Abu Sayyaf Under Rising Pressure in Southern Philippines’ Maritime Borderlands

Trilateral naval patrols by the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia in the Sulu Sea since 2017 have restricted the transit of Abu Sayyaf fighters. (Image Source: US Pacific Fleet)

Five years ago, the notorious Philippine militant group Abu Sayyaf had aligned itself with the Islamic State and was in the midst of its most audacious assault. Led by Isnilon Hapilon, it battled Philippine forces alongside militants from the Maute Group and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters for five months in the southern city of Marawi. This brazen attempt to seize territory and create a caliphate followed a decade in which Abu Sayyaf had ruled the Sulu and Celebes Seas off Mindanao’s western coast, where it regularly kidnapped seafarers and collected millions of dollars in ransom payments.

Yet the fortunes of Southeast Asia’s most feared jihadi group have altered dramatically. Abu Sayyaf is now in steep decline. Hapilon was killed during the final days of fighting in Marawi and each of his successors have since met the same bloody end. Its funding from the Islamic State has dried up—as have foreign recruits. Philippine forces now have the militants on the retreat and with support from Malaysian troops in Sabah have cut-off maritime corridors for jihadists hoping to travel from abroad. Local dynamics, too, on the islands where Abu Sayyaf still exists, suggest it is firmly on the back foot.

Basilan influence fading

It is on Basilan, where Hapilon’s faction used to reign supreme, that Abu Sayyaf’s losses have been most visible. His successor, Furuji Indama, was killed in September 2020 amid heavy clashes with the military in Zamboanga Sibugay province, where he was tracked-down after escaping Basilan. Attacks on Basilan near ceased after Indama’s death, and Abu Sayyaf’s latest leader there, Radzmil Jannatul (alias Khubayb), was killed by soldiers in late-March, prompting many of his followers to surrender.

The military is confident that the threat on Basilan has receded and recently declared 29 barangays free from Abu Sayyaf influence. This included areas of Isabela city and in the towns of Al-Barka, Hadji Muhtamad, Maluso, and Ungkaya Pukan, where once-frequent skirmishes are now rare. The military said its observations found no evidence of community support or resource generation for the group, and no sign of extremist teaching or radicalization in Islamic schools on the Muslim-majority island.  

Sulu hideout under pressure

The neighbouring island of Sulu saw a higher threat from Abu Sayyaf in recent years. Militants there killed scores in a string of suicide bombings from 2018 to 2020, targeting military installations and a Catholic church. Yet rather than signalling a permanent shift in tactics, the blasts appear an explosive last act by extremists aware they were on the run and keen to cause maximum damage before being caught. A month before the final blast, in July 2020, the military reported that Abu Sayyaf’s leader in Sulu, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, had been killed in an encounter near Patikul. His body was never found and the group never confirmed his death—but he has not been sighted since, and is presumed dead.

Since killing scores of churchgoers in bombings in Jolo in 2019, Abu Sayyaf’s capabilities on the island have been degraded by the Philippine military. (Image Source: PCOO)

Hatib’s bomb-making nephew, Mundi Sawadjaan, is now the group’s leading figure in Sulu. Two of his brothers were killed by the military last year: Mujafal Sawadjaan died in Patikul in April, while Al-Al Sawadjaan was shot dead in Jolo last June. But despite rumours of his death, Mundi is likely to still be alive. According to local intelligence reports, he was sighted in January buying food supplies but is likely now in a safe house and reliant on relatives for support. Mundi’s uncle Hatib Majid Saeed (alias Amah Pattit) and veteran Radullan Sahiron remain key leaders in Sulu, though the latter’s faction has lain low for years and has not aligned with Islamic State like the Sawadjaan clan. The military reports that, as of 2021, Abu Sayyaf fighters in Sulu numbered 132, down from 300-400 in the last few years.

Links between the Islamic State and Sawadjaan’s cohort are now only symbolic, with financial ties severed after the group was defeated in Iraq and Syria. Profits from kidnappings have also reduced sharply. The last recorded Abu Sayyaf kidnapping-at-sea was in January 2020, when five Indonesian fishermen were seized from a vessel off Tambisan island, near the Malaysian sea border. They were rescued by the Philippine military last March, after a boat being used to transport them overturned in high seas. With commercial vessels avoiding the area, Abu Sayyaf now holds no known captives.   

Philippine military build-up

The group’s demise on its island hideouts is mainly due to military pressure. The Philippine armed forces has gradually built up its troop numbers on Sulu in recent years, and by 2022 had a force of 4,500 soldiers—the entire 11th Infantry Division—deployed to the province. This cohort consists of experienced fighters that have been reassigned from other battalions. The division is based in Jolo and has operational responsibility for combating the threat from Abu Sayyaf across the entire Sulu archipelago—which also encompasses the island provinces of Basilan to the east and Tawi-Tawi to the west. Philippine forces carry-out ground raids and have launched regular aerial bombardments which have killed scores of militants hiding out in Sulu’s mountainous and thickly-forested interior.

Malaysia’s supporting role

Malaysia’s Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) has also played its part, imposing a nightly curfew for civilian boats in the waters of the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSZ) to deny Abu Sayyaf targets for kidnapping, while leaving any militant vessels that venture into the area after dusk clearly identifiable. The heavily-policed ESSZ stretches along 1,457km of coast, and covers 58,420km2 of sea area and 32,158km2 of land area. Malaysian authorities have sought to prevent the jungles of Sabah becoming a hiding place or a base for Abu Sayyaf militants to launch kidnappings-at-sea—with seven such plots thwarted since the start of 2020. Last May, an Abu Sayyaf cell found to have set up camp in Sabah was dismantled—eight militants, all Filipino nationals, were captured by ESSCOM troops in the town of Beaufort, before another five militants wielding firearms and machetes were shot dead in a firefight when Malaysian troops discovered makeshift dwellings in a nearby mangrove swamp.

