(Originally published as ‘Letter from Manila’ in Private Eye, 12th July 2017)
Given the progress made in peace talks between the Philippine government and the Islamic jihadists of the south in recent years, it’s a shock to see the city of Marawi on Mindanao island go up in flames due to its occupation by the infamous ISIS-affiliated Maute terror outfit. There are also anxieties about President Duterte’s declaration of martial law in the region, which is scarily redolent of the ironhanded Marcos era.
Maute, which is named after the maniacal warlord family that runs it, appear to be better trained and feistier than other cells in Mindanao. They have resisted two months of aerial, artillery and ground attacks by the Philippine military, taken a Catholic priest plus 200 others hostage, and slain around 50 civilians and 75 government troops. A lot is at stake in Marawi. Neighbouring countries are as worried as Filipinos are that the city could become a nerve centre for ISIS activity in the area; it might soon be known as the ‘Mosul of Southeast Asia.’ After all, Maute comprises both local and foreign fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East.
Duterte’s credibility could also rest on the outcome of the siege because, during his election campaign last summer, he made much of his cordial relations with Islamist factions in Mindanao, where he was a city mayor for 22 years. More disturbingly, Duterte suggested on May 24th this year that he might extend martial law to the entire country to stamp out what he calls a “foreign invasion” of terrorists. Many fear that such a move may get as gory as his nationwide campaign of extra-judicial slaughter of purported drug dealers and users, now a year old. An estimated 7-10,000 have
died in what Amnesty International has called a ‘war on the poor’.
While mounting casualties on the jihadist side and the intervention of US special forces on behalf of the military means the state will likely win this particular battle, many of us feel the larger war won’t end until the root causes of discord in the south are addressed. The Bangsomoro (Muslim community or nation) has been struggling for self-determination since the Spanish Empire first tried to colonise it in the 1500s. The Americans tried the same in the early 1900s, their troops under order to “kill anything over the age of ten”. They were greeted by forerunners of today’s suicide bombers: sociopathic or amok (where we get the English phrase ‘run amok’ from) swordsmen who would charge at a US soldier and do as much injury to him as possible before being gunned down.
While hostilities between Mindanao and the central government in Manila were dampened by the establishment of Islamic autonomous regions in 1989 and 2012, many southerners continue to feel neglected and marginalised.
Mindanao contains 11 out of the 20 poorest provinces of the Philippine archipelago and has far fewer jobs, schools and hospitals than the better-off north. “With poverty, hunger, and the lack of economic opportunity strongly felt in these areas,” argues Lila Ramos Shahani of the Philippine Star newspaper, “the youth are easily recruited to ‘live by the gun.’”
It’s a familiar irony across the developing world that great natural wealth can often be found a few thousand feet underneath intense human suffering. Mindanao is no exception here. In 2011, Wikileaks published a US diplomatic cable revealing that the island possesses untapped oil and gas reserves that could be worth up to $1 trillion if properly exploited. This ought to have been good news for all Filipinos north and south, but it will probably instead become
another reason for another conflict.
Photography by Tom Sykes