President Rodrigo Duterte’s election in the Philippines was hailed as an unprecedented opportunity to resolve protracted conflicts in the country’s Mindanao region. Yet setbacks in writing the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which would provide greater autonomy to the region, and the potential establishment of an Islamic State (ISIS) province could prove stubborn obstacles for the popular leader. These challenges have collided in recent weeks, with Duterte warning secessionist groups not to house terrorists unless they were prepared to face a new government offensive.
Euphoria marked the March 2014 signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro between the Philippines government and the major secessionist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The agreement was hailed as the solution to the decades-long Mindanao struggle. It was forecast that a Bangsamoro government would be up and running by the end of the Aquino administration in June last year. Unfortunately, this optimistic assessment was shattered by the early 2015 Mamasapano incident, in which 44 police commandos perished in a botched counterterrorism raid. Police officers chasing after an Indonesian terrorist known as Marwan strayed into a MILF-influenced area in central Mindanao. The operation subsequently degenerated into a confused firefight.
Enter Duterte and his meteoric rise to the Philippines presidency. The president’s campaigning emphasized his Mindanao roots along with a curated folksy persona, and promised a swift end to political violence in the island. Days after his inauguration, Duterte forecast that a framework for the Bangsamoro Basic Law would be ready by the end of 2016. The law provides the legal foundation for the establishment of the Bangsamoro, a political entity that greatly expands the present Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. It is envisioned that the Bangsamoro would be the political solution to address the secessionist demands of the MILF, by providing greater political and fiscal autonomy.
At present, however, there is little indication that even a draft law is in the works. Duterte expanded membership to the commission drafting the law to make it “more inclusive.” But, while laudable, this step has only delayed the process. The commission has yet to be convened five months before the July 2017 deadline. It is ironic that Duterte’s penchant for quick fixes and incendiary speech is unable to speed up the bureaucratic arrangements necessary to implement the new arrangements. Even if the Bangsamoro commission sends in the draft basic law for legislation, it may take months for both chambers of Congress to pass the measure.
The Duterte administration can ill afford further delays to the peace process. A recent spike in violence in central Mindanao has raised the specter of an ISIS province or wilayah in the Philippines. According to Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana, gunmen from the purportedly ISIS-aligned Abu Sayyaf Group have moved from their strongholds off the coast of western Mindanao to central areas of the region. Curiously, however, none of the usual ISIS propaganda outfits such as the Amaq Agency, nor the loose network of so-called “jihobbyists,” have trumpeted the operational links of Abu Sayyaf head Isnilon Totoni Hapilon to the ISIS leadership.
Whether true or not, as I have previously argued, the prospect of an ISIS wilayah in central Mindanao may prove damaging to the regional peace process. Local politicians opposed to the Bangsamoro may use the threat of ISIS expansion in their jurisdictions to engage in spoiling activities. There is historical precedent for this type of behavior, when Christian politicians in central Mindanao organized to lobby against any type of political settlement with the MILF. The complexity of conflict in Mindanao is apparent in the overarching military strategy being pursued by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The army’s Development Support and Security Plan Kapayapaan (“peace”) continues to prescribe the use of intelligence-driven combat operations against terrorist groups like Abu Sayyaf.
It is unclear how much Duterte shares the military’s perspective. The president has oscillated between hard and soft approaches on the matter. Duterte has referred to Abu Sayyaf as “desperate men” driven by poverty, as well as barbarians he intends to eat raw, with vinegar and salt. These conflicting messages may harm efforts in constructing a narrative against extremist groups in the short term. In the longer term, such rhetoric makes government peace overtures appear less sincere.
Duterte’s view of Mindanao must go beyond the parochial mindset he constructed as Davao City mayor. Mindanao is no longer just the backyard of the city he rules over. Rather, it is increasingly being drawn into international developments including the prevalence of the ISIS narrative. Indonesian and Malaysian jihadists have stated their intent to wage jihad in Mindanao instead of traveling to Syria and Iraq.
The longer the Mindanao conflict persists, the louder the clarion call for foreign fighters displaced from ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq will ring. Instead of provocative speech, the Duterte administration may find it more effective to continue with the behind the scenes diplomacy that laid the groundwork for the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Duterte should transition to a more nuanced approach to the Mindanao conflict. By limiting his pronouncements to actionable pledges, he can more effectively use the political capital he had when he took power. A Bangsamoro delayed will have severe consequences beyond Duterte’s presidential term.
Joseph Franco is Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University Singapore.