By: Victor M. Taylor

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which has for over two decades terrorized a wide section of the island of Mindanao and beyond from its island bases in Sulu and Basilan, has once again been in the news. 

Despite the claims of the government that it has only 300-400 men, nonstop military operations against the group have been launched in Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and mainland Mindanao to little avail and the frustration of President Rodrigo Duterte, who on May 23 declared martial law across the entire island of Mindanao, with a population of 23 million people.

The battle for control of Marawi City that triggered the declaration of martial law is just the latest and most dramatic evidence of an upsurge which has defied the government for decades. And while the Maute Group has been the main force in the Marawi fighting, it was actually a government operation against Abu Sayyaf Commander Isnilon Hapilon, believed to be in Marawi, that sparked the fierce battle which is still ongoing.

Since last year, with some 10,000 Philippine Army and Marines soldiers mobilized against them, augmented by Philippine Navy vessels and Philippine Air Force reconnaissance and attack aircraft, the ASG has still managed to pull off surprises. As noted, in Lanao del Sur, ASG chieftain Isnilon Hapilon has linked up with the locally based Maute Group and in Marawi has fought back against government forces which attempted to capture him.

That followed an April 10 incursion of an ASG group into Bohol, a central Visayas tourist destination that saw soldiers and insurgents killed in clashes. It took government forces a little over a month to put an end to the Bohol “invasion” by an ASG band of just 11 fighters.

Although some success has been achieved by the Philippine authorities in their campaign against the ASG with the killing of a number of ranking commanders, events in Marawi and elsewhere suggest there is far to go before ASG and groups affiliated with it are neutralized – notwithstanding President Duterte’s deadline of June 30 to “finish off,” “crush,” “stamp out” the ASG. After all, as Duterte himself noted, the ASG problem is part of the larger issue of unrest in the southern Philippines, a situation which runs back for more than 400 years. Successive colonial administrations – and from the perspective of militant Muslims the Philippine Republic is a colonial administration – have tried and failed to put an end to the unrest.

Duterte asks business help

To the credit of the Duterte administration, it has recognized that military/police operations need to be supplemented by other factors. For this reason, Negosyo para sa Kapayapaan sa Sulu was launched in Malacañang in December last year. Under this initiative, leading Manila businessmen were asked to undertake projects in Sulu in an effort to address the dire social and economic conditions. Pledges covered a mix of projects including coconut processing, feed mill, seaweeds, poultry, infrastructure and support for social services.

But a mix of military action and development projects is insufficient, particularly given the links that have now been established between the insurgents and Islamic State.

Underlying not just recent events but developments over past several decades, a basic question needs to be asked:  How deep are the feelings of distrust, if not enmity, between Christians and Muslims as Salafist doctrines have continued to spread?

Mutual Distrust

A 2005 survey by the Human Development Network, part of the United Nations Development Program, attempted to determine to what extent biases existed among Christian Filipinos towards Muslims. The survey found the following:

  • Although only 14 percent of respondents admitted to having had direct dealings with Muslims, more than a third (33-39 percent) exhibited a bias toward Muslims based on their responses to various survey questions;
  • 47 percent expressed the belief that Muslims are likely to be terrorists or extremists;
  • 55 percent expressed the stereotypical view of Muslims as prone to run amok;
  • Over 40 percent would outright choose a person with a Christian name rather than a Muslim name when choosing a worker or employee, and a boarder or tenant.
  • 40 percent would choose to reside in an area distant from a Muslim community even if the rent were higher rather than live in a cheaper area close to a Muslim community.

Generations of Tausug warriors have passed down to their descendants the following saying: “Marayaw pa kaw makabunuh Bisayah, makasud kaw ha sulgah.” (It is better for you to kill a Christian, you will be able to enter heaven). In recent times this has been reinforced by the Salafi-Wahhabi perspective of intolerance which provides a justification for jihad against kuffar (unbelievers), particularly in “Defense of Muslim Lands,” in the words of Abdullah Azzam, mentor of Osama bin Laden and inspiration of Abdurajak Janjalani, founder of the Abu Sayyaf.

Interfaith dialogues have been held since the late 1960s to foster understanding. The Lanao Muslim-Christian Movement for Dialogue, for example, was set up in 1972 in response to attempts by some groups to sow discord between Muslims and Christians in the Lanao area. This eventually led to the establishment of the Bishops-Ulama Forum, later renamed the Bishops-Ulama Conference, established in 1996. Similar groups like the Silsilah Dialogue Movement in Zamboanga City were also established.

But despite these efforts of Muslims and Christians enough people still appear to harbor distrust or even hatred which are elevated by outrages such as the bombing of the Davao City night market last year and the barbarous beheading of eight kidnap victims over the past two years.

Distrust Rooted in History

The seeds of this distrust are rooted in history.  There has been the experience of Muslims of the southern Philippines fighting the Spanish, American and Philippine Republic colonizers, all eager to subjugate the Moros over more than 400 years, wars pitting Christian Filipino soldiers against Muslim warriors. From the perspective of the Filipino Christians the enemy was the Moro, who would launch piratical raids against coastal communities in the Visayas and as far north as Ilocos Sur in Luzon, pillaging and capturing inhabitants to be used or sold as slaves.

