Duterte Passes the Philippines’ Maoist Rebellion on to the Next President

Rodrigo Duterte promised to end the insurgency via peaceful means during his 2016 election campaign, but talks collapsed less than a year into his presidency. (Image Source: Prachatai)

“If [you] find [yourselves] in an armed encounter with communist rebels, kill them, make sure you really kill them, and finish them off if they are alive.” Those were the orders of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, addressed directly to soldiers last March, with his administration entering its final stretch. “Forget about human rights,” Duterte added, “that’s my order. I’m willing to go to jail.” Six years earlier on the campaign trail, Duterte had vowed to end the insurgency, waged by the Maoist rebels of the New People’s Army (NPA) since the 1970s, via peaceful means if he became president.

Yet with just weeks left in office after his successor is elected on 9 May, Duterte is set to join the list of Philippine leaders in the post-1986 democratic era to have failed to end the NPA’s campaign. This is despite peace talks having taken place under all six presidents since dictator Ferdinand Marcos was overthrown, and despite efforts by Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) troops to inflict a decisive military blow. Duterte, as the first president to hail from the rebel heartlands of eastern Mindanao, was better placed to end the insurgency than his predecessors, so what explains the latest failure?

A short-lived peace dialogue

Upon winning the presidency in 2016, Duterte announced a unilateral ceasefire with the NPA in his first State of the Nation address. Talks got underway that August, with four rounds of dialogue held in Oslo, Rome, and Amsterdam over the next year. By November 2017, the peace process was dead. Rebel attacks resumed and a fragile truce between the two sides collapsed, after Duterte refused to release political prisoners. Dialogue was terminated by the government, which labelled the NPA and its political parent body—the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)—as terrorist organizations.  

In the years since, Duterte’s presidency has seen unrelenting clashes between soldiers and the NPA, and frequent rebel ambushes in their rural strongholds in eastern Mindanao, across the Visayas, and northern Luzon. Relations between the government and the CPPstill led by its founder, Jose Maria Sison, now 83 years-of-age and and living in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands—fell to an all-time low under Duterte, a former student of Sison’s while studying at university. In 2021, the government designated Sison and another 18 senior CPP leaders as terrorists, later applying the same label to the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), which represents the CPP in formal peace talks.

Manila has repeatedly ruled out reviving political dialogue and Duterte has stated that unless rebels stop attacking military patrols, “no peace talks can ever succeed under me or any other president.”

With peace negotiations dead, Duterte’s alternative policy was to establish a National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). Since 2018, the task force has overseen the work of provincial peace panels, set-up to initiate dialogue between local political and community leaders and NPA ground commanders, in an effort to reduce violence. In a parallel process, the government has also encouraged rebels to surrender in return for livelihood aid, including housing, jobs training, and cash handouts, via the Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Programme (E-CLIP). Duterte has praised these two initiatives for “addressing the root causes” and deviating from the “traditional military approach,” yet despite impacting some localities they have not altered the national picture.

‘Red-tagging’ and AFP crackdown

The NTF-ELCAC has also been caught-up in accusations of ‘red-tagging,’ reviving a harmful practice associated with the Marcos dictatorship, whereby political opponentsincluding journalists, rights activists, and lawmakers from the left-leaning Makabayan bloc—have been publicly labelled by the state as communist sympathizers. The proliferation of red-tagging is a visible symptom of Duterte’s authoritarian governance style in which dissent is rarely tolerated and hostile rhetoric from the top openly encourages vigilante violence. The main figurehead of the NTF-ELCAC, Gen. Antonio Parlade, was forced to resign last year to “ease pressure” on the body, after the repeated use of his position to attack government critics and spread fake news about the insurgency undermined peace efforts.

Rebel ambushes on troops delivering aid during natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic soured relations between the NPA and the government. (Image Source: US Embassy Jakarta)

While the NTF-ELCAC has pushed on with its artificial outreach to the NPA, the AFP has at the same time maintained that it can end the insurgency on the battlefield. Speaking in December, new chief-of-staff of the military, Lt.-Gen. Andres Centino, rallied troops to defeat the rebels by the conclusion of Duterte’s term in office on 30 June. While similar deadlines in recent years have been left unmet, the latter stages of Duterte’s presidency have seen an intensified counter-insurgency campaign. On 16 August last year, 19 rebels were killed during an AFP raid on an NPA camp and explosives factory in Dolores, Eastern Samar province, while on 1 December a similar operation in Miagao town, Iloilo province, killed 16 rebels. The AFP has also targeted senior figures in recent months, killing the chief of the NPA’s National Operations Command, Jorge Madlos (alias Ka Oris), in Bukidnon province, and the most senior rebel commander in Mindanao, Menandro Villanueva (alias Bok), in Davao de Oro.

But despite these losses, the NPA has retained its strength nationally. The reasons for this are rooted in both geography and history—and explain the endurance of the NPA beyond Duterte’s presidency.

Strategic and ideological edge

Across an expansive maritime nation of more than 7,000 islands, the NPA has a broad geographical presence, and is active in at least 69 of the Philippines’ 81 provinces. This makes the group more or less impossible to defeat via conventional military means. The strategic adoption of guerilla tactics, whereby rebels operate out of densely-forested, mountainous, and largely inaccessible terrain as a deliberate choice, plays to their advantage, with the NPA able to take soldiers and police officers by surprise by ambushing them on rural roads before retreating. Rifles, often looted from army bases, and rudimentary explosive devices capable of delivering a quick blow, are the insurgents’ weapons of choice in a war designed to demoralize the enemy rather than defeat it outright. A commitment to this grinding approach, along with the decentralized nature of rebel units, which are divided into small groups of fighters moving between temporary camps, have enabled the insurgency to persist.

Also in the rebels’ favor is their ideological coherence. Since the formation of the CPP in 1968, and the NPA a year later, both entities have remained closely intertwined, with minimal factionalism or splintering. Sison, who founded the movement as a young student activist, remains at the head of the CPP-NPA today, with the strategy he outlined in the 1970s in Philippine Society and Revolution and Specific Characteristics of Our People’s War still underpinning the group’s anti-capitalist stance. The refusal of the NPA to give up its core demand to replace the Manila government with a socialist system has blocked progress in peace talks under six successive governments—including Duterte’s.

A steady stream of new recruits has also been key to the NPA sustaining its campaign. Despite the NTF-ELCAC reporting the surrender of 20,500 rebels since Duterte came to office in 2016—a figure overstated for propaganda purposes, which likely includes mostly family members of NPA fighters and ‘supporters’ of the movement rather than armed rebels—the AFP acknowledges that the NPA still has 3,500 fighters across at least 43 rebel fronts, with around 1,000 fighters based in the rebel stronghold of eastern Mindanao. These estimates are broadly in line with the NPA’s strength over recent decades, which since the early-2000s the military has reported annually to be around 3,000–4,000. After suffering losses, the NPA retains the ability to replenish its ranks from the impoverished rural areas in which it operates, which economically lag far behind Manila and main provincial cities.

Taking on the next president

It is clear that after five decades of insurgency, the only way to end the conflict is a peace deal with the CPP at the national level. With Duterte having ruled out talks for his remaining weeks in power, what odds the next president can tame the NPA? If Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.—the current favorite, with Sara Duterte-Carpio as his running matewere to win the election, it would likely be more of the same. While he may not repeat his father’s crackdown of the 1980s when the NPA was at its strongest, he has vowed to support the NTF-ELCAC and is likely to replicate Duterte’s strategy: initially offer peace negotiations but revert to a strongman approach upon the first sign of fracture.

If he wins the presidency, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is likely to continue Duterte’s policy on the NPA, supporting localized talks through NTF-ELCAC. (Image Source: Bongbong Marcos)

Marcos’ main rival, liberal candidate Leni Robredo, has at times criticized the NTF-ELCAC and struck a more conciliatory tone, pledging to deflect from “militaristic approaches to ending internal armed conflict” in order to create a “conducive environment” for peace talks. Her opponents in the present administration, some of whom Robredo accuses of red-tagging her, might argue that Robredo’s plan would backfire, enabling the NPA to use any peace process as a useful pretext to quietly bolster their ranks and regain strength. Yet any president looking to reboot political talks would face a similar risk; as all six previous incumbents of Malacañang have discovered. That Duterte—once a friend of Sison, and sympathetic to the socialist cause—failed to secure peace, only emphasizes the size of the task.

A version of this article is also published on Asia Sentinel.

What Delayed Elections Mean for the Southern Philippines’ Bangsamoro Peace Process

The term of the interim Bangsamoro Transition Authority has been extended by three years, delaying parliamentary elections from 2022 to 2025. (Image Source: BARMM Parliament)

On 28 October, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte signed a law postponing the first parliamentary elections in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) from 2022 to 2025. The bill had been approved by lawmakers in the Senate and House of Representatives in September, after a year of campaigning from the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA)—fronted by the former rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)—to extend their mandate to govern. Interim Chief Minister Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, in power since the region was formed in 2019, had argued that more time was needed to strengthen democratic institutions after setbacks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet delaying the elections is a risky move in a region plagued by separatist violence for generations. The process of decommissioning MILF rebels and their weapons is not yet complete, whilst Islamist militant groups remain a threat, despite being on the back foot and confined to operating in remote marshlands and outlying islands—for now at least. It is within this fragile peace, that the BTA strives to develop accountable governance and nurture a thriving democratic culture in the BARMM, while avoiding the failings of a past experiment in self-governance—the now-defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which from 1989–2019 was sunk by corruption and mismanagement.

