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Jul 21, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

Can 'The Punisher' Bring Peace to the Philippines?

Can 'The Punisher' Bring Peace to the Philippines?
(DONDI TAWATAO/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Weak political support and divisions within the insurgency will undermine Manila's negotiations with Philippine communist rebels.
  • Moderate Moro separatists will have a hard time maintaining their tenuous authority and fending off upstart jihadist groups if the government delays their peace process.
  • If the president's proposal for a federalist system passes, it will complicate tribal rivalries and entrench well-armed local oligarchs in the restive southern island of Mindanao.

Newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has a hard-earned reputation as a man who can make the guns go silent. During his 22-year stint as the mayor of Davao City, Duterte ruthlessly took on local troublemakers, transforming what was once the country's murder capital into one of its safest cities. In May, Philippine voters overwhelmingly looked past the human rights abuses that “The Punisher" allegedly employed to get such results, vaulting him to the highest office in the land. 

As president, Duterte will face much bigger security challenges. And though he may be better positioned than his predecessors to quell the country's myriad internal security woes, a lasting peace is likely to remain elusive.

The Militant Landscape 

Instability in the Philippines stems from several sources: The world's longest-running communist insurgency continues to launch attacks across the country. The fragile truce keeping ethnic Moro separatists in check in the predominantly Muslim regions of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago could crumble. Jihadist groups such as Abu Sayyaf, though operating primarily as criminal syndicates, have begun forging ties with the Islamic State. Amid it all, a host of smaller gangs, clan militias and local oligarchs with private armies are exploiting the lawless landscape for personal gain.

The violence marring the Philippine countryside has deterred much-needed investment and rural development, particularly in the resource-rich south. Moreover, addressing it takes up an outsize share of the military's limited budget, keeping the armed forces' focus fixed on internal stability rather than external and maritime defense.

Thus, making peace with the country's communists and Moro separatists, in particular, is at the top of Duterte's agenda, and he will bring to the office a fresh perspective on these problems. As the first Philippine president hailing from Mindanao, a hotbed for both insurgencies, Duterte has an established rapport with several militant leaders. A self-described socialist, he has ties to the Philippine communists and openly sympathizes with their cause. Duterte tends to frame the conflicts in socio-economic terms, and he is pursuing several ambitious initiatives aimed at mitigating them, including holding comprehensive peace talks and, more notably, establishing a federalist form of government to cede power to the Philippines' far-flung regions. His solutions will not come easily.

The Communists

Duterte is moving quickly to jump-start peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines, whose armed wing, the New People's Army (NPA), has been waging a guerrilla war in the Philippine countryside since 1969. To date, the conflict has left over 40,000 people dead, more than 3,000 of whom were killed in the past eight years. Now the group has agreed to open negotiations with the government in Manila, set to begin next month in Norway.

There is cause for optimism. For one, Duterte has personal ties with some of communist leaders. (The group's founder, Jose Maria Sison, was once Duterte's professor at a university in Manila.) Furthermore, as Davao City's mayor, Duterte reached a de facto truce with local NPA factions. Since assuming the presidency, he has also appointed communist figures to his Cabinet and pledged to release a number of the group's leaders from prison. And in preliminary discussions in June, government and NPA envoys agreed to hold their fire during the official talks.

The communist insurgency may be nearing the limits of what it can achieve through armed struggle. The NPA has been gradually weakening since the end of the Cold War, largely because of the loss of support from Maoist brethren abroad, internal purges, sustained pressure from the military, and the capture of several leaders. Though the group has benefited from the instability in Mindanao and claims a presence in 69 of the Philippines' 81 provinces, its ranks have declined from around 26,000 fighters in the 1980s to a little more than 4,000 today. This has led to sharp disagreement among the movement's leaders over whether to transition to a purely political group.

Still, it is unclear what the government can offer the communists — beyond promises of amnesty and an end to military operations — in exchange for laying down arms. The group does not have territorial ambitions, and most of its political aims are nonstarters such as overthrowing the government and expelling Western interests from the Philippines.

Moreover, the communists are prone to intense factionalism, and minor political concessions may not carry weight with local commanders. Local cells, which are spread across the country in remote areas with rugged terrain, operate with a considerable amount of independence. Some have carved out fiefdoms funded by extortion and other criminal activities, and they will be reluctant to give up the material rewards of their struggle.

This presents command-and-control challenges, an environment ripe for attacks by dissident factions that erode political support in Manila for the talks. The peace process has started and stalled repeatedly over the past three decades — often derailed by spoiler attacks and communist infighting — and collapses have typically been followed by spikes in violence. The military, which increasingly considers the NPA a spent force, has the power to disrupt the negotiations as well. 
 
Indeed, Duterte's campaign pledges to the communists sparked low-level coup rumors, and he cannot afford to diverge too much from his generals. Other power brokers in Manila remain highly suspicious of the communists as well. After all, the NPA's Maoist doctrine views peace talks as useful for regrouping after losses and exacting concessions such as prisoner releases. And unlike the Moro separatists, who are contained in the country's far south, the communists have long targeted the interests of the elites on the island of Luzon, the seat of Philippine power.

