Digong’s ‘new’ friends

PerryScope
By Perry Diaz

Maute militants rampage through the streets of Marawi waving ISIS black flags.

Maute militants rampage through the streets of Marawi waving ISIS black flags.

On May 23, 2017 while President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte was enroute to Moscow for a five-day visit, the rebel group Maute struck. At about 2:00 PM, the Battle of Marawi began. At least 500 members of Maute attacked a Philippine Army brigade stationed at Camp Ranao in Marawi City. They were seen rampaging through the streets waving ISIS black flags. While in Moscow, Duterte declared martial law at 10:00 pm that same day. He cut short his visit after meeting his new friend Russian President Vladimir Putin for a short time.

Last June 2, Duterte complained about the quality of “secondhand” American military hardware. “I will not accept any more military equipment that is secondhand. The ones the Americans are giving, I do not want that anymore,” he said. He threatened to form alliances with China and Russia and asked them to provide weapons to the Philippine military.

 Philippine Marine Commandant Major General Emmanuel Salamat (R) listens to US military representatives during a handover ceremony of weapons from the US military, at the Marine headquarters in Manila on June 5, 2017. Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

Philippine Marine Commandant Major General Emmanuel Salamat (R) listens to US military representatives during a handover ceremony of weapons from the US military, at the Marine headquarters in Manila on June 5, 2017. Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

But a few days later, on June 5, the U.S. handed over – I mean, given free — $150 million worth of brand-new weapons that included 300 M4 assault rifles, 100 grenade launchers, and four M134D Gatling-style machine guns that can fire thousands of rounds a minute. The U.S. Embassy issued a statement, saying: “This equipment will enhance the [Philippine Marines’] counterterrorism capabilities, and help protect [troops] actively engaged in counterterrorism operations in the southern Philippines.”

U.S. special operations forces in Mindanao.

U.S. special operations forces in Mindanao.

The Pentagon also confirmed the presence of 50 to 100 special-operations forces that were providing technical support to the Philippine Marines. Another force of 300 to 500 U.S. military personnel are involved in providing regular bilateral training, exercises, and other activities. However, in a press conference, Duterte claimed that he didn’t ask for the American weapons and found out their presence in Marawi after they had arrived.

Battle of Marawi

Philippine Marines patrol the streets of Marawi.

Philippine Marines patrol the streets of Marawi.

Today, with the battle of Marawi intensifying, the Philippine spokesman confirmed the Philippine military’s deaths amounted to the biggest single-day loss in the fighting. “There were intense firefights, house-to-house gun battles,” the spokesman revealed during a press conference in Marawi. He added that the government suffered 58 casualties and more than 20 civilians killed. It was estimated that 10% of Marawi is still under the Maute group’s control. Tens of thousands have fled the city, with more than 200,000 people displaced. About 2,000 people are believed to have been trapped in insurgent-held areas. Duterte believed that the militant attack was part of a wider plot by ISIS to establish a base in Mindanao. He declared martial law hoping to quell the threat, which begs the question: Does Duterte have sufficient military personnel and weaponry to stop what seems to be cancerous spread of hatred and violence? Or does it take more than a military remedy to remove the cancer?

Military solution

Muslim women refugees flee the battle of Marawi.

Muslim women refugees flee the battle of Marawi.

By virtue of Duterte’s declaration of martial law, it is presumed that he believes the Marawi problem can be solved militarily. He even suggested that he just might declare martial law nationwide to deal with the threat of “Islamist” militancy. But some social scientists would disagree with Duterte’s approach in solving the Marawi problem; that is, to apply military solution to a social problem. And as most of us know, Mindanao is the hotbed of social unrest ever since the Spaniards arrived in this country.

For one thing, Mindanao – or more specifically, the Muslim region of Mindanao – is the poorest region in the country. The bigger the Muslim population is, the poorer the region. Why so? This has baffled social scientists ever since the country gained her independence. So should it be fair to presume that the Muslims of Mindanao aren’t self-sufficient enough to maintain a higher economic production?

That’s farthest from the truth. On the contrary, Mindanao is the richest region in terms of natural resources and agricultural productivity. So, what’s the problem? How can Mindanao’s calculus change to make it as rich as Luzon or Western Visayas? Let’s use a simple example of how productivity works: A small city’s production output is P500 million, which she turns over to the central government in Manila, who in turn allots P50 million back to the small city and puts the remaining P450 million in the national treasury. As you can see, for every 10 pesos generated by the small city, the central government allots only 10% back to the small city. Meanwhile, the central government spends the money earned by the small city on projects or programs that don’t benefit the small city. What results is a disproportionately funded small city who has no other source of income. Interestingly, the regions closest to the central government are where most economic projects and programs are being spent.

Composite map of Lanao del Sur and a photo of the besieged city of Marawi.

Composite map of Lanao del Sur and a photo of the besieged city of Marawi.

Out of the 10 poorest provinces in the country, seven are predominantly Muslim: Lanao del Sur (poorest), Sulu, Sarangani, Maguindanao, Bukidnon, Sultan Kudarat, and Zamboanga del Norte. Marawi City is located in the province of Lanao del Sur. Which makes one wonder: Is poverty the catalyst to social unrest? You betcha!

Dutertenomics

 Displaced family living in poverty in Mindanao.

Displaced family living in poverty in Mindanao.

So what is Digong doing to solve the poverty in Muslim Mindanao? We all know that military solution doesn’t relieve the plight of the poor. On the contrary, it puts the poor in a worse situation.

Meanwhile, what are Duterte’s economic projects that would uplift the poor in Mindanao? Last April, Duterte’s economic team announced several big-ticket projects aimed to reduce poverty and fill the country’s infrastructure gap. They call it “Dutertenomics,” whose 10-point socioeconomic agenda primarily aims to reduce poverty from 21.6 percent in 2015 to 13 to 15 percent by 2022.

In addition to the poverty reduction, a major plank of Dutertenomics will be a big infrastructure push, which they said would usher a “golden age of infrastructure” in the Philippines that includes a railway system for Mindanao. But what does Dutertenomics do for the Muslims of Lanao del Sur and the six others that are high on the poverty list? Is Dutertenomics going to change how provincial revenues are distributed?

But Dutertenomics has hit a snag before it could even take off. That “snag” is the Battle of Marawi and it seems that it is getting bigger and bigger and getting out of control. With foreign fighters from the Middle East joining the ranks of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf militants, the rebellion is escalating to a point where America might find herself directly fighting the militants in support of Philippine troops – not just technical support but “boots on the ground” as well.

But military operation alone would only exacerbate the poverty situation of Muslim Mindanao. What Digong should do is find ways constitutionally or by congressional fiat to alleviate the poverty situation. The bottom line is: the central government should – nay, must! – find ways to stimulate the economy in Muslim Mindanao to sustain a healthy development of the region.

U.S. and Philippine military officers plan the Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) Exercises in 2017.

U.S. and Philippine military officers plan the Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) Exercises in 2017.

At the end of the day, the timely arrival of Duterte’s “new” friends – the Americans—to help quell the Maute rebellion is a quantum improvement in U.S.-Philippine bilateral relations. It is also a great opportunity for him to pursue structural and economic reforms and to defeat poverty — which is the real enemy – and achieve social justice for the poor. Failure to do so would only perpetuate the simmering social discontent in the region that could explode into another – if not larger – uprising. Duterte has his work cut out for him.

(PerryDiaz@gmail.com)


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