Elections delayed

An extension to the Bangsamoro transition, initially set to end with elections in May 2022—at which time the BTA’s mandate would expire, and elected lawmakers would take office—was first proposed a year ago, with President Duterte supporting Ebrahim’s proposal to move the polls to 2025. Despite initial legislative progress and the passing of priority laws on forming a civil service and administering the BARMM, responding to COVID-19 came to dominate the BTA’s agenda and led to louder calls for an extension as the passage of other key laws on elections, revenue, and local politics were delayed.

Any extension required approval by Manila. After being debated for months by three committees of the Philippine House of Representatives—on Suffrage and Electoral Reforms, Muslim Affairs, and on Peace, Reconciliation, and Unity—the law to extend the Bangsamoro transition passed in the Senate on 6 September and in the House on 15 September, where 187 lawmakers voted in favor, with none  against and no abstentions. The bill amended Republic Act 11054 known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), the legislation which had encoded the peace deal with the MILF and created the BARMM.

Approximately 40,000 Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels are set to disarm in exchange for livelihood support. The process was delayed amid COVID-19. (Image Source: Mark Navales)

It means President Duterte can now appoint 80 new members of the BTA to assume office after the term of the current transitional authority expires next May. The appointees will govern the BARMM for a three-year term until the rescheduled 2025 polls. However, a provision of the BOL granting the MILF leadership of the region stays in place, meaning 41 of the BTA lawmakers must be members of the MILF, and will be nominated by its central committee. During a Senate debate on the law, it was suggested that the five BARMM provincial governors will play a role in selecting the other 39 places.

Rebel disarmament

Tied to the peace deal is the disarmament of MILF rebels. This process is not governed by the BOL, but by a precursor accord—the 2014 Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB). It was expected that the entire 40,000-strong contingent of the MILF’s Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF) would be demobilized by mid-2022. By March 2020, the first two phases were complete, with 12,145 rebels demobilized and 2,175 weapons turned in. The pace then slowed to a trickle as COVID-19 arrived in the Philippines, with only another 1,500 fighters processed since. Demobilized fighters received initial cash handouts, but wider livelihood support programs have yet to be fully delivered.

Decommissioning the remainder of the rebels will be crucial to securing peace. On 8 November, the third phase of decommissioning resumed at the Old Capitol building in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao province, one of five “assembly and processing sites” to open near former MILF camps. Strict COVID-19 protocols and swab-testing overseen by the BARMM Ministry of Health is in place. Phase three of the process, overseen by the Turkish-led International Decommissioning Body (IDB), will demobilize 14,000 BIAF members—7,000 by the end of January, and the remainder in the first months of 2022.

Militants fading

Not all combatants in Mindanao are intent on giving up their arms. Radical groups which splintered from the MILF and its precursor, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), are still active. Though with the majority of the BARMM’s 4.5 million residents supportive of the BTA these rogue elements are under increasing pressure. In central Maguindanao, at the heart of the new autonomous region, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) face bombardment by the Philippine military. Over two days in late-September, 16 BIFF militants hiding-out in marshlands in Shariff Saydona Mustapha were killed by artillery fire and airstrikes, with the rebels providing little match for Philippine forces.  

Islamist militant networks in the BARMM are declining in strength. Remnants in Maguindanao and Sulu face aerial bombardment by the Philippine military. (Image Source: Matthew Hulett)

The BIFF broke away from the MILF in 2008 due to dissatisfaction over the peace negotiations with Manila, but its influence within local communities is fading. The BIFF’s three factions—led by Ustadz Karialan, Ismail Abubakar, and Abu Turaife—have become isolated and marginalized, with members split over a past pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) claims there are just a few hundred BIFF rebels remaining and has pledged an intensified campaign.    

On the outer edges of the BARMM in northern Lanao and the Sulu islands, other militants persist in smaller numbers from the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf. These groups, aligned to the Islamic State, have been unable to carry-out major attacks for some years—such as the 2016 Davao night market bombings, the May-October 2017 siege of Marawi, and the cathedral blasts in Jolo in January 2019, which killed scores of civilians, but ultimately failed to disrupt the government-MILF peace process.

The AFP struck a major blow just weeks ago by killing senior Islamic State leader Salahuddin Hassan during a raid in Talayan. It is also likely that notorious Abu Sayyaf leader Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan was killed in clashes with troops last year, but no body has been recovered and his fate remains unclear.

Building livelihoods

Governance and security are the immediate priorities for the BTA, but securing a long-term peace will be impossible without economic growth and prosperity in the BARMM. It is crucial that voters see progress and opportunity to prevent a slide back toward conflict. The BARMM’s economy was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with growth falling by 1.9% in 2020, yet the impact was lower than at the national level with the Philippines as a whole seeing a drop of 9.6%. The BTA is pinning its hopes on a rebound, with Chief Minister Ebrahim declaring the region “open for business” and calling on rich Islamic nations such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia to invest in the BARMM.

The region has huge potential for growth in areas like Halal products and Islamic banking, and can also count on agriculture and natural resources for revenue. Entrepreneurship is reported to be on the rise, but amidst all this the key will be securing livelihoods for ex-combatants and supporters of the Moro separatist struggle. Not all BIAF fighters supported the delay to the BARMM elections, and some have complained of “technocrats” receiving benefits in power while ex-rebels lack job security. That remains the big question facing the MILF leadership: how to ensure the transition from guerilla warfare to civilian life also works for rank-and-file fighters. They now have until 2025 to figure it out.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Militarization and Cycles of Violence Fuel Separatism in Southern Thailand

Muslims in Thailand’s four southern provinces have lived under emergency rule, first imposed by the civilian government of Thaksin Shinawatra, since 2005. (Image Source: udeyismail)

In the early hours of 3 August, rebels encircled a small Thai military outpost in Narathiwat province on the land border with Malaysia, before launching pipe bombs and opening fire with M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles. After a 15-minute gun battle, one Thai soldier was dead while four others had been injured before the insurgents fled across the Kolok River. Authorities suggested the attack may have been revenge for the killing of a suspected rebel by government troops in Pattani the previous day.

The night-time assault was one of a series of incidents of localized violence in the past few months, which typify the sporadic nature of the insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South. Muslim rebel groups in Thailand’s four Malay-speaking southern provinces have fought for independence for decades, with their motivation rooted in the conquest of the region by the Kingdom of Siam in 1785, and the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty which first marked the border between Thailand and neighbouring Malaysia.

Violence is far from the scale of past years, with the last surge coming in the mid-2000s when then-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra ordered a military crackdown. An ongoing ‘‘State of Emergency’’ and intermittent peace talks with rebel factions have since kept the conflict under controlthough the current dialogue process, between the government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, stopped at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, placing this uneasy partial stalemate at risk.   

Pattern of insurgent attacks

Amidst the pandemic, violence has remained at a low level, with fighters linked to Barisan Revolusi Nasional and a collection of smaller factions engaging in shootings and bombings, usually targeting security forces. It is often the case that one incidentsuch as a military raid, or rebel ambush—will spark a wave of retaliatory violence before the conflict recedes only to later re-emerge somewhere else in the affected regions of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla, and Yala, triggering another response.

A series of connected incidents in recent months evidence this trend. On 21 June, the military shot dead two suspected insurgents holed up in a hotel at a beach resort in the Yaring district of Pattani. Authorities said the men were tracked down after their involvement in an ambush in April that had killed three civilians as they traversed a highway in a nearby district. A motive for that incident was not uncovered, though police suspected it was in retaliation for the shooting of a rebel days earlier.

Guerilla-style attacks by Barisan Revolusi Nasional rebels have continued amid the COVID-19 pandemic, often targeting police and army forces on rural roads. (Image Source: udeyismail)

On 5 July, another stand-off between soldiers and rebels triggered a similar chain of incidents. Eight suspects being pursued by soldiers besieged the Ma’had Subulussalam Islamic School in Pattani, and two were shot dead after a 17-hour gunfight. The military maintains that it offered rebels the chance to surrender. The six fighters that fled and evaded capture were linked by police to a mine explosion the next day in nearby Songkhla province, which killed one soldier and left another three wounded.

Other incidents tagged on rebels in the Deep South are more random, targeting vital infrastructure. In August, a cargo train sustained minor damage in a bombing in Narathiwat, while in the past, cash machines and electricity pylons have also been targeted, causing economic disruption in the region.

