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Reli L. German: From Kamlon to Hapilon — a continuing conflict in Moroland


Last Sunday, July 23, the Battle of Marawi entered its third month, with the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf and Maute terrorist band still keeping government forces at bay even as the areas they control have significantly dwindled to just about a square kilometre, according to a July 20 report of the military.

The Marawi siege is but the latest outbreak of violence in the troubled Muslim part of Mindanao that has a long history of armed struggle dating back to the Spanish colonial times and the American rule.

This struggle continued up to the immediate post-independence period of our country. This was most significantly manifested at that time through the exploits of the legendary Hadji Kamlon of Sulu. As a guerrilla, Kamlon fought the Japanese during the war but later took up arms against the government from 1948 to 1955. He surrendered to then Defense Secretary Ramon Magsaysay in 1952 but soon resumed his rebellion until he finally gave up three years later.

Since then, our country has had little respite from the perennial unrest in Muslim Mindanao. Various studies made by credible institutions and individuals, including noted Muslim scholars and legal personalities, agree that the problem is not rooted in religion.

In fact, an investigation conducted by the Senate Committee on National Minorities from Oct. 15, 1962 to Jan. 15, 1963 identified five major issues that were causing unrest among the minorities — problems about land, livelihood, health, education and transportation. The Committee’s report recommended both legislative and administrative measures to address these problems. However, as current developments show, actions taken by the government, if any, had not produced significant improvements in the social and economic status of the intended communities.

The result is a succession of rebellious and seditious acts instituted by several Muslim groups, aimed at outright secession from the Philippines or at least, the grant of meaningful autonomy.

The rebellion initiated by Nur Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) was supposedly precipitated by the Jabidah massacre in Corregidor where at least 27 young Muslim recruits for military training and infiltration of Sabah were killed by elements of the military on March 18, 1968. Yet it is believed that the MNLF uprising is actually rooted in the impression among the Moros that they are not receiving a fair share of the wealth and opportunities generated by the vast resources and the business and economic activities in Mindanao.

It may be logically assumed that the separate armed struggle being waged by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a breakaway faction of the MILF, has essentially the same goal – to secure a better life and equal treatment for the Moro people, in the political, social and economic aspects of their existence.

Both the MNLF and the MILF have now entered into peace negotiations with the government, and are pushing for the adoption of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) that would grant them a substantial degree of autonomy and self-rule.

However, other Muslim insurgent groups have since sprouted in Mindanao. These are the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the Abu Sayyaf Group noted for kidnap and ransom activities and for beheading their captives, and the Maute brigands. The problem has now become much more complicated, with the entry of an entirely new element emanating from the Middle East. This comes in the form of pure terroristic activities fuelled by what is regarded as Islamic fundamentalism, supported not only by funds but also by foreign fighters.

In fact, the Marawi siege is being led by the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute groups which have both pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an extremist militant and terrorist group based in the Middle East which seeks to impose Islamic fundamentalism in areas under its control. The leader of Abu Sayyaf, Isnilon Hapilon, has been named as the “emir” or leader of what it calls the Philippine province of the ISIS caliphate.

And so, from Sulu’s Kamlon in 1948 to 1955, to Isnilon Hapilon today, our country seems doomed to bear the onus of continuing insurgency in Moroland. The only difference is that Hapilon is engaged in purely terroristic activities that not only devastated the Philippines’ premiere Muslim city but also brought untold suffering and misery for his fellow Muslims. On the other hand, while Kamlon was sometimes called a bandit by the military and his antagonists, he was regarded as a folk-hero by his fellow Tausugs.

In any case, the offer of arms, drones, equipment, training and other forms of assistance by America, Australia and Singapore in the fight against the Marawi marauders means that in dealing with terrorists like Hapilon, we are not alone.
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