Research Intern, Jindal Centre for the Global South
O.P. Jindal Global University, India.
Strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights have been the most fundamental objectives of international institutions. Accordingly, human rights is a cross-cutting theme in every policy and programme undertaken by the United Nations in the key areas of peace and security, development, humanitarian assistance, and economic and social affairs. ‘Universal, Inalienable, indivisible’ is how the extent and importance of human rights is measured, and everyone is entitled to them without any discrimination. But clearly, the world missed out to bring Mindanao into the ambit of human rights.
On the remote island of Mindanao in the Philippines, inhabiting nearly 25 million of population, humanitarian crises seem to protract with poverty and illiteracy looming, mass displacement in concomitance with the unabated armed conflict among the extremist, separatist groups and the army and regular, destructive typhoons exacerbating the already tensed situation.
With time, crisis and Mindanao have become synonymous with each other, with no government successfully steering Mindanao towards peace and development. It is a multi-faceted, complex matter emanating from centuries of societal fragmentation and divisions. According to the UN, there are some 370,000 people displaced by intermittent conflict and disasters in central and southwestern Mindanao.(Ayao & Abo, 2020) Despite the fact that the government ordered lockdowns to tackle the pandemic that has mandated movement restrictions and curfews in many communities, the number of people migrating is increasing. At least 26,300 people were forced from their homes in the first quarter of 2020. (Ayao & Abo, 2020)
Conflict has been a long-standing feature of the Philippines. The current situation has bleak prospects of peace since the state has been devastated by civil strife, extremism and armed conflict. Today, the actors involved in the conflict and violence are varied from state, clans, separatist to extremist groups. Mindanao is majorly affected by the armed conflict between the Philippines army and the separatist/extremist groups, which took the total death toll to more than 150,000 people in the past five decades, and the number of displaced people to 135,870. (Herbert, 2019; UNHCR, 2021) Recently, the conflict was fuelled up between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Bangasmoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a fringe group inspired by the Islamic State (IS) in Maguindanao province, and as a
result, more than 66,000 people have been displaced. (Aspinwall, 2021)Mindanao has a pressing problem of IS-led extremist groups threatening the peace of the region. The Maute group, IS-affiliated, laid siege in the Marawi city in 2017, which displaced 400,000 people from the city. (ACAPS, 2021) Since then, Mindanao was placed under martial law till 2020, but this in no way curbed the growth of the IS-backed groups. The situation was already too dire for the people to tackle, only for the pandemic to hit and exacerbate the conditions.
Amidst the pandemic, the government passed the Anti-Terrorism Act, 2020, which countered the Human Security Act, 2007 and empowered the government to take strict actions against terrorism. However, with the active rebellion in the region, the government has been failing to aid the population with the basic amenities during the Covid-19 pandemic. On the positive note, due to the state-wide lockdowns, the movement of the terror groups have been halted, and the financial aid and arms sale to these groups from the neighbouring countries have been cut off, making this the crucial time to fight terrorism when their strength has reached to the nadir.
More recently, the Taliban taking over Afghanistan and ousting the hegemonic power like the US have raised concerns that it could bring resurgence of the extremist groups in the Philippines, too. The victory of the Taliban against a powerful country like the US can kindle hopes and aspirations among the separatist groups for a separate Islamic state, and thus, the groups can turn active and violent in the region. Though the state has been able to bridle the armed groups, the Philippines should not be overconfident in its counterterrorism capabilities.
Drivers of conflict
The contemporary exaggeration of the conflict is due to many reasons, and the government needs to address the root cause of the conflict before the national crisis goes out of proportion.
- Poverty, lack of resources and opportunities can be counted as the most fundamental driver of the conflict. The Philippines suffers from the highest rates of poverty and is at the 107th position in the human development category. The largest share of the country’s poverty comes from Mindanao, contributing to 40.4%.(ADB, 2017) Being the least developed region of the South East Asia, the extremists tap on the vulnerability of the youth, who are discontented with the government and lack jobs and opportunities and induct them into the terror outfits.
- The inadvertent response by the state is next on the list. The state has reciprocated the violent extremism with violent means, predominantly with the use of military force rather than cooperation and peace negotiation with the participating groups. The state has been slow at reconstructing the devastated regions due to the ensuing conflicts, and thus the internal displacement is protracted. There are a number of instances where the military has committed human rights abuses which puts the trust the citizens pose over the military for their safety and security in tatters.