Local violence and peace efforts

It is unclear to what extent orders are given by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional leadership. Although it represents most fighters on the ground, thought to number in the low-to-mid hundreds, separatists based in the south operate more like cells: ideologically coherent with but logistically separate from the main organization. Past talks between Bangkok and the umbrella Mara Patani group launched in 2013 ultimately failed because the senior negotiators could not control fighters on the ground, with rebels operating autonomously in local contexts and maintaining their campaign of armed assaults.

Barisan Revolusi Nasional would likely exert more influence over rebels than Mara Patani managed, if peace talks resume or if a ceasefire is signed. Yet the extent to which attacks would stop is unclear as rebels in Southern Thailand do not form an organized and well-trained force with a hierarchy and command structure, for example like the militarized Muslim separatist groups in the Philippines that now govern an autonomous region following a peace deal. Such an agreement in Southern Thailand, where attacks are small-scale and rebels do not hold territory for bargaining, is difficult to envisage.  

Lifting the Emergency Decree

The ‘‘State of Emergency’’ in the region, which was been in place for 16 years and was extended on 20 September for another three months, acts as a container for the violence. It was first imposed by the civilian administration of Thaksin Shinawatra in July 2005, and his policy of militarizing the south has been maintained by a succession of both elected and military governments, after coups in 2006 and 2014. There has been no change under the current quasi-civilian regime of Prayuth Chan-ocha.

Previous talks, held with the Mara Patani rebel grouping from 2013, failed to make progress as separarist attacks undermined the Malaysia-hosted peace process. (Image Source: Prachatai)

While the Emergency Decree has avoided a major escalation or the northerly spread of the conflict, it has raised local tensions, and made communities in the Malay-speaking south fearful of suspicion by association. The law permits authorities in the south to detain suspected rebels for up to 30 days without charge, and among the triggers of rebel attacks are allegations of torture and mistreatment of detainees at the hands of the military. Cases have been documented by human rights groups but the Thai military denies using illegal methods or extracting forced confessions during interrogations.

For many Muslims in the south, emergency rule—which treats them differently to other citizens of Buddhist-majority Thailand—has been counter-productive and should be lifted to aid peace efforts. The military views it the other way around. Last month, spokesman Col. Kiattisak Neewong told the Bangkok Post that as the area is ‘‘under the influence of insurgent groups’’ and sees regular attacks, ‘‘special laws’’ are needed to ‘‘keep peace and order’’ before the emergency measure can be lifted.

Political dialogue stalled

Efforts to secure peace at the negotiating table are halted. Face-to-face meetings between the Thai government and Barisan Revolusi Nasional negotiating panels, in a Malaysia-facilitated process, have not taken place since two rounds of talks in Kuala Lumpur in January and March 2020. Limited virtual discussions have been held, but not since February 2021, with the COVID-19 pandemic—resurgent in both Thailand and Malaysia in recent months—preventing crucial in-person dialogue from resuming. Momentum must be regained if the core issue—the future status of the four southern provinces—is to be resolved. Despite an erosion of trust in the Deep South and cycles of violence at the local level, the insurgency remains small enough for talks to gain the upper hand. Further delay only brings risk.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

West Papua Braced for Violence as Indonesia Vows to Crush Separatists

After the killing of a regional intelligence chief in an ambush by separatists in April, Indonesia deployed 400 troops to Papua from the 315/Garuda battalion. (Image Source: U.S. Army)

On 25 April, separatists in Papua shot dead Indonesia’s head of intelligence for the restive region. Brig.-Gen. I Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha was killed during a roadside ambush on his convoy in the remote Puncak regency, making him the most senior military official to be killed in the conflict over Indonesia’s easternmost territory. The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB)—which has battled for independence since Jakarta annexed the region in a flawed referendum in the late-1960s following the end of colonial rule by the Netherlands—claimed responsibility for the attack.

Indonesian president Joko Widodo was quick to respond. In a televised statement on 26 April, the day after the ambush, he appeared alongside security chiefs and ordered the police and military to ‘‘pursue and arrest’’ armed rebels in an intensified crackdown. Indonesia has often been accused by human rights activists of deploying heavy-handed tactics and discriminating against Papua’s native Melanesian population, who are predominantly Christian—a minority in a Muslim-majority nation. Yet rebels have also been linked to atrocities and have killed teachers and road workers in attacks.

Indonesia deploys troops

Papuans are now braced for more violence. It was reported in May that Indonesia had deployed an additional 400 troops to Papua, from the battle-hardened 315/Garuda battalion. Its soldiers gained the nickname ‘‘Satan troops’’ after involvement in past conflicts in East Timor, but army spokesman Brig.-Gen. Prantara Santosa has insisted their deployment to Papua is just part of a routine rotation and that the personnel being sent are ‘‘trained infantry troops, not special forces’’. The military has 7,000 troops in the region, while an additional 1,200 police officers have been deployed since April.

Indonesia’s national police intelligence chief, Paulus Waterpauw, told Reuters in an interview on 21 May that efforts to tackle the insurgency would be co-ordinated through a task force established in 2018, known as Operation Nemangkawi, which aims to ‘‘wipe out’’ armed rebels in Papua’s Central Highlands region—where they are strongest due to knowledge of the remote, mountainous terrain. Since the April ambush, the government has also moved to formally designate Papuan rebel groups as ‘‘terrorists’’, permitting authorities to detain suspects for up to 21 days without charge. However, it is understood the elite police counter-terrorism unit, Densus 88, has not been deployed to Papua.  

Fear of military atrocities

Leaders of the separatist movement fear that a renewed crackdown will be accompanied by human rights abuses. Benny Wenda, a long-time figurehead of the Papuan liberation struggle, living in exile in the United Kingdom, recently described resistance as ‘‘legitimate and necessary’’, and called for a dialogue to resolve the conflict. In his words, independence advocates consider Indonesia’s rule ‘‘an illegal invasion and occupation’’ and view separatist forces as battling to ‘‘expel an illegal colonizer’’.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo has ordered the military and police to ”pursue and arrest” armed separatists in an intensified security crackdown in Papua. (Image Source: uyeah)

Indonesia has launched a firmer clampdown on such political expression since the April ambush. On 9 May, police detained high-profile activist Victor Yeimo and charged him with treason for calling for a referendum on Papuan independence. Human Rights Watch has documented 43 similar arrests of activists or protest leaders since pro-independence street demonstrations erupted across the region in August 2019, which saw large-scale civil unrest in cities such as Jayapura, Manokwari, Sorong and Wamena. Several activists have received lengthy prison sentences despite not partaking in violence.

In April, United Nations human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters of ‘‘credible reports of excessive use of force by the military and police’’ in Papua including ‘‘extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and the detention of indigenous Papuans’’. Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams, meanwhile, recently warned Indonesia to ‘‘ensure that all security force operations in Papua are carried out in accordance with the law and that peaceful activists and civilians are not targeted’’.

An internet blackout in parts of Papua since the April ambush have compounded fears that a broad military operation is about to be launched. In provincial capital Jayapura, and surrounding regions—covering an area home to approximately 500,000 people—disrupted service and connectivity issues have been reported regularly in recent weeks. Jakarta has blamed the repeat outages on a damaged undersea cable though many suspect the authorities are trying to restrict media coverage of events.

Unresolved historical grievances

Sporadic clashes and displacement have been reported in Papua in May and June, in the absence of any desire for dialogue from Jakarta. At the other end of the Indonesian archipelago, in Aceh, rebels laid down their weapons in the 2000s, after talks with the government resolved a separatist dispute. Yet in Aceh, a smaller disputed territory, Islamist rebels proved easier for the government to engage and reach a settlement on autonomy. Papua, expansive and resource-rich by contrast, is considered an indivisible part of Indonesian territory by Jakarta while Papuan rebels demand full independence.

The Indonesian military, pictured in joint drills with US forces, has retained a stranglehold over Papua since the flawed ”Act of Free Choice” vote in 1969. (Image Source: US Embassy Jakarta)

The region was annexed through a flawed 1969 vote—known as the ‘‘Act of Free Choice’’—in which only 1,025 Papuans hand-picked by the military were selected to cast a ballot. A proper referendum on independence in Papua, which had been promised by the outgoing Dutch colonizers earlier in the decade, was never held and accordingly the western half of New Guinea island—today the provinces of Papua and West Papua—became part of Indonesia. This remains the primary source of grievance.

In the five decades that have passed, in-migration of Muslims from elsewhere in the archipelago has altered Papua’s demographics and left indigenous Papuans feeling increasingly marginalized. Mining operations, and the arrival of multinational firms at the invite of Jakarta, are also a source of growing tension in Papua. Widodo hopes that over time, the building of roads and the provision of services in Papua will lead Jakarta to be viewed more favourably by locals and blunt support for separatism. Yet as recent attacks—like April’s ambush—demonstrate, Papua’s rebels won’t go down without a fight.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Duterte’s ‘Red-Tagging’ Risks Igniting the Philippines’ Maoist Insurgency

The practice of labelling political opponents as communist sympathizers, referred to as ‘red-tagging’, has proliferated since Duterte entered office in May 2016. (Image Source: PCOO)

The communist insurgency in the Philippines is into its sixth decade. Since its formation in 1969, the New People’s Army (NPA)—the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), formed a year earlier—has fought a low-level guerrilla war against government troops. Over that time, much has remained the same. The CPP’s founder Jose Maria Sison remains at the helm, albeit now aged 82 and living in self-imposed exile in the Netherlands. Across the Philippines, NPA insurgents still target soldiers and police officers in roadside ambushes before retreating to their isolated rural hideouts.