Malaysia plans to strengthen its defences along the coast to prevent future incursions. Last year it announced plans for two new control posts in Kuala Meruap and Siguntur, and a maritime forward operations base on Tambisan island, which has seen several past kidnappings off its coast. ESSCOM commander Ahmad Faud Othman has also requested another six surveillance aircraft and 35 radar-equipped patrol boats from the Malaysian government. Joint trilateral naval and air patrols carried-out in the Sulu Sea by Malaysian, Philippine and Indonesian ships and planes will also be intensified after an agreement between the respective defence ministers at a recent meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

Peace in the Bangsamoro?

Military might aside, the local political context in Mindanao also helps explain Abu Sayyaf’s decline. The self-governed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) was inaugurated in 2019 and precipitated a sharp reduction in violence. The two oldest Moro separatist groups in the regionthe Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)—have both laid down arms and committed to politics, setting up political parties to contest local elections. The democratic governance structures of the BARMM, led by MILF chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, have brought stability, and retain the support of Muslims who voted en masse for the region’s formation.

With the 40,000 rebels of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front disarming, only Abu Sayyaf and a few other radical Islamist groups are left fighting. (Image Source: Geneva Call)

As a result, Islamist militant groups allied with Abu Sayyaf on mainland Mindanao are also suffering. In Lanao, Faharudin Hadji Satar (alias Abu Zacaria), the supposed “emir” of Islamic State in Southeast Asia, leads just 60-70 remaining fighters of the Maute Group, while the extreme Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters are hiding-out in ever-smaller numbers in the marshlands of central Maguindanao. Having rapidly lost public support since the BARMM was inaugurated, these groups have been under constant aerial bombardment by the military and now operate only in small, geographically-isolated pockets of territory, unable to carry-out bombings and sieges of major cities like they did previously.

Despite their near capitulation, these remaining Islamist fighters should not be written off just yet. Abu Sayyaf poses a particular threat. While foreign fighters are unable to join and overseas funding has been extinguished, the local element remains a problem due to the unique history of the islands the militants call home. A lower proportion of residents in Sulu—which was once the revered centre of a pre-colonial Islamic sultanate existing from 1415 until the 1900s—voted for the BARMM than in any of its other four component provinces. The archipelago is also struggling to reap the rewards of the BARMM, with Sulu and Basilan remaining the poorest provinces in the Philippines—the poverty rate in Sulu is 71.9% compared to the BARMM average of 39.4%, giving separatism a lingering pull.

Yet Abu Sayyaf is at its lowest ebb since its formation as a radical splinter of the MNLF in the early-1990s. After thirty years of militancy, the Philippine military has its best opportunity yet to end the violence in the Sulu archipelago, and with the help of the BARMM, push Abu Sayyaf to the margins.

A version of this article was first published on Asia Sentinel.

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.

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.

Why Indonesia’s Papua Insurgency Has Reached a Strategic Stalemate

The Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) deployed an additional 1,000 troops to Papua after protests erupted across the region in August 2019. (Image Source: USAF/Richard Ebensberger)

On 30 March, separatist rebels opened fire on three employees of the Grasberg gold and copper mine near Puncak Jaya – the highest mountain in Indonesia’s remote easternmost province of Papua. One worker was killed and another two sustained gunshot wounds in the attack, which targeted an office and housing area of US-based firm Freeport-McMoRan. The company jointly owns the site – which is the largest gold mine and second largest copper mine in the world – with the Indonesian government.

The mine sits at the heart of a volatile region. The Papua region, which encompasses the provinces of both Papua and West Papua, has been the site of a low-level separatist insurgency since the 1960s. Seven years after the end of Dutch colonial rule, the region was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 via a disputed referendum, in which only 1,025 Papuans, carefully chosen by the Indonesian military, were permitted to cast a ballot. The poll remains a source of tension and drives separatism to this day.

While the conflict has persisted at a low level for decades, last year – the 50th anniversary of the vote – witnessed an uptick in violence. Protestors took to the streets across the two provinces last August, angered by an incident in Surabaya in which Papuan university students were arrested by police and suffered racial taunts from nationalists, over accusations they had desecrated an Indonesian flag. The ensuing street demonstrations soon turned violent, with deaths and injuries reported on both sides.

The recent shooting incident near Puncak Jaya was preceded by a series of clashes in the area between rebels and the Indonesian military, which prompted 917 residents to flee to the nearby city of Timika. Violence appears to be rising while the political campaign for Papuan independence stalls, leaving the status-quo intact and the future no-clearer for the region’s residents, who have long endured poverty and underdevelopment. As the stalemate persists, what makes the situation in Papua so intractable?

The roots of the independence movement

The origins of the dispute date to the mid-20th Century, when the area was under Dutch colonial rule. Indonesia gained Independence in 1949, yet the Dutch retained control of Papua through the 1950s. As calls for independence grew, Papuan leaders held a Congress in 1961 and raised their own flag, the Morning Star. Violence erupted between Papuans, Indonesians and Dutch forces until a UN-sponsored treaty – the New York Agreement – was brokered in 1962. The agreement facilitated initial Indonesian control with the promise of a future referendum to decide the final status of the disputed territory.

