By Francisco J. Lara, Jr.
The past five years have seen the holy month of Ramadan transformed into one of the most violent periods of the year. Conflict Alert, the violent conflict monitoring system of Alert Philippines, has consistently shown increases in violence from June to August since 2011.
The bloodletting, of course, has nothing to do with the teachings of the Qu’ran. What it does reveal is that various groups, from criminal entrepreneurs to ISIS adherents such as the Dawla Islamiya (aka Maute Group) and the Abu Sayyaf Group, have used the occasion to harness discontent, or attack moderate Islam and hijack the Qu’ran to advance their own agenda.
So when the ISIS alliance emerged on high-definition TV to capture the Islamic City of Marawi, many conflict specialists expected the violence to spike, but eventually dissipate like a fever on its last leg, as it has done in the past.
The terrorists have demonstrated a remarkable resilience despite the scale and weight of bullets and bombs thrown at them by law enforcers. Like a pathogen resistant to antibiotics, they have engaged in tactical shifts and mutated from repeated setbacks. First, the terrorists moved from the islands to the mainland of Mindanao to offset military encirclement. Second, the terrorists moved from the predominantly rural towns of Butig, Piagapo, and Matanog to the urban confines of Marawi to harness wider support and civilian cover for their operations. The big question now is whether a third tactical shift is forthcoming. Will they now move to the other urban enclaves of Mindanao? Or farther — will they leapfrog to the urban centers of the Visayas and Luzon?
Before critics see this as a disguised rationale for martial law on a national scale, it is important to take pause and to highlight the main reason that has made the crisis endure beyond its sell-out date.
President Rodrigo Duterte was spot on when he first pointed to violent extremism as a vital existential threat to this generation, second only to climate change. When he did so he ended the pompous self-denial of previous regimes. Secondly, he turned the spotlight on the deadly links between violent extremism and the shadow economies in drugs and weapons.
A study published by Alert Philippines in 2013 showed how shadow economies were the most frequent sources of violence and that central Mindanao, particularly the Lanao to Maguindanao corridor, was ground-zero for these illicit and deadly economies. In fact, many known drug lords fled to the Lanao corridor soon after Duterte declared his war on drugs. There they established a useful and tactical alliance with extremist groups, supplying funds and weapons in exchange for protection. Therefore, if you are still wondering how the terrorists could survive a two-week assault and siege by the military and police, the answer is simple — their longevity was secured long in advance with profits from the illicit drug trade, and lubricated by their easy access to illegal weapons in a region known for it.
The violence we are witnessing is not irrational, mindless, or happenstance. The agenda is to secure the ISIS franchise to establish a wilayat in Southeast Asia, and thus ensure the steady supply of international and domestic funding and weaponry that are crucial for sustaining power and influence. The agenda can also include acquiring the ability to capture the benefits from humanitarian aid or worse, the development inputs that are forthcoming based on the worn-out template that proffers development inputs in exchange for an end to violence, extremist or not.
Neither is the violence coincidental to the advent of Ramadan, or the effort to finally institutionalize the devolved political authority promised under the comprehensive agreement on the Bangsamoro. It is in fact sensitized to these events — in the first instance by providing in stark relief a more rigid and conservative, yet aggressive and militant alternative to moderate Islam at a time when Muslims all over are in deep prayer and reflection; and secondly by rendering irrelevant the quest for autonomous authority and power through means other than foul.
In short, even if the failure to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is indeed a vector of violent extremism, the same BBL, codified or not, will not, in turn, satisfy the yearnings of the Moro youth for change — or prevent them from being recruited into the ranks of ISIS.
There is indeed a lot at stake in the outcome of this war. It means that violent extremism will be a permanent feature of vertical conflict in years to come, accompanied by the flawed logic that a purely military or mailed fist response is best practice. This strategy is certainly consequent to the view that there is no way for peace to be negotiated with armed groups bent on killing the innocent and wreaking havoc indiscriminately.
However, the logic ends there. One must also realize that the problem is the product of the fragmentation of traditional structures for welfare and protection in Muslim society, marching in step with the growing discrimination and exclusion of the Moro youth, including the repeated delays in accomplishing the Bangsamoro political project. In sum, what this really implies is that waging a purely, or even dominantly military response to the crisis won’t cut it, and can only continue at our own peril.
And this is how martial law must be assessed. The problem with martial law is that it reinforces a purely military response, and diverts the attention away from actions that foster social cohesion and resilience. Without these actions at the centre of a campaign to defeat violent extremism, any economic or politico-military response can actually magnify and reproduce violence.
What is needed is a genuine program for empowering the Moro youth, especially Moro women, through opportunities and initiatives that enable them to exercise social, economic, and political leadership in their communities, outside the control of the traditional clans and beyond the confines of Muslim Mindanao.
These in turn must be accompanied with new and stricter laws that punish discrimination, exclusion, racism, and hate speech — enabling an environment where the Moro youth can be confident that their role and participation in society is accepted and valued.
Efforts to strengthen social cohesion can then be accompanied by military actions. Targeted actions against the trade in illicit weapons must take centre stage, and such a campaign should benefit the most from martial rule, following the template used in the 2009 Ampatuan massacre.
These actions will, at the end of the day, determine whether a third tactical shift engineered by the ISIS alliance will succeed or not.
The author is Philippines Country manager of International Alert UK and Senior Lecturer at the University of the Philippines.