Steer clear of Duterte’s wars

At a regional defence forum in the Philippines on 24 October, Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne appealed to regional neighbours to assist in the war on terror in Southeast Asia, announcing the deployment of 80 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel to the Philippines.

During the same meeting, Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte thanked the United States and Australia for sending military advisors to assist in fighting ISIS and local affiliates, who had just been flushed out of the southern Philippines city of Marawi after 5 months. The fighting killed hundreds, displaced nearly 400,000 people, lead to human rights abuses, and destroyed the heart of the Philippines premier majority Muslim city. Duterte also commended Russia and China for supplying arms in this scorched earth campaign against terror.

Though the Australian ambassador in early October denied that their units will be deployed in Mindanao, where Marawi city is located, they will nevertheless “provide mobile training teams that will begin providing urban warfare, counter-terrorism training.” Minister Payne noted that “the move is part of a wide strategy that will see Australian troops deployed to land, sea and air for the first time in a co-ordinated leading role in the terrorist fight in South East Asia.”

In inaugurating an expansive and militarised posture towards regional security, one that will apparently include boots on the ground in the Philippines, Australia has chosen a corrupt and violent government as its initial partner. Before the battle in Marawi, the incursion of ISIS into Mindanao was ignited by the charisma of Ipsilon Hapilon, a leader of the Philippines resurgent Al Qaeda-affiliated Abu Sayyaf group, who opportunistically swore allegiance to ISIS. In doing so, he obtained new sources of international finance, and was able to rally together militants disgruntled with a failed peace process, the locally powerful Maute clan, and other drug lords seeking new allies. But, more fundamentally, the targeting of Marawi city as the first bastion of a Southeast Asian caliphate was an extreme response to the failures of local politics, unpaid inter-clan grudges, and corruption.

These issues are nothing new on the island of Mindanao. Since 1969, they have fed the armed insurgencies of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the New People’s Army (NPA), a Maoist armed movement. The MNLF, MILF and NPA had all been in various stages of peace talks and peace accords implementation with the government. Those efforts have ground to a halt over the past year due to strategic mismanagement by the Duterte administration, the explosion of violence in Marawi, and declaration of martial law on the island.

Many analysts believe that Duterte’s failed peace efforts, and the brutal Marawi siege that resulted, have simply created a wider pool recruits for local armed militant and extremist groups not only in the Philippines, but in Malaysia and Indonesia as well, as stated in a recent report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in Jakarta. “The risks won’t end when the military declares victory,” says Sidney Jones, IPAC director. “Indonesia and Malaysia will face new threats in the form of returning fighters from Mindanao, and the Philippines will have a host of smaller dispersed cells with the capacity for both violence and indoctrination.”

In other words, ADF soldiers will be battling an extremism that has burgeoned precisely because of multiple failures by the current Filipino administration. In particular, Duterte and his main peace advisor Jesus Dureza neglected a relatively effective peace process begun during the former Aquino presidency. That peace process with the main MILF insurgent group had led to a dramatic decrease in insurgent violence and militarisation on the island, and the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro in March of 2014.

The problems armies can’t solve

I question whether the troops, as special units with the aforementioned strategic guidelines, will really be restricted from Mindanao, where their services are supposedly most needed. I believe that the deployment of Australian forces anywhere in the Philippines is a grave mistake. American soldiers have been rotating through Mindanao island since before September 11, 2001, and were expanded as part of then US president Bush’s global war on terror.

Since 2001, an unknown number of US soldiers have died in Mindanao, including two civil relations psychological operations rangers killed in Sulu by an IED in 2009. There have been persistent rumours that US special forces operators were also killed in the Mamasapano incident that targeted a Malaysian bomb maker in 2015, which left 44 Philippine Police commandos dead and torpedoed popular support for the 2014 peace accord signed with the MILF. However, the Americans’ deaths were denied in the Philippine National Police’s board of inquiry report, which noted, “The United States involvement was limited to intelligence sharing and medical evacuation. Only SAF Commandos were involved in the actual combat operation.”

Nonetheless, US troops were intimately involved in supporting the entire action, according to an anonymous whistleblower, and the American troops that were killed over the past 15 years in the Philippines were conducting the kinds of training, intelligence, and support operations that Australia is now deploying its service members for.

