Tag Archives: Philippines

 
 

Apocalypse not-right-now: The unsurprising disorder in Mindanao

Miguel Galsim

Politics | Asia

 

On May 23, militants from the Abu Sayyaf (ASG) and Maute Groups stormed the city of Marawi in the southern Philippine province of Lanao del Sur, Mindanao. The conflagration was sparked by a raid conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines which intended to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of ASG. Maute reinforcements were called into the city shortly afterwards, eventuating in the current crisis.

Having declared allegiance to the Islamic State, the actions of the Maute Group and ASG have drawn Western media attention in a somewhat apocalyptic light, linking the fighting to the international effort against IS. The ABC’s report began: “militants linked to the Islamic State group torched buildings, seized more than a dozen Catholic hostages and raised the black flag of IS.” Similarly, the Sydney Morning Herald’s lead stated simply that IS-linked militants “threatened to kill a priest and other Christian hostages.” A Reuters headline put it plainly as a “rebel rampage claimed by Islamic State.”

While the assault has undoubtable implications for human life and minority groups in the south, permitting an outsized appreciation of the Maute Group and ASG capabilities would be unhelpful for policy thinking. The recent upsurge in Marawi does not necessarily herald the spawn of a Philippine Raqqa, a caliphate wherein terrorists can freely roam and assail the rest of the archipelago.

The Maute Group and ASG operate in a distinct manner, and are empowered and constrained by unique contextual factors in the Philippine south. Firstly, the two terrorist organisations must be characterised by their relatively small size and limited controlled territory that forces them to operate surreptitiously in rural areas. ASG has been persistently hunted by the Duterte Government, and although a recent Congressional report places the Maute’s strength at 263 armed members, it remains outsized by rival Islamic, ethno-nationalist, and Communist armies on the island.

Moreover, both groups face resource limitations – this challenge drives ASG’s long-running fixation on kidnap-for-ransom operations, and similar extortionist behaviour from the Maute Group. While the aforementioned report also implied that the Maute Group was receiving funding from IS – a legitimate cause for concern – how well this will translate into battlefield advantages, especially in the face of a heavy-handed government counter-offensive, remains to be seen.

Most importantly, such unrest is not new to Mindanao. Armed groups have long exploited the central authorities’ inability to effectively govern and extend coercive influence over far-flung regions in the south. Opportunities are also opened by crushing poverty and pro-autonomy sentiment from a Bangsamoro Muslim population seeing itself as ethnically and culturally distinct, enmeshed in a history of maltreatment by Manila.

The Maguindanao Massacre of 2009, wherein 58 civilians were killed by a private militia as part of an electoral feud, illustrates this. In a similar vein, the Moro National Liberation Front occupied Zamboanga City for nearly three weeks in 2013, attempting to establish a breakaway republic. The current siege of Marawi is more an extension of a trend than an exceptional outburst of IS in Asia.

However, implicit in these opportunities are considerable threats to the Maute Group and ASG. These two organisations were not the only armed groups to rise out of deficient central governance. Much to their disdain, a number of Mindanao’s non-state forces – namely the MNLF, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the New People’s Army – contrast with the IS-linked militants ideologically and are engaged in talks with the government at present. The  MILF even assisted Government forces in disrupting Maute and the ASG as part of their ceasefire negotiations.

More so, both the MNLF and MILF have a deeper history in carrying the banner of Muslim and Moro autonomy, and are generally more popular as a result, as outlined by Filipino scholar Eric Gutierrez. Adding insult to injury, both Fronts also denounced the terrorists’ assault on Marawi. The Maute Group and ASG would struggle to capitalise on wider Muslim discontent in Mindanao while surrounded by more experienced and entrenched competitors, regardless of the funds it allegedly receives from IS.

IS influence in the Philippines and Southeast Asia is a real threat, but it should not be overly inflated. Nor should it be forgotten that the Maute Group and ASG differ from the core IS organisation in the Middle East. Mindanao’s home-grown jihadist groups have a unique modus operandi, and exist under circumstances that stem from entrenched local issues, particularly the difficulties facing the Philippine state in bringing order and equitable development to the distant south.

