CAGAYAN DE ORO, PHILIPPINES - Parts of the southern Philippine island Mindanao are growing tense as the government steps up its fight against a violent Muslim rebel group, a campaign that weary locals broadly support but that troops and police may never win.
The government of tough-talking President Rodrigo Duterte declared a state of lawlessness in September to allow more police-military cooperation on wiping out the 400-strong Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebel group. In August, Duterte ordered his forces to “seek them out in their lairs and destroy them.”
Victory could help revitalize chronically poor, underdeveloped Mindanao, where fighting with Muslim rebels has killed about 120,000 people since 1970 and stained the island with a reputation for violence that in turn deters investors. About one-third of the country’s poor live in Mindanao, a breadbasket and wealth of mineral deposits with one-fifth of the entire national population.
Those factors give the campaign against Abu Sayyaf popular support in Mindanao.
“It’s something that has to be done because Abu Sayyaf has had a record of kidnappings and non-negotiable actions that need to be addressed by, I guess, military force,” said Antonio Ledesma, archbishop of the Mindanao city Cagayan de Oro. “In a sense, military confrontation might be what is needed at this time.”
People in Cagayan de Oro remember 2013, when Abu Sayyaf was suspected of setting off a bomb blast killed six people in a restaurant district.
About 500 kilometers to the west, in the 800,000-population city of Zamboanga, soldiers walk through the streets and police operate checkpoints on numerous street corners. At a street dance competition, organizers asked that mobile phones be switched off for five hours as a security measure.
Checkpoints, including one operated by a bomb inspection team, are also common now along the highways between Zamboanga and Cagayan de Oro.
Defeat for Abu Sayyaf would improve perceptions among foreigners of Mindanao’s safety for travel and business, said Rhona Canoy, 62, president of International School Cagayan de Oro and part of a local political family.
“I don’t believe they have any political fervor or drive that makes them do this,” Canoy said. “They’re not raising funds so that they can increase their army or improve whatever. They’re just in it for the money. They’re just bandits. As far as people in Mindanao are concerned, that’s how we see them. Having them removed, well, yeah it would be nice.”
Abu Sayyaf is based in outlying islands in the Sulu Sea southwest of Zamboanga. At least three other Muslim groups in the same area are pushing for political autonomy and periodically kidnapping people, extorting money and setting off bombs to get attention.
Many of Mindanao’s 21 million inhabitants back Duterte’s fight because he’s from the island and has vowed to negotiate with two other Muslim insurgent groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Moro National Liberation Front. Both groups have indicated this year they also want to talk.
The Moro people are Muslims who have occupied western Mindanao and the Sulu Sea since the 13th century. They had long sought more autonomy from European colonists and now want it from Manila.
But it’s not clear if Duterte or anyone else can win a war with Abu Sayyaf, a 25-year-old organization seen as Mindanao’s most violent rebel group. Many locals advocate for the president to negotiate with Abu Sayyaf as well as other autonomy-seeking groups.
“War will not stop it. The only best thing to do is to really talk to them. Because here in Mindanao, I believe they have the right for this land, but it’s not the right that should be broken,” said Clarence Miñao, a 36-year-old government employee in Cagayan de Oro. “Because we are all Filipinos, so we have different tribes like they’re Muslims, but we can live together safely if there’s peace talks.”
People in Cagayan de Oro also hope Duterte keeps the 50 to 100 American military advisers who are on Mindanao at any given time. Duterte has asked that they leave, for their own safety, after 14 years of help with forensics, kidnapping intelligence and cyber-crime.
The U.S. embassy in Manila indicated this month it was still working with the government.
Duterte has called for deploying thousands of his own troops to destroy Abu Sayyaf. In August, the government killed 22 rebels and lost 12 soldiers, but the following month a bomb killed 14 people in a night market in the president’s hometown of Davao City, possibly an act of retaliation.
Abu Sayyaf will be hard to beat, analysts caution. Local government officials and residents in the Sulu Sea area support the group as they get a cut from kidnapping ransom in exchange for funding. They have little trouble finding new recruits as needed.
“It’s a very loose organization and its membership shifts when necessary,” said Jay Batongbacal, University of the Philippines associate professor of law. “It almost operates more like a brand than an actual unit or movement, so I think it will be very difficult absolutely to exterminate.