Washington is seeking to expand its presence in the Philippines over concerns about the growing influence of Daesh in the country. US lawmakers have expressed fears that the Islamists are attempting to get fighters into the region and pressed for urgent measures to address the situation.
However, in order to tackle this issue properly it is imperative to consider why the militants in the Philippines pledge allegiance to Daesh (a terror group banned around the world) even in regions where Muslims are in minority, like in central Mindanao.
Radio Sputnik discussed the issue with Joseph Franco, a research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.
“For the past two decades or so there have been a few dozen Southeast Asian militants in Mindanao at any one time, but having the concern that they are going to transport the caliphate from Syria and Iraq to Mindanao, that is something that is quite farfetched frankly,” Franco said.
He further spoke about the reasons behind Daesh activities in the Philippines saying that when the US withdrew in 2014 from the Philippines they had a very limited objective, which was to prevent the establishment of a really strong terrorist presence in the islands off the coast of Basilan.
“They [the US] believed at that time that there objective had been met. But what is interesting is that all of the recent violence that is taking place in the Philippines is in central Mindanao away from where the US focus was,” the analyst said.
According to him now the US can play a role in tackling terrorism in Mindanao by providing surveillance and intelligence, however, what remains unclear is how much Washington is willing to expand its support.
“There are still a lot of posts in the US Department of Defense which are unoccupied so there might be concerns regarding overexpansion into the region,” Franco said.
The analyst spoke about why the militants are suddenly pledging allegiance to the terror organizations in the Middle East. Moreover, he said that the Philippine government is to some degree responsible for the recent outbreaks of violence.
Franco said that the failure of the peace settlement, which was proposed back in 2014, and the fact that the government could not implement it, plays into the hands of the terrorists who use it to brainwash “young, angry men” into joining them.
According to him, the fanatics who are exploiting the situation in Mindanao are doing so because there is a “lack of governance in the region.”
“Mindanao is actually a Muslim minority region. People who pledge allegiance to IS [Daesh] are using the absence of government presence, the weakness of its presence. Marawi isn’t as prosperous as other urban cities in the region so decades of government neglect has led to this current outburst of violence,” Franco concluded.
Earlier, US intelligence officials noted that Daesh publicly accepted pledges from a number of formations in the country. They are now assessing whether any Southeast Asians who recently traveled to Iraq and Syria were involved in fighting in the Philippines.
Earlier, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress that Washington should not have withdrawn a long-running US military operation from the country three years ago.
Over 500 US Special Forces were deployed in the Mindanao region from 2002 to 2014, advising and training Filipino forces against extremist groups.
Washington’s concerns come as nearly three hundred people died in fighting that erupted in the Philippine city of Mindanao. The jihadists involved in the assault are aligned with Daesh.
Duterte says Marawi operation ‘winding up’ as death toll passes 300
“The fighting is going on, but it’s winding up,” Duterte told soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division Command Post in Butuan City on Saturday. According to official government figures 225 militants, 59 soldiers and 26 civilians have been killed in the siege so far.
“It’s difficult to fight those who are willing to die. They have corrupted the name of God in the form of religion to kill many innocent people, for nothing.”
ISIS-linked militants may have escaped besieged city by posing as evacuees – Philippines official https://t.co/VE3phhLGVa pic.twitter.com/1ImIQZTTCX
— RT (@RT_com) June 16, 2017
The president had not made any public appearances since last Sunday, with a spokesperson claiming he was suffering from fatigue, Reuters reports. Duterte did not appear during Philippines Independence Day celebrations on Monday.
Independence Day ceremony at the Capitol in Marawi City has started in the middle of an airstrike pic.twitter.com/DwWNnwuGOi
— Chiara Zambrano (@chiarazambrano) June 11, 2017
When asked about his own health, Duterte downplayed the significance of the hiatus.
“Do not worry,” he told reporters after addressing the soldiers. “My state of health is immaterial. There is the vice president who will take over.”
When responding to media criticism of both the military’s intelligence gathering before the crisis and its operational effectiveness during the three weeks of fighting, Duterte defended his decision to declare martial law and suggested that, if needs be, he will do so again in the future.
Australian journalist lucky to survive after being shot in the neck in #Marawi https://t.co/8gnCPs2zmB pic.twitter.com/5uE1T0nDLp
— RT (@RT_com) June 15, 2017
“If that rebellion burns Mindanao and the other parts of the Philippines, then I’ll be forced to declare martial law again – this time I would do it on my own to preserve my nation. I will not consult anybody and there is no telling when it would end,” he said.