The ballot, labelled the ‘Act of Free Choice’, was held in 1969. The Indonesian authorities selected just 1,025 Papuan representatives to vote, by raising of the hand, on behalf of the entire population of the region, which at the time had almost a million inhabitants. Voters unanimously backed staying under the rule of Jakarta; yet did so within an atmosphere of intimidation and under the threat of violence. The result was controversially ratified by the UN, which voted by a majority 84-0, with 30 abstentions.

Widespread street protests last August were sparked by the arrest of Papuan students, alleged to have desecrated an Indonesian flag, in the city of Surabaya. (Image Source: Papua Glossary)

Angered by the perceived unfairness of the process, breakaway elements in the Papua region resorted to violence. An armed guerrilla group, the Free Papua Movement or Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) has carried-out attacks targeting security forces and multinational corporations since the 1970s. Other insurgent groups, such as the West Papua National Liberation Army or Tentera Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat (TPNPB) also operate in the region. The latter group claimed responsibility for the attack in late-March on workers of the Grasberg mine, which it views as diverting profits abroad and harming the environment. The Indonesian military has also been accused of rights abuses and arbitrary arrests.

While the insurgency has persisted away from the scrutiny of the international media spotlight, 2019 marked a turning point in coverage. The protests which started last August, spread to cities including Timika, Fakfak, Sarong and regional capital Manokwari. Mobile phone footage was shared around the world on social media platforms and made it into mainstream news in the West. Indonesia promptly cut internet access to the region, claiming it would ‘accelerate the process of restoring security’. Yet Papuan independence activists and human rights organizations suspected the move was designed to limit global media coverage, cover-up abuses and prevent protestors from co-ordinating their actions.

Why is the Papuan situation so intractable?

The conflict is resistant to resolution given the diametrically opposed positions of both sides. From the perspective of Jakarta, the region came under its control in the 1960s via a legitimate vote, backed by the UN and supported by its neighbours and allies. Even today, regional powers such as Australia are reluctant to sympathize with Papuan separatists or criticize Indonesian military actions in the region. Indonesian politicians and military leaders are keen to defend the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in its outermost regions; while as a resource-rich area, Papua is vital to the national economy.

Papuan independence activists, such as exiled figurehead of the movement, Benny Wenda, present a different reality. They view the 1969 vote as flawed and unrepresentative of the native population of Papua. Indonesian rule is seen as being illegitimate and constituting a form of modern-day colonialism. A set of additional grievances have added to the Papuan narrative of unjust domination by Jakarta. Of particular concern to independence activists is transmigration; a policy which has seen mostly-Muslim Javanese settle in Papua, displacing elements of the culture of mostly-Christian Melanesian Papuans.

Regional power Australia supports Indonesia’s control of Papua. Indonesian leader Joko Widodo is pictured here with Australian PM Scott Morrison. (Image Source: Australian Embassy Jakarta)

Economic grievances also feature highly on the list of concerns. Under Indonesian control, large multi-national companies have won contracts to extract Papua’s natural resources, diverting profits out of the region while much of the local population lives in poverty. Infrastructure also lags behind, leaving Papua underdeveloped and disconnected from more affluent sections of the Indonesian archipelago. Such companies also bring negative environmental impacts, such as pollution and the loss of forests. Many Papuans feel marginalized by the Jakarta elite and discriminated against by other ethnic groups.

An insurgency governed by stalemate

Indonesia shows little sign of budging from its long-term position on Papua, despite current President Joko Widodo pledging to listen to the concerns of Papuans after last year’s violent demonstrations. The Papuan independence movement – led primarily by Papuans exiled abroad – has made minimal progress amid internal divisions and a lack of coherence, despite the recent boost in global attention.

The UN – which ratified Indonesian control in the 1960s – is just as unlikely today to provide support for those intent on securing independence via political means. The principles of state sovereignty and territorial integrity remain the two cornerstones of international diplomacy, while regional allies with similar concerns about breakaway regions and separatist struggles at home are certain to back Jakarta. For major powers such as the US, China and Russia, Papua is of little wider geo-strategic significance.

It is hard to see how Papua will escape the current impasse. A cycle of insurgent attacks, alleged state oppression, protests and military deployments continue to dictate the region’s security architecture. Papuan separatist groups are no match for the strength of the Indonesian military; while in times of increased tension the authorities are able to suppress information, denting the organizational ability of rebels and their supporters. For as long as there is no meaningful political dialogue, the status-quo in Papua – of a conflict frozen in time and largely hidden from view – will prevail long into the future.

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

After Duterte Scraps VFA, What Next for the US-Philippine Security Alliance?

Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin sent the US formal notice of Duterte’s decision to terminate the VFA on 11 February. (Image Source: US Marine Corps, Chanelcherie K. DeMello)

On 11 February, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte provided formal notice to the US of his decision to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) – a bilateral treaty inked in 1998 to facilitate the presence of US troops in the country. Duterte’s Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin had voiced his concerns over the risks of cancelling the agreement in a Senate hearing the previous week, warning the move could result in the ‘severe curtailment’ of America’s long-standing defence obligations to its former colony.

Many observers have questioned the sense in Duterte terminating an agreement that has for the past 22 years underpinned what is arguably Washington’s most strategically important security alliance in Asia. The immediate trigger appears to be the US decision in January to rescind a visa for Ronald dela Rosa – a senator and close political ally of Duterte, who in his former role as national police chief led Duterte’s violent anti-drug campaign; roundly criticized in the West over alleged extra-judicial killings.

The visa revocation drew an angry response from Duterte, who immediately threatened to cancel the VFA and barred members of his cabinet from travelling to the US. Yet the visa issue may have provided a convenient excuse for Duterte, who has executed a pivot away from the US and toward China, since his shock election win in 2016. Duterte has routinely denounced US influence and criticized US foreign policy, claiming it has treated his nation ‘like a dog on a leash’ since the end of American rule in 1946.

