The United States should seize the opportunity to transform its recent military success, assisting the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in the island of Mindanao, into a durable peace using adaptive measures that focus on key factors for improving human development. Because of the significant geopolitical interests of the United States in this region, it must remain engaged with the government of the Philippines in balancing military and development strategy to bolster the Philippines.
The foreign policy of the United States government has previously failed to remedy the fundamental drivers of internal armed struggles in the Philippines, leading to a history of recurring insurgencies. The US State Department, in conjunction with the President and the Security Council, must integrate military success with development initiatives targeting key drivers of armed conflict, to achieve enduring peace.
The United States has two critical interests in fortifying its ally, the Philippines. First, the growing influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in this region has been enabled by the presence of weaker nations, such as the Philippines. The PRC seized the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, situated between Vietnam and the Philippines, and claimed by both countries. The PRC secured them by building an air base on that territory. The PRC has similar designs for Scarborough Shoals, claimed by the Philippines, and which lie 300 miles from Luzon.
However, the PRC does not recognize the tribunal formed to resolve such maritime disputes under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, placing pressure on all nations who depend on the shipping lanes of the South China Sea through which five trillion dollars’ worth of trade passed in 2016. The South China Sea also harbors seven billion barrels of proven oil reserves and 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to reduce dependency of the Philippines on imported oil and domestic coal that provides 45.8 percent of its electricity
Second, the domestic security of the United States and its overseas interests depend on defeating State Department-designated foreign terror organizations (FTO) and their allies who pose a transnational threat to the homeland. The impact of terror organizations extends across borders. Abu Sayyaf (ASG) evolved in Mindanao in 1990, partly composed of former Mujahideen fighters returning from Afghanistan to the Philippines. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan financed al-Islamic Tabligh, a Filipino charity that educated the founder of ASG in the 1980s. Jeemah Islamiya, an FTO in Malaysia affiliated with al-Qaeda, has given technical support to the insurgent Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) of Mindanao. MILF has claimed a following of over 200,000 in western Mindanao. The Maute Group, a paramilitary gang from the province of Lanao del Sur in Mindanao, swore allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIL) in 2015. The US military has responded by providing technical support to the AFP which defeated both ASG and the Mautes at Marawi in October, 2017, and killed their leaders.
The principal drivers of insurgency in the Philippines include injustice, endemic corruption, social marginalization, poverty, and food insecurity. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines documented 1,474 extrajudicial disappearances and executions linked to current President Duterte during his tenure as mayor of Davao City. A campaign against illegal street drugs of the current administration has resulted in the documented killing of more than 5,000 prior to arraignment. Current social discrimination against the poorest segments of society has led to further internal conflict. Tensions between communities of the poor and the government have grown. Filipinos perceive that the poor population have become the main targets of President Duterte’s campaign against illegal drugs.
According to a Social Weather Stations report dated October, 28, 2017, 54 percent of Filipinos agree that rich drug users are not killed, and only the poor ones are punished in this way. Social and political marginalization not only impacts the poorest Filipinos, but also a group of indigenous people known as the Lumads in the eastern provinces of the island. According to CNN Philippines, in a press conference on July 25, 2017, the Philippine President publicly threatened to bomb Lumad schools, unless the Lumads stop teaching what the President considers socialist philosophy and rebellion.
Nationwide economic disparities affect all of the Philippines, not just Mindanao. As a result, the United States must aid the government of the Philippines in implementing large scale development efforts that benefit the poorest Filipinos. Nine percent of the population of the Philippines live as informal settlers or squatters according to the Philippine Statistics Authority in 2015.
A survey by Social Weather Stations as of January 16, 2018 found 15.9 percent of families suffer hunger, while 32 percent feel food poor. The World Bank estimates that remittances account for 9 percent of Gross Domestic Product, because Filipinos go abroad to earn a living to support families. The World Bank calculates a current Gini of 45 for the Philippines, evincing wide disparities in wealth.
The government of the Philippines initiated a conditional cash transfer program, Pantawid Pamilya Pilipino Program , in 2007 to boost food security among young children. Yet, this initiative needs external support for the government of the Philippines to expand it.
The United States must equalize success in security operations with development initiatives to defuse the drivers of insurgency. Governance reform and initiatives to build human capital are especially needed. The State Department could give incentives to the government of the Philippines to cooperate with US aid agencies, USAID and Civil Affairs for the Defense Department, to eliminate the drivers of insurgent armed conflict.
The United States should match military success with development initiatives in the Philippines to strengthen US global security. Building the human capital of the Philippines through the coordinated development efforts of both governments will strengthen its core economy and social stability. The governments of the United States and the Philippines must combine military success overcoming armed insurgency in Marawi with a focus on development strategy to alleviate key drivers of insurgency by settling longstanding insurgent grievances in Mindanao. Durable domestic peace in the Philippines will augment US regional security in the Philippines and the South China Sea.
Robert Cesari is a Master’s candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs (Georg Washington University) in Washington, DC, and attained a law degree as part of his prior career. He has been to the Philippines and maintains contacts with sources there.
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