MINNEAPOLIS - As extremists' recruitment in southern Philippines continues, the government may find a useful alliance with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) if it clinches a law ensuring a new autonomous Bangsamoro region, an expert said.
Long-standing links between terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines, possibly including MILF, is complicating an already troubled region, said Dr. Pek Koon Heng, assistant professor at the School of International Service at the American University.
Heng, briefing foreign journalists September 11 in Washington, said the Philippine government could steer the MILF away from terrorist links, and instead secure its commitment to a new Bangsamoro law.
"There are social links between JI and [separatists]... JI had training camps in Mindanao. JI has these long [standing] ties with MILF, and although the MILF eradicates this when they pushed for the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro…[President Rodrigo] Duterte has to work on the comprehensive Bangsamoro agreement," Heng said.
She added, "He's (Duterte) got to really see through the Bangsamoro Basic Law. He’s gonna act on that, then there will be commitment for the MILF to fight for what they've gained through the peace process with Manila. Without that... the presence of ISIL [Islamic State] will still be there."
A Pentagon official said Islamic State or ISIS recruitment for fighters in the Philippines continues. Another said separately that the US is very concerned by ISIS' presence in the Philippines, and that this presence is being driven by local conditions.
Duterte has said a new Bangsamoro law is a priority. Yet proposed measures have yet to move in Congress, both houses of which are dominated by Duterte’s allies.
Draft measures for the creation of the Bangsamoro region have been dogged by inconsistencies with the 1987 Constitution and the current unitary system of government, making the push for the new region one with constitutional repercussions.
"We also see recruitment going on within southeast Asia," Heng said. She said these activities in the southern Philippines have seen southeast Asian extremist fighters going there. These fighters have also traveled to southern Thailand, and to Rakhine in Myanmar. This has been worrying Malaysia and Indonesia, Heng said.
(Editor's note: The author is participating in the East-West Center's Senior Journalists' Program ongoing in the United States.)