In recognising these distinctions, more realistic and targeted policy options – especially from the Philippines’ Western allies – can be rendered that pinpoint specific vulnerabilities in the Abu Sayyaf and Maute Groups. More broadly, there is greater wisdom in restraining current and future policymakers from defining regional threats in broad strokes when localised, surgical approaches would prove more fitting.

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Drug war, still poor

Miguel Galsim

Society and culture | Southeast Asia

 

People in the Philippines support the Drug War, and it is not surprising to see slum residents voicing support for the anti-crime crusade, says Monsoon contributor Miguel Galsim.

In reality, it is often the poorest in Philippine society who have to deal with drug-related crime and experience in the flesh the destruction of families and communities by the shabu industry. Accordingly, many votes for Duterte were votes against the spectre of drug crime. Many people hoped for a better future.

Yet, hope quickly morphs into anxiety when the brutality of the war does little to alleviate the poverty of those on the receiving end of drug crime. So long as the poor remain on the periphery of policymaking in the Philippines, the same problems of drugs and crime will persist, and the poverty that breeds this criminality will remain entrenched if genuine structural reform centred on the Filipino poor is ignored.

Many have argued the Drug War is a war on the lower class. President Duterte denied this, and recently Philippine National Police Director General Dela Rosa stated that the war would soon target the higher echelons of the drug trade. What is undeniable, however, is that slum dwellers are often caught in the crossfire with little say in the war that is often touted as being waged for their benefit.

The police enter the slums and arrest and/or kill whoever is named on a list provided by the barangay (district/ward) captain, although it is rarely verified how the information was gathered, or if it is even accurate.

Concurrently, the encouragement of vigilantism has given unprecedented impunity to contract killers, regardless of the purpose of the hit. The contraventions against due process within these operations also go without saying, further entrenching power in the hands of the state, pushing the poor further into the periphery.

Maximo Garcia was one day labelled a pusher by one of these lists, and hurriedly declared to the police that while he had used shabu in the past, he was not involved in its distribution. He thought he was safe. Four days later gunmen on a motorcycle attempted to kill him. His five-year old granddaughter, Danica, died instead.

A contract killer, profiled by the BBC, kills on the order of a police officer, her boss. Also impoverished, contract killing became a way to feed her family. However, leaving the field appears not to be an option as she claims the officer “threatened to kill anyone who leaves the team.”

[caption id="attachment_4709" align="aligncenter" width="446"] President Duterte shows a copy of a diagram showing the connection of high level drug syndicates operating in the country during a press conference at Malacañang on July 7, 2016. Image taken under a creative commons license from Flickr.[/caption]

Both situations are not only symptomatic of a wider disenfranchisement of the urban poor, but indicative of ignorance surrounding the root causes of drug crime and usage, particularly poverty. Killing 100,000 pushers may decrease crime for a while, but when people continue to live in crushing poverty the urge to use narcotics as an escape mechanism, or to kill and extort in order to survive, remains constant.

Across the ocean, the example of Colombia demonstrates how underlying political problems can prevent effective solutions to crime. Even though the government conducted an all-out assault on the Medellin Cartel, destroying it by 1993, crime rates did not suddenly decrease, nor did narcotics operations.

Income inequality and the incapacity of the state to monopolise security resulted in the continuation of organised criminality to present. Similarly in Mexico, the collapse of certain cartels does not spell peace, as the underlying issue of “anaemic public institutions” remains unresolved.

In general, a greater distribution of wealth and extension of services needs to be achieved. In July, the Duterte administration announced plans for rice subsidies benefitting the country’s poorest, although the effectiveness of its implementation remains unknown.

Additionally, the administration should consider expanding its CCT (Conditional Cash Transfer) program, contrary to its July announcement, and refining its scope to prevent wastage. Moreover, the government would do well to incentivise infrastructure providers to extend critical services like electricity and water to slum districts. A concerted effort from the government and relevant private sectors is necessary to gradually lift the nation’s lowest socio-economic bracket.

