Mending Mindanao: Diminishing Insurgent Violence in the Philippines

When President Obama decided to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan many people who supported this decision argued that the military had learned lessons from its difficult war in Iraq and would use its troops in Afghanistan more effectively. The Commander of the military in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, was a fervent proponent of a counterinsurgent strategy and believed that using this strategy in Afghanistan would give the U.S. a better chance of achieving its objectives in Afghanistan. Now McChrystal has been fired and the war is still not going well. The counterinsurgent effort in Afghanistan has been hampered by factors such as massive government corruption, flawed democracy, and the sheer difficulty of employing a counterinsurgency strategy. Despite the difficulties in Afghanistan the U.S. military persists.

Even though the military’s adoption of a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is relatively new, the tactic has been employed for a very long time many countries. One of the longest lasting insurgent movements in the world has been taking place in the Mindanao region of the Philippines. Since the 1970s there has been a insurgency in the region by Muslim groups demanding independence from the Philippines. The Philippine government has used several different tactics to combat this insurgency. One these approaches has been counterinsurgency. The government has never permanently stopped the insurgency and even support by the U.S. military has failed to end the rebellion. The Philippines’ effort to end the rebellion can be instructive as to how difficult it is to end an insurgency, even with the military support of a superpower.

Mindanao Region in the Philippines

Since the Philippines gained independence in 1946 the government has had a difficult time exerting influence over all the regions of the country, with Mindanao being the most difficult. The country has also failed to improve its economy consistently or to permanently establish a robust democracy. Historically local and regional areas have often been under the control of strongmen or women, and the reach of the government has often been limited in these areas (Abinales, 2008; Hutchcroft, 2008). The 1950s and 1960s saw an expansion of suffrage and the growth of civil society, which would seem to indicate that the country was becoming more democratic (Hutchcroft, 2008). However this era was also characterized by what Benedict Anderson called “Cacique Democracy,” which is elite leaders rotating power among themselves with very little participation by regular people (Anderson, 1988). This rotation of leaders ended with the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, and during his 17-year reign democracy was not present. The 1986 people’s movement that ended the Marcos regime and brought Corazon Aquino to power was a new era of hope for democrats. The movement that helped to end Marcos’ rule helped to engender a better civil society that was more responsive to the needs of groups that had been marginalized under Marcos (Hutchcroft, 2008).

Unfortunately, these institutional improvements were not matched by governments that could effectively end insurgencies or administer far off state provinces. The four presidents following Marcos exerted varying degrees of power, but none successfully supplanted the political and social strength of various the clans and families that administer many of the villages and towns of the Philippine provinces (Abinales, 2008).

Several rebel groups formed in Mindanao to resist Philippine rule and declare independence from the archipelago nation but no widespread separatist movement emerged. This absence of a fully organized resistance movement in Mindanao ended in 1972 with the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). In response to the formation of the MNLF, Fernando Marcos, the president of the Philippines, declared martial law in Mindanao. This declaration of martial law was the catalyst for the spread of the Muslim rebellion to the entire island which included acts of violence in the south from 1972 through 1974 that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people (Yegar, 2002; Tigno, 2006). Unlike previous rebel groups in Mindanao, the MNLF was very well organized and made up of students who had well-defined grievances against the Philippine government. The Marcos government devoted many resources to fighting the MNLF and there were periods of intense violence in Mindanao. The failure of the government to stop the MNLF or to grant Mindanao autonomy/independence increased the prevalence of separatist movements and violence within the region.

In 1978, Hashim Salamat formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Unhappy with the corruption and deviations from Islam of the MNLF , the former MNLF leader organized this new movement (Yegar, 2002). The MILF was more overtly Islamic than the MNLF and actively recruited Muslims from other countries. Despite the differences between the two organizations, they both waged guerilla campaigns against the Marcos government in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Both groups supported the presidency of Corazon Aquino during the 1986 presidential election in which she promised that Mindanao would gain more autonomy under her government. The Philippine government signed a peace agreement with the MNLF in 1996, but there was no agreement made with MILF, thus, violence by this group continued throughout the 1990s. Joseph Estrada, the president of the Philippines from 1998-2001 declared war against MILF and pledged not to negotiate with them (Walter, 2009). These aggressive tactics by the Estrada administration were a change from previous Philippine governments that had been willing to negotiate with rebel groups in Mindanao. Estrada’s policy was unsuccessful. Some militants were killed, but MILF was not fundamentally weakened. The most consequential effect of the campaign was the displacement of nearly 100,000 civilians in Mindanao (Trager and Zagorcheva, 2005). Estrada proved to be a corrupt and unpopular president resulting in his controversial removal from office by a popular uprising in 2001.

When Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo took power, since she was not an elected leader, she made it a priority to legitimize her rule. She also pledged to make the Philippines a “strong republic” in her July 2002 State of the Nation address (Macapagal as qtd. in Abinales and Amoroso, 2005). In order to strengthen her rule, using her knowledge of local languages, Macapagal appealed directly to voters in the provinces. However, her attempts to make the Philippines a strong state required more nuance than simply appealing to the populist impulses of citizens. Strengthening the institutions of the Philippine state and stamping out corruption has proven to be difficult. After Macapagal-Arroyo’s July 2002 State of the Nation address she attempted to assert the government’s regulatory control over the provinces by accusing some businessmen of overcharging for electricity and also trying to bring the corrupt bureaucracy of the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) under control (Abinales and Amoroso, 2005). The limitations of the capacity of the Philippine state became clear when many bureaucrats in the BIR refused to abide by the reforms, therefore, resisting more oversight by the government. Two years later, when Macapagal-Arroyo was re-elected president, the BIR was still perceived as corrupt and collection of tax revenues had not improved (Abinales and Amoroso, 2005). Macapagal-Arroyo’s goal to create a strong presidency and a strong republic have been hampered by the corruption within the Philippine democracy and the difficulty the government has always had in exerting authority over the provinces.

One other example of Macapagal-Arroyo’s attempt to strengthen her presidency while simultaneously reassuring her 2004 re-election was her effort to gain the support of provincial governors and local leaders through the distribution of tax revenues (Abinales, 2008). Previous Philippine presidents withheld tax revenues from the local provinces, releasing them at elections to garner the support of these local leaders. Macapagal-Arroyo changed this practice by facilitating a constant flow of government revenue goes to provincial authorities (Abinales, 2008). This practice ensured the support of these local leaders who use the money to fund local projects, which helped the local leaders remain popular and in power. Macapagal-Arroyo’s use of this tactic enabled her to win re-election in 2004 and helped her to become a more powerful president. However, her personal strength has not necessarily translated into effective administration of the provinces or a strong democracy. Macapagal-Arroyo won re-election relatively easily in 2004, but there was evidence local leaders in the nation’s more remote regions manipulated election results to ensure the incumbent’s victory. (Abinales, 2008; Hutchcroft, 2008). Macapagal-Arroyo is probably the strongest president since Marcos, but her methods of governing have not necessarily improved the capacity of the Philippine state.

International Terrorism and Local Insurgents

Macapagal-Arroyo’s attempts to assert power over the entire Philippine state, and strengthen her role coincided with a renewed focus on international terrorism by the United States. The Philippines was able to use the United States’ desire to quell Islamic movements as a means to use more force against long-time insurgent groups in Mindanao. Almost immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks Macapagal-Arroyo pledged to allow U.S. planes to fly in its airspace while also offering the use of two Philippine Naval bases. Additionally, she offered to send Philippine troops to Afghanistan contingent upon approval of the Philippine Congress (Banlaoi, 2002). Six months after September 11, George W. Bush thanked Macapagal-Arroyo by name for the Philippines’ help in the war against terrorism. Moreover, the U.S. pledged nearly $100 million for equipment and support for the Philippine military (Banlaoi, 2002). This cooperation between the United States and the Philippines stemmed from the mutual desire of both countries to combat the insurgent groups on Mindanao. These rebel groups had ties to international terrorist organizations. In this way, the U.S. considered Philippines an important front in the campaign against terrorism. Since the Philippines had never been successful in stopping the violence in Mindanao the government could use the increased interest of the United States in the conflict in Mindanao as a means to make strides in finally ending the insurgent movements. The cooperation between the Philippines and the United States regarding Mindanao was not a new development; the U.S. had been giving support to the Philippines since the 1990s. However, the level of cooperation between the two countries that began in 2001 was unprecedented.