Amid this violence, peace talks have failed under six successive Philippine leaders, including current president Rodrigo Duterte since 2016. His election—as an outsider candidate hailing from Mindanao where the insurgents are most active—initially led to hopes of a breakthrough. Yet since peace talks collapsed a year into his tenure, the proliferation of ‘‘red-tagging’’, whereby senior officials routinely label political opponents as communist sympathizers, now risks further violence. Killings of left-wing activists by vigilantes and police have become more frequent, and threaten reprisals from the NPA.

Talks collapse under Duterte

Such an outcome was not inevitable. In August 2016, the NPA and the Philippine military had both declared unilateral ceasefires soon after Duterte came to power. Manila entered negotiations with the National Democratic front of the Philippines (NDFP)—a negotiation panel representing the CPP and NPA in peace talks with the government—and several rounds of talks were held in Amsterdam, Oslo and Rome. But in early-2017, the peace process collapsed after Duterte refused a CPP demand to release political prisoners, sparking renewed rebel attacks and bringing an end to the ceasefires.

Efforts to re-start talks have since failed. The CPP has refused to meet a list of pre-conditions set by Duterte; which include an immediate cessation of rebel violence and for the CPP to pledge never to partake in a future coalition government. Sison has also declined repeated requests from Duterte to return to the Philippines for one-on-one talks, fearing the invitation is a pretext for his arrest. A war-of-words has erupted between the two men in recent years as Government-CPP ties have faltered.   

Localized peace initiative stalls

Since terminating talks in 2017 and disbanding its negotiating panel, Manila has pursued a localized approach to tackle the NPA uprising. In December 2018, Duterte signed Executive Order 70, forming the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). The role of this body is to oversee smaller provincial and municipal task forces, charged with engaging rebel commanders in local settings and encouraging defections. Rebels who surrender are offered livelihood support, jobs and skills-training through a government-run programme. This local-level strategy has several flaws.

First, it rules out a peace agreement with the CPP-NDFP at the national level, preventing a solution to the conflict in its entirety. Second, the success of this plan has been overstated by the military. In 2020, the military claimed 7,615 rebels had surrendered over the course of the calendar year; this is more than the entire fighting force of the NPA, which has around 4,000 fighters. This figure presents an inaccurate picture of inroads being made against the NPA locally, as among those listed as having defected were rebel supporters or villagers belonging to the NPA’s Militia ng Bayan. In any case, the NPA has proven its ability over five decades to continually replenish its ranks after suffering losses.

With peace talks having failed under six Philippine presidents, NPA rebels have been active in the countryside since the insurgency began in the 1960s. (Image Source: Christian Razukas)

The military’s aim to defeat the NPA by the end of Duterte’s term in mid-2022 is a near-impossible task. Many previous deadlines have come and gone, with the NPA’s strength seemingly unaffected. Eastern Mindanao, Samar, Mindoro, Negros Island and northern Luzon all remain NPA strongholds.

The proliferation of ‘‘red-tagging’’

Aside from violence in those areas, the broader narrative of the conflict is increasingly being driven by government propaganda. Under Duterte, ‘‘red-tagging’’—the labelling of a wide range of political adversaries as NPA supportershas returned on a scale not seen since the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos at the height of the insurgency in the 1980s. The practice has been deployed to target labour leaders, human rights activists, students, journalists and legislators from opposition left-wing parties in the Makabayan bloc. This campaign has been waged alongside intimidation, threats and violence.

In 2020, four NDFP negotiators were killed. Some were shot dead by unknown gunmen while others died during law enforcement raids. In March, Julius Soriano Giron was killed in Baguio city. In August, Randall Echanis was shot dead in Manila. And in November, Eugenia Magpantay and Agaton Topacio were killed during a raid in nearby Rizal province. These high-profile killings demonstrate that targets of police operations often extend beyond armed rebels, to the political leadership of the movement.

A pattern has also emerged of law enforcement raids targeting activists judged by the government to share ideological links with communist fighters. On 30 December, nine local indigenous leaders, suspected to have ties to the NPA, were killed in co-ordinated police raids on Panay Island. Then on 7 March this year, another nine people were killed in similar raids across the provinces of Batangas, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal. Human rights groups claimed that among the deceased were anti-poverty campaigners, the leader of a workers’ union and two members of a local fisherman’s organization.  

The killings in March sparked huge outrage, coming just two days after Duterte had ordered police and military forces to ‘‘finish off’’ communist rebels. In the same remarks, made in Cagayan de Oro city at a meeting of NTF-ELCAC, Duterte told soldiers to ‘‘forget about human rights’’ in operations targeting suspected insurgents. His national security advisor, Hermogenes Esperon, later defended the raids as legitimate and claimed the victims were all insurgents, stating ‘‘in the name of law and order, a shoot-to-kill order has been issued against armed CPP-NPA members. It is shoot on sight’’.

Encouraging vigilante violence

The widening crackdown associated with ‘‘red-tagging’’ has been assisted by a new Anti-Terrorism Act passed last year, which granted the state new powers to list groups and individuals as terrorists and openly publish their names. Amnesty International has said this practice is ‘‘in contravention of international standards on due process and the presumption of innocence’’, while ‘‘vague and over-broad definitions’’ of terrorism risk the law being ‘‘used to target government critics’’. In December, the NPA and CPP were both designated under the new legislation as domestic terror organizations.  

The rise in ‘red-tagging’ under Duterte has stoked renewed fears of vigilante violence, while military operations targeting NPA insurgents gather pace. (Image Source: Matthew Hulett)

Armed vigilantes have been empowered in this hostile climate. On Negros Island, a hotspot of NPA activity, anti-communist militia Kagubak has been linked to assassinations of farmers and left-wing activists in recent years. In February, Cristina Palabay, head of Philippine human rights organization Karapatan, told VOA that at least 78 people were killed and 136 arrested in 2020 in cases recorded as being linked to ‘‘red-tagging’’, warning that ‘‘more and more people are now in the firing line’’.

Human Rights Watch raised similar alarm in a recent statement, warning that the deadly practice ‘‘constricts further the increasingly diminished democratic space in the Philippines, where activists, rights lawyers, journalists and even ordinary Filipinos on social media are under threat’’, and called out ‘‘government officials who give a wink and a nod to extrajudicial killings by their red-tagging’’.

Aiding the rebel cause?

The ‘‘red-tagging’’ epidemic now risks pushback from the NPA and escalation on the battlefield. At the start of this year, the CPP directed the NPA to revive its Special Partisan Units, which are tasked with assassinating soldiers and government figures in towns and cities. These secretive units, usually made up of three or four NPA snipers, proliferated during the Marcos dictatorship in the 1980s, and their revival on a notable scale would bring the insurgency from the countryside into urban centres.

In response to the 7 March killings of activists by police, the NPA has welcomed those targeted by ‘‘red-tagging’’ to join its ranks, vowing that ‘‘targets of Duterte’s state terrorism can be absorbed by NPA units or provided safe haven’’ in rebel bases. A CPP statement also called on the NPA to launch ‘‘tactical offensives’’ and ‘‘mobilize its units’’ to ‘‘punish the perpetrators and masterminds of these crimes’’. Through his expanded crackdown, rather than defeat the NPA, Duterte is aiding its cause.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Tatmadaw Coup Leaves Myanmar’s Peace Process on a Precipice

A delegate attending the first Union Peace Conference under NLD rule, held from 31 August to 4 September 2016. Another three rounds of talks have since been held. (Image Source: UN)

The military coup in Myanmar, which saw Aung San Suu Kyi and other elected leaders detained in pre-dawn raids on 1 February, marked an abrupt end to ten years of democratization which had propelled the National League for Democracy (NLD) to power. The Tatmadaw takeover has also dashed hopes of peace in border regions home to ethnic minorities, where rebel groups have fought the Tatmadaw for decades. Since seizing power, the army has moved to scrap the civilian peace negotiating mechanism.

It is true that the peace process was already faltering under Aung San Suu Kyi. Five years of discussions had resulted in only vague principles being agreed between Naypyidaw and ten ethnic armies based in the south. Major issues related to autonomy and self-governance remained untouched, while the most powerful armed groups in the north and west remained outside of a national ceasefire agreed in 2015. After decades of Tatmadaw oppression, peace under the new Junta now looks further away than ever.

