This rapid literature review examines the main conflict and instability drivers in the Philippines.
Key findings include:
The conflict has been a longstanding feature of the Philippines, with two long-running insurgencies, and a number of other types of conflict and violence. The current situation is complex and dynamic, with an “increasingly fragmented array of violent extremist organizations” (TNC, 2019).
In the current day, the main types of violence and conflict include violence by state actors against civilians; clan-related violence; political and armed conflicts by nationalist/separatist groups in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago; a communist-inspired guerrilla campaign (mainly in western Mindanao); violent extremist and criminal groups; anti-drug vigilantes; other criminal violence; domestic and gender-based violence; protests; violence around elections; and local conflicts over resources and community rights.
The Philippines is in the midst of a “human rights crisis” following President Duterte’s election in 2016 and the initiation of his war on drugs (Human Rights Watch (HRW), 2018).
More than 150,000 have been estimated to have been killed in conflicts in Central and Western Mindanao over the past five decades.
There have been at least three main peace agreements between the government and different insurgent groups over history, but none have delivered a sustainable peace yet.
Conflict and instability – insurgent groups and drivers Insurgent groups
The Philippines has a long history of insurgent groups, three main armed insurgent groups are currently active, plus there are multiple violent extremist groups and factions. Militants move easily between violent extremism, insurgency and criminality. A number of groups align themselves to the so-called Islamic State (IS). Some see the new groups as representing a new strand of violent extremism, while others see them as having evolved from the previous struggles for secession and self-determination.
Drivers of conflict in the southern Philippines
A wide range of drivers and grievances are identified in the literature, however, importantly, ICG (2019) highlights that “generalisations can be misleading because motivations for participation in
violence vary from place to place and individual to individual”.
Poverty, lack of opportunities, land dispossession and marginalisation – A key driver of violent extremism in Mindanao is longstanding historical grievances against the national government, this especially draws on feelings that the Muslim minority population has been marginalised by the dominant Christian population. There has been an acute sense of political and cultural alienation, and economic marginalisation. This draws on the reality that the Southwestern Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago are the poorest provinces in the Philippines, and one of Southeast Asia’s least developed regions. The youth are particularly vulnerable to radicalisation, especially due to the rapid spread of social media. Land dispossession and loss of ancestral homelands of
indigenous Muslims by Christian migrant settlers is also a core grievance.
State responses – The government’s response to violent extremism has been predominantly military and hindered by a lack of coordination across government agencies (ICG, 2019; TSN, 2019). Key grievances are the perception that the state military campaigns have been heavy-handed; protracted internal displacement following the battles and slow state reconstruction processes; human rights abuses by the military; and the sense of betrayal by the government during peace negotiations.
Lack of rule of law, governance weaknesses, clan politics and criminality – Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago’s remoteness and weak governance makes those regions the most vulnerable in the Philippines to violent extremist recruitment and training. Extortion of large commodity exporters and mining companies by insurgent groups is a proximate driver of conflict.
Religious education and leaders – Extremist preachers in the Philippines have played an important role in recruiting insurgents from Islamic education institutions, informing and leading extremist cells, and in teaching extremist views. Transnational linkages amplify violent extremism through the movement and diffusion of ideas, funding, leadership, and tactical and technical knowledge.
The current peace process – The newly formed Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) significantly deepens and broadens political and cultural autonomy, though not as much as the peace agreement promised. It is widely recognised that rapid progress needs to be made on both the governance and normalisation tracks of the peace implementation plan, especially as insurgent groups are likely to seek to spoil the process.
Drivers of instability across the country
- Political – The 2016 election of President Duterte saw respect for human rights and civil liberties deteriorate rapidly, with thousands of deaths through extra-judicial killings. Duterte’s authoritarian approach has increased the powers of the military and police, while human rights activists and critics have been targeted. The Philippines’ political settlement is dominated by entrenched, oligarchic family clans.
- Socio-economic – The Philippines has one of the fastest-growing economies in East and Southeast Asia, however, stark regional disparities mean that the GDP in the capital is five times that of Mindanao. The national poverty rate has declined over the past decade, however, poverty remains high, and over 50% of the population in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao is poor.
- Environmental – The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world with frequent and increasing natural disasters. Disasters lead to high costs to assets, wellbeing and capabilities. Changes in weather patterns may intensify the El Niño, with particularly severe consequences for the Philippines’ poor. There is a substantial amount of recent literature looking at the different issues that may drive conflict and instability in the Philippines. At the macro/country level, it is mostly from policy and practitioners. The literature tends to focus on: the recent violent extremist conflict acts ad actors; the peace process and the newly established Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM); and the human rights violations of Duterte’s war on drugs. The first two are discussed together, and the literature does not tend to separate out the drivers for the conflict relating to the older insurgent groups and the newer pro-IS insurgent factions. The majority of literature focuses on the Mindanao region, while the human rights/war-on-drugs literature covers
the country more broadly.