The rebel group in Mindanao that the United States was most concerned about was the Abu Sayyaf Group. Abu Sayyaf had ties to al-Qaeda going back to the 1980s. This gave Abu Sayyaf special prominence in U.S. circles, thus, American policy focused on this group over other rebel groups operating in Mindanao. From January 2002 to June of 2002 U.S. Marines and Philippine troops participated in Operation Balikatan against Abu Sayyaf. This campaign involved about 1,300 U.S. troops and 3,000 Philippine soldiers. The goal of the operation was to neutralize Abu Sayyaf and free three hostages (Cruz de Castro, 2004; Trager and Zagorcheva, 2005). This campaign killed several hundred Abu Sayyaf members, but the leadership of the group was largely unchanged. Once Operation Balikatan formally ended, U.S. and Philippine troops continued to conduct exercises together that would prepare Philippine troops to engage in anti-terrorist activities. Since 2002 the U.S. has engaged in several more joint-exercises with the Philippine military and has continued to provide financial assistance to the military. In 2005 the U.S. and Philippine military engaged in another campaign against Abu Sayyaf (Trager and Zagorcheva, 2005). One year later, the U.S. conducted about 40 joint exercises with the Philippine military and in 2006 and 2007 the U.S. gave nearly $10 million to the Philippines through the United States’ Antiterrorism Assistance Program (Bhattacharji, 2009). The United States has taken an active role in Mindanao in order to stop the terrorist activities of Abu Sayyaf, but has also taken steps to combat the activities of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, another rebel group operating in Mindanao.

The combined efforts of the two nations have employed different tactics in trying to stop the activities of MILF than have been used in trying to combat Abu Sayyaf. The U.S. and the Philippine government have practiced a deterrence strategy against MILF that reflects the fact that the organization is regarded as primarily a domestic actor lacking strong connections to international terrorism (Trager and Zagorcheva, 2005). There is evidence that MILF has some ties to al Qaeda and to Jemma Islamiyah, but lacks their international agendas (Tragar and Zagorcheva, 2005). The Philippine government, under Macapagal-Arroyo has been negotiating with MILF since 2001 in talks that have enjoyed moderate success. As a result of the progress made during these negotiations, and because the U.S. considers MILF to be primarily a domestic group, the United States has never put MILF on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list, a list the U.S. uses to sanction foreign terrorist organizations. The U.S. has threatened to put MILF on this list if the rebel group does not completely cut its ties to international terrorist organizations, but these threats are used primarily as an incentive to encourage MILF to help the U.S. fight the international terrorist groups that the superpower considers more of a threat to its interests (Tragar and Zagorcheva, 2005). In 2002 MILF agreed to help local authorities arrest over 1000 local members of al-Qaeda and Jemma Islamiyah (Trager and Zagorcheva, 2005). The United States is less concerned with the activities of MILF than it is with Abu Sayyaf, but the Philippine government continues to negotiate with MILF in an attempt to end the violence that has killed over 100,000 people in Mindanao.

Macapagal-Arroyo was not the first Philippine president to attempt to negotiate with the MILF. However, since her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, had refused to negotiate with the organization, violence had increased in Mindanao. Within two months of taking office Macapagal-Arroyo declared a unilateral ceasefire with MILF and dropped criminal charges against their leaders (Walter, 2009). Macapagal-Arroyo stated at a February 2001 press conference that “building peace would be less expensive than supporting an all-out war” (Macapagal-Arroyo qtd. in Walter, 2009). There seems to have been a general sense within the government that the fighting in Mindanao had exacted too large of a toll on the Philippines and that the government was failing to adequately deal with the guerilla warfare tactics of MILF (Bacani, 2005). Macapagal-Arroyo’s decision to negotiate with MILF is an indication that, despite the inherent force advantage, state costs of a military campaign remained prohibitive.

