While Islamic State aligned militants stir violence and instability on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, the government hopes a proposed new political entity will help to stop the spread of its radical ideology across the long-troubled region.

The proposed new autonomous region, the main upshot of a peace deal between the government and insurgent Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), currently doubles as safe haven for the Islamic State-aligned Abu Sayyaf Group, Maute Group and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).

Bolstered by foreign jihadists, the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups last year launched a deadly siege on Mindanao’s Marawi City that displaced over 350,000 civilians, of which over 50,000 remain uprooted, and laid waste to a city Islamic State had aimed to establish as the center of an independent caliphate.

President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao hours after the urban war erupted in May 2017. The rights-curbing order has since been extended twice by Congress on the chief executive’s request and is scheduled to expire at years-end.

On December 12, Congress approved Duterte’s request to extend martial law for another year on the grounds the situation has not stabilized. Opposition critics have raised concerns his government aims ultimately to extend martial law across the entire nation in a bid to consolidate Duterte’s authoritarian power.

Despite the liberation of Marawi in October 2017 after five months of fighting, the security sector’s intelligence units continue to monitor the entry of foreign terrorist fighters into the island across porous sea borders who are coddled by Islamic State’s local affiliates.

map-Philippines-Terror Groups-Abu Sayyaf-Maute Group-Islamic State-May 26-2017

In the first week of December, new clashes erupted between government forces and the BIFF, a breakaway group of the MILF, in Mindanao’s Maguindanao province.

The hostilities were sparked, perhaps symbolically, just days before the start of the campaign period for the ratification by plebiscite of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which seeks to establish a new autonomous area to replace the current 28-year-old Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM.

At the same time, Duterte recently directed deployment of an entire military division to the southernmost Sulu area, a bailiwick of the Abu Sayyaf, following the deaths of at least five soldiers killed in a clash with the Islamic State-aligned terror group.

At least two brigades, each consisting of 1,500 soldiers, are reportedly now deployed in Sulu against the Abu Sayyaf. Underscoring resistance to the peace deal’s terms perceived as favoring the MILF, the region’s governor, Abdusakur Tan II, has questioned the BOL’s legality.

Many observer’s believe the plebiscite’s passage is a shoo-in. Both the government and the MILF have expressed confidence that the BOL will win majority support at the ballot box.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) presents the signed document on the Organic Law for Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao to Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chairman Murad Ebrahim (R) during a ceremony at Malacanang palace in Manila on August 6, 2018, while former president and now speaker of the House Gloria Arroyo (back, partly hidden) looks on. - President Rodrigo Duterte unveiled a law on August 6 granting greater autonomy to the Philippines' Muslim south, as he expressed hope the measure will at last end decades of bloody separatist conflict. (Photo by TED ALJIBE / AFP)
President Rodrigo Duterte (L) presents the signed Bangsamoro Organic Law document to Moro Islamic Liberation Front chairman Murad Ebrahim (R), August 6, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

But while they have both heralded the BOL as a potential panacea to the Bangsamoro people’s quest for the just and lasting peace needed to underpin economic progress in the impoverished island, Islamic State linked groups remain potent potential spoilers.

Mohagher Iqbal, the MILF’s chief peace negotiator, acknowledges the problem of Islamic extremism which exploded violently on the island during last year’s Marawi siege won’t be completely placated by the new Bangsamoro arrangement.

The BOL will address “85% of the legitimate grievances of the Bangsamoro people,” and will help to extinguish grass roots discontent, especially among Moro youth, according to Iqbal. “The BOL cannot address extremism in full but it can help,” he said at a recent media forum.

On December 6, the eve of the start of the BOL’s ratification campaign period, the MILF leader called on residents in the proposed autonomous territory to vote “yes” at the plebiscite scheduled for January 21, stressing the measure will address the Bangsamoro people’s call for self-governance.

“The BOL is for the welfare not only of the Bangsamoro people but (also of) non-Muslims residing in the Bangsamoro areas,” he said. “The BOL is a formula for peace, development and progress.”

On December 10, thousands of supporters from areas covered by the plebiscite turned out in Cotabato City as the government and MILF officially launched the campaign for the ratification of the BOL.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) members secure Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao on the southern island of Mindanao on July 29, 2018.Photo: AFP/Ferdinandh Cabrera
Moro Islamic Liberation Front members secure Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao, Mindanao on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ferdinandh Cabrera

If passed, the BOL will give wider political and economic powers to the proposed Bangsamoro region through a parliamentary government headed by a chief minister and a 75%-25% wealth-sharing scheme that favors regional over national government.

An annual block grant, pegged at a 5% share of national internal revenue, would also be automatically and unconditionally appropriated to the region if the plebiscite passes.

For many, including his critics, President Rodrigo Duterte’s signing of the BOL is among his otherwise embattled administration’s biggest accomplishments. The country’s first president from Mindanao, Duterte has also claimed to have Moro heritage.

And he has taken the peace process seriously. Duterte recently fired two executives working at the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process for alleged corrupt practices, resulting in the resignation of his main peace advisor Jesus Dureza.

A high school classmate and long-time friend of Duterte, Dureza was instrumental in brokering the deal with the MILF. Duterte assigned ex-Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Carlito Galvez, who retired this month, as Dureza’s replacement, an appointment welcomed by the MILF.

Abandoned house vandalized with "I LOVE ISIS" graffiti in Marawi, southern Philippines on June 9, 2017. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/Richard Atrero de Guzman
Abandoned house vandalized with “I LOVE ISIS” graffiti in Marawi, southern Philippines, June 9, 2017. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/Richard Atrero de Guzman

Last October 6, Galvez set foot at Camp Darapanan, the MILF’s sprawling headquarters in Maguindanao province, marking the first time a sitting AFP chief entered the rebel camp, to declare the end of a civil war that has taken as many as 120,000 lives, including civilians, over several decades.

“I will work hard and dedicate my life for the Bangsamoro. I love you all. Today is the end of war and now we will begin peace in our land,” he wrote in the MILF’s guest book.

It was not, however, the first time Galvez had entered Camp Darapanan. As former chair of the government peace panel’s Coordinating Committee on the Cessation of Hostilities, he had regularly visited the MILF ‘s headquarters to defuse tensions.

Galvez, who commanded troops during last year’s five-month-long Marawi siege, also believes that the BOL will reduce threats from Islamist militants, although they will remain a security concern, he says.

But amid the hopes for lasting peace, security forces remain on high alert against Islamic State-backed groups that were not totally defeated during last year’s battle for Marawi and apparently now aim to upend the MILF’s peace deal and spoil the future Bangsamoro region through violence.