The situation in Mindanao is complicated by historical, ethnic, religious, criminal and social factors that are not easily unravelled. The introduction of Saudi Wahabism and foreign fighters complicates the mix even further. Separatism is not new but the arrival of foreign fighters which led to the taking of Marawi is a new factor. The Philippine Army has been battling separatists for many years but not forces stiffened by foreign fighters and weapons.. There is no simple solution and we may question what Western countries like Australia and the USA have to offer.
Our record in the Middle East does not show an ability to understand complicated foreign ways. We will have to struggle through Mindanao’s labyrinth of ethnicity, Mafia style bosses, religious prejudice and centuries of Moro resistance to foreign invasion, to which list many would add Christian Manila. Any solution will need to understand local culture and complaints as well as finding an antidote to the Wahabi poison being introduced by Arab extremists. The dangers of this intervention are more to the region and especially the Moslems of the region rather than to the rest of the Philippines. President Trump is focussed on the Middle East but Southeast Asia is what matters to Australia. President Duterte is from Mindanao but from Christian Mindanao and his understanding may be affected by prejudices. We should tread carefully.
Current events in Mindanao need to be seen against a Philippine historical and geographical perspective which is lacking in much commentary. I use the term Moros for the Moslem people of Mindanao because that is how they are known in the Philippines both by the Christians and by themselves, e.g. the Moro National Liberation Front.
Most of the island of Mindanao is occupied by Visayan and a smaller number of Tagalog speaking Christians who are resented by the Moros and who are prejudiced against Moros – as are most Filipinos. There are also a small number of hill tribes. The Moros fought Spanish invaders, American invaders and Japanese invaders with a considerable degree of success. Many see the Christians from Manila as simply the next bunch of oppressors.
The Moros themselves are divided into three main groups: Maranaw, Magindanao and the Tausug plus some smaller groups in Sulu. The Sultan of Sulu claimed parts of Sabah and there are still links extending across to Sabah. There are traditional rivalries between these groups and among local warlords who control territory politically and run Mafia style operations. Thus, local loyalties are a complicated business. Primary loyalty may be to the village, the family, an ethnic group or to a local dominant family. Certainly there have been separatist movements for some time which get support from the feeling that the Christians are out to take their land and dominate them. This is not an unjustified fear as Christian settlers push into the better farming lands and Moros suffer discrimination from Christians throughout the country going back to Spanish times.
Traditionally, there has been sporadic conflict within and without these groups but it was kept within limits. Abu Sayyaf and other groups have been active in more recent years and provided training camps in remote areas as well as kidnapping, robbing and engaging in other forms of violence. It was never easy to separate genuine ideological terrorists from bandits and sometimes the two went together. Attacks on Christians and travellers were not uncommon within the region. The Armed Forces of the Philippines have been combating the Moro insurgents and bandits for many decades without really getting on top but managing to control the towns and much of the countryside. Moros may not all be separatists and certainly not all are bandits but they are proud of their culture and their difference.
So what is new? The taking of the Maranaw, capital of Marawi, is new and this was a direct result of the Arabisation of Moro insurgents. Saudi Arabian Wahabi and ISIS supported fighters have infiltrated the traditional insurgent groups and provided much stronger forces through provision of weaponry, training and foreign fighters. Saudi-backed extremists are also infiltrating Indonesia and no doubt hope to be able to spread their ideology more widely throughout the region. It is this wider threat that is of real concern. Within the Philippines, only the Moro regions provide fertile fields for proselytism. Terrorists can make attacks on Christian areas but will get no support from the populace. Just how much support they will get even in the Moslem areas is not clear. Presumably the dominant Moro families will see them as a threat to their power. These families are not always especially devout and would not be attracted to the puritanism of the Wahabis. Just because some people favour a separate Moro state does not mean they are attracted to puritanism. However, the Saudis may be able to attract traditional separatists to their cause by playing on their grievances and offering military assistance. Long a minority, young Moros may find help from strong outsiders attractive.
Australia has provided some intelligence support which should be useful but talk of trainers is fraught with peril. Shades of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan? What training can we provide that would be useful? Would the presence of foreigners provide a propaganda tool for the insurgents? The elephant in the room is Saudi Arabia which is behind so much of the Arabisation attempts in the region but which Australia and the USA don’t wish to know about. Trump’s attacks on Iran as a terrorist supporter are irrelevant to our region where there are very few Shi’a. The real culprit is Saudi Arabia which works its wicked ways with the dominant Sunni. We need to examine very carefully all the factors involved and not just follow the USA as we did into the Middle East imbroglio. Southeast Asia is a lot more important to Australia than the Middle East but not, it would seem, to President Trump. It would, after all, be consistent with Trump’s talk about other countries putting their interests first and doing more to defend themselves for Australia to show some initiative. We will have to work with President Duterte who is from Mindanao. You would have to think he understands the local scene better than most but as a Visayan-speaking Christian he may be affected by prejudice . He does also seem to have a penchant for the violent solution which may be necessary against the foreign fighters but will not help obtain a long term solution to the problems of the local people. The Australian Government should make a thorough study of the whole scene instead of trumpeting simplistic slogans to a domestic audience and slavishly following an American President who substitutes bombastic twittering for carefully thought out policy. Our Prime Minister might follow Hamlet’s advice in his public rhetoric and instead of tearing a passion to tatters he should acquire and beget a temperance which may give it smoothness.
Cavan Hogue is a former Australian diplomat who served in Manila and has travelled widely through Mindanao. He has a long standing connection with the Philippines through his wife and has visited regularly since 1960. He speaks Tagalog.