Arguments are under way in the Philippines Supreme Court to potentially nullify the state of martial law that was declared on May 23.
Under Article 7, Section 1 of the Philippines Constitution, the president may declare martial law only in cases of invasion or rebellion, reports local news outlet ABS-CBN.
“The terrorists are committing rebellion, the rebels are committing rebellion. What do you want? That they burn half of Mindanao before we call it a true-blue rebellion? It’s crazy,” he added.
US troops near jihadist-besieged city of #Marawi ‘not fighting militants’ – Philippine officials https://t.co/d3ZPc6H2yA pic.twitter.com/Kx7ceF11oc
— RT (@RT_com) June 14, 2017
In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the fighting and aid agencies have been stretched to breaking point.
“It’s going to be pretty tough in terms of how we respond to the needs of evacuees, especially that we’re dealing with 233,000,” provincial crisis management committee spokesperson Zia Alonto Adiong said Saturday, as cited by ABS-CBN.
Over 309,000 people have been displaced, reports Rappler, citing government data. A total of 19 deaths have been registered among those displaced by the fighting, said Mujiv Hatama, the governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), who said severe dehydration from diarrhea was the main cause of death.
‘US, EU meddle in other countries & kill people under guise of human rights concerns’ – Duterte
The Philippines leader sat down to speak with RT’s Maria Finoshina ahead of his five-day visit to Moscow that is kicking off on Monday.
Maria Finoshina: Mr. President, it has been almost a year since your inauguration. Have you faced anything that you were not expecting when you took office?
Rodrigo Duterte: I did expect almost everything that came my way. I’ve been a politician for almost 40 years – excluding the term now. So I would say that on the national front I was kept informed all the time by the news and, of course, by sources in government. But I never realized the magnitude of the contamination of the Filipinos in so far as drugs are concerned.
When I became president and everything was available to me for information, I was almost appalled. I didn’t know that we have reached millions of contaminated. So, when I was mayor, I said, do not destroy my city. And do not destroy the young people of Davao City, because they are our assets. We are not rich. Most of us are poor. And we depend on our sons and daughters to feed us when we get old. We do not have any housing here for – few and between. And we need our children to buy the medicines, pay the hospitals, pay for our burial. Do not corrupt them with drugs. Do not destroy their minds.
And I said, “because I will kill you.” I was very clear with that. Do not destroy my country. Do not destroy our young people, because if you do that, I will kill you. And when I became president, I said, “Do not destroy the Filipino youth. I’m the president, I’m supposed to take care of them.” There are so many criminals walking around. They stopped it when I said that. When I was mayor, I told them: “I’m not a policeman but I build the city as mayor.” As president now, I am not a wholesale violator of human rights. I’m not the police – I just give orders. But I build the country.
My orders were very clear: Go out and hunt for them, the drug lords. Arrest them if possible, but if they confront you with violence that placed the lives of policemen or security forces in danger, kill them. Because in the past this was what really prevented policemen and the military from doing it. Why? Because they were so afraid of the human rights thing, which is a new phenomenon. Actually, in the guise of the human rights, countries like EU and America are interfering into the affairs of other nations. In the guise of human rights.
MF: The bitter irony is that, while you are trying to protect civilians, to protect the youth, you sometimes – and you admitted that in one of your interviews – innocent civilians can become victims. Do you think it is a fair price to pay?
RD: Yes. Even in war, even in your own country, if there is fighting between the police and security forces, and civilians are hit, accidentally, and they die. That is not a crime for the police or the security officer. Because they use automatic guns. And when you are confronted with automatic guns, several bullets go out of the barrel, and some of those would penetrate the walls of the houses, and some will go long way and hit another one. But it is really in connection with the fight between law and order and criminals. But you have to pay, the state has to pay. But – sorry. Just like Americans. When they drop the bomb there, it is so powerful that it also kills others there.
But we are talking about human liability. So, it doesn’t say that, because they are Americans, they are exempted. And just because I am a small time government official, I am not exempted. So, where’s the fairness there? No? When they drop bombs, they kill so many villages, and there’s not even a whimper. America invaded Iraq. What was the excuse? That there were weapons of mass destruction. And yet when they invaded Iraq, so many people were killed. So where is justice now?
MF: So you think it’s really hard to avoid civilian casualties?
RD: We need to say, justice has to be equal. It cannot be a justice for one, and another set of standards of justice for another. It has to be equal.
MF: Is that the reason why you’re turning away from America?