Ceasefire signatories suspend talks

The day after the coup, the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST)—comprising the ten rebel groups that are party to the nationwide ceasefire—met virtually. After the meeting, Secretary General of the Karen National Union (KNU), Padoh Saw Ta Doh Moo, said initially the groups would ‘‘work together to find a solution’’, and would stick by the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) to keep the peace talks alive. At the same time, a PPST statement condemned the coup and called for the release of elected leaders.

In the days before the coup, the Tatmadaw had extended its own suspension of military operations in some areas until the end of February on the pretext of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, and released a statement urging ethnic armies to continue on the path of dialogue with the government. Taking events that followed into account, the timing was likely aimed at reassuring ethnic armed groups and reducing tension in Myanmar’s volatile border regions, in anticipation of a tense post-coup scenario developing.

Events have quickly unraveled, ending hopes that the peace process might continue unimpeded. On 8 February the Junta disbanded the National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NRPC), which had been led by Aung San Suu Kyi as the coordinating peacemaking body in Naypyidaw. Going forward, ethnic armies are permitted to negotiate only with a Tatmadaw-formed peace committee, led by Lieut.-Gen. Yar Pyae. The PPST responded by announcing after a second emergency meeting, held on 19–20 February, that its members had ‘‘unanimously’’ voted to suspend all political talks with what it labelled the ‘‘coup Junta’’.

More than 20 ethnic armed organizations have fought the Tatmadaw in border regions since Myanmar secured independence from British colonial rule in 1948. (Image Source: pxhere)

The PPST later declared ‘‘we strongly support all public mobilizations, including the civil disobedience movement’’, vowing its armies would ‘‘collaborate with all national and international actors, including the international community, to end military dictatorship and to seek a durable solution to the current political crisis’’. The strong rebuke reflected concerns by ethnic leaders, including chairman of the Pa-O National Liberation Organization (PNLO) Col. Khun Okkar, that participation in talks with the Tatmadaw would ultimately risk granting legitimacy to Junta chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and his military regime.

FPNCC and Northern Alliance position

Ethnic armed groups outside of the NCA process have largely remained silent on the coup. Neither the seven-member Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC)—led by the 30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA) based along the Chinese border—or the four-member Northern Alliance have issued a statement. Members of these alliances had refused to participate the last major peace conference with the NLD last August after the Arakan Army (AA)—a group based in Rakhine that has engaged in clashes with the military since 2018—was labeled as a ‘‘terrorist group’’ by Naypyidaw.  

A statement by the 10,000-strong Kachin Independence Army (KIA)—an influential member of both the FPNCC and Northern Alliance—on 17 February, indicates that informal dialogue with insurgents outside of the NCA process might also be disrupted. KIA General Secretary La Nan was quoted by VOA Burmese as having said anti-coup protests reflected the ‘‘will of the people’’ and were ‘‘on the side of truth’’. He added it would be ‘‘impossible to discuss issues such as peace and a ceasefire’’ in light of recent events.

Ethnic autonomy and democratization

As an eventual end point of the peace process, ethnic armies envision administering autonomous, self-governed regions within a new federal system. Under the NLD, there was at least a degree of hope. The peace initiative run by the government—dubbed the 21st Century Panglong initiative—was named after an accord signed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, and ethnic minority leaders shortly before his assassination in 1947, which pledged autonomy in border regions and respect for minority rights. Upon taking power, the NLD had promised to make resolving conflict a priority of its five-year term in office.

Four Union Peace Conferences were held under the NLD government from 2016-2020, yet only two further ethnic armed groups signed a nationwide ceasefire. (Image Source: Htoo Tay Zar)

But with the Tatmadaw at the helm, ethnic minorities are fearful. During the period of Tatmadaw rule from 1962–2011, troops routinely raped, tortured and killed ethnic minority civilians as well as fighting armed groups. Such abuses persisted against the Rohingya and others, even under the NLD. The effect of decades of hostility and mistrust makes a peace deal with the new Junta near-impossible to foresee, while brutal crackdowns on protestors in recent weeks demonstrate the authorities’ willingness to use force. The use of water cannon and rubber bullets has quickly progressed to instances of live gunfire.

Ethnic minorities, despite mostly aspiring to self-governance rather than democratization, have joined demonstrations as protests have spread from major cities like Mandalay and Yangon to border regions. Signs of growing solidarity between ethnic minority groups and the Bamar majority are evident, and in rallying against a mutual enemy in the Tatmadaw, the protests offer a chance to foster a broad alliance across traditional ethnic divisions. This might, in a nation where elites in both the armed forces and the NLD have long viewed minority rights as a side issue, do more to advance peace than talks ever could.

A version of this article was first published on Geopolitical Monitor.

In Thailand’s Deep South, COVID-19 Leaves Peace Talks with the BRN On Hold

Talks in 2020 were the first formal negotiations to have taken place between the BRN and the Thai Government, led by former military Junta chief Prayut Chan-ocha. (Image: UN Women)

One year ago, Thai negotiators had just engaged in direct peace talks with Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebels for the first time. That meeting, held on 20 January 2020, was considered a breakthrough in efforts to resolve separatist violence in Southern Thailand, marking the first time Bangkok had engaged in formal dialogue with the group in control of most fighters on the ground, thought to number 400. The initial talks, mediated by Malaysia, were followed by a second round in Kuala Lumpur from 2–3 March.

Both parties hailed early progress, with the Thai panel led by Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh labelling the talks as ‘‘constructive’’, while the BRN delegation, led by Anas Abdulrahman, indicated it would participate in future negotiations. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, stalling momentum. No talks have been held since. Yet it did have an initial positive effect: on 3 April, the BRN announced it would ‘‘cease hostilities’’ on humanitarian grounds to ease the situation for health workers tackling the virus in the Deep South.

Although that ceasefire was broken within a month, a local monitoring group found violence declined significantly in 2020, until a spike in roadside bombings and ambushes toward the end of the year. The uptick in violence creates a new imperative to resume talks but travel restrictions remain in place, amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Thailand and Malaysia, preventing dialogue panels from meeting in person. The pandemic, having scuppered renewed talks, now risks an erosion of trust at a crucial time.

Failure of Mara Patani talks

Past efforts to end the insurgency have made little progress. Separatists have fought for autonomy or independence for the four Muslim-majority provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani, Songkhla and Yala, which border Malaysia, for decades. Many residents in the Malay-speaking south, where Islam is the dominant religion and cultural reference point, reject full assimilation into Buddhist-majority Thailand, which has exercised sovereignty over the region since the 1909 Anglo-Siamese Treaty marked the modern border.

In 2013, Bangkok initiated talks with Mara Patani, a political organization representing a loose coalition of rebel forces. The dialogue fell flat as the BRN continued its attacks, undermining the process. Adding to a string of local shootings and ambushes, the BRN at times launched more audacious attacks aimed at disrupting talks. In May 2017, rebels bombed a shopping centre in Pattani, wounding 56 people, while a November 2019 raid on a security checkpoint in Yala left 15 armed civilian defence volunteers dead. The inability of Mara Patani to prevent such attacks forced the government to enter dialogue with the BRN.

Previous negotiations, held with the Mara Patani umbrella grouping since 2013, failed to make progress as BRN attacks in the south undermined the dialogue process. (Image: Prachatai)

The first informal talks between the two sides took place in Berlin in late 2019, with back-channel talks also rumored to have taken place in Indonesia, ahead of the historic two rounds of formal negotiations held in Kuala Lumpur in early 2020. Both parties expressed cautious optimism last March. The Thai panel said early talks had gone well but called for ‘‘time, continuity and support’’ and a ‘‘reduction of violence in order to create a conducive atmosphere’’ ahead of future meetings. Yet after the onset of COVID-19, there have been no further rounds of talks and the fleeting peace process has been stopped in its tracks.

BRN restraint amid COVID-19

Despite talks being placed on hold, the BRN’s COVID-19 ceasefire reflected the goodwill brought about by the peace process. It held for four weeks last April, until a military raid in Pattani sparked retaliatory rebel attacks. Yet large-scale attacks last year were rare, with the pandemic generally resulting in lower levels of violence. Monitoring group Deep South Watch recorded 252 incidents, causing 96 deaths, from January–October 2020, compared to 350 incidents and 148 deaths in the same period in 2019. The last few months however, have seen an uptick in violence, indicating a gradual return to low-level warfare.

Rebel activity likely reduced last year because of travel restrictions and enhanced border controls put in place to combat COVID-19, preventing insurgents from crossing the Malaysian border to evade arrest by Thai forces after launching attacks. The military commander in the south, Lt.-Gen. Kriangkrai Srirak, said recently that his troops hoped to restrict rebel movements further by installing barbed-wire fencing and bright lights along the 595km border. Yet he also said ‘‘suppression and law enforcement’’ alone will not end the conflict, voicing his support for talks and the need to obtain the trust of the Muslim community.

A third round of talks in 2021?

If a third round of talks is able to be convened later in the year, there is plenty for both sides to discuss. Local journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn reported in the Bangkok Post in October that the peace negotiating panels of the government and the BRN had been in touch with each other virtually to discuss ‘‘issues of contention’’ during the previous meetings. The issue of immunity from prosecution for BRN insurgents, in the event that they agree to lay down their arms, is likely to top the agenda at any upcoming talks.

