There is great hope among Muslim communities in the Philippines that President-elect Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte will restore peace and stability in the south.
Duterte, the longtime mayor of Davao City on the southern island of Mindanao, has deep ties to the insurgency-stricken region.
“If there is anybody who wishes that this bloody problem would end soon, it is I because I am both Moro and Christian,” Duterte remarked during the lead-up to his presidential campaign.
As mayor he has maintained peace in Davao City but, as president, he will face a greater challenge in the south, especially with the emergence of groups supporting the Islamic State (IS).
Duterte wants to have peace in Mindanao and will reach out to Muslim groups and the Communist Party of the Philippines. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rallied behind his candidacy, and he also reached out to the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
He also has opened communications with the Communist Party of the Philippines. Duterte, in fact, called the party’s founding leader, Jose Maria Sison, before the election.
IS support groups mount attacks
In the immediate run-up to the presidential election on May 9, IS Philippines, led by Isnilon Hapilon (a former deputy of the Abu Sayyaf Group), attacked a Philippine Army outpost in Maluso (a town in southern Basilan province).
In a communique distributed on Telegram and Twitter on Tuesday, the group reported that a group of fighters had attacked an army position in Tobijan village, engaging in a clash with the soldiers and killing one and wounding another.
This is the second official claim of an attack by the IS in the Philippines, according to SITE Intelligence Group. On April 13, IS’s branch in the Philippines claimed it had killed nearly 100 Philippine troops in strikes over a period of a few days, but the group exaggerated its successes.
IS Central claimed the attack in Tobijan and referred to the group mounting the attack as “Islamic State Philippines.” This is further evidence that IS has established a branch in the Philippines, a threat underestimated by the government of the Philippines.
Islamic State Lanao, another group that supports Islamic State but is not accepted by IS Central, meanwhile claimed responsibility for bombing a transmission tower in Lanao del Sur, Mindanao, on May 4.
Related article: Islamic State spreads its wing in South East Asia
More than any other leader Duterte understands the threat posed by IS. Until now, the government in Manila and Filipino analysts have characterized the IS link to Filipino groups as wishful thinking and one sided.
Without underestimating the threat, Duterte is likely to work with MILF and MNLF to fight both Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), IS Philippines and IS Lanao. A practical man, Duterte will work with the MILF and MNLF to restore peace and stability.
He is tough. Duterte fights ordinary and organized crime conventionally and unconventionally, and he is likely to do this with terrorism, too.
With time Duterte will realize that MILF and MNLF are serious about finding a solution within the united Philippines while ASG and IS support groups in the Philippines are not.
The ASG and IS will not negotiate genuinely. They will have to be contained, isolated and eliminated.
And Duterte is likely to take them on. He will launch an uncompromising military campaign after asking them to join the peace process.
MNLF and ASG have links: at least a few factions of ASG are likely to embrace his offer. A dealmaker, Duterte will reach out to them as well.
“He will likely be an ideal president although the IS group in Mindanao will likely become one his burdens. I think he will employ the full force of the law to quell the threat of IS,” a former ASG member told me.
Hopes for peace
While Duterte’s grandmother was a full-blooded Maranao, his eldest son Vice Mayor Paolo Duterte married a Tausug.
IS has already built a support group in the Lanao area, where Maranaos live, and in Basilan, where Tausugs live. Proud of his Muslim lineage, Duterte generated support from Muslim leaders.
Abulajid Estino, a former assemblyman from the Mindanao region, said: “it was the first time that a leader with genuine Bangsamoro blood had the potential to become president of the Philippines”.
Duterte, the man from Mindanao who will be sworn in as president on June 30, is in a unique position to manage the violence and root out terrorism in the southern Philippines.
The threat will decline if Duterte’s government can either pass the basic law to create an autonomous region or grant federalism. Passing the basic law to create the autonomous region will reduce the reservoir of Muslim unhappiness that militants are harnessing.
A former member of the ASG said to me: “This is perhaps the reason why I also voted for him last Monday … hoping that he can make not only Mindanao but the entire country peaceful.”
Man with a vision
The Moro conflict is one of the world’s longest conflicts. Such conflicts are intractable. Today, with IS making inroads to the Philippines, the problem is even more complex. Political will remains at the heart of making a difference.
In the lead-up to the election in the Philippines, local threat groups that support IS stepped up their operations.
They are likely to test Duterte’s patience. Duterte should not overreact. However, he should act too.
Otherwise, the threat will remain in the Philippines and may grow with implications for the rest of Southeast Asia. Duterte has the vision and mission to make a difference. (Benarnews)