RD: Because they refused to understand my predicament when they knew that they were also in the same predicament, only on a larger scale. Remember Panama? Okay, they invaded Panama, a sovereign state in Central America. So what was the purpose there? They went inside, seized the country, arrested the president, brought him outside the country, placed him in a detention cell in New York. He faced a trial in the Federal Court and is convicted. What happened to the invasion? And what was the reason? Drugs.
You invade a country. Me, I’m just fighting the criminals in my country. I never invaded a country. You have to look at it this way: there is so much incongruity in the principles that are being followed by nations. The powerful ones, they can invent the weapons of mass destruction or they can invade your country. Me, I never touch anybody. I do not even go to the United States. And then they criticize me for the criminals that I have killed!
MF: Your relations with the previous US administration were far from perfect. Will you give Trump’s administration a chance?
RD: This is really on record. I said, “Mr. President, I’m President Duterte of the Philippines, I’d like to congratulate you on your election as president, on your victory.” He said, “Oh, I was expecting your call. You’re doing it alright. They are flooding my country with drugs, too.” And you must have heard three nights ago, or four nights ago, when they said he said he’s going to go after drugs harshly. And it was my word when I was campaigning. I used the word “harsh.” You know, I have to protect the innocent so that my country can prosper and live in peace. If I allow these criminals to overwhelm, and there are already 4 million [drug users], where will that put my country ten years from now? Tell me.
MF: Hard to say. And speaking about the US, Donald Trump has invited you to the White House, and you said that you don’t have time.
RD: Yes, I said I’m sorry. I cannot go because I’m busy. That’s actually the truth, as I said before. You might as well have noticed that during the election I was severely criticized by America, and it was during the election time. They ought not to have said words that would either be in favor or against a candidate, or sway the votes. Because it was an election, and you are interfering with the sentiments of the people about who to vote for. Just look what is happening now! They’re insisting that Trump – what’s all that about Trump talking about the ISIS (Islamic State, formerly ISIL)? I can talk to anybody. I can even talk to emir in Jordan and tell him about what’s wrong with the ISIS. So look at this, America.
MF: So how do you feel about that behavior?
RD: You know, they’re talking about a worldwide problem. Why can’t Trump just be open and just tell his counterpart President Putin or maybe [someone else]: “We have the same problem so what’s your strategy there?” How would it affect your national security in a bad way? Tell me. They are discussing a problem which is worldwide, the problem of terrorism, which has happened in his country, and it happened in Chechnya, and even in the theater that was captured, and you had to gas the people, because it was the only way to [do it]. It’s terrorism!
MF: Mr. President, it sounds like there is no hope for improvement in the relations between the Philippines and the USA.
RD: I have nothing against America. They’re perfectly alright. Trump is my friend. But my foreign policy has shifted from the pro-Western one. I am now working on alliance with China, and I hope to start a good working relationship with Russia. Why? Because the Western world, the EU, and everything – it’s all this double talk. So, the EU granted us 200 million, and this grant carried with it a condition that this money would be used to improve the human rights, and so on and so forth. I said, “No. I don’t need it.”
MF: You once said that you don’t want America in your country, so you were serious?
RD: Yes. But not quite so. I said it about the American troops. That one day, during my term, if I survive the CIA, I still have five years to go…
MF: You talk a lot about assassination. Do you really expect that to happen?
RD: They do it. Does it surprise you? They can even take the president out of his country for him to face trial in another country.
MF: So you are not worried about this denial being perceived as disrespect, for example? That was a message you wanted to send?
RD: They started it, not me.
MF: What should happen for it to improve? Are you waiting for an apology? Will it work?
RD: No. I don’t want that thing to happen.
MF: So what would help?
RD: It’s enough that I respect Trump. He is a friend, and he is welcome to come here in November. But if I’m talking about arms and defense against ISIS, I’d rather [be] in my preliminary talks with Medvedev and President Putin. I hope that we can convert it to something substantial. And I can always go to China.
MF: Do you think your society will support this idea? Because there are intensive ties within the society with America, historically. Do you think you will have the support of the people?
RD: If there is anything to gripe about, it is me griping: “Why did you invade my country 50 years ago?” They sat on this land and lived off the fat of the land. And you expect me to be happy?
MF: Is there anything personal?
RD: No, nothing. Because this happened to you. It’s just history. And so far as historical… It hurts, but still it’s not like you have a sore finger that sticks out every day. It’s not that. But it’s how we were handled. You treat me as if I am your colony still? You must be kidding. Why would I allow it? Why would I allow you to treat me as if I am your representative here, as your colonial governor? We are an independent country. We will survive; we will endure; we can go hungry. But this time I want my country treated with dignity.