Yet the militaristic approach has failed to address the underlying causes of terrorism, as a former US special forces commando discovered after he lost two of his comrades in 2009 in Sulu, Mindanao, while ostensibly fighting the Al-Qaeda linked Abu Sayyaf group. In a 2015 memoir the soldier stated,

“The three of us combed through six months of everything from text messages to our radio shows, plus interviews with local leaders and debriefs of the community. A clear pattern emerged. Governance: the warlord families were manipulating every election cycle with violence, bribes and vote stealing, creating a corrupt, impregnable oligopoly….[Then] we met with the chancellor at Mindanao State University to go over the data we had. After showing it to him, the chancellor looked up and said, “I don’t see anything surprising here….My people cannot break the stranglehold the warlord families hold on this island. You tell your commander this: keep your roads and schools. If you can give us a free and fair election, we can do the rest ourselves.”

In my independent investigative report on the failure of the peace process during the Marawi crisis, I found the same dynamics at play in Duterte’s current effort to eradicate the same group that killed two American special forces soldiers in 2009. As I noted,

“we can see that the roots of…the Marawi siege, had much less to do with international terrorism, and more to do with traditional clan feuding, political alliances and patronage, exacerbated by the competition of local leaders attempting to protect their illegal economies, a volatile combination ignited and inflamed by the infusion of foreign “terror” ideology…. In other words, the real issues in Marawi had much less to do with a terroristic ideology (though that was a significant component, like pouring gas on a fire), and much more to do with solvable concerns of governance and corruption.”

How ADF troops will help solve the complex issues of governance and corruption that are the root causes of terrorism in the Philippines is beyond me.

What’s more, there is a self-defeating factor in the current context, because according to my report the Philippines president and his peace advisor were secretly working with one of the terror groups that Ipsilon Hapilon had recruited into his movement for an Islamic Caliphate. Thus, I concluded that “while Duterte sent off his soldiers to lay down their lives for the bansa (nation) on one hand, with the other, he and his peace advisor consulted with, hired, hid, and protected the leader of one of the terrorist groups directly involved in the Marawi siege.”

The opacity of information leading up to and during the Marawi crisis mirrors how reality has also been obscured by Duterte’s bloody war on drugs. Duterte’s drug war has involved such massive, documented human rights violations that a Brookings Institute researcher recently recommended to the US Congress that “President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines is morally and legally unjustifiable. Resulting in egregious and large-scale violations of human rights, it amounts to state-sanctioned murder….The United States and the international community must condemn and sanction the government of the Philippines for its conduct of the war on drugs.” Apart from halting sales of rifles to the Philippines National Police, there have been no other concrete steps taken by the international community to sanction the Philippines.

‘Protected at the highest level’

The drug war and the Marawi siege demand that the international community take a new stance regarding the Philippine government, when combined with a new development in the Philippines: Duterte’s possible personal enmeshment in illicit economies. This follows several revelations. First, during a senate hearing in March of this year, by a former Philippine National Police officer in Duterte’s security team when he was mayor; and second, that which emerged in the course of a methamphetamine smuggling scandal at the Bureau of Customs in Manila this past September. During these two separate Senate hearings, the son of the president was implicated as a facilitator in the trade of billions of pesos of illegal drugs from China into the Philippines. However, the result of the second hearing was that Duterte’s political allies in congress only recommended charges to be filed against the security watchman of the warehouse where the drugs were stored in Manila, essentially sweeping the investigation under the rug. Additionaly, Duterte has since re-appointed two high level customs officials back into government positions, after they were implicated by the senate in facilitating the smuggling of methamphetamine.

In my work over the past 8 years on peace and development in the Philippines, I was based in the home city of Duterte and conducted outreach in the Davao City jail. What I heard in my work there meant that recent suggestions of Duterte clan involvement in the drug trade—such as were aired during the Senate hearings—did not come as a shock. Indeed, they apparently followed a pattern of collusion in protecting the local drug trade.

According to information shared with a fellow outreach worker by former drug couriers who had turned their lives around, couriers brought their “products” into Davao City and were allowed to pass unhindered through the Task Force Davao security checkpoints that encircled the city. Rodrigo Duterte was then mayor of Davao City, as well as the director of the Regional Peace and Order Council, which oversaw the Task Force Davao security program. On Duterte’s watch, the drug trade flourished in Davao. Former drug operatives explained this by saying, “kung sino ang pangulo ng lungsod, sya ang ulo” —”whomever is the mayor of the city, is the head” referring to leadership in the local drug trade syndicate. In the words of a former high-ranking Philippine military officer I met privately earlier this year, “the drug trade in Davao City is protected at the highest level.”

