MILF, Maute Group battle for legitimacy

the mautes
THE MAUTES. From left to right: Cayamora, Farhana, Omar, Abdullah Maute.

The mountainous town of Butig is host to an MILF camp where its founding leader Hashim Salamat is buried. It’s also where the ISIS-linked Maute Group trained its fighters before they targeted Marawi

MANILA, Philippines (Jul. 3, 2017) — It took 17 years of negotiations before the government and Muslim rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) signed in 2014 a peace agreement that envisioned to address the roots of rebellion in Mindanao.

But it wasn’t the end of the MILF’s struggle, it turned out, as the previous Congress failed to pass a law that should have created a new Bangsamoro region that would allow Muslims in Mindanao more power and control over governance and resources on their land.

It’s not clear when the Maute family, practically royalty among MILF clans, gave up on the peace process. The sons of Cayaramora and Farhana Maute supported instead the radical ideology of international terrorist network Islamic State (ISIS) and sought to carve their own territory in Mindanao to establish a caliphate.

The MILF was working to complete the peace process – counting on the promise of President Rodrigo Duterte that peace in Mindanao is the legacy he wants to leave behind – when the Maute Group attacked Marawi City on May 23.

Rappler sat down last May 27 with Mohagher Iqbal, chairman of the MILF peace implementing panel. He said the Marawi crisis underscores the need create the new Bangsamoro region and make the terrorist groups irrelevant.

“One of the reasons why these groups are cropping up is because of the frustration of the people [with the peace process]. I think it’s time for the government, especially Congress, to be serious about the passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL),” said Iqbal.

Slow peace process eroded MILF moral ascendancy

The Maute Group operates in Lanao del Sur, a province inside MILF stronghold central Mindanao. Iqbal said there are 3 beliefs that differentiate the MILF from the Maute Group.

  • The MILF believes in the political resolution of the conflict through a peace process. The Maute Group does not.
  • The said MILF would have seen to it that its military operations did not put civilians in the crossfire. The Maute Group, in contrast, brought the war to densely populated areas and used civilians as human shields.
  • Half of the MILF leadership are ulama or religious leaders. The MILF would never agree with the Maute Group’s radical interpretation of the Koran.

Iqbal said they worked to remind the MILF base that the Maute Group and the ISIS ideology it is promoting goes against MILF principles. But he acknowledged that frustrations over the peace process that the MILF pushed has somehow eroded its moral ascendancy – particularly among young Muslims. They have become doubtful about the leadership’s ability to address the political issues.

The Maute Group exploited this and was able to recruit among MILF clans.

“The Maute leadership is very young, a second generation [MILF]. Young people, the youth, are bold and daring. Young people are attracted to idealism,” said Iqbal.

In a sense, the MILF found itself in a battle with the Maute Group for legitimacy in Central Mindanao.

“Right now, modesty aside, the greater majority of our people are still listening to the MILF. We still have that popularity among our people,” Iqbal said.

“To a very good extent, I think only the factor of MILF is preventing the Maute Group from recruiting so many people to their side,” Iqbal said.

Blood is thicker than water

Marawi is yet another war that puts to the test the sincerity of the MILF in abandoning its history of violence and links with terrorism.

“The MILF has proven time and again that we are a consistent and reliable partner in the search for peace in Mindanao. Without a reliable partner in the search for peace in Mindanao, I don’t think peace can be achieved in due time,” said Iqbal.

The truth is MILF leaders – some more vocal than others – are frustrated with the delay in pushing for the law that will create the new Bangsamoro region. But the actions of the leadership showed commitment to peace.

In Marawi, the MILF partnered with the government to create peace corridors that helped rescue hundreds of civilians trapped inside the battle zone. But the bigger contribution of the MILF is perhaps securing the highways from Marawi City to Malabang – the towns where the war could spill over – and make sure that they are not cut off.

Still, there are those who feel the rebel group could have done more to stop the Maute Group. In hushed talks, there are those who can’t help but ask if some MILF leaders had also aided the Maute Group in Marawi.

milf
PEACE MECHANISM. Peace monitors are sent to Butig after complaints that military offensives had gotten too close to MILF areas. Photo from the military

The blood ties between the MILF and the Maute Group are thick. Both groups can trace roots to the mountainous town of Butig located some 50 road kilometers away from Marawi City.
The war-torn town that hosts one of the MILF’s biggest camps, Camp Bushra, is the hometown of Maute matriarch Farhana. It is where MILF founder Hashim Salamat is buried and where the Maute Group training camp is located.

This means it’s not only the leaders of the MILF and the Maute Group who are related by blood or by marriage. It is the same among their supporters.

“As the saying goes, blood is thicker than water. You can hardly separate those people from each other,” said Iqbal.

“I think that is the real basis of the suspicion that the MILF is one way or another linked to the Maute Group. But the reality is, the divide is so deep. It is so deep that the two groups cannot go together,” said Iqbal.

This is the reality that complicates wars and peace processes in these parts of the country. While families are divided in their ideologies – MILF, MNLF or the Moro National Liberation Front, BIFF, Maute Group, and Abu Sayyaf among others – blood ties often prevail when fighting erupts in their villages.