It has also been reported that leaders of Provincial Islamic Committees from the south have submitted their own proposal, covering social and religious issues. The proposal called for the creation of a Family and Inheritance Court and Community Police Force, and consultation with local Islamic committees over the appointment of provincial governors and judicial officials. It also advocated for its right to administer the Hajj pilgrimage and called for the use of Malay language on all public signs and government offices.

Violence declined in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but toward the end of the year a rising number of skirmishes between the Thai military and BRN rebels took place. (Image: udeyismail)

Softer, yet highly symbolic societal matters such as these, where the Thai government may be willing to offer concessions, would be an ideal starting point for talks, paving the way for discussion over the more contentious issue of the final political status of the southern provinces. Hardline factions within the BRN are sure to push for a comprehensive autonomous settlement, if not full independence. Yet so far only a ‘‘special administrative zone’’ has been offered within the constitution’s ‘‘one and indivisible kingdom’’.

Making peace amid a pandemic

Any hope that talks could resume in early 2021 have been dashed by rising COVID-19 cases in Thailand, which issued a ‘‘stay at home’’ order on 4 January, and Malaysia, which announced a new lockdown on 12 January and has declared a ‘‘state of emergency’’ to deal with the pandemic. As a result, there is little chance of the Thai government and BRN negotiating panels meeting face-to-face in the coming months.

Yet both parties remain willing to meet when possible, and Malaysia remains committed in its mediation role under new prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who assumed office on the same day the peace panels last convened in March 2020. Negotiations with the BRN represent the only realistic way forward, and if talks restart in 2021, the hope is that the south could yet see violence decline for a second year running.  

A version of this article was first published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Family Ties and New Recruits: Abu Sayyaf Proves Hard to Dislodge in the Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte addresses soldiers of Joint Task Force Sulu in 2017. (Image: PCOO)

Shortly before midday on 24 August, a bomb ripped through two military trucks parked outside a shopping area in Jolo, the capital of the southern Philippines’ island province of Sulu. As security officials responded to the blast, a suicide bomber detonated her device having been prevented from entering the cordoned-off area. The first explosion, initially reported to have been caused by an IED strapped to a motorbike, was later confirmed as another suicide bombing. The double blasts left 14 people dead and at least 75 injured.

The Philippine armed forces quickly blamed Abu Sayyaf, an Islamist militant group aligned with the Islamic State, which has been responsible for at least five suicide attacks involving eight bombers since July 2018. Three years ago, Abu Sayyaf had been dealt a major blow when its leader, Isnilon Hapilon, was killed after laying siege to the city of Marawi with fighters from another extremist group, the Mautes, for five months. It was hoped the militants’ defeat in Marawi might turn the tide on years of rising jihadism in the region.

Yet since then, despite a peace deal signed by Manila and moderate Moro Muslim rebels, intensified army operations targeting local Islamic State affiliates and sustained counter-terrorism support from the United States, the threat from Abu Sayyaf is alive and evolving rapidly. However, headline-grabbing tactics aside, its six-year-old pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State now matters little. As in most of its 30-year history, Abu Sayyaf’s violence is best explained by local dynamics, family ties and its ability to attract new recruits.

US-supported military offensives

In spite of recent Abu Sayyaf attacks, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) claims it has made a degree of progress in stemming the tide of militancy. Martial law in Mindanao, imposed after the outbreak of the Marawi siege in mid-2017, was lifted on 31 December last year, while the army has persisted with regular patrols, ground offensives and aerial attacks on militant hideouts throughout 2020. In October, the AFP’s public affairs chief Capt. Jonathan Zata said 55 Abu Sayyaf members were killed from January-September, while another 78 surrendered. He revealed that 97 firearms, seven IEDs and nine camps were also seized.

Inroads were also made against other Islamist groups. The Mautes lost 24 fighters in clashes with the AFP, while 15 surrendered and five were arrested. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters lost 28 men over the same period, while 134 surrendered and 20 were detained. Abu Sayyaf suffered its biggest loss in mid-August, when notorious sub-leader Idang Susukan was arrested by police officers in Davao city, where he had reportedly travelled to seek medical attention for injuries to his left arm sustained in an earlier battle. Susukan was involved in lucrative kidnapping-for-ransom activities, making his arrest a significant setback.

Yet these markers of progress are tempered by the overall picture. In August, a US Department of Defense update on Operation Pacific Eagle-Philippines (OPE-P), its counter-terrorism campaign in the country, said that ‘‘efforts to reduce extremism in the Philippines do not appear to have made a substantial difference.’’ Estimates from OPE-P indicate that since 2017, Islamic State-aligned groups in the region have maintained a fighting force of 300–500, remaining ‘‘about the same size and strength for the last few years.’’ This grim assessment comes despite annual US funding of $100m for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities. The report cited ‘‘COVID-19 restrictions’’ and ‘‘force rotations’’ as having an additional negative impact on assistance in 2020, along with relatively unchanged ‘‘economic, social and political conditions.’’

Abu Sayyaf suicide bombing spree

A prevalent feature of post-Marawi militancy has been suicide bombings – a phenomenon unseen before in the Philippines. Five separate attacks have taken place in the island provinces of Basilan and Sulu, where Abu Sayyaf operate, and were carried-out by radicalized Egyptian, Indonesian and Moroccan nationals, as well as at least one Filipino. The deadliest incident targeted the Our Lady of Mount Carmel cathedral, just across the street from the latest attack in Jolo, in January 2019, leaving 22 people dead and 81 wounded.

The aftermath of the double suicide blasts on a cathedral in Jolo, January 2019. (Image: PCOO)

Abu Sayyaf have also persisted with lower-level criminal-type activities, kidnapping Indonesian fishermen for ransom off the coast of Malaysia’s Sabah state, ten minutes by boat from militant bases on Tawi-Tawi island. At least 39 Indonesian seafarers have been abducted by the group since 2016, when foreign sailors started to avoid the area after several Westerners were beheaded by Abu Sayyaf in absence of a ransom. An Indonesian captive, among five seized from a ship in January, died last month amid a shootout in Sulu.

Such activities, of both a criminal and terrorist nature, have rebounded under Abu Sayyaf’s current leader, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, who commands a faction in the mountains around Patikul, on Sulu’s north coast. Reported to have narrowly avoided death at the hands of the military on several occasions, his leadership has been characterized by a mix of maritime banditry and headline-grabbing suicide attacks part-inspired by the Islamic State and its radical ideology. The tactic is more of a side effect than representing firm links.

Family connections and new recruits

For decades, blood ties and close family relationships within Abu Sayyaf have made the group particularly resistant to infiltration. In its current incarnation, the Ajang-Ajang faction led by Hatib also contains many of his relatives, notably his nephew Mundi Sawadjaan, who is a bomb-maker considered likely by the AFP to have constructed the devices detonated by the Jolo bombers. Abu Sayyaf is insular, splintered and non-hierarchical below its senior leadership, making connections difficult to track. Its members and supporters are loyal in part due to benefiting from the economic rewards of hostage-taking and the illegal drug trade. Hideouts on outlying islands and in Jolo’s densely-forested interior are often out of the authorities’ reach.  

Suicide pacts among families have become a defining feature of Abu Sayyaf’s latest spate of terror attacks. The January 2019 cathedral attack was perpetrated by a married Indonesian husband and wife, while the two female suspects behind the latest outrage were found to be the widows of two deceased Abu Sayyaf fighters. Philippine Army chief Lieut.-Gen. Cirilito Sobejana identified one as the wife of Norman Lasuca – the first known Filipino suicide bomber – and the second as widow of Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Talha Jumsah. In a raid on 10 October, another Indonesian woman, Rezky Fantasya Rullie, was arrested in Sulu alongside two other women on suspicion of plotting a suicide attack. All three were married to Abu Sayyaf fighters. AFP soldiers reportedly seized IED components and a vest rigged with pipe bombs from their residence.

Although several of the bombers came from abroad, local recruitment enables Abu Sayyaf to replenish its ranks after battlefield losses. Estimates of its strength have remained consistent for years, supporting the narrative that a sizeable recruitment pool exists in Sulu, where young men have limited alternative options to make a living. Sulu, among the most impoverished areas of the Philippines, has a long history of conflict and was the only province to reject a peace deal between the government and moderate Moro insurgents in a referendum last year. Awash with firearms, Abu Sayyaf has drawn on local support in Sulu to fight for independence since 1990, in a region that sat at the heart of an Islamic sultanate prior to the colonial era. Many still wish for the revival of self-governance in the future, and accept militancy as a means to an end. The Islamic State, through social media, has only ever latched onto what has always been a local struggle.

