A sudden surge of deadly violence in the ever restive Philippine southland is likely to further endear common people to once controversial President Rodrigo Duterte as they see the strife as fallout from his effort to resolve five decades of strife, experts and polls indicate.
Filipinos are accustomed to violence in the far southwest, including parts of the giant island Mindanao where troops have been fighting militants in the city of Marawi over the past week, leaving more than 100 dead, including 24 civilians.
But they resent that Mindanao has been left out of the Philippines’ overall quick economic development, partly because of security risks.
“This is not an easy fight. Our enemy is terrorism,” said Vice President Leni Robredo, who was elected separately from the president last year and often critical of his policy. “This is a time for us to unite,” she told reporters last week at the military’s headquarters. “This is the time we need to protect the security of our nation. This is not the time for divisiveness.”
Duterte support in Mindanao
People in Mindanao, population 21 million, have broadly supported Duterte’s stepped-up effort over his first year in office to get rid of Abu Sayyaf, a loose-knit group of some 400 known for kidnapping foreigners and beheading three over the past 14 months.
Duterte, who took office about a year ago, has made waves overseas and among some Filipinos for extrajudicial killings in an unrelated anti-drug campaign.
Gunfights against the Maute Group in the 200,000-person city of Marawi in western Mindanao has killed more than 60 militants and more than 20 troops while sending civilians to seek safety outside the city, Philippine media reports say.
Two rebel groups to contend with
The four-year-old Maute Group came under attack starting May 23 when troops were told Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon was in Marawi and that the two groups may have been plotting something together, Philippine media reported. Both groups have pledged allegiance to the violent Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
“The declaration of martial law has the immediate mission to prevent the spread across Mindanao because the group has the potential, particularly in alliance with other terrorist groups, to spread terror in the islands, even spread it to the Visayan [islands] and to Metro Manila,” says Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Philippine advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. “That’s why the hope is [the conflict] will not last, should not last.”
Despite objections among lawmakers to Duterte’s declaration last week of martial law over Mindanao until further notice, the people affected are expected to support it, said Eduardo Araral, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.
“Duterte knows something about this ISIS-inspired group that a lot of people don’t know, and they’re not just based in Marawi city, but they probably have sleeper cells in other cities in Mindanao,” Araral said. “But you see that the people are not up in arms against this declaration. I think they trust Duterte that he knows what he’s doing.”
The Metro Manila-based research institution Social Weather Stations said Monday that 75 percent of people were “satisfied” with the Duterte government as of late March following nine months of attacks on Abu Sayyaf plus the setup of a commission to seek permanent peace with another Muslim autonomy-seeking group.
Martial law plus the fighting could finally dent the two suspected terrorist groups, earning support among Filipinos, some scholars expect.
“I’m sure it’s going to have some implications on those rebel forces [who] are in Mindanao,” said Antonio Contreras, political scientist at De La Salle University in the Philippines. “These groups that attacked Marawi are terrorists There is no country in this world that negotiates with terrorists.”
Plans for talks with other rebel groups
Separately, Duterte hopes to work out deals with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front via a 21-member commission he set up in February and talk with another group, the Moro National Liberation Front. Both want more autonomy over lands near the Sulu Sea, where the Islamic Moro people have lived for centuries and resent the country’s Catholic majority’s control of resources.
Duterte, a native of Mindanao, inspired hope for easing strife when he took office in June 2016. He proposed a federalist government system that could give Muslims a higher degree of power over their historic lands.
Duterte’s autonomy-sharing effort is still likely to meet opposition in the Philippine congress as citizens in much of the country dispute giving land rights to Muslim groups, analysts say. Some of those opponents live in Mindanao and resent the Muslim groups for their violent ways.
Fighting linked to Muslim rebel groups has left about 120,000 dead since the 1960s. Security issues, for one, have held back the resource-rich yet impoverished island from keeping pace with the rest of the Philippine archipelago in economic growth.