Immediate and practical impacts of VFA termination

The termination of the VFA will take effect after 180 days, meaning the status-quo will be maintained until mid-August when the agreement is scheduled to expire. However, US-Philippine defence ties will not cease to exist when the six-month deadline is reached, as the two countries have two additional defence agreements, which are set to remain in place. A Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT), signed in 1951, commits the US to come to the Philippines’ aid in the event of an attack by a foreign power; while the 2014 Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement (EDCA), penned during the Obama administration, introduced new provisions for troop rotations, the use of military bases and the positioning of assets.

While these two agreements are important in their own right, the VFA is vital to their implementation. It provides a legal framework for US troops to enter and exit the country without needing a passport or visa, and provides clear procedures for handling issues and disputes which may arise as a result of American presence. Above all, the VFA is a crucial tool in facilitating regular joint exercises between the two militaries. Around 390 such exercises are planned for 2020, the largest of which – referred to as Balikatan, meaning ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ in the local Tagalog language – is due to be held in May.

The continuation of these drills after the 180-day period ends would be uncertain in the absence of a replacement for the VFA. After Duterte’s decision, US Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, Clarke Cooper, said joint operations would be ‘put at risk’, emphasizing that ‘all engagements’ require a facilitating legal mechanism to be in place. Foreign Secretary Locsin said as much during the Senate hearing on 6 February, noting that the VFA was the ‘substance’ that made the MDT effective.

Long-term strategic implications of terminating the VFA

Beyond these logistical issues, terminating the VFA has two significant implications for the Philippines’ national security – which may also impact regional security and wider US interests in the Asia-Pacific.

Firstly, a permanent US military presence in the Philippines, enabled by the VFA, serves as a deterrent to Chinese maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea – labelled the West Philippine Sea by Manila. Over the past decade, Beijing has reclaimed land and built military installations on contested islands in the region, where control of various portions of the sea and its features is disputed between China and five other claimant states. The area serves as a vital route for global shipping and seaborne trade.

The VFA – which facilitates the presence of US troops in the Philippines – was signed in 1998. The two nations also have a Mutual Defence Treaty dating back to the 1950s. (Image Source: US DoD)

The US has sought to push-back against Chinese maritime expansionism, for fear Beijing could assert full dominance and displace the US as the foremost naval power in the Asia-Pacific. In this sense, the Philippines is ideally located – on the sea’s eastern perimeter – as a staging post to guard against this perceived threat. The VFA, in allowing the permanent presence of US troops, has ensured a base from which the US can project power and launch freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. While the US does have close ties with other claimant states – such as Vietnam, on the sea’s western fringe – the relationship with the Philippines is long-established and it is considered a crucial partner. Terminating the VFA may give China the green light to continue its activities in the sea unchallenged.

Secondly, the VFA has enabled two decades of counter-terrorism co-operation between US forces and the Philippine military on the troubled southern island of Mindanao, where extreme Islamist groups, such as the notorious Abu Sayyaf, operate. The area is also home to a number of other hardline groups linked to the Islamic State, including the Maute Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US deployed 600 soldiers to the region to help stem the tide of militancy, and around 100 remain stationed in Mindanao on a rotating basis. Although they don’t participate in active combat, US personnel provide intelligence and reconnaissance support, which played a key role in ending the 2017 siege of Marawi, when Philippine forces battled Islamist militants for five months.

The US has also provided equipment, financial assistance and urban-warfare training, helping to boost the capacity of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to tackle rapidly-evolving terrorist threats in Mindanao. Several senior Filipino politicians now fear that by scrapping the VFA, the desire of the US to provide such assistance may decrease, risking worsening instability in the insurgency-prone south. Foreign Secretary Locsin stated last month that the VFA ‘allows for continued support for addressing non-traditional security threats’, adding that US forces had been ‘instrumental’ in not only combating terrorism, but also in helping to confront ‘trafficking in persons, cyber-attacks…and illegal narcotics’. Security issues aside, US humanitarian support and disaster response has also been aided by the VFA.

A shared interest in renegotiating the VFA?

Despite senior figures in his administration voicing their concerns, Duterte appears intent on sticking with his decision. He has pushed back against those ‘trying to save’ the VFA, voicing a desire to ‘rely on ourselves’ in the defence sphere. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump responded to reporters with apparent indifference when asked about the move, remarking ‘I really don’t mind…we’ll save a lot of money’. Despite these assertions, some Filipino politicians have stated a preference for the VFA to be reviewed rather than scrapped, and the 180-day notice period may afford time for negotiations.

It is in the interests of both parties to maintain the kind of co-operation that the VFA facilitated, even if the agreement must now be revived in a different form and under a different name. A renegotiation of aspects of the VFA as part of a new deal, acceptable to both Duterte and Trump, may be possible if both men opt to put the shared security interests of their respective countries ahead of political gain in the domestic sphere – where their populist bases are largely supportive of an isolationist approach to foreign policy. Longer-term, the future of the US-Philippine security alliance will be passed into the hands of new leaders: Duterte’s single six-year term ends in 2022, while Trump is seeking re-election in November. A US-friendly leader in Manila, or a Democratic president in the US, would likely lead to a return to the more engaged Obama-era relationship between the US and its Southeast Asian allies: centred on strengthening security partnerships, and opposing Chinese actions in the maritime realm.

Yet with Duterte and Trump at the helm, the US-Philippine security alliance appears to be weakening; and with the VFA set to be terminated, the defence establishments of both countries will hope for no lasting damage.