Manila's Western partners may also balk at major concessions to the communists. The United States and European Union still consider the NPA a terrorist group, and the organization has frequently targeted Western interests and personnel, including U.S. troops. The recent return of U.S. forces to Philippine bases has prompted the NPA to declare its intention to resume these attacks. While Duterte mistrusts Washington's defense guarantees and will not let it dictate his security policy, he is also unwilling to alienate the United States as tension rises in the South China Sea.

Ultimately, Duterte will struggle to sustain support for the peace process as long as the group maintains an ability to revive attacks.

The Moro

For centuries, an ever-shifting mix of rebel groups have waged violence in Muslim Mindanao, leaving more than 150,000 people dead in the past four decades alone. In 2014, after 17 years of negotiations, the administration of Benigno Aquino III signed a landmark peace deal with the strongest of those groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). At the center of the pact is the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which would create an administrative region governed by the MILF that spans southwest Mindanao and nearby islands. But the last Philippine Congress failed to approve the measure before Aquino's term ended, and the group suspended its process of disarmament.

The MILF would be the BBL's main beneficiary and is eager to see the deal go through. Since abandoning its demands for full independence in 2003, the group has evolved into a primarily political organization, and its militant capabilities have weakened. Thus, the group has been going out of its way to prove that it can be a reliable partner in the region, cooperating extensively with the military in operations targeting regional jihadists, particularly with the Islamic State-aligned Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a MILF splinter group.

The MILF also appears to be reconciling with its secular parent organization and longtime rival, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Though the MNLF has historically opposed the BBL, launching several major attacks in 2013 in an attempt to derail the negotiations, two of its three factions recently signed a unity agreement with the MILF. From their perspective, the BBL would be their best chance to carve out a share of regional power and wealth. Manila, for its part, has played the rival groups off one another in the past as part of a broader divide-and-conquer strategy. But international pressure, combined with the MNLF's decreasing military capabilities and, most important, a desire to contain jihadist spinoff groups, has made Manila more amenable to Moro unification.

The MILF and the MNLF welcomed Duterte's election, calling him a "true son of Mindanao," and the president has pledged to protect the 2014 peace deal and find a way to grant the Moros more autonomy. But Duterte's southern roots alone are not enough to wash away deep-seated Moro distrust. This is because Mindanao is a hotly contested region with countless overlapping clan, religious and ethnic fiefdoms. And the Moros' resentment is fueled as much by the southward migration of Christian Visayans, for example, as it is by "imperial Manila's" perceived oppression.

Moreover, Duterte himself believes that the BBL gives too many concessions to the MILF at the expense of Mindanao's many other stakeholders. And though the president's Cabinet is mostly staffed with people from the region, it includes Christian hard-liners who oppose the Moro peace process, as well as a member with ties to a powerful, well-armed Muslim clan that has fought alongside the military against the MILF. Furthermore, an MNLF faction led by Nur Misuari, the group's founder, has not endorsed the organization's reconciliation with the MILF. The faction may be weak and isolated, but Misuari's close personal connection with Duterte will fuel suspicions among MILF leaders that Manila is once again trying to pit the groups against each other. Consequently, the MILF will hold on to its doubts — and its guns — until it can get a clearer understanding of Duterte's intentions.

Federalism: A Solution With Its Own Problems

The biggest complication is Duterte's push for a federalist system. Duterte cannot expect the new Congress to be any more amenable to the BBL than the last was, so he is uninterested in spending the political capital needed to force it through. Instead, he argues that his proposed federalist model will give the MILF the benefits of the BBL while also meeting the needs of the region's other actors. Duterte plans to revive the BBL as standalone legislation only if his bid for federalism fails.

This is a problem for the MILF. The push for federalism will likely require a constitutional convention, followed by a referendum in 2019, plus another six years for full implementation. Its prospects for passage are still murky, as past efforts to adopt less ambitious amendments to the 1987 constitution have all failed.

The MILF fears that yet another lengthy delay in its vow to bring autonomy to the region will undermine local support for its feeble authority. Already, the MILF and MNLF are struggling to keep younger generations from joining Mindanao's jihadist groups. These groups are currently small and disorganized, but the Islamic State is making an effort to unify them. Without popular backing, MILF leaders will find it increasingly difficult to police the region on Manila's behalf.

Moreover, a federalist system itself will not be better suited to address many of the root causes of the conflict. The Philippine political system is already highly decentralized, thanks largely to its fragmented ethnic and geographic makeup. A federal system would allow for more formal decision-making at the provincial level, but it could also entrench local oligarchs and upset the balance of power among rival tribes. Duterte has provided few details about the design of what he has in mind, but there's no obvious way to divvy up Mindanao along ethnic, religious or linguistic lines.

And so, regardless of which system takes root, the Philippines will remain ripe for internecine violence that will continue to require military intervention. Meanwhile, empowered local strongmen could threaten Manila's control over critical functions of governance. A viable federal system requires a central government that is strong enough to keep it from spinning out of control. Manila has yet to prove it's up to the task.

Lead Analyst: Phillip Orchard

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