The infraculture behind Abu Sayyaf, Maute

12:04 AM June 06, 2017

Tapusin na natin ito.” Let’s finish this. Thus did police spokesperson Senior Supt. Dionardo Carlos echo his Commander-in-Chief and give voice to why many—especially those in Mindanao—silently acquiesce to the declaration of martial law there. Four decades of armed secessionist movements, and now the threat of a link to the Islamic State through small bands of terrorists like the Maute and the Abu Sayyaf, have sapped the long-suffering patience of the people of Mindanao with the violence and mayhem that characterize their lives.

But worth asking is whether the all-out military solution will actually end this protracted state of war and disorder. The Estrada administration tried it at the turn of this century, and failed. The various armed elements and the socioeconomic forces that support them have proven resilient, and the rivalry for hegemony among them has been a factor in stalling or spoiling efforts at a political settlement. Adding now to the mix is the naked ploy to appeal for support from the ummah, whose presence on the world’s stage is unfortunately being increasingly defined by extremist elements.


Many studies have shown that conflicts that start out as wars of grievance, like the separatist movements in the South, are complex and require winning hearts and minds more than strength of arms. Moreover, hot spots like Syria or older flashpoints like the Horn of Africa soon mutate into a multisided war of free-forming alliances with global power interests that profit from the perpetuation of the conflict.

In the case of Mindanao, we need to factor into the analysis the subterranean infraculture that explains, for the most part, the futility of a merely military or political solution.


A local source tells me of the layers of power that operate in Mindanao and serve as an enabling environment for the continuing conflict. The most visible are those who carry arms and engage the government in open conflict, namely the MILF/MNLF and their marauding offshoots like the Abus and the Maute. But behind these is the old tribal system, where the authority of the datus or the imams parallels that of formally elected officials, and is often more compelling. At the base is the support of grassroots communities whose loyalties, based on kinship networks, interlock with those of rebel elements.

This infraculture has yet to be sufficiently engaged. Government attempts to negotiate a peace agreement fail partly because of the tribal undercurrents that continually serve as static between the Maguindanao-based MILF and the mainly Tausug faction of Nur Misuari.

As well, behind the scenes are traditional leaders with enough clout to broker a political settlement, but do not figure at all in official negotiations. I got to see the force of this kind of authority while working among the Tinggian in Abra who were cut off by landslides during the great earthquake of 1990. Since all hands were needed to clear the roads, the tribal elders admonished members of the New People’s Army, most of whom were relatives, to come down from the mountains and help.

Similarly, no amount of bombing in Marawi City can flush out the Abus or the Maute who are embedded in their communities by ties of blood or marriage. Mr. Duterte’s call to the MILF/MNLF to join forces with the government in stamping out the runaway lawlessness of the Abus and the Maute smartly engages the realities on the ground. The Maute brothers—Abdullah and Omar—were once members of the MILF, and are first cousins to the wife of the MILF vice chair for military affairs, now dead. But such ties can be double-edged. While useful in connecting with these intractable cells of terror, blood usually runs thicker than watery sentiments about right and wrong, and there is no telling which way their loyalties will go when push comes to shove.

Ideologically, Muslims in this country have never felt part of that construct called the “Filipino nation.” Globalization has all the more sidelined nationality and given rise to primal identities—usually culturally or religiously defined. The Abus and the Maute are instinctively riding this wave.

Dr. Melba Padilla Maggay is a social anthropologist and author of “Rise Up and Walk, Culture and Religion in Empowering the Poor,” published in Oxford, UK.

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