Suspicions vs MILF

dead policemen
DEAD. Philippine police commandos unload body bags containing the remains of their comrades killed in a clash with Muslim rebels in Mamasapano.

Suspicions are hard to shake off whenever the government launches offensive in central Mindanao. In Butig last year, MILF fighters stepped aside to let the military run after the Maute Group. But there are allegations coming from residents themselves that some MILF members may have tipped off the targets and allowed them to escape.

Whether allegations of leaks are true or not, concerns prompted the police to keep their notorious January 2015 Mamasapano operation a secret from the MILF and the military. This is because the military would have pressed to inform the MILF out of respect for ceasefire mechanisms with the rebel group.

The police Special Action Force (SAF) succeeded in killing their longtime target, Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Marwan, but it cost the lives of 44 elite cops who fought in a day-long battle in the province adjacent to Lanao del Sur. They fought both the BIFF and the MILF.

The Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) declared the clashes with the MILF a “misencounter” that should have been prevented if the police respected the ceasefire mechanisms with the MILF.

Public outrage over the deaths of the cops turned national sentiment against the MILF, however, and derailed support for the peace process. Lawmakers withdrew support for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

This was when Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte took the national stage to warn of war erupting in Mindanao if the government breaks its promise to the MILF. It was against this backdrop that Duterte first declared his plans to run in the May 2016 presidential elections.

“Remember that if there is a breakdown in the peace negotiations, we in Mindanao will be the first ones to suffer and it is sad that nobody in Manila seems to realize this,” Duterte was quoted saying.

This is where Commander Bravo and his role in the Marawi crisis comes in to show the bigger value of the MILF and the peace process despite the complications they bring.

Commander Bravo’s Facebook video

Abduhrahman Macapaar or Commander Bravo is the popular but belligerent chief of the MILF Northwestern Mindanao Front. He commands up to 1,500 fighters in the Lanao provinces, based on estimates of a military officer who served there.

Bravo is notorious for going into a rampage in 2008, along with the late former MILF commander Ameril Umbra Kato, when the Supreme Court junked a peace agreement between the Arroyo government and the MILF.

commander bravo
COMMANDER BRAVO. The belligerent MILF commander leads about 1,500 fighters. Screenshot of his Facebook video

Kato would form the breakaway group BIFF, which would coddle foreign terrorists. Bravo stayed with the MILF, which chose to restart the talks with the succeeding Aquino administration.

Bravo has always been a cause of concern for the security sector because of his reported activities in his lairs. Last year, Duterte aligned him with the Maute Group and accused him of taking his own territory in Mindanao.

But Bravo denied all these and declared his commitment to the peace process.

On the 3rd week of clashes in Marawi, he proved this. In a video message that went viral on Facebook pages of Maranao residents, he distanced himself from the Maute Group and declared their jihad to be wrong.

“Commander Bravo has been known for making so many statements and making so many decisions. But putting all things together, I don’t think we will doubt the loyalty of Commander Bravo to the MILF,” said Iqbal.

“That statement in the midst of the fighting in Marawi has settled everything. After all, Commander Bravo is with the MILF and he has said correctly the ideological and political lines of the MILF in terms of his statements in the video,” said Iqbal.

A reliable source confirmed that Macapaar met with the Maute brothers several times. Many shuddered imagining what could have happened if Macapaar and hundreds of his fighters joined the Maute Group.

“If Commander Bravo made a statement to the effect that he would at least sympathize with the Mautes, that makes a difference. But we never doubted Commander Bravo. He was through and through with the MILF,” said Iqbal.

Peace process

The new Bangsamoro region will replace the current ARMM – the result of the peace agreement with Nur Misuari’s MNLF in 1996.

The MILF was the breakaway faction of the MNLF that represented dissatisfaction with the peace process that Misuari led. Years later the MILF would eclipse the MNLF to become the country’s dominant Muslim rebel group.

When the historical injustices are addressed by government, then new armed groups that would crop up in the future would have no more reason to fight governmentMohagher Iqbal

This was the big lesson that the government learned from the MNLF peace process. For the peace efforts with the MILF to succeed, a new breakaway group cannot be allowed to grow and challenge the dominance of the MILF.

The military believes the BIFF has been diminished after it lost its leaders Kato and Usman, although the group remains a concern especially in Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat.

There have been many other spoilers to the MILF peace process that the military also dealt with one by one. The Maute Group is the latest incarnation of violent armed groups that claim to represent the Muslims in Mindanao.

In February 2013, followers of late Sultan Jamalul Kiram III attacked in Sabah to protest the MILF peace process for failing to include the country’s claim to Sabah. In September 2013, Misuari’s followers also besieged Zamboanga City to protest the abolition of ARMM.

Iqbal said the creation of a Bangsamoro region as envisioned by the MILF will end the cycle of violence.

“When the historical injustices are addressed by the government, then new armed groups that would crop up in the future would have no more reason to fight government. All the issues are addressed by government and that would make them (armed groups) illegitimate,” said Iqbal.

Duterte, the first president from Mindanao, is expected to throw his support behind the proposed law when he delivers his second State of the Nation Address (SONA) before Congress this July.

Duterte said peace in Mindanao is the legacy he wants to leave behind. Indeed, it would mean everything for the people in his homeland – if only he could deliver.


by Carmela Fonbuena | Rappler.com