On May 23, 2017, hundreds of Isis-inspired terrorists swiftly gained control of Marawi City in Mindanao, the Philippines’ southernmost archipelago. The terrorist offensive came in response to the attempted arrest of Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, on behalf of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). What could have been a severe blow for Isis in the country has actually unexpectedly given rise to a new terrorist group: the Maute Group. This new cell has stemmed from the alliance of young Muslim fighters affiliated to Abu Sayyaf, of the Sulu islands, and the so-called Maute Group from Butig in Mindanao, spearheaded by the Maute brothers, Omar and Abdullah.
They claim to be fighting under the banner of the Caliphate which, in 2016, had appointed Hapilon as “Emir of all Islamic State forces in the Philippines” and, in doing so, officially put the Southeast Asian archipelago on the list of territories to be considered for the “global jihad” expansion – a concept first introduced by Al Qaeda at the beginning of the century, and enthusiastically embraced by Isis.
As the news of the imminent defeat suffered by Isis on its own turf on the Iraqi-Syrian border was making the rounds of international newsrooms, the sudden Marawi crisis became widely interpreted as the inauguration of a new front in the international war on terror. Analysts fear that a weakened Isis in the Middle East would turn to the southernmost archipelago of the Philippines, where most of the country’s 11 million Muslim minority reside, to resume its ambitions of global warfare.
According to this crisis-oriented approach, in order to eradicate the evil of Islamic terrorism from the country and contain the spread of Isis’ extremist ideology the battle of Marawi must be won. Regardless of the almost 5 months of conflict in the besieged Marawi City; of at least 400,000 people fleeing Marawi City and the surrounding countryside looking for safe shelter in the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte and in Iligan City; and of almost one thousand casualties between terrorists (800, and counting), armed forces and civilians; much of the international narrative still describes the Marawi crisis as a peculiar matter of “law and order”.
“Of course the army will win the battle, they are more powerful. But will they win the war? The war here is winning hearts and minds of the people” says Guiamel Alim, executive director of the Kadtuntaya Foundation and chairperson of the Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society (CBCS), the largest umbrella civil society organization in Mindanao. CBCS represents 168 organizations formed within the Moro people, the collective name used by the Spanish colonial power to label all of the Islam-converted native tribal groups of Mindanao. In giving a new meaning to the originally derogatory term, the Muslim indigenous communities of Mindanao proudly identify themselves as the Moro people – the once majoritarian population of Mindanao targeted by military campaigns and gross discriminatory policies over the last four hundred years. According to the vast majority of the Moro people, those “historical injustices” are at the core of Islamic extremism in Mindanao, the seed of a deep-rooted resentment against the establishment in Manila that has since allowed for radical Islamist ideology to flourish among the younger generations.
Since the second half of the 16th century, after annexing Luzon and the Visayas archipelago to the Spanish Empire, the Spaniards began making incursions in the Moro territory. These lands were controlled by native tribal groups that, two centuries earlier, had been peacefully converted to Islam under the influence of Muslim traders from the Persian Gulf. According to the local communities, the conversion to Islam was a choice of free will motivated by trade; not imposed under the shadow of the sword.
Even though the Spanish troops successfully gained ground in the archipelago by building forts, garrisons and Christian missions, the Moro people retain they were never fully conquered, thus claiming a record of de facto independence which was unjustly wiped out with the 1898 Treaty of Paris. In signing the declaration of the end of the Spanish-American War, the Spanish Crown was forced to cede most of its colonies to the United States, comprising the territories of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines – Mindanao included.
Rejecting the new American rule on a territory that Spain had never actually controlled, the Moro people kept on struggling for independence while the United States, thanks to a colonial administration aided by an overwhelming military presence, put in place a series of discriminatory practices aimed at “integrating” the natives into the new christianized and westernized colony.
With the “liberalization of land” that effectively deprived the Moros and the Lumads – the indigenous groups not converted to Islam – of their ancestral dominions, both the American and the independent Philippines’ administrations encouraged the influx of Christian Filipino settlers from the north – already deemed “integrated” thanks to the common faith they shared with the ruling élite – through blatantly discriminatory market policies.
“Muslims and indigenous people used to be the majority in the whole island of Mindanao, but, because of structural injustices by the government, we became a minority” explains Datu Mussolini Sinsuat Lidasan, founder and executive director of the Al Qalam Institute of Islamic Identities and Dialogue in Southeast Asia at Ateneo de Davao University. “We became a minority because those rich people in Luzon and Visayas passed laws to allow common people from there to come to Mindanao and get more land, so they could keep more land in Luzon and Visayas. When these people arrived here, they had nothing, they only had maybe some farming tools, not more. The problems arrived when they became greedy, and land became an issue of scarcity. You had a Christian who was allowed to buy 20 hectares of land, while a Muslim or a Lumad in the beginning were not even allowed to have land of property – the Americans thought they didn’t know how to farm. It was later amended so that you could get 3 or 5 hectares, but always less than the Christians. That’s the heart of the conflict, that’s when it all started. Then Marcos used the Christian majority to win the elections”.