- Weak Governance makes Mindanao the most vulnerable region for terrorism. Since many areas are ungoverned, the rebel groups train members in mainland Mindanao openly. The insurgent groups fund themselves through extortion of the commodity exporters, which goes unnoticed due to the lack of good governance or complete absence of the governance in the region.
- Religious education and teachers who are inclined to fight for an independent sovereign Islamic state play an important role in the crisis. The preachers tend the youth by inculcating in them the drive to defend the religion from the enemies.
- Transnational Connections aid the extremist groups in carrying out the violence and pervading terror. For e.g., the 2017 Marawi attack was funded by the IS and groups under their allegiance from neighbouring countries like Indonesia and Malaysia.
- Environmental disasters like typhoons and earthquakes destabilise the ecosystem and working conditions of the region, destroying physical assets and human capital through loss of life, injuries, etc. Furthermore, the lackadaisical approach by the state to reconstruct the region and timely health facilities push the region into more poverty and increases the feeling of alienation among the Moro population.
The 2005 Philippine Human Development Report (Hurights Osaka, 2008) finds the root cause of the humanitarian crisis, emerging from the conflict in Mindanao, in the colonial errors and in the Philippine government’s inadvertent planning to tackle the conflict which exacerbated the tensions. The source of the conflict stems from Spain’s colonial ambitions and forceful imposition of the policies that led to a rebellion later. The Spanish conquered the Philippines and invaded Moro territory, and initiated the process of evangelisation of the Filipino people. Thus, the Spaniards attempted to suppress the growth of Islam in the regions they conquered, and similar attempts were made in the south at Mindanao after attacking the Moro Muslim sultanates.
Several Moro Sultanates spearheaded ‘jihad’ against the Spanish and Filipino Christians to defend their rights over Mindanao, forcibly being taken over by Spanish invaders and thus beginning a culture of jihad which turned rebellion into extremism in the later years. Though already diminishing through the years, the Moros maintained their autonomy up until the Spanish- American war. Mindanao and Sulu archipelago were never under the rule of Spaniards, but the Americans, after crushing the Spanish in the war in 1898, brought both of these areas under the domain of the Treaty of Paris of 1898, thus illegally occupying them. Since Moros never considered themselves to be part of the Philippines, this illegal occupation by Americans was resented by Moros, who protested against the integration of Mindanao into the Philippines. The changes in the traditional political structures, migration of Christian Filipinos to Mindanao (which increased the land-grabbing instances) and confiscatory land laws were not welcomed by Moros. The situation went downhill when preparing for the independence of the Philippines; Americans brought in the ‘Filipinization’ of the political institutions where Christian Filipinos would replace Americans in the legislative and executive positions. This left Moros and non-Christian communities in perpetual fear of being side-lined in the independent Philippines. The colonial governance thus affected and jolted the Moro population, leading the Moros to explicitly announce their wish to separate from the Philippines. The classic strategy of ‘divide and rule’ by colonial powers led to the social fragmentation among different groups, whose effect is visible until today.
After independence in 1946, the regime of Marcos brought turbulence in the region and proved detrimental to the peace and stability of the country. The first incident which stirred not only the common but also intellectual Moro population was the ‘Jabidah massacre’ of 1968. The Marcos government did not look up to the concerns of Muslim Filipinos regarding the land disputes, unequal distribution of resources, lack of economic development, issues of political power and violence persisting in the region. Thus, in October 1972, Nur Misuari, a professor from the University of Philippines, formed an armed group ‘Moro National Liberation Front’ (MNLF) which aimed at forming a separate Moro Republic through force. Later, when nothing could impede the violent conflicts between Muslims and Christians, Marcos’s government imposed ‘martial law’ in the region triggering the Moro armed struggle. As a result, there were 3,257 extrajudicial killings, 35,000 individual tortures, and 70,000 were incarcerated. Of the 3,257 killed, some 2,520 of all victims, were salvaged—that is, tortured, mutilated, and dumped on a roadside for public display. It is also reported that 737 Filipinos disappeared between 1975 and 1985. (McCoy, 1999) Hardly did the government know that the tool of ‘martial law’, instead of curbing the unrest, would become the catalyst for the violent insurgencies later. Certain members, expressing dissatisfaction with MNLF agreeing to mere autonomy (during Tripoli Agreement) rather than independence, separated and formed a splinter group, namely Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In contrast to the MNLF’s secular-nationalist leanings, the MILF’s ideology is rooted in Islam. MNLF aims to achieve greater autonomy within the state, whereas MILF, a more radical group, aims to achieve an independent sovereign Islamic state. Under President Arroyo, the Philippines in 2004 joined Americans in their Global War on Terror under Operation Enduring Freedom- Philippines (OEF-P) with the aim of having international assistance in tackling the pernicious national conflict of extremism in the south, in Mindanao.
