Manila, 29 March 2021 – Recent clashes between military forces and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) serve as preview of more violence in Maguindanao as the region gears for the 2022 elections while continuing the transition to the Bangsamoro under the helm of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), warned International Alert Philippines.
The firefight that began on 18 March in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town was the latest episode involving the military and the BIFF, as monitored by Alert since January through its Critical Events Monitoring System that receives on-the-ground reports from local contacts.
The military claimed it attacked BIFF forces under the command of Kagi Karialan when the BIFF tried to violently thwart the establishment of a Joint Peace and Security Team in Brgy Kitango, Datu Saudi Ampatuan. The BIFF-Karialan faction has escalated its armed attacks in recent months, targeting indigenous groups including the Teduray in other municipalities such as South Upi.
"This may be an effort to demonstrate the Karialan group’s superiority over other extremist groups in the area and hence gain more recruits and support, or it can be part of a ‘slow burn’ or a gradual yet deliberate escalation of violence that leads to a major political battle before or during the 2022 elections," said Francisco Lara Jr., Senior Peace and Conflict Adviser of International Alert Philippines.
The first Bangsamoro parliamentary election is slated for 2022 along with the election for local posts. A proposal seeks to desynchronize the parliamentary and local elections. Another wants to delay the parliamentary election by extending the life of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA), the interim administrator of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) that is led by MILF members and their nominees, by three years.
The violence from extremist groups such as the BIFF and the shadow economies in drugs and weapons will combine and feed into the violence surrounding these political contests, Alert said.
The BIFF will continue to be a threat, despite the unceasing military campaign against it and reports of surrenders among its members, as it continues to receive funding from other armed groups, including ISIS. The group also receives protection money from local politicians, businessmen, and violent entrepreneurs involved in deadly shadow economies.
Alert’s research has also borne out the robustness of the illegal drug and weapons trades despite the State’s crackdown as law enforcers focus on the more urgent issues of extremist violence and the COVID-19 crisis.
"Reports from our early response network reveal how some local politicians are orchestrating violent incidents in Datu Saudi Ampatuan and nearby towns to depict the BTA as ineffective in improving the security in this conflict-ridden area and hence weaken the legitimacy and authority of the Bangsamoro transition government," Lara said.
"Many politicians are interested in seizing control of the BTA and the BARMM if elections are held as scheduled in 2022. Others are aware that the MILF is also planning to field candidates against them in their local bailiwicks," Lara added.
The military and the MILF will need to show greater resolve in neutralizing the BIFF and other extremist groups before the elections, Alert said. For the MILF, it will mean disregarding kinship ties in going after the BIFF, even if it leads to internal fissures.
If the violence continues, the Bangsamoro may experience an attack on a political or cultural center, in a pattern similar to the chain of events that led to the capture of Butig and Marawi City, in 2016 and 2017 respectively, by the Maute Group in Lanao del Sur.