During the bloody presidency of General Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986, with a nationwide martial law imposed from 1972 to 1981), the Moro and Lumad people were targeted by both regular armed forces and Christian extremist groups siding with Manila and so the conflict in Mindanao became widespread.
Many in the Moro community consider the Jabidah massacre of 1968 to be the beginning of the armed struggle for the Bangsamoro, a separate state carved out of central Mindanao and the island provinces of the archipelago, where the Muslim majority would be allowed to self-rule, following the principle of self-determination.
In response to the Jabidah massacre (the killing of 11 muslim AFP’s recruits carried out by fellow Filipino army men) in 1968, professor Nur Misuari established the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Moro people’s army who would fight against the “invaders” of Manila for an independent and free Bangsamoro.
All the way through the seventies, Marcos’ soldiers teamed up with Manila-sponsored Christian militias in Mindanao (such as the Ilaga) to target both civilians and Moro fighters in a series of grim-detailed massacres. The Ilaga, under the cloak of Martial Law, raided and set fire to scores of villages and mosques, butchering hundreds of civilians using methods strikingly similar to the ones employed nowadays by Isis. Survivors in the Moro community still recount the gory sight of beheaded or severed corpses piled up in mass graves – documented crimes which had been denied for decades by several Manila administrations. As of today, no Ilaga leader has ever been put to trial in a Philippine court of law.
An effort for a peaceful resolution to the conflict was made in 1976, when MNLF and Marcos’ regime signed the Tripoli Agreement. It was a bilateral ceasefire pact on the condition of the creation of the Bangsamoro: a union of 13 provinces in Mindanao to be autonomously ruled by the Moro people under Manila’s territorial sovereignty. The same year, Marcos revoked the agreement, leading to a new eruption of violence and to the creation of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a splinter cell of MNLF which internationalized the struggle of the Moro people, thus establishing closer relationships with Muslim communities in Egypt and Pakistan.
After over 40 years of conflict, over 120,000 casualties and a series of derailed peace agreements, in 2012, President Benigno Aquino III’s administration and MILF signed the Framework Agreement of the Bangsamoro. According to the document, the Moro fighters agreed to suspend the violence in Mindanao in favor of a legislative process carried out within the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, tasked with the drafting of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). The BBL, jointly drafted by a commission formed by members picked by both Manila and MILF, will lay the legal grounds for the creation of an autonomous Bangsamoro. In August 2017, even though president Duterte often described the Bangsamoro issue as a “priority”, the BBL draft was not included in the list of 28 priority bills to be discussed in the Philippine Congress. After weeks of official protests by the Moro representatives, the BBL draft was finally filed for discussion on September 27.
Right outside the gate of the Kadtuntaya Foundation (KF) headquarter in Mindanao’s Cotabato City, a big billboard shows the face of Rodrigo Duterte, current president of the Philippines, quoting a statement he made when mayor of Davao: “Nothing will appease the Moros even if you give them the BBL. We have to correct a historical injustice”.
“We still bank on the words of the president saying that unless historical injustices won’t be resolved, then there will be no peace”, says KF executive director Alim, “but the question also is: what happens if there is no BBL? Do we have a better alternative to no political agreement? You have 12,000 MILF fighters with arms, thousands of armed BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, another radical splinter cell of MILF), thousands of Abu Sayyaf fighters with arms and the Maute Group with high power firearms… What do you do with all this?”.
Professor Mussolini Lidasan of Ateneo de Davao, also member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission, further explains: “This struggle has become a grievance of the Moro people and it’s the source of the narrative used by the violent extremists: they would say that Muslims were oppressed, marginalized, that they have no place in the identity of the Filipino nation. Most of the time the way of addressing this conflict has been through violence and therefore the address of the government would be a military solution deploying the military from Luzon and Visayas, who have no idea of the story of the Moro people. Military solution doesn’t help, it only worsens the problem”.
Having crushed the revolt in Marawi – officially suppressed on October 17 – might galvanize the authoritarian leadership of Duterte, but will not address the core grievances of thousands of young Moros, who still feel discriminated by a central government used to conceive the Moro issue as “a problem”. This common feeling keeps on feeding the unending cycle of violence and hatred in the archipelago.
“Manila still has those prejudices: the Moros cannot be trusted, the Moros are the source of the problem, if you grant them autonomy it will be the first step towards independence. All this unfounded fear is because they always considered Bangsamoro as an enemy. What they don’t understand is our history. They just care about the present: now we are in power and we do what we want” says Alim.
“But this is a missed opportunity. The MNLF may be gone in the next few years, the leaders are getting old; the same is true for the MILF. And now you have the young and more aggressive people, full of frustrations: a number of people who don’t go to school, who don’t have jobs, where will they go? They are here, they will be here and if they can’t find a place for them, they will always fight”.
Credit: Ferdinandh Cabrera / AFP