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

Is Duterte’s Latest Peace Overture to the NPA Another False Dawn?

In December, President Rodrigo Duterte called on CPP leader Jose Maria Sison to return home to the Philippines from exile in the Netherlands, for a one-on-one meeting. (Image Source: PCOO)

Late last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte indicated a willingness to reverse his prior decision to terminate the peace process with the New People’s Army (NPA) – a communist rebel group at odds with Manila since the 1960s. On 26 December, Duterte appealed to Jose Maria Sison – the exiled head of the NPA’s political wing, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) – to return home from exile in the Netherlands for one-on-one talks in an attempt to revive the peace process. Sison replied that while he was open to dialogue, he would only be prepared to meet Duterte in a neighbouring country.

This initial positive exchange was followed by a sense of growing momentum, when a 16-day ‘holiday truce’ agreed by the NPA and the Philippine military – covering the Christmas and New Year period – largely held firm despite several reported violations. In the early weeks of 2020, informal discussions have taken place and the government’s former chief negotiator, Silvestre Bello III, has even suggested Sison could return to Manila to sign an interim peace accord ahead of the resumption of formal talks. Duterte has sought to allay Sison’s fears over returning, stating on 11 January: ‘I guarantee his safety’.

Yet despite these steps forward, the window of opportunity for peace talks to resume may be limited. At the start of Duterte’s administration, talks with the NPA appeared to be moving forward until the peace process collapsed in early-2017 amid a dispute over a prisoner amnesty. All attempts to restart dialogue have since proven fruitless amid an atmosphere of rising hostility between the government and the CPP, typified by repeated tirades of insults exchanged in public between Duterte and Sison. This chequered history suggests the current receding of tensions may turn out only to be temporary.

A history of failed talks

The NPA and CPP have been led by Sison since he founded the rebel movement in the late-1960s. For five decades, the NPA has fought government troops in rural areas across the country, with the stated aim of overthrowing the Philippine state and replacing it with a political system predicated on Maoist ideology. While the insurgency reached its height in the 1980s during the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos, the rebel movement has since held peace talks with six successive democratic-era presidents.

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) – the negotiating body of the NPA and CPP – participated in failed talks during the administrations of Aquino, Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino III before entering dialogue with Duterte upon his election in 2016. Talks initially progressed well, with a ceasefire being declared and four rounds of dialogue being held in Amsterdam, Oslo and Rome. Yet the peace process collapsed in 2017 amid Duterte’s refusal to release political prisoners and renewed rebel attacks. NPA activity has since rebounded in rural central and southern areas of the Philippines.

In 2018, several months of back-channel talks proved fruitless after the NPA refused to meet Duterte’s pre-conditions for the resumption of formal dialogue, which included an end to rebel attacks, an end to extortion and a political commitment from the CPP not to seek to form a coalition government. Last March, Duterte announced the peace process was ‘permanently terminated’ during his presidency – due to expire in 2022 – and disbanded his negotiating panel, which had been led by Silvestre Bello III. In its place, Duterte proposed localized talks with NPA commanders, bypassing the senior leadership.

Barriers to renewed dialogue

Duterte has rowed back on his decision, offering an olive branch in the form of a face-to-face meeting with Sison. Given this change in tone, what is the likelihood of formal national-level talks between the government and NDFP restarting, and ultimately succeeding, during the remainder of Duterte’s term?

Since peace talks failed in 2017, AFP troops have fought the NPA on a near-daily basis. Violence has centered on Eastern Mindanao, Samar and Negros Island. (Image Source: Matthew Hulett)

Meaningful progress is unlikely for several reasons. First, Sison’s reluctance to return to the Philippines represents a firm barrier to dialogue. Duterte has long insisted that any future talks must be hosted in the Philippines, which Sison has described as ‘totally unacceptable’, arguing in December that agreeing to return would ‘put the NDFP and the entire peace negotiations in the pocket of the Duterte regime’. Alternatively, Sison has proposed holding informal talks in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, ahead of the resumption of formal negotiations in a third-party country – most likely Norway, which has served as a mediator between the two sides in the past. The Philippine government is unlikely to allow the CPP to dictate the timing or location of negotiations, leaving both sides at odds over their desired venue.

Second, the core areas of disagreement that have scuppered talks in recent years, remain unresolved. The government still requires the rebel movement to meet six pre-conditions, first proposed in 2018, before the peace process can resume. These conditions include an end to attacks, extortion and arson in addition to the encampment of rebel fighters, the signing of a bilateral ceasefire and an end to NPA recruitment. Given Sison’s lack of control over NPA commanders on the ground, from his base in the Netherlands, it is difficult to foresee these conditions being met, even if Sison and his advisors agreed. Sison also continues to call for ‘the release of political prisoners on humanitarian grounds’ as his own pre-condition for formal talks resuming. It is unlikely the government will deviate from its past stance.

Third, a lack of trust exists on both sides, with each suspicious of the other’s real intentions in seeking fresh talks. The CPP fears Duterte’s offer for Sison to return to partake in negotiations is a pre-text for his arrest. Despite Duterte’s reassurances, a court in Manila issued an arrest warrant for Sison just last August over his alleged role in the 1985 Inopacan massacre, while in September the Philippine police asked INTERPOL to issue a ‘red notice’ for the detention of Sison. These developments came after the arrest of several NDFP negotiators since 2017 and many previous threats from Duterte to detain Sison. Equally, the government is also suspicious of the CPP’s true intentions, having criticized NPA violations of past ceasefires and accused the group of using past peace negotiations as a cover for recruitment.