From the Muslim perspective, the enemy was the Christian Filipino, the Bisaya (a Tausug term generically referring to Christian Filipinos) – soldiers used by the Spanish and American colonial powers in their wars against the Moros. They were as well the settlers from Luzon and the Visayas, taking over lands in Mindanao and transforming the Moros (and the Lumads, the non-Muslim indigenous) into minorities.


Feeding discontent too is the low level of governance. This is a problem throughout the Philippines, but has additional impact in long troubled Muslim areas. A survey undertaken in 2006 of all 18 municipalities of Sulu province found extraordinarily low levels of confidence in government. Politicians were described as being liars and thieves, created dissension and government generally was oppressive. Peace could only come from better security and improved standards of governance.

The problem is characterized by the chronic absence of mayors from their areas of jurisdiction. There is a joke that while all cities and municipalities in the country are supposed to have one mayor, Zamboanga City is fortunate to have 30 – the duly elected Mayor of Zamboanga and the mayors of the various municipalities of Sulu, Basilan and towns in the Zamboanga Peninsula who have homes in Zamboanga City and spend much of their time there.

Last year, the soon-to-be-appointed Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Visaya, reverted to the issue of governance when, having been asked about the possibility of imposing martial law in the provinces of Basilan and Sulu to address the Abu Sayyaf problem, he replied, “As far as I am concerned, that is an option. There seems to be a failure in local governance.”

Political Dynasties

Even the US military forces, operating in Basilan and Sulu against the Abu Sayyaf from 2002 to 2014, were faced with the problem.  Struggling for answers as to why US forces who had spent huge amounts of time and money trying to improve conditions in Sulu had been targeted for killing by IEDs one US non-commissioned officer came to the conclusion: “A clear pattern emerged. Governance: the warlord families were manipulating every election cycle with violence, bribes and vote stealing, creating a corrupt, impregnable oligopoly.”

The key elective positions, governors and mayors, have been controlled by specific families. Admittedly, this is a situation that is not unique to Sulu or Basilan. One finds this same pattern of dynastic control of political positions all over the country. One need look no further than President Duterte’s city of Davao to see that this is par for the course. But then, these other provinces, cities and municipalities do not have the level of violence, the virtual absence of law and order and the dire social conditions that one finds in the Muslim areas.

Fixing the Governance Problem

How does one then fix the system of governance in this area, if it is agreed that this is truly a major stumbling block to bringing about peace to the region? Is it just a matter of having “free and fair elections” as some people have suggested? Or is it more complex than that?

Would instituting a system of autonomy for the Bangsamoro, as has been negotiated with the MILF address the issue? Would setting up Duterte’s federal system of government be the key?

Unfortunately, there are no quick and easy answers for this. But some factors that could be considered in the process of designing an appropriate system could be:

  • Undertaking thorough and grassroots-based consultations to draw from people their thoughts on an acceptable system of governance.
  • Providing mechanisms to prevent the rise of dynastic rule or, looking at it from another perspective, opening the system so that truly meritorious individuals have a fighting chance of assuming the reins of governance.
  • Involving the participation of traditional leaders as well as religious leaders.
  • Incorporating a system of “Shura” or frequent consultations of leaders with their constituents.
  • Instituting a system to ensure that local government leaders remain in their areas of jurisdiction to ensure that they are available to attend to their responsibilities.
  • Strengthening controls over the Internal Revenue Allotment, national revenues allocated to local governments, which unfortunately have been treated in many instances as personal funds by the local government officials.
  • Strengthening the system of accountability whereby local government officials can be summarily suspended for failure to maintain law and order or meet development goals.

On the matter of political dynasties, it is recognized that while there is a clear prohibition in the Philippine Constitution against such a practice, unsurprisingly, the Philippine Congress and Senate have failed to pass the needed legislation to implement this provision.  How to overcome this reluctance is a challenge.

Traditional Systems for Answers

Some people have suggested looking at traditional systems for an answer to the problem of governance. A Tausug friend of the author recounted:

“I remember (in the late 1940s early 50s) when we were growing up in Jolo, the ‘panglima’ system was still in place in spite of the democratic form introduced by the new Philippine government…Everyone was happy that matters could be brought before the panglima for their resolution. The basis for the selection of the panglima was a moral, upright, leader with unquestioned integrity and could command respect of the community.

“The present leaders in Jolo, with a rare exception of a few, do not deserve to lead at all….in the past, to be known as a corrupt mayor or barrio captain was a cause of shame and humiliation. Not now. I think it is wise not to totally reject the past, in favor of modernity. Many things worked before; sadly, in the name of democracy and so called higher college education of the Sulu people, the positive contributions of culture are now relegated to the background, mere subject of academic dissertations. Sulu culture has its own answers to problems besetting the province, if only we try to look deeper.”