Maute allies in Lanao del Sur

Remnants of Abu Sayyaf’s co-conspirators in Marawi, the Maute Group, remain functional across the Sulu Sea in Lanao del Sur province, on Mindanao’s largest island. Although its resources are stretched thin, the AFP last month identified Faharudin Hadji Satar, also known as Abu Bakar, as the new leader of the Maute Group. Its recruitment drive is reported to be ongoing in the Lanao municipalities of Balindong, Madalum and Piagapo, where displaced residents of Marawi city have received text messages enticing them to join.  

Three years after the Islamist siege ended, much of Marawi is still to be rebuilt. (Image: PIA)

The more moderate Moro Islamic Liberation Front, signatory of a peace agreement with Manila and highly influential in Lanao, has pledged to work with the AFP to combat extremism and persuade the Mautes to disarm. It is hoped that the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which the Moro Islamic Liberation Front leads, will eventually bring prosperity and displace the decades-old narrative that oppressed Muslims in the south can only find hope and livelihood opportunities by joining armed groups.

The Bangsamoro region, supported by most Moro Muslims, offers a chance for renewal, but the activities of Abu Sayyaf demonstrate how hard it is to get all factions on side. Abu Sayyaf retains a firm stranglehold in Sulu, as the Mautes look to entice decommissioned moderate rebels and capitalize on Moro frustrations over the slow rebuilding of Marawi, where 120,000 residents are still displaced three years after the siege ended. Abu Sayyaf and the Mautes failed in that past mission, but remain a thorn in the side of Mindanao.

A version of this article was first published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Beyond the Narrative of Progress in Myanmar’s Panglong Peace Initiative

Myanmar’s government met with the ten signatories of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement for the 4th Panglong summit in Naypyidaw from 19-21 August. (Image Source: A. N. Soe, VOA)

From 19-21 August, Aung San Suu Kyi convened in Naypyidaw alongside army chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing and representatives of ten ethnic armed groups for Myanmar’s fourth Union Peace Conference. The event – initially scheduled for April but pushed-back amid the COVID19 pandemic – marked the latest effort to revive the Panglong peace initiative, tasked with ending 70 years of conflict in Myanmar’s border regions.

The delayed summit – which took place after two years of frozen negotiations – offered a final chance for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) to claim that progress had been made in resolving ethnic strife – a key policy objective – since it came to power in October 2015. With the next general election set for November, does Naypyidaw’s positive rhetoric after the latest Panglong meeting stand up to scrutiny?

Myanmar’s Panglong Initiative

The 21st Century Panglong initiative takes its name from a peace agreement signed in 1947 by Myanmar’s independence hero, and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San, promising autonomy for ethnic minorities.

The concept was revived after a dialogue process was initiated by the former military regime of Thein Sein in 2011, which resulted in the signing of a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with eight ethnic armies in October 2015. The NLD secured a landslide election win the following month, joining the army in power.

Upon assuming power, the NLD government pledged to hold a Union Peace Conference every six months, yet only four have been held during its five-year term. Progress has been slower than hoped, and only two additional ethnic armies have joined the accord since 2015, raising the total number of signatories to ten.

The process stalled in mid-2018, after the third summit was held. Yet informal talks gathered pace in early-2020 and the fourth summit was planned for April, before being moved to August due to the pandemic.

FPNCC alliance refuses to attend

The build-up to the rearranged conference was beset by problems. Organizers had hoped to persuade six non-signatory armed groups, all members of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), to attend as observers. Yet they refused to attend after a seventh member of the FPNCC alliance, the Arakan Army (AA), was snubbed after being declared a ‘terrorist organization’ by Naypyidaw in March.

The FPNCC announced its members would not attend just six days before the summit began, after meeting on 13 August at the headquarters of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in Panghsang. The 30,000-strong UWSA is Myanmar’s most powerful and best-equipped armed group, while the alliance also contains the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and several other groups operating out of Shan state along the border with China.

Many of Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed groups, including the United Wa State Army and Kachin Independence Army, declined to attend August’s summit. (Image Source: pxhere)

Despite this setback, the Union Peace Conference went ahead as planned. Owing to COVID19 restrictions, the meeting took place over three days instead of the usual five, while delegates were limited to just 230. No major decisions were at stake, but negotiators looked to add to 51 previously-agreed basic principles with the aim of setting-the-stage for post-2020 dialogue and charting a path to forge a democratic federal union encompassing all ethnic nationalities; the envisioned end point of the NCA-centred Panglong talks.

What did the summit achieve?

The conference went smoothly. In all, 20 new principles were adopted, mostly related to implementation of the NCA and ambitions for future dialogue. In her closing remarks, Aung San Suu Kyi hailed ‘a new plan for building a democratic federal union beyond 2020’, adding that discussions were back-on-track and had ‘more substance’ than previous years. A senior military delegate, Lieut. Gen. Yar Pyae, praised the process for ‘reducing mistrust that has been deep-rooted on both sides’, and urged groups to stick with the NCA.

Among the new principles, it was agreed that the future federal system would be based on power-sharing between the Union and states. However, talks on allowing states to draft separate constitutions faltered amid a dispute over wording. Even among agreements inked, the language used was vague. For example, the forging of a single ‘union identity’ which respects the histories, traditions and cultures of minorities is open to interpretation, and minorities will likely be skeptical given their past treatment by the Bamar elite.

Aung San Suu Kyi strives to make a collective identity central to future talks, whilst presidential spokesman Zaw Htay recently voiced the need for a careful step-by-step process toward ‘national reconciliation’. Yet such inclusive language seems hollow given the mistreatment of Rohingya Muslims; denied citizenship for decades and forced to flee to Bangladesh after repeated army crackdowns since 2017. If talks go awry and violence ensues, other ethnic minorities fear the same scorched-earth tactics could be applied to them.

Longer-term barriers to peace

Many of the principles decided so-far are procedural, laying out approximate positions. Turning these into a final text, agreeable to all parties, will be difficult due to the scale and complexity of Myanmar’s conflicts.

Implementing a federal structure and drafting state constitutions may be relatively simple in states where just one or two armed groups are the dominant actors, such as in the southern states of Kayah, Kayin and Mon. In the larger Shan state to the north, home to multiple ethnic armies, often in competition with each other, such an outcome may be unworkable. This reflects a broader geographical divide in the peace talks.

The majority of the ten NCA signatories are based in Myanmar’s southern conflict zones where fighting is at a low level. The groups here are small and poorly-armed, accounting for less than 20% of rebel fighters in the country. The formation of a democratic federal union would likely boost the power of these groups, thus making it attractive for them to reach some kind of devolved settlement with the government.

Peace talks are set to continue in 2021 after November’s election, in which Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tatmadaw will hope to retain their dominant influence. (Image Source: Adam Jones)

In contrast, Myanmar’s northeastern conflict zones of Shan and Kachin are home to well-resourced ethnic armies, outside of the NCA process. Several groups, including the UWSA, already run their own relatively prosperous self-administered zones, while others control territories in which they are the main economic and security actor. If they join the NCA and accept state-based autonomy, they may stand to lose-out. 

Even before weighing-up such outcomes, the nature of the peace process itself is unpredictable in a nation where a broader civilian-military power contest still has a long way to run. The NLD has failed in its efforts to revise the 2008 constitution, which affords sweeping political powers to the Tatmadaw, via parliament. Aung San Suu Kyi suggested in her opening speech at August’s Panglong event that the constitution might yet need to be ‘amended’ to facilitate any future agreement that emerges out of the peace process.

In an apparent rebuttal, military chief Gen. Min Aung Hlaing warned-off approaching the peace talks with ‘ulterior motives’ and stated the NCA must be solely focused on Myanmar’s ‘national interests’. For now, the NLD and Tatmadaw have achieved a workable balance. Aung San Suu Kyi is satisfied with compromise and political maneuvering, rather than seeking radical reform. In the current system, 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for the Tatmadaw, while it controls the defence and home affairs ministries. Aung San Suu Kyi meanwhile wields strong influence as State Counsellor and the NLD has remained broadly popular.

Whatever the outcome of November’s election, the quasi-civilian structure is likely to remain in place; yet the lingering potential of future political upheaval could derail or shift the direction of the Panglong talks.

A ‘one size fits all’ solution?

The central impediment to the Panglong process remains that Myanmar has so many active armed groups, each with distinct ambitions and varied levels of power, resources and degrees of leverage for bargaining. The peace process is already split in half: between the weaker signatories, and stronger non-signatories.

Yet even if more ethnic armies were to sign the NCA and partake in Union-level talks, division in non-state alliances, some with more to lose than others, may be inevitable as more contentious issues are discussed. The imagined end point, a democratic federal union, might not be enough to satisfy the strongest groups.

Yet what is the alternative? Bilateral talks between the government and non-signatories remain a possible path forward; yet at present, Naypyidaw insists such discussions would only be a pre-cursor to joining the NCA. After November’s election, giving the Panglong initiative another chance appears the safest option.

