IT has been 1½ years into the single six-year term of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and he seems to be firing on all cylinders still in his “wars” on many fronts.
The on-again, off-again peace talks with Communist rebels are again off, though what seems to have resumed is more a war of words between the president and leaders of Asia’s most enduring Communist insurgency. But, even if the insurgents go back to their slow-burn jungle warfare up in the hills against government troops, as they appear to have done so, this is a needless and tiresome distraction from the country’s many other problems — all seemingly intractable.
After a short lull amidst heavy domestic and international criticism over his war on drugs, which have resulted in thousands of deaths that human rights advocates blame largely on extra-judicial killings by the police or its agents, the president seems to be amenable once again to giving the police carte blanche to treat it as a law enforcement issue to be settled in the most “efficient” way available, no or few questions asked.
But, the most serious threat to peace and order in the Philippines by far remains the Moro rebels on the southern island of Mindanao.
Thankfully, the siege on Marawi has ended after four months of mostly aerial bombardment that laid waste to the most significant Muslim-majority urban centre in the country. There is relief all-round that the battle against local affiliates of the so-called Islamic State is won, although the surprising ferocity of the urban warfare and the tenacity of the rebels have to make one wonder if the ideological battle is won even if the physical battle is.
The ideological underpinnings of this particular cause for political unrest are clear. Muslim Moros, by and large, feel dispossessed in their own land, and the sense of alienation and frustration has probably been heightened by a series of well-meaning, if protracted, peace negotiations under two preceding presidents which consumed their entire presidencies only to end in failure.
The consequences of all this have been too glaring: an unending vicious cycle of bad governance resulting in general lawlessness, kidnappings, piracy, endemic and enduring mass poverty, and a general sense of hopelessness.
To his credit, Duterte seems uniquely capable of grasping the urgency of addressing this particular issue — not least because it affects huge swathes of Mindanao where he calls home.
He has been wise not to re-start from scratch where his immediate predecessor left off. The Aquino administration simply ran out of time to enact the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that was the fruit of its laborious negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (the largest of several Moro rebel groups), under Malaysian auspices.
With the Marawi siege ended, Duterte has belatedly renewed a call to the Congress to have the BBL passed before the year’s end and has even hinted he may recall the legislature from its customary long Christmas holiday just to see the crucial law through.
Philippine legislators are perhaps unsurprisingly not treating the BBL with the urgency their president is fully conscious it deserves. The Moro question does not resonate widely in a predominantly Roman Catholic population despite it posing such a mortal underlying threat to the nation’s social fabric.
The physical rehabilitation of Marawi may be greatly facilitated if there exists a credible and popular Bangsamoro regional government to lead the effort and perhaps galvanise the international effort that may be needed to bring economic development to the war-ravaged areas under its political remit.
Because restoring some measure of political restitution for the historical injustice suffered by the Moro people does not exactly catch the imagination of ordinary Filipinos, the cause relies inordinately on the statesmanship displayed by Philippine presidents to gain traction.
Duterte, mindful of how political dynamics had undone the best efforts of his two immediate predecessors to do right by the Bangsamoro people, knows he has no time to waste if he is not to fall victim to the same unchanging political dynamics in the country.
The country will be caught up again in its mid-term electoral cycle in mid-2019. Its legislators have, at best, only the whole of next year to deliver on the BBL before election season again makes legislative work hostage to playing to the gallery.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak.