Media coverage of the claimed IS connections of the jihadists in Marawi have highlighted their call for a “caliphate”. The intractable scene in Mindanao indeed is concerning but it is born out a much longer and different history than elsewhere – one where the US (and others) have long been involved. Australia needs to be very careful not to become militarily entangled.
At last, TV footage of the street fighting in Marawi City in northern Mindanao has sparked some public interest in Australia about the long running Muslim security issues much closer to home than those in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Peter Hartcher and Alan Dupont have both contributed thoughtful pieces recently to the discussion. Not surprisingly the wider media commentary has started to hyperventilate over a possible “caliphate” , whatever that might turn out to be in the always complex Philippine context. These latest developments are concerning in themselves but need to be observed against the tangled Philippine political. religious and ethnic context.
The current situation in Mindanao has long and tangled roots making it so different from elsewhere in the global “war on terrorism” – though it also provides ample fertile ground for some level of Muslim extremism. For 400 years “the Muslim problem” in Mindanao witnessed the successive failure of the Spanish, US, Japanese and Philippine governments’ attempts at resolution. Prior to Spanish colonisation large areas of the Philippines, as far north as Luzon, were under Muslim leadership related to the Sultan of Sabah. The Spanish pretty much gave up on Muslims in Mindanao (then the Moros) limiting their presence to garrisons in Jolo and Zamboanga. They tacked on the Moro territories when they ceded the Philippines to the Americans in the Treaty ending the Spanish American War.
The Moros declined to join Aguinaldo’s independence struggle and soon proved a difficult challenge to the Americans. In an inspired diplomatic tactic (with an interesting relevance to the situation today),the Americans persuaded the Sultan of the Ottoman Caliphate to write to the Sultan of Jolo urging the Moros to join hands with the Americans! The letter was handed over in Mecca to Jolo representatives. But to no avail as the 40 years up to WW11 saw the US in repeated unsuccessful military forays in Mindanao which proved to be a training ground for many later prominent West Point graduates. It became the sort of “new Wild West” where much depended on military experience derived from the Indian Wars in the US. This was the time when McArthur and Eisenhower headed up the US military presence in Manila with the names of Pershing and others also involved.
The Moros were quick to oppose the Japanese during WW11 and established guerrilla forces in the remote areas. Early on these groups resisted contacts with the Americans. When I visited Jolo and Tawi Tawi as Ambassador I was greeted by a few old veterans who regaled me with stories of how their groups had been joined by Australian prisoners who had escaped from nearby Sandakan. They claimed that they had sent back to Australia some Americans whom McArthur had sent up by submarine to “lead” them. All the Australians were eventually executed by the Japanese. Other Australians were also active with Moro groups in northern Mindanao. An attempt by Eisenhower to settle 10,000 Jewish refugees in Mindanao immediately after the war did little to change views about the US.
Post WW11 has seen little respite as Governments in Manila have made only marginal military headway against the by now various Muslim insurgencies. During my visits to Mindanao In the early 1990’s the demarcation lines of government-controlled areas were already pretty well “permanent”. Marawi City was well and truly off limits. I was shown the established MNLF bunkers not too far down the road from Jolo, the “green line” (copied from Beirut!) divided the 80% Muslims from the 20% Catholics in Cotabato City and so on. Increased US military support in recent years in Mindanao for the Philippines armed forces (including Special Forces’ boots on the ground) also failed to quash the insurgents. Duterte decided early to have them withdrawn on the grounds that “foreign forces” were part of the rallying call for the Muslim insurgents – which may well have been borne out by the success of the IS associated group’s emergence which eventually led to their surprise occupation of Marawi.
At the risk of over condensing events , successive efforts at a “peace treaty” with Muslim Mindanao, the creation of the Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao and other attempts at economic development have not borne much fruit. All have been beset not only by religion but unfortunately by the endemic corruption and kinship challenge among political and community leaders.
In more recent years Malaysian support for Muslim independence groups (to bolster their arguments with Manila over Sabah), American recruitment of young Muslims to fight the Russians in Afghanistan and the attraction of ISIL have all exacerbated the situation! Abu Sayyaf was born into all of this starting first with the traditional lawless Tausug areas of southwestern Mindanao where piracy has been a major way of life for hundreds of years.
Sadly what we are witnessing in Mindanao is yet the latest manifestation of the seemingly intractable problem of Muslim Mindanao on which IS has been able to capitalise. The inability of the Philippines military (AFP) to counter these security threats have once again been laid bare. The years of deliberate US policy to restrict the AFP’s operational capability to a purely domestic force (and limit its political ambitions) has left its mark despite years of subsequent training and very modest enhancement of weaponry and equipment.
But the answer to the current situation requires significantly more than fixing up the military deficiencies. Much has been written about the connections of the Marawi attackers to ISIL and their links to the longer running Abu Sayyaf terrorist threat more to the south in the Tausog areas. What is abundantly clear is that the chances of resolution of either or both remain absolutely dependent on progress on political dialogue (and then action!) by Manila with the daunting morass of political, religious, clannish, commercial and other interest groups in the region (mainly Western and archipelagic Mindanao). And central to these is real progress in economic development in what includes some of the poorest areas of the Philippines – which in turn continues to be hampered by its lack of security which is a major disincentive for investment.
This presents a serious challenge for Australia as much of our resources traffic to North East Asia from Western Australia transits the Sibutu Channel and Sulu Sea and further north into the South China Sea(as I have reported earlier in this blog). Further, it provides a safe haven for jihadists geographically much closer to Australia (Sibutu to Darwin roughly the same as Sydney to Auckland!) than most have recognised. Abu Sayyaf have already boarded a Korean cargo vessel in the Sibutu Channel travelling from Australia earlier this year (which went unreported by the Australian media). The Korean captain has been kidnapped for ransom. A recent decision by the Philippines, Indonesian and Malaysian governments to mount joint operations against piracy and transit of jihadists (especially JI who have sought refuge in the Philippines) in the Sulu Sea is a positive step.
All of which suggests that Australia should exercise extreme caution about any military involvement as a response to the media reporting of the current scene in Mindanao. This would be no less likely of success than our other efforts in the Middle East and Afghanistan in the “war on terror” and would be bound to end up embroiled in the domestic political quagmire that continues to prevail in the Philippines. Aid, other than to the Marawi refugees (already announced), needs to be approached very carefully in this area. We still have the abortive major SMEC roads project in Pagadian (not far from Marawi) as testimony to poorly conceived aid many years ago. And experience has taught that NGO managed aid in these Muslim areas proved very difficult and care has to be exercised to avoid allocating too much to Christian NGO’s associated more with proselytizing than development.
Mack Williams was formerly Australian Ambassador to the Philippines and to the Republic of Korea.