MF: Can I ask you a personal question, please? Two years ago, you shocked the media by revealing that you had been molested by a priest when you were 14 or 15 years old. And later, you even identified that priest. He was an American national.
RD: Yes. Not only I – the whole class. Two generations up and two generations down. All of us.
MF: You were 70 years old at that time. Why would you make that confession more than 50 years later?
RD: I said this because of the penchant to keep silent. The abuses of the priests had been filmed everywhere. There was an Italian underground film – I’m sure you saw that – priests were running naked there. And they don’t really bother to investigate. There is no condemnation. Nothing. They show the priests and the religious people doing shenanigans, but it is seen just as part of the show of the night. Is it liberality? Is it because you don’t want to condemn your own countrymen? Or is it because the victims were just natives? Never mind about them. We were considered natives. And sometimes pictured as apes.
MF: Was it important for you that he was an American?
RD: I don’t know. I broke it for the first time because I call all the bishops stupid. And they are really stupid. You know that? Because there is a book here which also exposes their shenanigans. It’s called Altar of Secrets. May I have a copy? I’ll give you one. It was wrote by a narrator of the bishops’ conference. I give it to you. Read it, and you will understand how corrupted the Catholic Church in this country is. By the way, I believe in God. I really believe in God, I put my destiny in the hands of God. But priests? You read the book.
MF: Can it affect your policy towards churching? Are you planning some reforms?
RD: Yes. [The] Catholic Church in the Philippines must reform. Do not wait for the day when religion becomes irrelevant in the lives of people. We’ve been telling them: reform, you better… If every student now in college would read that book, the Catholic Church will launder in the next ten years. And just like in America, I was there… before. I go to church and my wife is a nurse there working… There is only about one-two-three guys: Mexicans and Filipinos. So that’s the development irrelevant in the lives of people. Why do you have to go to confession and whisper your sins to an idiot when you can always go directly to God and say “I’m sorry”? Why do you have to whisper into the ear of another human being? It’s crazy. And I said “Stop it.” Those are the things I just do away with. Confessing your sins to another when you can go directly to God and say “Lord, I’m sorry for my sins.” I am not that religious, but I still believe in God. That there is somebody there – more than what we can, human beings, are capable of.
MF: You just came back from China. Your relations with China are a little bit warmer than compared to your predecessor – and actually warmer than was expected. We didn’t see you riding to the islands in the South China Sea with a Filipino flag to put there, as was promised. Was that just a tactic or have you changed your strategy?
RD: Well, it is so ridiculous, it must be a joke. I am fond of that – if you are a resident of this place, every five sentences that I utter here, two and a half of them are really jokes. I’m so fond of using jokes here that I brought that practice also nationwide. That’s why I would ride on a Jet Ski – why would I ride on a Jet Ski? I would ride on a boat, on the navy, if I had the mood. Imagine riding with a gun under your arm – under your armpit, and you ride a motor there.
MF: But you didn’t go there on a boat either – instead, you went to China.
RD: No, I was about to go there, but China said “Can we please avoid it at this time,” because it might give the wrong impression and every head of state who’s claiming that the vast sea there is theirs would also go there. And out of respect of my friendship with China, I said OK. But that all – forget it. It’s all a joke. I said, if I go there as president, I will ride on a navy.
MF: But it showed what kind of policy you are going to conduct towards China, and people expected some tough policy.
RD: At the end of the day, it is this – I’ve been very frank with them. They said arbitral – I went more than that. I would not tell you what the official said to me, but said “we can be friends.” Then I said “I want to drill now, because we want to find…” And he said “Please, do not do it.” And I said “Why?” – “Because instead of being friends we will be enemies, and there might be war.”
Do you expect me to fight China in a war? Do I have the cruise missiles to hit them? Do I have the missiles to launch when they bomb [us]. So what will happen is going to be a massacre. Never mind about the insistence of the arbitral. At the end of the day it is this: you say it is yours, and I say it is mine. And then he would… the other guy at the bargaining table, will say “OK, it is yours.” And so, what now? Do I look stupid, or do I look stupid?
MF:So, because the Philippines is weaker than China, including militarily, you can’t do anything?
RD: We can talk about it later on, but not now, because everybody is grabbing a piece of the property. Maybe when the time comes, when everything is quiet and it’s conducive to talks. And as I said, [we could talk about] joint venture. But not now. No hard selling now. Not yet, because, as I said, everybody is claiming it. We’ve been on Pagasa Island since 1974. We’ll just have to maintain the troops there. After all this, we’ll also claim it ourselves. But I do not want to go to war with you. But I must insist that we stay there, because we’ve been occupying it for so many years.