From the perspective of slum residents, a more effective strategy against crime would be to include the urban poor in decision making, especially by engaging grassroots community leaders and unionists.

Reinforcing and elongating the proposed rehabilitation and incarceration programs for surrendered drug users – which are often under-resourced and ineffective, further demonstrating the state’s ignorance of underlying issues – would also be critical for reducing recidivism within impoverished communities.

Failing to understand the situation of the poor, especially in urban slums, the Drug War is doomed to continue marginalising these people and trapping them between the extremes of poverty and a hail of bullets.

The crusade may destroy the current syndicates, but crime will continue to spring out of the neglected margins. If these shortcomings remain unrealised, innocent boys and girls will continue to be made unnecessary sacrifices in a brutish government policy.

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Bear in the big blue dispute

Dominic Huntley

International relations | East Asia

 

Russia's policy of non-involvement in the South China Sea (SCS) is now uncertain after Moscow announced that it will participate in exercises with China in those hotly contested waters this September.
Taking place this September in a yet to be disclosed location, any joint exercises have the potential to alienate ASEAN for questionable gain, and undo Russia's fruitful Asian policy.
How ASEAN will interpret these exercises will depend on where they take place. If the exercises occur near Hainan or another part of the sea that is internationally recognised as Chinese, there should be no real risk. The exercises would simply be a bilateral affair occurring in Chinese territory.
If they were to occur in an area that is only claimed however, such as the Paracel Islands, ASEAN could interpret the exercises as an expression of Chinese claims, with Russian involvement getting them into hot water.

Until now Russia has avoided making firm statements on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, maintaining neutrality while other states have been drawn in. In the wake of the 12 July Hague Ruling on overlapping claims in the SCS between China and the Philippines, Russian Director of the Information and Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova, explicitly stated that Russia was not and had no desire to be involved in the dispute.
Russia has pursued good relations with both ASEAN and China. Russia and ASEAN recently signed the Sohi Deceleration in hopes of greatly increasing trade and other sorts of cooperation. Wide ranging in nature, the extent to which it will succeed is debatable but nevertheless represents an intention to build on present ties.
More concretely Russia also maintains a strong arms relationship with Vietnam despite the recent American intrusion. It is currently contracted to supply a number of vessels to the Vietnamese Navy, including the Kilo-class diesel-electric submarine, vessels which incidentally would be ideal for operations in the SCS.
Russo-Chinese relations are even stronger. The two have engaged in several major military and counter-terrorism exercises, in the Mediterranean, East China Seas, the Sea of Japan, and in the Arctic. They also have ongoing arms deals and joint development programs, such as in the development of 4+ and fifth generation fighter jets.

Most significant is their trade relationship, valued at several tens of billions (USD) is Russia's largest with a single country, and for China is a major source of raw materials including energy. The vast expanse of Siberia to the north of China is increasingly significant in their long-term resource security, and has seen rising Chinese investment in recent years.
The pursuit of good relations with both sides is only possible while Russia is on neither. It is possible that Russia has accepted this and chosen China over ASEAN.
Russia's material relationship with China far exceeds that with ASEAN, and China is fundamentally more important than ASEAN in strategic terms. If Russia needed to pay for greater Chinese support, ASEAN would be an affordable price.
However Russia has nothing to gain from siding with China on this issue. While the two nations often cooperate as a loose bloc, such as through the growing Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, this should not be confused with some NATO-style alliance, even putatively.
Russia has also so far managed to enjoy its relationship with China without needing to pay a high geopolitical price. Perhaps most importantly, Russia in recent years has had considerable success without support from any major power. The reacquisition of Crimea and the operations in Syria were entirely Russian successes. Why does Moscow suddenly need support from Beijing?
If Russia is allowing itself to be drawn onto one side of this dispute, implicitly or otherwise, it is sacrificing much for little gain. Russo-Chinese relations have been beneficial for both countries at little cost; the cost of sacrificing Russo-ASEAN relations will not be commensurate with the gain from China.
The exercises this September will reveal the extent of rationality in Russia's foreign policy in Asia, and whether in this Asian Century the Russian bear will sink or swim.

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