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  • Uncertainty in Duterte's Muslim Mindanao
  • Joseph Franco (bio)

President Rodrigo Duterte's ascent to Malacañang has been hailed as the best chance to resolve the challenges of secessionism and terrorism in Mindanao. Hailing from Davao City, Duterte has emphasized his Mindanao roots. Coupled with the curated image of an everyman, the new Philippine President has promised a definitive end to the Mindanao conflict. Lofty promises aside, it would appear that Duterte has yet to craft a coherent and consistent policy to steer Mindanao out of conflict.

Instead, contradicting policies reflecting volatility and continuity appear to be the Duterte model for peace. For extremist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Maute Group, Duterte appears to take a hard-line combat and intelligence-driven approach—for now. However, volatility has also characterized Duterte's stance against these fringe extremist groups, from casting them as "desperate" poverty-stricken individuals to criminals "slaughtering people as if they were chickens".1 In contrast, continuity appears to be the direction his administration has taken as it deals with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), as seen in the reconstitution of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC).

It is uncertain whether Duterte's ambivalent policy towards Mindanao peace will suffice to address the complexity of conflict in the southern Philippines. Duterte can ill afford missteps, considering the growing salience of external factors that impinge on Mindanao; namely, the spectre of violence inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the outcome of peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front (NDF). A cohesive policy to address the [End Page 297] socio-economic roots of conflict would be more effective than gallivanting from continuity to volatility and back.

The Current State of Play in Mindanao

On 26 November 2016 the Maute Group occupied the abandoned portions of Butig municipality in Lanao del Sur province. Nearly ninety per cent of the town's population were displaced, as another round of clearing operations by the Philippine Army (PA) was under way. After a five-day campaign the military declared that eighty per cent of Butig had been retaken, with the Maute Group on the run.2 Just a few months ago, in June 2016, the military declared that the final Maute stronghold, Camp Darul Imam, had been captured and the group defeated—the supposed culmination of months of sporadic skirmishes in Lanao del Sur that began in February.

But rather than being an exceptional occurrence, this resurgence of the Maute Group is just symptomatic of the cyclical nature of conflict in Mindanao. Military operations—whether small-unit special operations or large-scale conventional campaigns—will never resolve the political and socio-economic drivers of conflict.

It is often referred to in jest that Mindanao has always been "under control"—by various armed factions, both state and anti-state.3 A map of Mindanao's main landmass and outlying islands can be overlaid with the different flags, banners, patches, and camouflage uniforms of various armed units. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has historically deployed a significant portion, around sixty per cent, of its military capacity in Mindanao. To date, Mindanao plays host to four PA Infantry Divisions, most of the assets of the PA's lone Mechanised Infantry Division, and several Philippine Marine Corps' (PMC) Battalion Landing Teams. In addition to these conventional forces are contingents from the PA Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and their counterparts from the Navy and Air Force.

This formidable line-up of military units is arrayed against a diverse range of threat groups in Muslim Mindanao—more formally known as the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)—which is comprised of five provinces (Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi) and two chartered cities (Lamitan and Marawi). The Mindanao threat groups described below have pledged allegiance to ISIS, although not all have been recognized by the latter's leadership.

The armed group currently most active is the ASG, which is estimated to have around four hundred members operating in the island provinces of Basilan and [End Page 298] Sulu.4 The ASG began as a jihadist organization founded by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, after joining anti...


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