These suspicions have not been helped by an ongoing war-of-words between Duterte and Sison since the peace process first collapsed in 2017, typified by increasingly heated rhetoric and personal insults. After back-channel talks failed in 2018, Duterte derided NPA rebels as ‘robots’ fighting for a ‘bankrupt mind’ in reference to Sison, while the CPP leader retorted that Duterte was ‘very capable of violence’, labelling him as a ‘crazy guy in power’. Duterte has openly criticized CPP ideology as ‘outdated’, while the CPP has condemned Duterte’s authoritarian leadership style and argues he seeks to crush dissent. Tensions have been raised by the alleged ‘red-tagging’ of left-wing advocacy groups in recent months.

Fourth, even if the peace process resumes, the likelihood of a final peace accord being signed is slim, given that both sides have opposing visions of its end point. The CPP’s stated aim remains to replace the Philippines’ system of government with a socialist-style system lead by the working classes. Sison’s ideology, first outlined in 1974, argues this must be achieved through a prolonged guerrilla-style war, leaving little room for political negotiation. Many suspect that even in the event of a deal being signed, the NPA would refuse to disarm, with a spokesperson for Duterte’s peace process advisor arguing on 17 January that ‘never has it been the rebels’ intention to demobilize their armed wing, even if both parties sign a final peace agreement’. The Duterte administration, in line with the view of past Manila administrations, foresees a solution in line with the Philippine constitution and democratic processes. In such a case, no parallel armed forces would be permitted and the NPA would be required to disarm.

Another false dawn?

Despite Duterte’s latest peace overture being accompanied by more positive rhetoric by both parties, recent history suggests that events could spiral downhill quickly if disagreement on the core stumbling blocks persists. Since talks first collapsed in 2017, relations between the government and the CPP have been characterized by rising hostility and distrust. Even amid the recent détente, on 5 January the new chief-of-staff of the Philippine armed forces, Lt. Gen. Felimon Santos, vowed to crush the NPA before the end of Duterte’s term in 2022 – a threat which Duterte himself his repeated on multiple occasions.

Such mixed-messaging and Duterte’s unpredictable, shifting stance on his approach toward the CPP, may dissuade the CPP from returning to the negotiating table and leave Sison to conclude the risk of returning to Manila is too high. Unless a formal summit is agreed during this rare moment of calm, the revival of the peace process may – as Duterte stated last March – have to wait ‘for the next president’.

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

After Martial Law, Could the Islamic State Rebound in the Philippines?

President Duterte has opted not to extend Martial Law in Mindanao beyond 31 December 2019. The emergency measure had been in place for more than three years (Image Source: PCOO)

On 10 December, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced the end of martial law in Mindanao after opting against an extension, on the advice of military and police chiefs. The emergency measure, which was first imposed in the restive region in response to an ISIS-led siege of Marawi city in May 2017, had previously been extended three times and is now set to expire on 31 December. Two years after ISIS were defeated in Marawi, the jihadist threat has been reduced to a more manageable scale.

The ISIS-affiliated groups which led the siege have been pushed back and many of their leaders killed, leading Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to declare his preference for lifting martial law entirely in November. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) chiefs initially suggested extending the measure only in ‘selective areas’ where extremist groups still operate. The provinces of Maguindanao and Sulu have both experienced attacks by ISIS-affiliated groups this year.

With martial law lifted, what level of threat do ISIS’ surviving local affiliates represent in Mindanao? And despite ISIS’ declining global influence, after territorial losses in the Middle East and the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a US raid in Syria, could its followers in the Philippines rebound?

ISIS remnants in Mindanao

The Maute Group, accused of planning the assault on Marawi in an attempt to carve out a Southeast Asian ISIS caliphate, are severely depleted after AFP operations in Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur. While the group was 1,000-strong ahead of the siege, it is now thought to have fewer than 25 active members. Its founders, brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, were killed during the final gun battles in Marawi in October 2017; while its new leader, Abu Dar, was shot dead during a military operation in Tubaran on 14 March, leaving the Mautes without a main figurehead. After Abu Dar’s killing, the AFP said the Mautes were no longer capable of launching a Marawi-style raid, yet military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner warned that the group was still trying to recruit and remains a national security risk.

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which played a minor supporting role in the Marawi siege, emerged relatively unscathed and posed a larger threat in its aftermath. In 2018, they regularly fought government troops and carried-out a string of bombings, maiming civilians in restaurants and shopping malls, in the provinces of Maguindanao, North Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat. However, AFP airstrikes and ground operations targeting BIFF hideouts in the rural Liguasan Marsh area of central Maguindanao have dented the group’s capabilities in 2019. In April, regional military commander Maj. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said the three BIFF factions – the most powerful of which is led by ISIS-affiliated militant Abu Toraife – had been forced into a tactical alliance and resorted to guerrilla-style tactics to survive while under growing pressure. In recent months, the group’s remaining fighters have lain low.

A smaller ISIS-aligned group, Ansar Khalifah Philippines (AKP), also remains active further south, in the provinces of Sarangani and South Cotabato. However, since its leader Mohammad Jaafar Maguid was killed in a firefight with police in 2017, AKP has been regarded by the authorities as more of a criminal nuisance than a transnational terror threat, having engaged only in a series of small-scale gun battles.

