Philippines: Duterte has soft and hard approaches to tackle militancy

MINDANAO, Philippines—As Mindanaoans hail the first President-elect from their region, many hope to see the end of insurgency that has been plaguing Southern Philippines for the past 40 years.

Abu Sayyaf militants patrol in the jungles of Basilan province in the Philippine island of Mindanao

Abu Sayyaf militants patrol in the jungles of Basilan province in Mindanao region

In his first press conference after winning the May 9 elections in a landslide, the tough-talking Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said on May 15 he will urge Congress to restore the death penalty by hanging and give security forces “shoot-to-kill” orders against organized criminals or those who violently resisted arrest.

Earlier, soon after sensing victory in the presidential polls, Duterte met with his trusted economic advisers to form a transition body to chart an 8-point economic agenda on rural development, tax reform, corruption fight, education, improved tourism, business-friendly government, foreign investments and public-private partnership projects.

The stock market dramatically rose after the announcement of the 8-point agenda.

Many are now awaiting to see how his administration deals with the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).  The two terror groups are posing a threat to Mindanao communities and the tourism industry in the region.

 The ASG, which recently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), beheaded a Canadian captive John Ridsdel after his family reportedly failed to raise the $6.3 million ransom money before the deadline.

The group has 300 heavily armed members with more than a thousand civilian supporters in Basilan and Sulu provinces. Since 1991, it has been involved in kidnappings, extortions and bomb attacks in Southern Philippines.

No Philippine president including former President Fidel Ramos (1992-1998), a former military general, was able to contain them. This year alone, the militants beheaded dozens of marine soldiers captured during encounters in the restive region. The military describes them as barbaric and inhuman.

The BIFF, a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), remains a threat in Central Mindanao. It is known for attacking farmers and burning their village homes. It has about 500 heavily armed active fighters and will pose a security threat to the Duterte administration.

Just before the May 9 elections, the BIFF clashed with Philippine soldiers in Lanao and Cotabato provinces in which many soldiers were killed.

 While Duterte may declare an all-out war against these militants, analysts say the popular leader can also disarm them with his charisma. In the past, he has entered rebel camps in the hinterlands of Mindanao to negotiate for the release of captives, especially soldiers and police officers.

The New People’s Army (NPA), an insurgency group seeking Marxist rule, endorsed Duterte for President before the elections. Its exiled leader in Netherlands Joma Sison plans to come back for possible peace talks with the Philippine government once Duterte officially becomes the president.

The NPA has more than 3,000 armed fighters. The group is included in the US terrorist list but Manila says it is a legitimate rebel group with a political ideology.

Duterte won over another rebel leader, Nur Misuari, chairman of the 7,000-member Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), who delivered a sizeable number of votes for him  in the presidential elections.

Lawyer Emil Aquino, one of Duterte’s campaign coordinators, said in a radio interview that “Duterte is a leader who can unite people with different beliefs and ideology so he is the president that this country badly needs at this moment.”

This view was shared by Duterte’s national campaign manager Jun Evasco who is now a core member of the transitory team.

But Duterte can be harsh and merciless for those who refuse to follow the rule of law.

In Davao City, Duterte was linked to the Davao Death Squad, a mysterious group of assassins who got involved in a series of extra judicial killings of criminals.

Duterte has admitted that he has killed many criminals in Davao.

Thanks to Duterte’s no-nonsense approach to crime, Davao remains one of the most livable and safest cities in Asia, according to Numbeo.com. Other cities in Philippines wanted to be like Davao and many voted for Duterte.

As vote counting was going on showing him way ahead of his rivals, Duterte warned criminals and drug lords that their days are numbered.

He also hinted at a shift from the present presidential form of government to a federal one so that wealth is evenly distributed among backward regions to stop insurgency.

A constitutional convention will be held to amend the provisions of the constitution that will pave way for the creation of a new federal government. Peter Lavina, Duterte’s spokesman, said they will seek the support of the House of Congress to realize this.

Under the proposed form of government, each region will have its discretion to manage its economy, law and resources.

“We will require a wide national consensus beginning with asking congress to call for a constitutional convention…there will be major rewriting of our constitution,” La Vina said.

Rolly Pelinggon, national president of Mindanaoans for Mindanao — a group of local businessmen and university professors advocating federalism — said the advantage of the federal form of government is that a region will be able to progress even if its political leaders belong to different parties.

“What happened over the past three decades? Philippine presidents did not share enough funds to regions with political leaders who did not support them. So non-allies of the elected Philippine president had to beg from the Philippine’s White House to allocate programs and projects for their respective regions,” Pelingon said.

Noel T. Tarrazona is a freelance Vancouver-based journalist and a senior analyst of Wikistrat. He can be reached at ntarrazona@gmail.com  

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