Print Version    Email to Friend
Talk of Islamic State obscures the issue in Marawi

HONG KONG (SE): While martial law may provide a panacea for a conclusion to the siege that Marawi City in the southern Philippines has been under since May 23, it is not capable of predicting a timeframe for its cessation and is certainly not able to address the fundamental causes that inspired the violent occupation in the first place.
While major media outlets have been hyperventilating over the possible establishment of an Islamic caliphate by the occupying group, Daulat Ul Islamiyah—more commonly referred to by the surname of the two brothers who founded it in 2012, Abdullah and Omarkhayam Maute—the siege is more the result of 400 years of the failure of first the Spanish, then the United States of America (US), the Japanese and finally the Philippine government to resolve the complex web of relations that go to make up Mindanao.
While the Spanish never really tried, contenting themselves with garrisons in Zamboanga and Jolo, the US was rebuffed, the Japanese out of their depth and the Filipinos despised.
But the US was the most creative, persuading the sultan of the Ottoman Caliphate to approach the sultan of Jolo in a letter handed over in Mecca to his representatives.
Nevertheless, the US diplomacy got nowhere and its military campaigns that somehow replaced its Wild West wars against its own indigenous Indian population left it in continual struggle.
But this history is still not dead, as despite US technical and sometimes boots on the ground support for Philippine military efforts to suppress the rampages of a succession of groups using violence to promote their agenda, the dysfunctional nature of Mindanao’s economy insures that lawless groups continue to prosper.
So on May 23, when the Armed Forces of The Philippines attempted to capture or kill a sortie of the Maute group in a residential area close to the business centre of Marawi, it was an easy call to alert cells already implanted in the city to join the fray.
The battle for Marawi has now raged for over one month with no predictable end in sight and the prospect of the biggest city in the region left in ruins.
Fred Goddard, a former lay missionary with Maryknoll and currently with the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute, says that the members of Maute have been described as everything from terrorists and extremists to common criminals and drug or arms dealers.
However, Goddard believes that simply throwing the accusations at the Maute is just one way of masking the complicated reality of a region that has seen little real development of its formal economy.
He stresses that radical and fundamentalist groups that survive on the fringes of society invariably use illegal means as their basic source of finance.
But the existence of the cells in Marawi that had either been unknown to or more probably fostered by elements of the military leaves the suggestion that they may well exist anywhere, giving a probable rationale to the decision of the president, Rodrigo Duterte, to extend martial law across the whole region of Mindanao.
But while the Maute do use religious rhetoric, how much of it is inspired by religious values and how much by the need to protect its illegal rackets is unclear.
Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, the head of the government peace panel under the administration of the former president, Noynoy Aquino, points to a four-cornered alliance made up of the Maute, the Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Ansar Al Khilafah Philippines.
All are basically breakaway groups from the more conventional Moro Islamic and National Liberation Fronts, which have been moving away from violence and pursuing peace talks with the government, a counter-productive move in terms of protecting involvement in the arms and drug trades.
But while the Abu Sayyaf has links with Al Qaeda, only the Ansar Al Khilafah can justifiably claim any link with the Islamic State and this through contacts in Malaysia and Indonesia, not the Middle East.
While the Maute has raised Islamic State flags in Marawi and claimed an allegiance, whether this is one of desire, image or reality remains unclear, which leaves the question of the possibility of a caliphate in Mindanao an unlikely prospect at best.
But the feeble efforts of successive governments, including Duterte’s, at making a peace treaty between Manila and Muslim Mindanao have a strong bearing on the siege in Marawi, as has the constant involvement of the US military.
Mack Williams, a former Australian ambassador to The Philippines, points out, “The creation of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao and other attempts at economic development have not borne much fruit. All have been beset not only by religion, but unfortunately by the endemic corruption and kinship challenge among political and community leaders.”
More recent years have seen Malaysian support for Muslim independence groups, US recruitment of young Muslims to fight the Russians in Afghanistan and the attraction of the attention of the Islamic State.
This is the environment into which the Abu Sayyaf was born, making its first base in the traditionally lawless Tausug areas of southwestern Mindanao where piracy has been a major way of life for hundreds of years.
Williams comments, “Sadly, what we are witnessing in Mindanao is yet the latest manifestation of the seemingly intractable problem of Muslim Mindanao on which the Islamic State has been able to capitalise.”
He then points out that the inability of the Armed Forces of The Philippines to counter these security threats and the years of US policy deliberately restricting the military’s operational capability to a purely domestic force has left its mark, despite years of subsequent training and the extremely modest enhancement of weaponry and equipment.
Whether or not there is any desire or intention of creating a caliphate in Marawi is not a question of particular relevance in the context of the tangled web of Philippine history, but promoting the myth does have immediate political advantage.
The Maute want to be seen as well connected and in the underdeveloped economy of Mindanao, government figures have their own interests and rackets to protect as well.
Duterte was quick to evoke the Islamic State, saying, “Government must put an end to this. I cannot gamble with Islamic State because they are everywhere and you know what is happening or you must be very aware of what is happening in the Middle East,” he said on May 24.
This is an unhelpful statement whose veracity cannot be verified and has contributed to the barrage of fake news that is being spread around social media, which has been touted as doing much for democracy, but in Mindanao is doing more to deepen divisions.
The defence minister, Delfin Lorenzana, went even further declaring international backing in the attack, opening up the way for martial law and the furthering of politically-based interest in piracy and the illegal trade involving drugs and arms that washes through Mindanao.
Earlier this year the Abu Sayyaf seized a Korean ship in the Sibitu Channel and the captain is being held for ransom. The event has been little publicised and Manila has been quiet on the matter.
But as Williams points out, what is abundantly clear is that the answer to the current situation requires significantly more than fixing up Philippine military issues, as progress remains dependent on the development of dialogue and action in the morass of political, religious, clannish and commercial groups in the region.
And, as the National Democratic Front has long pointed out, central to all of these is real progress in the economic development in one of the poorest regions of the nation, but the double edged sword is, it cannot happen without the security the government has so far proved unwilling or incapable of providing.
But the reasoned voices of some religious and community leaders, as well as the hospitality being offered to the 300,000 or so displaced people across the religious divide stand out as the major sign of hope in an otherwise going backwards fast situation.

More from this section