An explosion of clan feuding and land related conflict in 2019 threatens to stall the momentum towards peace in the Bangsamoro region. This is according to Conflict Alert, a subnational conflict monitoring system focused on Mindanao in the Philippines, which launched its 2020 Bangsamoro conflict report.
By close of 2019, the conflict monitoring system logged a total of 2,655 violent conflict incidents in the five Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) provinces of Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi, including the cities of Cotabato and Isabela – a decrease of 9% from the previous year.
Even as overall conflict incidents trended downward, flashpoints developed in many pockets and corners of the BARMM, said Nikki de la Rosa, Country Director of International Alert Philippines, which developed and maintains Conflict Alert.
In a virtual presser, De la Rosa said that the clan feuding incidents they tallied from police and media reports rose by nearly 50% with highest concentrations in Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao, including Cotabato City.
These feuds, fueled by personal and political grudges and land conflict, also involved former combatants of the Moro Islamic Liberation front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), as well as local violent extremist groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), she revealed.
In 2019, thirteen clan feuds involved MILF-affiliated actors and caused the displacement of thousands.
"The irony is that previous combatants who ought to be retired from decommissioning and normalization processes are instead training their weapons against each other, against indigenous peoples, and against other claimants of land surrounding their previous camps. The combatants who lived in these camps desire permanent rights and ownership and these claims are now exacerbating tensions in the post-conflict normalization process," de la Rosa said.
The BARMM celebrated its founding anniversary last week, a year after the ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) that created the autonomous regional government through a two-part plebiscite. Celebrations were done amidst a call by the MILF-led Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) for Congress to amend the BOL and allow a three-year extension of the transition process.
Local leaders in Cotabato City and Sulu who had been against the inclusion of their territories in the BARMM oppose the extension as it would postpone the holding of the 2022 national elections in the region and prolong the interim government’s rule to execute political and normalization agreements that, it said, were hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Morphing of violent extremism
The overall decline in violent conflict in the Bangsamoro was matched too with the shift in the kind of violent extremism, according to Conflict Alert report.
International Alert senior peace and conflict adviser Francisco Lara, Jr., pointed out that violent extremism took a new form in 2019 in the island province of Sulu with suicide bombings perpetrated by female, Filipino, and foreign extremists.
The suicide bombings carried out by the ISIS-affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group in Jolo in January and in Indanan in June and September resulted in 21 and 11 deaths, respectively which were 90% and 72% of deaths attributed to violent extremism in these towns, the Conflict Alert report revealed.
These were followed in 2020 by two successive suicide bombing attacks in Jolo on 24 August that killed 14 civilians, policemen, and soldiers, and wounded 75.
"The suicide attacks reveal how the influence of ISIS has remained potent and that the attacks in August 2020 are not expected to be the last. There is a potential for suicide bombings to be reproduced in other parts of Mindanao, especially as security is tightened in Sulu," said Lara.
The Conflict Alert report shows that violent extremism events dropped 26% to 195 in 2019 from the previous year with fewer incidents involving the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu and Basilan and the BIFF in Maguindanao. However the rate of decline in the incidence of violent extremism and the resulting deaths was lowest in Sulu at 13% and 10% respectively because of the suicide bombings. Incidents involving the Maute Group in Lanao del Sur was steady at 21 in 2019.
Lara shared that continued recruitment and regrouping of ISIS-affiliated armed groups had been reported in Lanao del Sur. Financial incentives are also being offered to lure new members to the BIFF.
Persistence of shadow economies
Illegal drugs and illicit weapons persisted as the leading singular cause of conflict in 2019, Conflict Alert reported.
The number of Illegal drug related incidents climbed 14% in 2019. All provinces except Basilan including Isabela City registered increases. Tawi-Tawi led with a 74% increase in illegal drug-related incidents, followed by Lanao del Sur and Sulu, each with 19%, then Maguindanao, including Cotabato City, with 5%.
According to Conflict Alert, the government’s campaign against the illegal drug trade revealed new hotspots such as Buluan, Maguindanao where incidents doubled.
The use of handguns, the most common type of weapon in the region, also increased by 6% between 2018 and 2019, the report revealed. Handguns were used in illegal drug incidents, clan feuding, and personal grudges and robberies, and during the 2019 elections. Violent extremists such as the Abu Sayyaf and the BIFF used handguns to carry out assassinations.
Lara said that the ongoing Bangsamoro normalization process must be considered amidst a proliferation of illegal guns in the area.
"The target of the weapons decommissioning had already limited the number to those guns allegedly deployed or supplied by the MILF and allowed the exemption of weapons allegedly owned by the combatants themselves. Pit this against RA 10591 or the national gun law that says citizens, which include decommissioned MILF combatants, can own up to 15 registered firearms. A former MILF combatant who is embroiled in clan feuds may reason that his firearms are for private use and register them, or just keep his unregistered weapons anyway. The rise in gun-related violence will certainly make it more difficult to convince former combatants to lay down their guns and render themselves vulnerable to personal attacks," Lara said.
"One would expect that violence will less likely happen under the watch of the BTA and BARMM, but peace takes a while to grow, and peace agreements hardly lead to a post-conflict future at once or at all," explained Dela Rosa.
“Studies have shown that democratic transitions can spin-off identity-based, ethnic conflicts when conditions for open, inclusive, and accountable rule are not in place. This is what our Conflict Alert data are showing this time in the Bangsamoro, with land resources as the locus of horizontal conflicts,” de la Rosa added.
“This period of transition-induced violence bears watching and the BTA must act on land related conflicts as a first priority,” said de la Rosa.
According to the group, a land law must be crafted through a “strong, evidence-based and participatory and publicly accessible process”. The situation also requires the establishment of a mechanism to settle land and property disputes to prevent the escalation of violence in the region, they said.
Lara emphasized that the MILF must exert coordinated effort to rein in violence from active or decommissioned MILF combatants and their respective clans, in cases of land and resource conflicts, and to counteract similar threats from the BIFF.
The organization recommended that a better orchestrated approach is needed to prevent violent extremism, citing a combination of capacity building in the deradicalization of the youth, implementing restorative justice programs, conduct of social media campaigns to prevent recruitment into extremist groups, on top of intelligence gathering and security operations.
De la Rosa said that curbing the use and proliferation of illegal drugs and illicit firearms is crucial in addressing other enduring wars in the Bangsamoro and to prevent these from fueling extremist violence.
"International Alert has consistently advocated for a coherent gun-ownership policy that would mediate the national gun law and the decommissioning aspects of the normalization process. This should march in step with intensified efforts to capture and destroy illegal arms and weapons, hitting hard at paramilitary and criminal groups that hold firearm arsenals," she added.