The threat from Abu Sayyaf

The Philippines oldest known jihadi group, Abu Sayyaf, which was formed in the early-1990s, currently represent the gravest threat of all Mindanao’s ISIS affiliates. After playing a leading role in the Marawi siege alongside the Mautes, Abu Sayyaf retreated from mainland Mindanao to their former maritime hideouts on the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. After regrouping and replenishing its ranks, Abu Sayyaf has rebounded in 2019. The most extreme faction, led by ISIS supporter Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, has perpetrated a wave of high-profile suicide bombings in Sulu this year. On 27 January, two militants detonated themselves inside a crowded cathedral in Jolo, leaving 22 worshippers dead and 81 wounded. A second double suicide attack killed eight people at a military base in Indanan on 28 June, while a fifth bomber blew themselves up at an AFP camp in the same town on 8 September.

Abu Sayyaf laid siege to the city of Marawi for five months in 2017, as part of a coalition of four local militant groups with links to the Islamic State (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

The bombings were all claimed by ISIS via official statements. Several of the suspected bombers were revealed to be Indonesian and Moroccan nationals, adding to concerns that Abu Sayyaf is harbouring foreign fighters trained in bomb-making and willing to volunteer themselves for suicide missions. Back in July, Maj. Gen. Sobejana had warned that seven foreign terrorists were training Filipino militants in IED construction while another 42 suspected foreign fighters were being monitored by the authorities. He said many of these suspects were likely ‘embedded’ with Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF. On 5 November, government soldiers shot dead two Egyptian militants at a checkpoint in Jolo, confirming these fears.

Abu Sayyaf has around 400 fighters and continues to fight the army under the command of Sawadjaan in Sulu, while another ISIS-linked faction led by Furuji Indama remains active in Basilan. Smaller cells are active in the Tawi-Tawi islands, while Abu Sayyaf activity has been reported in Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah and along the coast of mainland Mindanao’s Zamboanga peninsula. Abu Sayyaf is also notorious for launching piracy attacks and kidnappings-at-sea, several of which have occurred in 2019.

Guarding against an ISIS resurgence

Although degraded post-Marawi, and contained to the remote southwest of the country, ISIS-aligned groups are still active and intent on forging a regional caliphate centred on the southern Philippines.

There is growing concern that the BIFF and Mautes may look to replenish their ranks by targeting the 66,000 residents still displaced from Marawi city, more than two years since the end of the siege. The government has been criticized by its opponents for the slow pace of rehabilitation, with the central Banggolo district still in ruin and needing to be cleared of unexploded ordnance before building work can begin. It is feared that young men with limited economic opportunities and their livelihoods placed on hold due to the ISIS-led siege, may ironically become prime targets for recruitment by jihadi groups. Tensions are rising, with the government’s 2021 target for rebuilding the city unlikely to be achieved.

An extension to martial law in Abu Sayyaf and BIFF strongholds would have helped the AFP maintain pressure on ISIS remnants; but the military and intelligence agencies will maintain vigilance regardless. The AFP will likely continue launching airstrikes and undertaking ground offensives in the ISIS hotspots of Sulu and Maguindanao; while also holding regular trilateral naval patrols alongside Indonesian and Malaysian forces in the Sulu Sea, to deter kidnappings and prevent the movement of foreign fighters. Guarding against the transition of Abu Sayyaf to mainland Mindanao is crucial in preventing a repeat of Marawi, when the Philippines’ four ISIS-linked groups were able to join forces to take-over the city.

Hopes are also invested in a peace deal signed between the government and an older, more moderate Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The accord, ratified in a referendum in western Mindanao earlier this year, will see former rebels govern a new Muslim autonomous region, encompassing the core territories where ISIS-linked groups remain active. If the deal brings economic development and enhances livelihoods, then ISIS – known to prey upon unstable and poverty-stricken regions to reinvigorate itself – may be denied a climate conducive to its resurgence in the Philippines.

An earlier version of this article, written before it was announced that martial law would not be extended beyond December 2019, is published on Geopolitical Monitor.

After a Spike in Violence, What Next for Myanmar’s Divided Peace Process?

The government aims to hold a fourth 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference with the ten Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signatories in early-2020 (Image Source: A. N. Soe, VOA)

Since the crackdown on the Rohingya in mid-2017, Rakhine State, along the border with Bangladesh in Myanmar’s volatile west, has been the epicentre of violence in a nation where multiple civil wars have raged since the 1940s. While more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have remained encamped in squalid conditions across the border, the military – known as the Tatmadaw – has taken the fight to a band of Arakanese Buddhist militants active the area, known as the Arakan Army (AA), bringing further bloodshed to Rakhine. Yet in August, a spate of insurgent attacks 600km to the northeast re-opened a dormant front on Myanmar’s battlefield, threatening to alter the dynamics of the conflict.

On 15 August, three allied ethnic armed groups – the AA, along with the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) – launched a series of co-ordinated attacks in the Mandalay and Shan regions. In the township of Naung Cho, the groups’ fighters – collectively known as the Northern Alliance, or Brotherhood Alliance – attacked a railway bridge, killing seven Tatmadaw troops and three policemen. Elsewhere, a military training academy and several toll gates were attacked, while at least four strategic bridges were destroyed with IEDs.

The unexpected attacks drew an immediate response from the army and sparked weeks of intense fighting, triggering the most widespread violence witnessed since the height of the Rohingya crisis.

Yet the sudden deterioration in security pushed the two main perpetrators – the Northern Alliance and the government – to come to the negotiating table. Two rounds of informal talks were held in late-August and mid-September, leading the Northern Alliance to declare a unilateral truce until 31 December. Yet despite the positive rhetoric accompanying the ceasefire, the AA, TNLA and MNDAA have continued to launch attacks, prompting the military to respond furiously and call an end to its own unilateral ceasefire on 21 September, which had been routinely extended throughout the year.

