Move away from Manila’s central business district — with its wide, clean streets and perpendicular gridding of purposeful planning — and you quickly find yourself in the naturally developed anarchy of snaking alleyways that are the hallmark of the capital city’s poorest areas.
It’s in these areas that the impact of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs is most obvious. These narrow and slanted streets, with ad hoc housing packed onto one another like in a game of Tetris, are the front lines in a punitive war that has left an estimated 7,000 dead in a little over a year.
Raffy Lerma, a local photographer who has been covering this war for over a year, likens it more to a bloodbath. “A war means there are two sides fighting,” he says, clarifying his definition, which clearly doesn’t fit the horrors he has been documenting since July 2016.
A few months ago, Lerma decided it was time to take a break from the war on drugs and traveled instead to the southern Philippines island of Mindanao to cover a different war, this one involving ISIS-inspired separatists laying siege to the city of Marawi. It’s a war that some experts say highlights the potential geopolitical shifts between the Philippines and the region in the near future.
According to professor Julkipli Wadi, a former dean and current lecturer at the University of Philippines Institute of Islamic Studies, the war in Mindanao could, and should, have been avoided were it not for the blinkered intensity of the current administration towards the drug war.
“I think these past several months, the Duterte government was so focused on the war on drugs it erratically forgot an equally critical issue like the looming radicalism that had been felt this past several months,” says Wadi.
Conflict first erupted in Marawi on May 23, when the city of 200,000 fell to ISIS-inspired groups after a botched attempt to snatch Isnilon Hapilon, the so-called “emir” of ISIS in Southeast Asia and leader of the group Abu Sayyaf. Martial law was immediately declared for the entirety of Mindanao.
Wadi explains that while “the relationship between Muslims and majority Filipinos has been mixed. It’s generally been dictated by long years of antagonism.” This level of violence signalled a notebale shift.
After all, the Muslim population in the Philippines, often referred to as the Moro, have for decades waged a separatist insurgency aimed at self-rule. From the Moro National Liberation Front to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, splinters and offshoots have multiplied with almost every passing year. In 2014 under the Aquino administration, a breakthrough peace deal was signed, complete with promises of self-governance, but it stalled in congress under endless reviews as to its constitutionality.
Yet in the months since Marawi was first overrun, government forces have struggled to dislodge the stubborn group of ISIS-affiliated militants from the city. Martial law was quickly extended until the end of the year. Air bombardments and street-to-street fighting has been slow and deadly. As of August 15, some 735 people have been killed, including 562 militants, 128 government troops and 45 civilians. Meanwhile, more than 467,000 people have been displaced in a fight that has left much of the city center in ruins.
According to Richard Heydarian, a political analyst and author of the forthcoming book “Duterte’s Rise,” both the drug and Moro conflicts need to be approached from the perspective of those who have invested most in the sprawling Southeast Asian nation: China and the US.
“Marawi is no longer just a battle against ISIS. ... Increasingly [the] Mindanao crisis also morphed into a Sino-American competition for hearts and minds of the Filipino people,” explains Heydarian.
While US-Philippines relations under President Barack Obama were strained at best over the extrajudicial killings, the election of Donald Trump — of whom Heydarian says Duterte quickly recognized “doesn’t give a heck about human rights and democracy issues” — stopped a Philippines pivot towards the open arms of China.
Currently, Heydarian says Duterte and the Philippines may be hitting a strategic “sweet spot” of maintaining good relation with both China and the US, but he warns clashes on drugs and the ongoing fighting in Marawi are cause for uncertainty.