Deadly violence has resurfaced in parts of the long-restive southern Philippines despite an autonomy-sharing deal with local Muslim groups, and authorities are eyeing terrorism by political factions excluded from the deal.
In late August and early September, two explosions hit the southern Philippine province of Sultan Kudarat. One killed two people and injured 30, domestic media reports say. The other killed three. In mid-September, an “improvised explosive device” injured seven people when it went off in General Santos City. Troops discovered other rebels mobilizing Sept. 21 for what they feared was an eventual attack.
Southern cities have gone on high alert
The attacks follow decades of violence on the island of Mindanao, where about 120,000 have died because of fighting by Muslim rebels who want more resource control in the majority Christian country.
In August, the government approved a landmark law that gives Muslims in one tract of Mindanao more control. But not all 20 rebel groups were included.
Rebels who feel slighted have picked up the fight again, analysts say. They say some are inspired by Islamic State, a Middle Eastern terrorist group that has tried for the past few years to expand in Southeast Asia.
“ISIS-motivated and other Islamic groups are changing their tactics to hitting soft targets in the big cities and there seems to be a pattern to this, and I think this will be a copycat of what’s happened in the Middle East,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.
The relatively cheap explosives resemble those of Islamic State, he added.
Autonomy law not for everyone
Military officials believe the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a rebel group that splintered off from the one involved in signing the autonomy law, probably plotted the attacks. The group, better known by its acronym BIFF, broke off from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in part because it disputed the front’s earlier peace deals with Philippine officials.
The heavily armed front will take the lead in managing a roughly 13,000-square-kilometer autonomous region created by the July law. It will share some resources with the Philippine government and receive state post-conflict relief funding every year for a decade.
Experts say autonomy will work best if the front governs together with other rebel groups on the island of 21 million people.
Remnants from a separate group of rebels who lost a battle last year for control of the Mindanao city Marawi may have carried out the recent attacks, too, said Herman Kraft, political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman in Metro Manila. Troops fought for more than five months against the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group for control of central Marawi. About 1,100 people died in the fighting.
Explosions may show the remnants are coming back together and need recruits, Kraft said. Rebels have retrenched after defeats throughout recent Mindanao’s history.
“Some of these activities are ways of showing they’re still alive, that the prospect of establishing a province is in the works, so it’s more of a signal to locals that they ought to join, they’re not joining a dying revolution, so to speak,” he said.
An armed communist insurgency known as the New People’s Army (NPA) could also be plotting attacks, some experts say. The 3,200-person group attacks targets in other parts of the Philippines and has special appeal in Mindanao because of widespread rural poverty.
“Lots of armchair war strategists over here are a little bit leaning more toward that some of (the violence) may be NPA driven,” said Rhona Canoy, president of an international school and part of a political family in the Mindanao city Cagayan de Oro.
The communist group is plotting to oust Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a military unit in Mindanao was quoted saying Thursday. Duterte wants the communists to hold localized peace talks, but the NPA sister group, the Communist Party of the Philippines, rejects the idea as a divide-and-rule strategy.
A landmine that hurt two soldiers in Davao in July may have been planted by the New People’s Army, domestic media say.
Troops and national police have doubled down on security checkpoints in some spots since the latest attacks, Canoy said. The government placed Mindanao under martial law in mid-2017 through the end of this year with the possibility of extending it into 2019.