As this goes online, the ASEAN meeting will also commence in Vientiane, Laos, an event which the President Rodrigo Duterte will attend for the first time. He goes into the meeting fresh from a bombing in his home town. Likewise, several countries have issued travel advisories against their nationals travelling to Mindanao. With all these, it seems easy to blame the island and its residents for digging its own grave.
But can we?
The truth is that the Abu Sayyaf has been active in its operations for the last 30 years, its methods and objectives markedly different from the liberation movements like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). It is a gang of thieves, kidnappers, and extortionists divided into groups like franchises, some worryingly allied with the ISIS. While the Philippine President has warned us about these threats, many ears receiving it in the last two month didn’t seem to want to listen:
Yet the bigger threat it bears is the relationship with groups in Malaysia and Indonesia, and its ability to organize bandit teams capable of carnage not unlike the Davao blast. The fear resonates on a regional scale, with new groups sprouting regularly. We hope that this threat is discussed among ASEAN leaders in Vientiane.
More critically, all past Manila governments have been unable to destroy this menace. This shows that by and large, their playbook shows that they were content with containing the violence to Mindanao.
Thus, regardless of whether Mindanao’s 23 million was at peril, it had to endure the shocks in place of the capital. It was a strategy to limit the impact of adverse travel advisories. Many in Metro Manila just don’t feel it. So long as Megamall is safe, everything seems to be fine.
Contrary to the belief of many in the north of this country, violent Mindanao is not the result of the clashing cross, crescent, and spear. The root of the systemic violence is the Manila-centric government and its policies that have maximized the economic gains of the island’s resources while leaving it politically marginalized and culturally stigmatized. Consider some factors:
- The blatant economic inequality where one region has had the highest Gross Regional Domestic Product rate while its immediate neighbor is the poorest of them all. The boom cities of Davao, Cagayan de Oro, and General Santos have been exit points for the export of products meant to for Western tables, yet beyond their borders, extreme hunger is twice the national average.
- Mindanao is the Manila government’s convenient battleground. The last administration’s peace record in Mindanao will show the following glaring blunders: the Lumad killings, the Zamboanga siege that paralyzed an entire city of 700,000 for two weeks, the Kidapawan massacre where the hungry were shot, the Mamasapano incident where 44 of our best policemen were massacred. Notice that all these interventions by Manila actors left Mindanao in shambles and Mindanaoans alone to pick up the pieces. The inequalities and animosities persisted.
- National media is focused on the blow-by-blow accounts of the conflict while ignoring the deep context of Mindanao’s complex reality, and the roots of such barbarism. This lends Abu Sayyaf immediate attention, shock, and awe that scares people into paying ransom and inspires gullible followers drawn by the glory of their fake heroism spawned by a showbiz mentality while feeding cultural hatreds. Mainstream media needs to tell a deeper story to illuminate issues and enlighten minds.
Addressing these is not the magic bullet that will eradicate the Abu Sayyaf, but apart from decisive sustained military action and intelligence work, it helps drain the swamp and destroy whatever inspired those who joined the group.
The Duterte victory and the shifting focus of development efforts into the South of the country, with peace initiatives, is a step towards eradicating this by creating the institutions that push inclusive economic growth and development. The rest is up to us and how seriously we work together to put these in place. Then we win this war.