The Philippines’ Duterte Is Caught Between Islamist Terrorists and Angry Maoists
Communist rebels almost joined the battle to retake Marawi, before the plan fell apart
Word that Islamic State-aligned militants took over the Philippine city of Marawi shocked the world on May 23, 2017. Philippine officials labeled the attack an “invasion” by the Syria-based terrorist group and responded by declaring martial law across the entire island of Mindanao, the second largest in the archipelago country and home to more than 20 million people.
The government even indicated the possibility of a nation-wide martial law declaration in the future.
Filipinos are no strangers to martial law, with three declarations in the last 50 years, including a nine-year nationwide declaration made by the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. Marcos’ declaration was in response to the country’s largest and oldest internal conflict, an insurgency waged by the Communist Party of the Philippines and its guerrilla wing, the New People’s Army.
Now Rodrigo Duterte has joined the list, in part but perhaps not entirely in response to the jihadist takeover of Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city of around 200,000 in a country that is otherwise more than 90 percent Christian. An Islamist faction called the Maute group accomplished the takeover, and reports vary widely as to the group’s size and strength, with estimates ranging from several dozen militants to as high as 400.
The Philippine military has been using air strikes and heavy artillery to suppress the Maute group, causing extensive destruction in central Marawi.
The government has deployed 105-millimeter artillery and a variety of vintage light aircraft including Huey helicopters, Italian-made AW109 helicopters and OV-10 Bronco turboprop planes—popular for counter-insurgency operations due to their ability to deliver munitions while loitering over the battlefield for hours.
The United States first deployed OV-10s in Vietnam, and they have seen a revival in America’s own operations against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Aside from these more conventional aircraft, the Philippine military is reportedly using South Korean trainer jets, KAI FA-50 Golden Eagles, in a bombing role, as well as Alenia Aermacchi SF-260s, an Italian aircraft mostly used for aerobatic performances in the West but popular among developing world regimes.
U.S. special forces have also joined the campaign to retake the city, although strictly in a technical capacity, according to the Philippine army.
On June 5, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, a coalition of left-wing militant groups which includes the Communist Party [CPP] and the New People’s Army, announced that it would coordinate with the Philippine military to fight the Maute group, responding to an invitation from Duterte himself in late May.
It was a bold idea—the communist NPP would fight alongside the government against a mutual enemy. Even better, the alliance would help patch up relations after a six-month ceasefire between the rebels and the government broke down in February 2017, reigniting a 40-year-old conflict that has killed more than 35,000 people.
The rebel coalition indicated it could deploy the NPA, which numbers around 5,000 fighters across the country, “for the purpose of mopping up, holding and blocking operations,” an NDFP spokesperson told reporters.
Then Duterte began waffling. While speaking to soldiers of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division on June 9, the Philippine president took back his offer.
“I said, son of a bitch, the shots my soldiers would get might all be on the back, not on the front,” Duterte said. “It’s not because I do not trust them. But it simply does not fit into the picture.”
This is typical of Duterte’s hot and cold relationship with the radical left dating to before his 2016 election. He once consulted with Jose Maria Sison, the CPP’s exiled founder and his one-time university professor. Duterte’s administration also quickly distinguished itself for its populist, socialist and anti-U.S. posturing. Peace talks with the rebels resumed.
Then the talks collapsed. The NPA accused the government of “encroaching” on its territory and going back on a prisoner-release deal, and the government blamed the rebels for heightening attacks on its soldiers.
Now the CPP alleges the government established martial law over all of Mindanao in part to suppress the NPA. The Philippine Defense Department denied this claim. The communist rebels, for their part, are opposed to jihadist terrorism as well, but are deeply skeptical of the military’s campaign and the media portrayals of it as a meaningful threat.
“The CPP and NPA have always stood against terrorism by any group in any scope, including the so-called Maute group,” a CPP spokesperson told War Is Boring. “But this group has been very amorphous and has hogged the media limelight only these past days. Even our troops on the ground have not reported this group as a major threat before.”