Additionally, he has directly facilitated the expansion of terrorism in Mindanao through actively supporting members in the ISIS conglomeration that were hidden by his peace advisor—specifically, senior members of the powerful Salic clan in Marawi (per my independent investigation). He has also hamstrung the existing peace processes, foregrounding the highly complicated, drawn-out, and controversial shift to federalism at the national level as the key to peace in Mindanao rather than immediately pushing for the autonomous region as promised in the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro signed in 2014. All of this is masked by two aggressive and bloody wars, ostensibly fighting terror and drugs, but which I believe are being used to disguise how his family and political networks are enmeshed in Mindanao’s illicit political economy. This puts him in a very precarious position, requiring extreme violence and deception to maintain control.

While there is no indisputable proof that Duterte’s family is involved in the narcotics trade, there is growing evidence from multiple sources that this is the case. Though the president and his family predictably insist any such claims are politically-motivated, the complicity of the local state institutions, and the political clans who control them, in the drug trade is a pervasive reality in the Philippines. As a 2013 report described narco-politics in Mindanao, “Drug money can be converted into political power, but control over public office represents the real prize because it ensures the diversification and protection of illicit sources of wealth.” It is the most pernicious, but far from the only, facet of the total failure of governance in the Philippines that lies behind the rise of ISIS-linked insurgencies and Duterte’s push towards dictatorship. Viewed in this light, Duterte and the type of local politics he exemplifies are part of the problem, not the solution.

Standing up to the Duterte administration

Therefore, regional allies should take a new tack against the Philippines administration. The evidence in my view clearly indicates the need for a coordinated strategy that includes international legal and economic sanctions against a national government under the sway of a political clan that stands plausibly accused of involvement in the illegal narcotics trade—and is, as I and many other human rights observers believe, responsible for crimes against humanity. To ignore this reality is to cover a rogue administration with a blanket of impunity and further destabilise an already uncertain regional security environment. A new approach would lend moral support to several emerging groups from across the political spectrum that seek to turn the ship of Philippine state from crashing on the rocks of autocracy. More than that, it should not risk the lives of Australian soldiers sent to wage battle against terrorism in the Philippines. Who would not want to avoid the sentiments that headline the memoir I quoted earlier, written by a former U.S. commando regarding his losses in the Philippines: “Two Soldiers I Served With Died In The Philippines. They Didn’t Have To.” To develop a realistic, moral, and long-term strategy would honour those fighting men and learn from their sacrifices.

The reason they didn’t have to die was that their political superiors failed to recognise what was really at stake in their deployment. And now, the same dynamics that lead to the death of those Americans are what characterise the dysfunctionally lethal political reality Duterte embodies. For Minister Payne to continue on the present track is simply to support a redo of the mistakes of the past that got the Philippines into its current predicament.

It’s time for a course correction.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Jeremy Simons lived for over 20 years in the Philippines and is a PhD Candidate at the National Centre of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago, New Zealand. From 2008 to 2017 he worked in Mindanao as a peacebuilding and restorative justice practitioner. He can be reached at and he has a regular column published in Mindanews along with his blog. The views expressed here are the author’s own.


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8 Responses

  1. Hugh Cameron

    I was in Philippines 1985/ 1996.

    Some of our trading products and transactions were with the Muslim region of Mindanao.

    It was thought back then that the ” Troubles” were caused by economic and political inequality and the fact the locals were followers of Islam was coincidental.

    Mr Simons has written an excellent submission that runs parallel to my earlier beliefs and findings.

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  2. Hi Jeremy,

    Excellent post. Very nuanced and comprehensive.

    As a scholar who examines historical patterns of agrarian change on Palawan, i suspect that a deeper history of religious/ ethnic politics, uneven access to productive resources and deep poverty play a role here as elsewhere in Mindanao. As you’ll probably agree, these issues clearly go well beyond Duterte – past and present.


    I’d love to read a deeper historical take on the complexity of the very troubling issues unfolding in and around Marawi.



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    • Jeremy

      Yes, they are very complex. A good historical account is “Making Mindanao” by Abinales. A Mindanao-centric history by Gloria, “History from Below: A view from the Philippine South” In regards to the drug trade, an excellent source is “Out of the Shadows” by Lara, and in terms of clan dynamics and politics in Lanao and Maguindanao, “Insurgents, clans and states” also by Lara.

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  3. pearshaped

    Cautionary piece Jeremy. What’s your opinion on the impact of the FBI’s Rewards for Justice program in this unfolding tragedy?

    For what it’s worth, it seems that the bounty hunting approach to Marwan and Hapilon has perhaps distorted the strategic judgement of AFP and PNP leaders by providing a financial incentive, resulting in the Mamasapano disaster, and perhaps contributing to Marawi. They got both men, and have arguably made the strategic situation worse. Do you think the US would do better to provide different incentives at this point?

