Marawi, martial law and the 2-track strategy

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies

The events of the past several days in Marawi City, as well as President Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao, have put the entire country on edge. In the course of last week, the Philippines has seen a revitalized conversation over the best ways to address both longstanding violence and new terror emerging from some regions. One thing is certain: that the Philippines has more to do in addressing both the immediate threats to public safety and the roots of individuals’ resort to violence.

Last September, the Stratbase ADR Institute published an occasional paper contrasting the Philippines’ efforts in Mindanao with those of the Indonesian government in Aceh. Written by Mark Davis Pablo, “Hunger to Anger in Aceh and Mindanao: A Political Economic Perspective on the Resilience of Violent Radicalism” views the challenges in these regions from a political-economy perspective, linking underdevelopment with the fresh emergence of violence.

To Pablo, the most concerning development in the Mindanao conflicts has been the pledging of Filipino jihadist leaders (primarily, but not limited to, Isnilon Hapilon of the Abu Sayyaf) to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Some experts have argued that the political and armed consolidation of different small groups into a single force under Hapilon would serve as the opening act for the eventual declaration of an IS province (wilayat) in Southeast Asia.

When Rodrigo Duterte became President, he pledged to resolve the Mindanao insurgency and terrorism problems with finality. Over his first few months in office, he adopted a two-track approach. He continued the existing peace processes, mainly in preparation for a new autonomous Bangsamoro region, one part of a possibly federal Philippines. He also gave marching orders to escalate the war against terrorists, above all the Abu Sayyaf.

This two-track approach reflects a dual understanding of the situation: first, that there are legitimate entities fighting for ethnonationalist aspirations and, second, that there are peace spoilers or criminal gangs using the mask of global terrorism to increase their “fear factor.” For the latter, he has made use of intensified military operations.

But will this approach work?

“From Hunger to Anger” tells us that for as long as the Philippines, especially Mindanao, remains “peripheral regions devoid of employment-generating and high-value-added industries … endemic poverty and economic underdevelopment will persist in the region.” Repeating the well-known wisdom, disenfranchised segments of the population who cannot access basic social services and decent economic opportunities will always be ripe for recruitment.

Counterterror operations may “decapitate” enemy leadership as well as degrade terror infrastructure, but such operations can only neutralize the threat in the short term. There is no guarantee that the reestablishment of public order will last into the medium or long term. This is a lesson that has been demonstrated around the world, including, as observed by Pablo, in Indonesia’s Aceh.

Finally, as ready as the Philippines’ soldiers and policemen have been to risk their lives in pursuit of public order, the government must make long-term investments in fostering an environment conducive for peace. Thus far, absent in the government’s declaration of martial law and other signals of “toughness” is a reiteration of its role in ensuring peace.

The government should take care to ensure that the farthest regions feel its presence, and that its presence is not limited to the face of violence. This means taking on the less thrilling but more important work of building local capacities, strengthening the vitality of local markets, improving access to education or training, and, in so doing, preventing Filipinos from abandoning hope for themselves, their families, and their society.

As they say, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.

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