Negotiations between the government and MILF took place intermittently between 2001 and 2003 at which point they collapsed. The negotiations resumed later in 2003 and continued periodically until 2008. During the negotiations MILF engaged in violent acts against citizens, but the talks continued. MILF wants the Philippine government to acknowledge that Mindanao is the ancestral home of Muslims. It hopes to gain some measure of autonomy for the island. In 2008, after years of negotiations, the government and MILF signed a memorandum of agreement that expanded the autonomous Muslim region on Mindanao. However, Christians in Mindanao, who are a majority of the population, were unhappy with the agreement because they feared that they would lose land to Muslims. There had been conflict between Christians and Muslims in Mindanao since the Philippines became an independent state. [Editor’s note: historically, the US encouraged this conflict through its long imperial occupation of the Phillippines. See Blood of Government by Paul Kramer for greater detail.]

After independence, the Philippine government began encouraging settlement in Mindanao by Christians that lived in other parts of the Philippines (Tan, 2000). Between 1948 and 1960 approximately 1.2 million people migrated to Mindanao and in the 1960s and 1970s another 360,000 people migrated to Mindanao (Tigno, 2006). Overall from the 1950s to the 1970s there were 42 government-assisted migration projects that moved over 50,000 families to three-fourth of a million hectares in Mindanao (Tigno, 2006). The effect of this migration into Mindanao was that by the end of the 20th century 25% of the population of Mindanao was Muslim and 75% was non-Muslim (Tigno, 2006; Yegar, 2002). This demographic change in Mindanao is important because there is a perception by Moros that the Philippine government encouraged migration to Mindanao in order to marginalize the Muslim population of Mindanao. This sense of injustice in one of the factors that led to the creation of rebel groups and that fueled an insurgency in Mindanao.

The 2008 agreement fell apart after Christians in Mindanao used the Philippine justice system to fight the agreement between the government and MILF. Subsequently, the Philippine Supreme Court declared the agreement unconstitutional. The talks fell apart and violence began again. Over 200,000 people were displaced and hundreds of rebels were killed. However, the Philippine government continued to press MILF to continue the talks, refraining from military engagement. This lack of a military strategy by the government reflects Macapagal-Arroyo’s belief that negotiation with MILF is a better strategy, further illustrating that the government believes that MILF would be willing to negotiate in order to meet its political goals. The government and MILF signed a cease-fire in mid-2009 and it has held. The two sides have begun negotiating again and the Philippine government hopes to reach an agreement before Macapagal-Arroyo leaves office in late 2010.

The actions of the Philippines to combat insurgent violence provide us with a good case study for when deterrence strategies might work. MILF is fundamentally a domestic insurgent group with specific political goals. Deterrence theory argues that these types of groups can be negotiated with if governments are willing to consider some of their demands. Negotiating with MILF has proven difficult for the Philippine government because MILF has not always followed through on its commitments, occasionally reverting to violence when it perceives the failure of the government live up to its commitments. Such negotiation setbacks are an indication of the difficulties that both sides have in trusting each other when there are power asymmetries and lack of information about the strengths and motivations of the adversaries. It also is an indication that it can be dangerous for governments to give legitimacy to groups that carry out violent acts. Nevertheless, the success that the Philippines has had in keeping the negotiations going and getting MILF back to the bargaining table could be an example for other governments that have domestic insurgencies with specific political goals.

As result of the long standing negotiations and continuing sporadic violence that has killed thousands, it remains difficult to argue that a final peace agreement with MILF would be a total success. More research could be done on how states with weak governing capacity such as the Philippines could administer far off provinces in ways that would make the beginning of insurgent movements less likely. Finally, since the U.S. identified the Philippines as an important front in the campaign against terrorism it was an opportunity for the country to end the violence perpetuated by an international terrorist organization. As a unique moment in recent history and that of the 21st century, more research needs to be conducted regarding whether it is possible for weaker states to fight international terrorist organizations on their own or whether they must rely on outside powers such as the United States.

Shane Updike holds degrees from Seattle University, New York University and the University of Washington. He currently is working for the Highline School District near Seattle, doing data analysis and administering the district’s Title 1 program. Prior to moving to Seattle to attend graduate school he was a high school history teacher in New York City. He also frequently wins trivia nights at local Seattle bars.