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    • Jeremy

      Those situations are best left to the MILF and other mainstream rebel groups. The more credibility they can get through successful peace negotiations that are honoured by the government, they will be better able to handle internal threats. American CIA, military, and law enforcement involvement has caused major problems in Mindanao, not only in specific situations like Mamasapano incident, but it reinforces accusations of meddling and neo-colonial interference, all the worse considering history of massacres perpetrated by US troops in early 1900s, which are not forgotten in Moro communities. Additionally, US military assistance is complicit in promoting the drug trade and human rights violations, which the Ampatuans were responsible for during the Arroyo years. I personally witnessed in 2006 US soldiers stationed in Phil. army camps and were part of a direct chain of support through training, supply and intelligence sharing via American Joint special operations task force Mindanao. There they trained the Armed Forces of Philippines which then trained and supplied the Ampatuan’s militias (aka CVOs) that were fighting the MILF. But that is a story for another essay.

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  4. Iwan Sugiarto

    An insightful analysis, however, I have several questions and concerns for the author.

    To what extent does the urban and international nature of Marawai, signify something new, rather than a continuation of the decades-old cycle of insurgency and clan warfare? I don’t think the author adequately explained. The nature of the combatants and the fighting in Marawi resembles, in my opinion, the new type of insurgency as expressed in David Kilcullen’s piece “Counterinsurgency Redux”

    I question removing US Special Forces. First, isn’t that what Duterte wants? Secondly, I think one reason why there were increased hijackings in2016, was the ending of Operations Enduring Freedom, and draw down Of US Special Forces in Feb 2015. US Special Forces are important because they have access to US intelligence about returning SEA jihadist from the Middle East. The Philippines doesn’t have foreign intelligence capability.

    No Australia / US official is going to risk another Bali attack that might happen if the West pulls out its counterterrorism support from the Philippines. i understand your concerns about the lives of US/Australian Special Forces, but to Western political leaders, Special Forces are expandable, and that is why they are heavily used, At the moment, the drug campaign has stopped, I don’t see the usefulness of sanctioning the Philippines now. What is the purpose of sanctioning the Philippines’ in helping improve the situation in Mindanao?

    Just say if the West listen to your ideas, and actually sanctions the Philippines. Duterte is just going to turn to Russia and China and adopt Russian / Chinese counter-terrorism techniques. Do you want Filipino Muslims to become Chechens of Southeast Asia?

    Why are foreign jihadist attracted to the Philippines, and not Southern Thailand? Would Abu Sayyaf and Maute have seized Marawi without the expertise of foreign members who had experience in Urban warfare in the Middle East?

    How does one replace a political clan system, when much of the rest of the Philippines is also ruled by clans. All of the Philippines suffers from poor governance, in Mindanao, it is just worst.

    The author is not examining what challenges Muslim Filipino face in the Philippines, particularly the younger generation of Muslim Filipino. Pushing Bangsamoro will help, but Muslims Filipino are increasingly mobile and urban. Only 55% of Muslims live in the ARMM. To what extent does the ARMM matter for young Filipino Muslims and those outside the ARMM? The key factor that united Abu Sayyaf and Maute was the fact that they were Filipino Muslim, and Muslim in the Philippines is perceived as the other and face heavy discrimination within Filipino society. Muslim Filipino don’t see a problem communicating in Filipino (ie Tagalog). even the Maute brothers use it when communicating with Hapilon. Mindanao isn’t like Southern Thailand, where insurgents target teachers

    The Philippines’ state doesn’t do a good job of ensuring Filipino Muslim representation at the national level. Discrimination against Muslim is rampant in the private sector. There is a large divide between the rest of the Philippines and the Muslim Filipinos. Across the Philippines, there were victory parades for returning units, while Marawi lay in ruins.

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    • Jeremy

      these are some good points of consideration, especially regarding the perspectives of Muslim’s inside and outside the ARMM. There was a survey a few years ago that revealed it was a greater percentage of Muslim outside the ARMM who wanted to push for political autonomy. For those inside, their greater concern was the implementation of Sharia law, which I think indicates that the desire for community stability, local security and accountability is more relevant to communities that bear the brunt of insurgency and counter-insurgency. My larger point however, is that if the Duterte administration is directly involved in and benefiting from the illegal drug trade, when combined with the high levels of violence, indicate a complete breakdown of governance and a descent into a narco-state, which simply produces more frustration and recruitment into armed revolutionary movement amongst a host of horrifying implications. This factor should be the overriding ethical and pragmatic consideration for policy makers. Imagine how many billions of pesos an administration can harvest from illegal drugs, when the organs of government itself are used to facilitate the trade. It is terrifying in it’s implications.

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