On May 23, in Marawi City, Mindanao, Philippine police and armed forces conducted a joint operation with the objective of capturing terrorist leader Isnilon Hapilon. The raid resulted in a firefight between government forces and troops from the Maute group, an Islamist insurgent group linked to ISIS. The resulting conflict also led President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law in Mindanao. Currently, up to 2,000 civilians remain trapped in Marawi City, caught in the crossfire between the military and the insurgents, with a recent clash on June 4 putting a stop to a negotiated cease-fire. According to the government, 178 people have been killed so far.
The current situation is not an isolated incident, but rather the latest in a prolonged series of conflicts between the Philippine government and insurgents based in Mindanao. In addition, President Duterte’s declaration of martial law has fueled fears of nationwide military rule.
Maute and Islamist insurgents in Mindanao
The conflict between the Maute group and the government is emblematic of a historical rift between Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines. While the Philippines is mostly a Catholic nation, the majority of its Muslim population resides in Mindanao, resulting in a religious and cultural divide. In addition, the history of Mindanao’s development is disparate in many ways from the history of the rest of the Philippines; for example, when the Spanish colonized the Philippines, regions in Mindanao resisted the invasion for far longer than the rest of the nation.
Because of this divide between Mindanao and the rest of the Philippines — a divide that is exacerbated by the fact that Mindanao continues to lack political representation in the national government, which is Manila-centric — several separatist groups have made the region their home. Part of the complexity of the current conflict arises from the fact that these groups have varying aims and different degrees of radicalism. Some of the groups advocate a complete withdrawal of Mindanao from the Philippines and the creation of a Muslim nation; other groups are more open to talks with the Philippine government and favor an autonomous political entity within Mindanao.
A self-governing region in Mindanao already exists in the form of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), created in 1990 due to escalating hostilities between the national government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a separatist group. However, many members of the MNLF felt that the creation of the ARMM was an insufficient concession, and the resulting rift led to the formation of two other Islamist groups with more extreme, separatist aims — the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Abu Sayyaf. The Maute group which is currently occupying Marawi City consists of former MILF guerillas and some foreign fighters. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and it excludes the Communist insurgent groups that are also active in Mindanao.
Peace between the Philippine government and Mindanao-based rebel groups has been on the agenda for decades. Former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, Duterte’s predecessor, championed the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) as a path to peaceful resolution. The BBL was an agreement which would have created a new political entity, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, to replace the ARMM. However, in 2015, an attempt by the Philippine Special Action Force (SAF) to detain two high-ranking rebels resulted in the death of over 40 SAF troops; as a result, popular support for the BBL declined.
When Rodrigo Duterte ran for the office of the presidency, part of his appeal was the fact that he was from Mindanao himself. The hope of many was that having a Mindanaoan in the seat of the presidency would mean a better chance for peace in the region. During his term, Duterte has continued peace talks with the MNLF and MILF and has voiced hopes of continuing the passage of the BBL (with some amendments). However, the recent Marawi attacks only highlight the difficulty of achieving peace in the region.
Martial law and historical trauma
President Duterte’s recent declaration of martial law in Mindanao has led to the possibility of a nationwide declaration, speculation that Duterte himself has not shied away from. This possibility concerns many Filipinos who fear a repetition of the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, a former Philippine president who declared nationwide martial law and used the declaration to prosecute his political enemies and extend his presidential term. Marcos was eventually ousted by a popular nonviolent revolution in 1986 known as the People Power Revolution, and he died in the United States after being evacuated by the U.S. military during the revolution.
The Marcoses remain part of the Philippine political scene: Imelda Marcos, the late dictator’s wife, is a member of the House of Representatives, and Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the dictator’s son, is a member of the Philippine Senate. Bongbong ran for the position of vice president in 2016 (in the Philippines, the vice president and president are elected separately), and Duterte declared his support for Bongbong despite the fact that Bongbong wasn’t his vice-presidential candidate. (This would be the equivalent of, say, Donald Trump endorsing Tim Kaine.) In addition, President Duterte successfully pushed for the burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippine cemetery for heroes. As such, many fear that Duterte’s political sympathies lie with the Marcos family and their bloody history of political persecution, plunder and human rights violations.
Ultimately, the conflict in Marawi should challenge the way we often perceive other nations and groups as homogeneous entities. The nationhood of the Philippines is not a given; rather, it’s the result of centuries of political conflict and negotiation, and even the current notion of a Philippine nation is not a matter of unanimous agreement. And even Islamist insurgents within the Philippines belong to several groups with their own objectives and ideologies, which makes the peace process a protracted and difficult one.
Contact Ethan Chua at [email protected].