Meanwhile, ten ethnic armed groups who had previously signed the collective Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government, initiated in 2015, met government negotiators in September with the aim of reviving the stalled national-level peace process. After a two-day meeting in Yangon, the signatories reportedly agreed to hold a fourth union-level Panglong Peace Conference early next year. If the summit goes ahead in early-2020 as hoped, it would signal the resumption of formal talks for the first time since 2018 and likely achieve more than was possible in recent informal discussions.

Yet with fighting ongoing and the Tatmadaw’s unilateral ceasefire now called-off, will recent signs of momentum in talks be sustained? And, what chance of formal negotiations being revived next year?

Myanmar’s divided peace process

The election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2015 brought fresh hope of a resolution to the decades-old ethnic conflicts which have raged since Myanmar’s independence from Britain in 1948. The NLD hoped to build on the pre-existing NCA, signed in October of that year, by holding a series of 21st Century Panglong Peace Conferences, named after a peace summit held in the mid-20th Century by Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San. Yet overall, the situation has worsened.

Little progress has been made through the NCA mechanism; which only a collection of smaller armed organizations have embraced. Most NCA signatories operate only in the less-active southern conflict zones of Kayah, Kayin and Mon. Violence elsewhere has surged. Since a spate of AA attacks on police border guard outposts in January, more than 65,000 civilians have fled their homes in Rakhine State, while hundreds of combatants are thought to have been killed on both sides amid escalating clashes. The townships of Buthidaung, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U and Rathedaung have been particularly hard hit. Paletwa township, in neighbouring Chin State, has also emerged as a conflict flashpoint.

Myanmar PP (2)
Despite Aung San Suu Kyi serving as Myanmar’s de-factor leader, the military retains a dominant influence over politics, particularly on security and defence matters (Image Source: Adam Jones)

While groups in the northeast had been largely quiet over the past year after holding tentative talks with the government, August’s bloodshed rapidly altered the picture. The Northern Alliance attacks – which it must be noted, did not involve insurgents from fourth member of the alliance, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) – had a negative impact on the civilian population, trade and the regional economy. The destruction of key bridges and the burning of trucks severely impeded the vital cross-border trade with China, as the strategic border trading town of Muse became virtually inaccessible from the Myanmar side for a week in mid-August. In addition to the financial implications, the raids prompted a large-scale military crackdown, threatening to open up a deadly new front in the north.

Fragile ceasefires and informal talks

On 31 August, and again on 16-17 September, representatives of the government-directed National Reconciliation and Peace Centre (NPRC) met Northern Alliance leaders in Shan’s Kengtung township. China – which has influence over the alliance members and an obvious strategic interest in ensuring stability and unimpeded trade along its border – pressured both sides to end the fighting. A Chinese delegation led by a senior official from Yunnan province, Guo Bao, attended the second summit. The meetings resulted a temporary reduction of tensions, as both parties agreed to hold further talks. On 9 September, in what initially appeared to represent a potentially major breakthrough, the Northern Alliance declared a month-long ceasefire to ‘build trust’, and later extended it until the end of 2019.

After the second meeting, there was even talk of a bilateral ceasefire, with local media stating that a seven-point plan had been agreed in principle. Yet nothing was signed, and in retrospect it is unclear if the rebel representatives at the talks were granted authority by their superiors to agree a concrete deal. Despite the positive direction of talks, armed encounters – with both sides accusing each other of initiating violence – have continued to occur on a near-daily basis in Shan and Rakhine. With little sign of restraint, the Tatmadaw has raised doubts over the sincerity of the Northern Alliance groups and opted on 21 September to terminate its own ceasefire, which had covered five army command regions. That ceasefire – which had been in place since late-2018 – had also been routinely violated.

Familiar obstacles to peace

The divided nature of Myanmar’s peace process continues to represent the most obvious barrier to progressive talks. While smaller, weaker and less-active groups are committed to the NCA, the more powerful Northern Alliance groups are intent on negotiating a bilateral ceasefire on their own terms. A third, wider coalition of ethnic armies, led by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and united via the UWSA-fronted Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), are also seeking a separate arrangement. The ultimate end result envisioned by most non-state ethnic armed groups is expanded autonomy within a federal system of government. But with so many actors – with varying aims, motives and ideologies – a truly nationwide agreement will be hard to secure. The complexity of Myanmar’s overlapping wars has led to almost inevitable stagnation and deadlock in discussions.

More immediate, short-term obstacles, concern events on the ground in Rakhine and Shan. Both the military and Northern Alliance have accused each other of escalatory tactics. The AA and TNLA claim the Tatmadaw has moved troops into their areas of influence and opened fire on civilians, while the military maintains these groups have launched unprovoked ambushes and planted landmines near villages. An unrelenting cycle of violence since mid-August has eroded trust and fostered suspicion.

The Northern Alliance aside, a fourth Panglong conference in early-2020 with the NCA signatories, if it goes ahead, would represent a positive development. For the first time since July 2018, the parties to the NCA would all be around the same table for meaningful talks to discuss ways to move forward in the political arena. Autonomy and federalism would likely be the key talking-points. Regarding the Northern Alliance, halting clashes would be the priority, and further rounds of informal talks may aid in terms of limiting violence and ensuring communication channels remain open. These groups pose the largest threat at present. If a bilateral ceasefire could be agreed, perhaps with China as the third-party mediator, a more conducive environment for entry into the NCA mechanism may yet develop.

The government looks unlikely to waver from the NCA path, to which the military and NLD appear to be fully committed. Yet as long as the NCA remains ‘Nationwide’ in name only, fighting will continue. Only when the Northern Alliance and FPNCC-tied groups are brought on board – which would entail tough compromises on both sides – will the NCA represent an opportunity for meaningful progress.

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