Australia should rethink its involvement in Marawi
27 Sep 2017|

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has described the city of Marawi, in Mindanao, as a candidate for becoming the Raqqa of Southeast Asia. He has authorised the dispatch of Australian military trainers (not special forces, as erroneously reported) to help train Filipino troops, should President Rodrigo Duterte ask for support.

Since May, Marawi has been at the centre of intense fighting in which more than 750 people have died and by which over 350,000 have been displaced. Australia’s prime minister and foreign minister have argued that Australia needs to support the Philippine government to prevent Daesh establishing a beachhead from which it could undermine regional security.

There are several reasons why Australia needs to rethink its involvement in the Marawi conflict.

First, supporting Duterte is dangerous. Since winning power in 2016, he has permitted the extrajudicial killing of around 3,000 suspected drug offenders by the police and another 4,000 by vigilantes. He also supported such actions during his 20-year tenure as mayor of Davao, a city of 2 million people, and bragged about personally killing people during that time. He has said that he doesn’t ‘give a shit’ about human rights, which he sees as a Western concept, and has supported a reduction in the funding of the country’s Commission on Human Rights to just 1,000 pesos ($20) for 2018. He has also threatened to use the Philippine Air Force to bomb indigenous Lumad schools.

Second, there’s more to this conflict than jihadi extremism. The current round of fighting began as a response to an attempt by the Philippine military to capture Isnilon Hapilon, also known as Abu Abdullah al-Filipini, who is the leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), a terrorist-cum-criminal enterprise that’s been operating in Mindanao since the early 1990s. The fighters who took over Marawi declared it the regional headquarters of Daesh, but they have a rather nebulous connection to the jihadists. Duterte responded to the takeover by declaring martial law and sending in thousands of troops to battle the militants.

In fact, the conflict has its roots in competition over civil contracts involving two powerful individuals: Farhana Maute, the matriarch of the Maute family, and Dimnatang Pansar, the mayor of Butig. The Mautes have formed a relationship with Isnilon Hapilon, so the conflict might not be based so much on religion or Daesh’s ability to establish a wilayat (province) as on the desire for power and money. Moreover, Daesh is known to make declarations that aren’t based on fact, such as its claim that it has killed 289 Filipino troops since April 2015, which the government disputes. It also opportunistically declares links with people and groups even though there’s no way for it to control its so-called affiliates.

Third, foreign intervention is likely to exacerbate the situation, especially in the wake of Duterte’s decision to abandon the Bangsamoro peace process. The region has a history of violence mainly because the local Moros, who make up around 5% of the Philippines’ population, have historically being discriminated against. In the 1970s, that led to the emergence of the Moro National Liberation Front and its offshoot, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which have fought for either autonomy or independence. The Bangsamoro process was intended to deliver limited autonomy for the Moros.

The actions of the military against the Marawi insurgency are bound to produce long-term ill-feeling. Duterte has not only joked that he would claim responsibility if Filipino soldiers have raped women, but has allowed the military to effectively shoot on sight anybody ‘not authorised by [the] government to carry arms’.

Duterte, Daesh and the militants in Marawi all have a vested interest in claiming that Daesh is in Mindanao and is threatening to expand. Some people are waving Daesh flags, the military has seized Daesh propaganda paraphernalia and some ASG members have pledged allegiance to Daesh, but that doesn’t mean that the group is establishing a beachhead. The reality is that policymakers show a natural reaction to intervene to prevent another Raqqa or Mosul whenever there’s any mention of Daesh. They should consider what can happen when they respond with force to organisations that neither have a real link to the jihadists nor pose a substantive threat.

Southern Mindanao has been a problem region for decades. It has suffered from substantial underinvestment, and its people have endured discrimination and mistreatment by successive governments. In its quest to retake Marawi, the Philippine Army may have been responsible for as many as 300 civilian deaths, which is a serious toll in an area that features clans and blood feuds and where the rule of law is what people make of it. Once the army gains control of the city, those militants who have evaded capture may revert to guerrilla tactics to continue the insurgency, while those who are captured may use their prison time to radicalise others.

Why should Australia support the Philippine Army, especially when the Americans are providing ‘non-combat assistance’? The ADF is already stretched and is likely to face continued demands from Washington to support the ongoing US effort in Afghanistan.

And there may be serious reputational costs for us, as Duterte isn’t a partner whom we can cajole or work with. He shows contempt for our values, undermines human rights and isn’t willing to compromise or negotiate: it’s his way or the highway.

Instead, we need to interact and engage with bona fide partner countries that are concerned about the Daesh contagion.