What to do with Mindanao?
In 2015, when the peace talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front seemed inexplicably trapped in the congressional mire, MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim met with a group of about 50 journalists from Mindanao and the rest of the country, including Manila.
The reason for the meeting was a consultation with the media led by Mindanao-based Cardinal Orlando Quevedo, and was anchored on the aftermath of the Mamapasano massacre and its impact on the stalled peace talks. It was Cardinal Quevedo, in fact, who acted as moderator in an ensuing press conference with Murad, held in the MILF headquarters, Camp Darapanan, in Sultan Kudarat.
During that dialogue, Murad expressed concern about the growing restlessness among the younger generation of MILF forces and other Moro groups, given the apparent stalling of the peace talks and questions being raised about the government’s intentions. Some younger MILF soldiers and Moro activists, he said, were increasingly drawn to the Islamist rhetoric of IS.
But, the MILF chair assured the media, his leaders were keeping a firm grip on the loyalty and discipline of their troops and counting on the success of the peace talks to move the Bangsamoro cause beyond conflict and violence.
Ongoing events in Marawi City, however, would indicate that Murad’s optimism was premature. In an analysis that came out in the news site Rappler, Southeast Asian history authority Patricio Abinales describes the MILF as a “wounded organization,” with many of its fighters defecting to other groups. Abinales opines that “it was only a matter of time” before another breakaway faction of the MILF would make itself felt, with the Maute Group “showing some panache by latching to the cash-rich ISIS.”
President Duterte and his top military and police leaders, while announcing his proclamation of martial law over the entire Mindanao, blamed the “lawlessness” reigning in Marawi on the Maute Group. So far, the snippets of information available to the public have been limited to photos of fires set in key sections of the city, the flying of the black IS flag on some street corners, and the hostage taking Tuesday evening of a Catholic priest, his two helpers, and 10 parishioners during an evening service at St. Mary’s Cathedral.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, during a briefing for journalists covering the President’s visit to Moscow, said the conflict began thus: “Joint elements of the Army and police were trying to serve a warrant of arrest on Isnilon Hapilon … in Marawi City when they were met with firefight or firearms.” Shortly after, said Lorenzana, other Maute and IS elements “started to occupy some establishments in Marawi City,” including a hospital, City Hall, the City Jail (freeing some detainees), and set fire to “several facilities” including St. Mary’s Cathedral. Meanwhile, more than 20 people are dead and 31 wounded in the fighting, while thousands of Marawi residents are fleeing, setting off a humanitarian crisis.
While Lorenzana’s account touches off echoes of Mamasapano, the President, especially on his return from Moscow, set off flares of worry and concern about the severity and scope of martial law in Mindanao.
Most alarming is the warning that he could very well extend the coverage of martial law to the rest of the country. And given the recent action against purported IS incursions in Bohol, it’s not too farfetched to assume that the Visayas will soon follow—a fear that the President seemed to have no qualms stoking.
Meanwhile, one wonders if the Duterte administration has any plans to reach out more determinedly to other Moro groups willing to talk peace. The negotiations, writes Abinales, are in “suspended animation” even as members of the MILF, the biggest of the Moro groups, who are undergoing training in the art of daily governance, are “increasingly being frustrated by the lack of guidance from the top.”
Beyond the rhetoric of martial law, what else does Mr. Duterte plan to do with the situation in his native Mindanao?
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