Four months have passed since the guns fell silent and the siege of the southern Philippine city of Marawi by pro-Islamic State (IS) militants ended. But popular disenchantment with President Rodrigo Duterte’s government could turn into more active support for extremists in the south because of a string of missteps by him.
The five-month battle in Marawi led to the deaths of more than 1,100 people, mostly militants, and displaced over 200,000 civilians.
The siege was an enormous setback for the Philippine government and its security forces. Not only were militants able to procure, stockpile and infiltrate more than 500 fighters and weapons into the city, the military’s random shelling also left much of the city in ruins.
Although many of the militants’ leaders, including the Maute brothers and Abu Sayyaf’s Isnilon Hapilon, were killed, several senior leaders apparently escaped and have begun recruiting anew.
Using funds looted from banks during the siege, the militants are reportedly actively recruiting, paying families large sums for their sons.
One local press account cited a family that was paid 15,000 pesos (about U.S. $300), more than the average annual income in the region, for their 11-year-old son.
The tide of public opinion toward the government was already low. Angry at the mishandling of the war, the five months it took to defeat the militants, the extension of martial law and the squalor of life in temporary shelters, the displaced residents were anxious to return what little was left of their homes.
The government has done a very poor job at managing expectations. The recent announcement that reconstruction would take up to four years infuriated locals.
This alone would be a challenge for any government. But the Duterte government has made a number of errors in the past three months, which compounded the situation.
In the aftermath of Marawi, President Duterte pledged to make the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) a legislative priority.
Indeed, in January the Senate held an inspection tour and meetings with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), where lawmakers assured them passage of the BBL.
The Senate does seem to understand the urgency of the bill, as MILF continues to lose disaffected members to more radical groups. But the real problem is in the House of Representatives, whose members are more parochial, and where empathy for the Moros appear weaker. And a critical issue is whether Congress will pass the BBL that the Bangsamoro Transition Committee submitted or continue to water down key provisions of the bill.
Stoking the fire
An added problem is that Duterte remains focused on his primary legislative goal, a constitutional amendment to create a federal system. Although he promised MILF that the BBL would come first, the president is aware that he only has so much political capital.
Duterte seemed to undermine his own pledge in mid-December, when he publicly questioned the constitutionality of the BBL.
“I do not think that it will hurdle constitutional – binabasa ko paulit-ulit (I keep reading it repeatedly) – the constitutional barriers. … MILF wants territory. If you do that, it does not fit in the rule of [the] Constitution, you have to amend the Constitution,” he said.
More recently, he has made the case that federalism has to come first to ensure the constitutionality of the BBL, but that argument could be spurious. The BBL – either the 2014 version or the current watered down iteration – has never been challenged in court.
But Duterte’s move has angered the MILF. And many MILF revival organizations can point to it as evidence of the Philippine government’s continued duplicity in its commitment to Moro autonomy.
Duterte’s push for federalism threw an unexpected wrench into the works. Duterte ally Aquilino Pimentel Jr., a former president of the Philippine Senate, publicly asserted that any devolved federal system should include the Malaysian state of Sabah as the “13th Federal State.”
This is something that the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), in particular Duterte ally Nur Misuari, will seize upon.
While it does not seem a major issue, the MNLF, dominated by ethnic Tausugs in the Sulu archipelago, claims Sabah. MILF, which receives key support from Malaysia, does not. This is yet another wedge in issues between the rival organizations, when a common position on the peace process is more important than ever.
Furthermore, the claim to Sabah, which Duterte himself has made, was quickly rebuffed by the Malaysian government, arguing that the matter was resolved in the 1963 referendum, and was therefore a moot point.
More to the point, Malaysia warned that the Philippines risked undermining the close cooperation in regional security should it revive its dormant claim. Malaysia sponsors the peace process with the MILF, leads the peace monitoring mission, and is a key partner in the maritime trilateral policing agreement with the Philippines and Indonesia.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines has further raised hackles by stating its intention to build a military base in the middle of Marawi to “deter” another attack by militants. Yet, Marawi is already part of the existing Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). (Passage of the BBL would supplant the ARMM with the Bangsamoro).
While the military is allowed to have bases within the ARMM or Bangsamoro, it certainly violates the spirit of the agreement. The Moro are supposed to be responsible for their own security. And one of their core grievances is that they already feel like they are under Philippine occupation.
Beyond bad optics, construction of a military base will divert resources, funding and manpower away from urban reconstruction, which should be the government’s top priority.
Facing other security issues
Finally, there has been a spate of violence across Mindanao, Basilan and Sulu that serves to remind just how many security challenges the government faces.
In early January, security forces were ambushed by militants from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which broke away from the MILF in 2008. The two-day battle left one soldier dead. BIFF members launched several attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), including a botched one in December that left 16 civilians wounded.
On Jan. 19, the Philippine military engaged the regrouped Maute forces in their first battles since Marawi; leaving 8 soldiers wounded.
In a number of small operations, the Mautes have shown that they have quickly reconstituted.
And in the past week, the Abu Sayyaf have killed four civilians. Despite the military's claims of more defections, the Abu Sayyaf has shown proof that it is able to attack at will.
The reality is there remains too much ungoverned space in the southern Philippines. And a small but steady stream of foreign militants continues to exploit that, helping the alphabet soup of local militant groups to regroup and forge tactical alliances.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.