After the victory of Rodrigo Duterte in the 2016 presidential elections, the world viewed him as the beacon of hope for the Mindanao crisis. Duterte himself hails from Mindanao and has a Moro bloodline from his mother’s side. In the 2016 Presidential speech, Duterte beseeched to ‘fix’ the Mindanao crisis and reminded the Filipinos of amending the historical injustice committed against the Moro people. (Heydarian, 2017) After raising the expectations of the people at stratospheric levels, Duterte’s peace plans remain in shambles. Instead of working on peace and development, Duterte spent much of the state’s capital on his war on drugs and failed in negotiating with the rebel groups, which drew much criticism. There have been three major peace agreements between the government and the rebel groups, but to no avail. The ever-growing darkness of humanitarian crisis seems to dispel the rays of hope for the aggrieved people of Mindanao.
The south of the Philippines is not ready for autonomy, let alone independence. The prolonged delay in the negotiations with armed groups may pose a threat to the anti-secessionist process. This may allow time for MILF and MNLF to establish politically fit outfits to govern the region, which can attract massive support from the already anguished and offended population. Failure in reaching a consensus regarding the greater autonomy for the Moro population may fuel the terrorism and violence in the region giving maximum leverage to the IS groups to exploit the social disorder to their advantage of fulfilling their vested interests and ambitions. Therefore, the state should expedite the developmental and peace process. Mindanao peace process includes an International Contacts Group that coordinates the negotiation among the groups and is committed to including women, minority groups, civil societies in the negotiation and execution of plans. It’s time for the foreign governments, NGOs and diplomatic missions to assist the Philippines government in their developmental and educational programmes. The new government should understand that further delay in the peace process can lead the situation not back to the status quo but all the way back to where it started, a more violent and unpredictable Mindanao.
To maintain the pace of the peace process, the government should bring a comprehensive and detailed plan rather than a piecemeal plan to fight the ever-growing extremism. The government should keep the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB), 2014, as the basis for future deliberations regarding the establishment of the autonomous region in Mindanao. Confidence building is the need of the hour. The state should ensure strong coordination with the Mindanao based security forces. Uprooting the root cause of poverty should be prioritised by expediting the development of infrastructure, education and health facilities to display good intention of bringing welfare to the Moro Muslims. The negative image of the Muslims and their aspirations portrayed in the media channels have likely made the rest of the Filipino population antipathetic to the human rights crisis of the Mindanao region; hence regulating such media channels would help the population to welcome the autonomy to the Moro Muslims who otherwise might dispute the provisions of CAB. To further earn the goodwill of the Moro Muslims, the state can establish a National Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission on Bangsamoro to deal with their past injustices. In addition, the government can extend the offer of amnesty to the fighters of the secessionist groups, which will help them avail the benefits and opportunities provided by the government. On the other hand, the MNLF and MILF groups should also put in their efforts to reach a shared consensus with the state government on developing the peace prospects in the region. Both the fronts should endeavour to persuade all other violent groups into accepting the provisions for greater autonomy and, at last, disarming themselves.
Violent extremism and terrorism pose a growing threat to peace and security, and there is an utmost need of weakening its growing tentacles in the region around. With the growing extremism, the humanitarian crisis of the common population increases, which makes the peace negotiation with the rebel groups should be given primacy in the parliament. The proposed plan by the Filipino Government should be comprehensive, which could sustain and add to the peace of the region for longer terms, rather than piecemeal and short-termed. With the crisis gone out of proportion, the government should ask for aid from international organisations like UNESCO, which has adopted a landmark decision (Decision 197EX/46) to improve UNESCO’s capacity in providing assistance to the states, fighting violent extremism. UNESCO has also committed to the UN Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, with a focus prioritised on economic development, skill development and empowerment of the youth. The combined aid from the international organisation and the state can help eliminate the feeling of alienation among the Moro Muslims and thus can increase the prospects of a peace settlement.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.