Philippine Pres. Rodrigo Duterte talks to troops about the Marawi crisis in June 2017. Philippine Information Agency photo
The NPA further disputes some of the Western media’s reporting on the battle, claiming that initial accounts of a police officer’s beheading, the raising of a black Islamic State banner over a hospital, and takeover of an electrical cooperative—all cited by Duterte to the Philippine Congress to support his declaration—didn’t happen.
“Since the start of the Marawi attack, the government has been issuing statements that tend to contradict their own every few hours,” the CPP spokesperson added. “The Defense Department has issued statements that Maute is not linked to ISIS while Duterte is saying so. In the same breath, Duterte stated … that the Maute is not the enemy in Marawi but the Abu Sayyaf which are funded by money from drugs.”
The Maute group is a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, itself an offshoot of the Moro National Liberation Front. The Moro people are a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in Mindanao long marginalized by the Philippines’ overwhelmingly Christian society and government.
The MNLF emerged in the 1960s around the same time as the CPP-NPA as a secular national liberation organization seeking independence for the Moro-dominated areas.
Following negotiations and compromises with the notorious Marcos dictatorship, the MILF split away from the MNLF in the early 1980s. The MILF adopted an Islamist ideology and later cooperated with Al Qaeda, sending militants to the terrorist network’s training camps in Afghanistan.
The MILF itself concluded a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 2014, and the Maute group appears to be an ex-MILF splinter faction which rejects that settlement.
One important feature of the Moro rebel groups is that they are primarily organized around clans related by blood and intermarriage as part of the Philippines’ traditional, feudal datu system. The MILF has family ties to the Maute group through the Mimbantas clan, which also holds positions in the local government.
This unique ethnic and political heritage makes a formal alliance with Islamic State unlikely, and the Maute group does not appear on any official lists of affiliated organizations put forward by Islamic State itself. The Maute group pledged loyalty to Islamic State in April 2015, but this may have been an attempt to court the Syria-based organization, which hasn’t—apparently—reciprocated.
An up-gunned Philippine M-113 armored personnel carrier lands in Mindanao on May 31, 2017. Philippine Information Agency photo
To make matters more confusing, the Philippine military “categorically denied” that Maute group was associated with Islamic State, only to have Duterte contradict the statement shortly thereafter.
The specter of an international terrorist army rampaging through Mindanao has thus served to justify extraordinary action on the government’s part, stoking fears worldwide that the campaign is acting as a distraction from Duterte’s brutal campaign of vigilante violence targeting Filipinos struggling with drug addiction.
Such developments have, in the past, served to facilitate recruiting by the NPA.
The group operates under the Maoist doctrine of a “protracted people’s war,” and believes that it’s currently in “the middle phase of the strategic defense stage.” Therefore, it follows that the group will attempt to launch an offensive in the coming years, with the goal of expanding its military and popular support, in appropriately Maoist style, by seizing land and redistributing it among landless peasants.
The battle for Marawi and the resulting destruction, which has displaced tens of thousands of people, thus risks driving Filipinos further into the arms of the NPA. The group has criticized Duterte for his declaration of martial law, the curtailing of freedom of movement, the aerial bombardment of Marawi and the looting of shops and homes by soldiers.
Worryingly for the government, state officials have admitted to major growth in the NPA’s numbers in recent months.
Nevertheless, limited ceasefire agreements—with Duterte coming to some kind of arrangement with the NPA—would be an important step toward a renewed peace process. But potential cooperation against the Maute group seems shaky at best, and the rebels have ruled out peace as long as Duterte enforces martial law across Mindanao.
“Martial law is not and will never be the solution to the basic problems that prevail in the country, in fact, it will only serve to aggravate and worsen it,” the NDFP stated on May 25. “In the final analysis, strengthening the revolutionary armed struggle is the only effective way to fight against the brutality of martial law.”