A version of this article was first published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Delays to Rebuilding Marawi Threaten a Fragile Peace in the Bangsamoro

Three years after the siege, more than 120,000 residents of Marawi remain displaced across the provinces of Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur. (Image Source: Philippine Information Agency)

Three years ago, the siege of Marawi was in full-swing. A failed attempt by Philippine troops to capture Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, on 23 May 2017, had prompted a militant uprising which would last until October. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) soldiers were pitted against ISIS-affiliated jihadis led by Hapilon and his co-conspirators – the Maute brothers – in fierce street-to-street urban warfare.

By the time the battles ended, 1,200 – including 920 militants and 168 AFP soldiers – had been killed. 350,000 residents had fled their homes, unable to return to a city left in a state of ruin. Near-daily IED blasts and government airstrikes had flattened the central Banggolo district, where AFP bomb-disposal experts have since been working to clear debris and safely locate and detonate unexploded ordnance.

The last-known bomb was destroyed in October. Yet construction work has been slow to pick-up pace, even as 126,000 evacuees still reside in transitory shelters or with relatives across the Lanao provinces. Rebuilding Marawi, known as the ‘Islamic city’ with its symbolic Grand Mosque and majority-Maranao Muslim population, will be key to peace in a region afflicted by separatist conflict since the mid-1970s.

Last year, a peace accord was finalized between Manila and the region’s largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ending hostilities and forging a new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The inauguration of the region last March signalled the arrival of self-governance, and a chance to address the grievances of western Mindanao’s Moro Muslim population.

Since then, violence perpetrated by the ISIS-aligned groups whom laid siege to Marawi has dwindled. Yet amid the perceived slow pace of reconstruction, further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, local frustrations are rising. A ‘growing sense of despair’ fuelled by a ‘lack of urgency’ in rebuilding the city is now raising fears of a fertile recruitment pool for jihadi groups intent on spoiling the peace process.

Reconstruction efforts directed by Manila

Manila has dismissed such criticism. In the aftermath of the siege, President Rodrigo Duterte created Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM), headed by Housing Secretary and former AFP general Eduardo del Rosario, to oversee rehabilitation efforts. A lengthy operation to clear unexploded ordnance from the former ‘Main Battle Area’ got underway in 2018 and was completed late last year, paving the way for the reconstruction of the worst-hit Banggolo district. The area was the city’s bustling commercial hub.

But from the start, plans have faltered. The initial plan, to give the entire task of rebuilding Marawi to a Chinese-led consortium, collapsed amid a political tussle over future visions for the city. Instead, the work was split into multiple projects, with government departments responsible for public works and highways, energy, health and education to award separate contracts to firms to build roads, electricity infrastructure, communications networks and drainage systems, as well as new hospitals and schools.

The role of TFBM to co-ordinate the projects within an overarching plan is inevitably a mammoth task. The task force aims to fully rebuild all public infrastructure and utilities by late-2021 before residents are permitted to return to Banggolo; although in some areas people have been able to start repairing damaged homes. Residents must obtain a building permit, by providing proof-of-ownership alongside a design plan, yet many are concerned that in undocumented cases their homes might be demolished.

COVID-19 setback compounds past delays

The government-led rebuilding of Banggolo looked set to pick-up pace earlier this year, but movement restrictions imposed to contain COVID-19 have delayed work by several months. From 20 March, cities and provinces in the BARMM began to be placed under ‘enhanced community quarantine’, before the whole region transitioned to ‘general community quarantine’ on 1 May. Yet lockdown measures were eased on 16 May after the BARMM was declared ‘low-risk’. The BARMM has seen 100 cases and four deaths from COVID-19 – far fewer than other parts of the Philippines, despite its weak health system.

Bombing of Marawi City
The five-month siege, in 2017, destroyed the central Banggolo district, which witnessed airstrikes and daily gun battles between AFP troops and ISIS-linked militants. (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

While noting the impact of COVID-19 in restricting the movement of labour and materials, TFBM chief Eduardo del Rosario revealed early in June that preparatory work has continued, allowing firms to ‘go full blast’ in July. He said in a press release that TFBM remains committed to the 31 December 2021 deadline, and has urged project contractors to ‘work 12 hours a day’, or ‘double time’ if necessary. In further comments, del Rosario said he aims to ‘prove government critics wrong’, and labelled a claim of ‘inaction and neglect’ alleged in May by vice-President Leni Robredo as ‘very inaccurate and unfair’.

TFBM has highlighted the reconstruction of the Mapandi Bridge – a key entry-point into the city centre that witnessed fierce clashes at the height of the siege – and work to repair the 18.97km transcentral Marawi road as evidence that progress is being made. Government support for 25,300 still-displaced families is also seen via the provision of rice, cash assistance, livelihood training and tractors for local farming co-operatives. Yet despite the help available, displaced residents living in cramped conditions in transitory shelters, vulnerable to the threat of COVID-19, are increasingly desperate to return home.

Frustration rising among long-term evacuees

Anger among evacuees though, pre-dates the untimely arrival COVID-19. Back in November, Marawi Reconstruction Conflict Watch (MRCW), a civil society organization founded to monitor the rebuilding of the city, issued a strongly-worded statement after attending a public Congressional hearing on the issue. MRCW criticized a lack of transparency and accountability in the Manila-led rebuilding process, labelling it a ‘total mess’. Aside from lamenting the slow-pace of construction work, MRCW criticized the delayed passage of a compensation bill, alleging that Maranaos are being ‘treated as second class citizens’ and were blamed by the authorities for the incursion of ISIS that led to the five-month siege. The group also asked Duterte to reverse a controversial decision to build a new AFP camp in Marawi.

Dissenting voices have also emerged from those in power, at the local and national level. Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, interim Chief Minister of the BARMM and former head of the MILF, who in his position must tread a fine line between BARMM citizens and Manila, has sought to reassure Maranao Muslims that the government remains committed to the project while acknowledging that the job is ‘far from over’. Other BARMM lawmakers have been more vocal and called for TFBM’s leadership to be overhauled. Mindanaoan politician Amihilda Sangcopan has asked the agency to hold a ‘State of Marawi Address’ to tell evacuees when they can ‘go home to their beloved city’, while detained opposition senator Leila de Lima has lamented the ‘suffering, worsening poverty and dispossession’ of Marawi’s ex-residents.

ISIS recruitment and the BARMM peace process

The effort to re-start construction following the COVID-19 disruption comes a year into the three-year BARMM transition period; designed to implement the peace deal and secure a lasting peace in Moro-majority western Mindanao. The MILF is currently disarming its 30,000 fighters, while ordinary citizens have placed their hopes on the new autonomous region to end decades of large-scale armed conflict.

Marawi, known as the Philippines’ Islamic city, is of high symbolic importance to Moro Muslims. Rebuilding mosques destroyed during the siege will assist peace efforts. (Image Source: Suhayla)

Yet radical groups – born out of the Moro separatist rebellion and later inspired by ISIS ideology – are still active and aim to upend the peace process. Abu Sayyaf pose a risk in the Sulu islands to the west, while the Maute Group and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters remain present in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao. Further delay in rebuilding Marawi could assist in their recruitment. A U.S. diplomatic cable, released in February, noted that ‘public anger at the Philippine government’s extended delays in providing for the reconstruction of Marawi has allowed extremist elements to re-gain a foothold in the city’, warning that a negative public perception of efforts to rehabilitate the city had likely ‘reinforced extremist anti-government narratives and contributed to terrorist recruitment’.

The AFP has reported recruitment by the Maute group in towns around Lake Lanao, on which Marawi sits, in the three years since the siege, with the militants offering a financial incentive for young men to join-up. Although the strength of militant groups has undoubtedly declined since the height of the siege, when the Mautes and their allies deployed 1,000 fighters in the city, such reports drive concern that a failure to rebuild swiftly could create an atmosphere conducive to the terrorists’ bolstering their ranks – by targeting displaced residents seeking a way out of homelessness, joblessness and poverty.

‘I want to finish the projects during my time’

The BARMM, in which the hopes of Mindanao’s Moro Muslims are invested, has little control over the reconstruction of Marawi. The fate of the city lies with the central government in Manila. Earlier this year, after releasing funds for construction in the Banggolo district to begin, Duterte remarked: ‘I want to finish the projects during my time’. Despite confirming he would go ahead with plans to build a new army base in the city, he said ‘I am not after the Maranao’, arguing it is necessary to prevent a repeat of the siege. Duterte’s term ends in 2022, around six months after TFBM’s deadline to rebuild the city.

If the deadline is not met and reconstruction efforts drag on for years, Marawi risks becoming another ‘open wound’ driving recruitment to rebel groups unsatisfied with the peace process. Former chief of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) – the failed predecessor to the BARMM – Mujiv Hataman, has warned that a failure to rebuild in good time could lead Marawi to become the modern equivalent to the 1968 Jabidah massacre, which drove recruitment for the old Moro separatist groups. In the current context, as ISIS allies look to rebound, such a scenario would pose a huge security risk.

With the BARMM in place and the MILF disarming, Manila could not have a bigger incentive to deliver on its promise to rebuild Marawi – and ensure the peace gains made since the siege are not reversed.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.