government statistics. And poverty rates have climbed over the last decade on Mindanao, even while falling nationwide.

“These young people are a product of social injustice,” said Hamidullah Atar, a sultan in Marawi – part of the traditional clan leadership structure in the area – who also runs a peacebuilding organization called RIDO. “They become more radical and more extreme because of what happens in our society.”

But Atar said successive governments have only ever had a military response to insurgent groups on Mindanao. What is missing, especially amid the rise of more extremist groups, is a sustained effort to tackle the roots of violence by creating jobs, making education more accessible and improving people’s lives. He noted that while the army killed the leaders of the Maute group in Marawi, they were quickly replaced.

“Over the past 400 years in Mindanao, militarization has never been the solution,” Atar said. “They killed the Maute brothers, but now all the subordinates, and all other young people second in line, have become more extreme than the Maute brothers. So is counterterrorism and killing them the solution?”

Is the Deal a Double-Edged Sword?

Sky-high expectations surround the MILF’s peace agreement with the government. Yet local community groups worry that in practice, the resulting law will be stripped back from what was originally negotiated in 2014.

The Philippine Congress has wrangled over matters of tax revenue, control over resources and waterways and even the basic question of how outlying municipalities will accede to a new autonomous territory. While the MILF says the current agreement is an imperfect but acceptable new beginning, Islamist militants could still use any failings in the resulting deal as fodder in the future.

“There’s still a lot of mistrust toward the Manila government,” said Carlos Conde, a Manila-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.

“Civil society groups, Muslim groups, are trying to build this bridge and remove this distrust. But it’s difficult when you take into account the fact that the Muslim region … really doesn’t have anything significant to show after all these decades.”

Proponents of the peace accord say it is a starting point for disaffected Moro Muslims, giving a better chance for local leaders to improve lives over the long-term. But for now, militancy continues in Mindanao despite the peace deal, leaving civilians trapped in the middle.

Fighting has forced Mariam Maunan Usop to flee her home twice before. Now she lives in a MILF compound near Liguasan Marsh, where she runs a store from her small home.

“We are already so tired of moving from one place to another,” Usop said. “I don’t think we can survive another displacement.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Peacebuilding Deeply.

This story was originally published by IRIN, a news agency specializing in reporting humanitarian crises, and is reproduced with permission.

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