MF: Last question about ISIS. I met private contractors in America in 2015.
MF:Yes, private security contractors. They called themselves “volunteers,” and they told me that they were training – shooting and everything – to go to the Philippines to fight ISIS. It was 2015, and at that time the president was repeatedly saying that there is no ISIS in the Philippines. And then today, two years on, we hear that ISIS is promising terror attacks in the following weeks, for Ramadan in Manila, so ISIS is in the Philippines.
RD: Yes, I’ll answer you… think they were just angling for recognition. But nobody was really recognized by ISIS. They were angling and hoping for recognition. And they sported themselves as part of ISIS. It was only early this year when they appointed and anointed their leader, Isnilon Hapilon. And from the southern tip of the Mindanao, he is now in central Mindanao. And that is why I said, you know, when you fight revolutionaries, they are not really in numbers. It’s not an army. It’s a group of men dedicated to destroying human life. If I had to get into a fight, I would need the high-precision arms to really hit the target and avoid civilian casualties.
MF: Are you going to buy weapons from Russia?
RD: I know that Russia has it. I have not identified that yet, but I’m just playing with my mind that the Russians are brighter than the Americans.
I think that they are more sophisticated, more precise. And I said that since Russia is brighter than America, I’ll go to Russia. Also, because the Russians are not only bright, they are generous and help all.
MF: So what about ISIS? Do you think ISIS militants here in the Philippines are homegrown or kind of imported?
RD: There are so many Caucasian-looking [men] here captured or killed – about six already. And they are from the Middle East mostly.
MF: And how are you going to fight terrorism? This is the task that so many countries have actually failed to deal with.
RD: Well, not really failed, but put it under control. It’s a state of mind that cannot be erased easily. So you have to fight it and then convince the others who are not into it yet, or at least their paradigm is not attuned to what the ISIS is or are doing, and, when you convince them, the violence may reduce to a minimum.
But every generation always has its problems. The World War II, for example, Europe. If we have time, one minute? They criticize me saying that we are killing Filipinos. About ten thousand. Remember the First Word War? The Europeans killed 15 million of other Europeans. Was the conscience then different from the conscience now? They were all Europeans. It all started when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, and that war, from 1914 to 1918, killed 15 million Europeans. And now the Europeans are very vocal about one, two, three, or four thousand? Why? Was the conscience of the Europeans then different from their conscience now? You slaughtered each other, we never complained.
MF:So what is it, do you think?
RD: The thing is to look at the world of reality. In every generation, there is always a serious problem to solve. And so you have to be serious about it. And sometimes not go beyond, but in excess of what is really called for, because you want an assurance that your country is safe. If you have to kill an extra guy to make it safer, then do it. My God, do it! And if it’s about one hundred more killed, and one hundred more safer, if you are the leader and you don’t know how to solve it, you do not deserve to be one.
MF: And the very last question. You often say that the media gives a wrong picture of you and your policies. How would you describe yourself?
RD: Yes, correct, and I am attacking them now, because the media in this country is controlled by oligarchs. And there is a newspaper, Inquirer, that got a loan of government land in Makati, a precious property, for 25 years for its own from Marcos, and then got another 25 years from Kori – they got another extension. And now they do not want to return it. And when the government is asking for it, here comes the court issuing a restraining order prohibiting us from getting the property. That’s what I said, I’ve been reaching out and said, “You courts, you better behave. Do not force me not to believe in you. Do not wait for that day when you can just rob the people of their property and taxes.” The Inquirer owns a Dunkin’ Donuts – they owe 1.5 billion from many years ago. And they haven’t paid. And during the time of Aquino, the Bureau of Internal Revenue assessed them at just 8 million 400 thousand.
MF: It looks like you have many problems to deal with.
RD: Yes. I have a problem with the rich and oligarchs, too. And I intend to get all of the people’s property from them, whether they like it or not. And I’ve been warning them, “Do not do it. Do not wait for the day when I will no longer believe in your courts and will just get out and get the property from them.”
MF: So the media gives the wrong picture. How would you describe yourself? In one or two words.
RD: I am a worker of the government. I work for the people.
MF: Thank you so much, Mr. President, for your time. I wish you good luck. You have so many things to do. I wish your nation prosperity and peace.
RD: Thank you. And when we are prosperous, do come back and enjoy the things that the country can offer you, sights and everything. I am inviting the Russian people, too.