On May 23, 2017, a few days before the start of Ramadhan, an armed conflict broke out in Marawi City, the capital of Lanao del Sur on the Mindanao island in the Philippines.What began as the Philippine government’s attempt to capture Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the ISIL-affiliated Abu Sayyaf group, became an all out urban warfare between the Armed Forces of the Philippine with support from the US, Australia, China, Israel, as well as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), against the alliance of ISIL-affiliated militias, namely Abu Sayyaf, the Maute group, Bangsamore Islamic Freedom Fighters, and Ansar Khalifa Philippines (AKP). The fighting is still going on since with no sign of stopping. More than 500 people have died as of now, including civilians. Meanwhile here in Malaysia, just next door to the Philippines, people have been busy fasting and feasting throughout Ramadhan and Syawal. The irony of it all.
A couple of weeks before the start of the Marawi crisis — also known as The Battle of Marawi — IMAN’s field operative was in Marawi City on a fact finding mission. Our research work on violent extremism brought us to look at conflict areas in the region, including the island of Mindanao. Knowing the situation of the conflict in the area, as well as its border connection with Sabah, we felt it was important for us to find out the situation on the ground and how it might impact our fellow citizens in East Sabah.
The field operator first landed in Cotabato — a regional hub for international organizations and foreign journalists — to meet up with a local contact. He was then introduced to Syeikh Abdul of the Regional Darul Ifta’ of Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, who is also the second cousin of Farhana Maute, the mother of the Maute brothers of the Maute group.
Syeikh Abdul confided to our field operator that some of the members of Darul Ifta’ have family members who are involved with the Ansar Khalifa Philippines (AKP) in Sultan Kudarat, and some have pledged allegiance to the Abu Sayyaf group. Syeikh Abdul also mentioned that recruitment was actively happening in Tahfiz schools located in Marawi City and Cotabato.
Next stop was Marawi City, where our representative met with a lecturer at a local public university. The lecturer brought him to the university, where he had a chance to do a focus group discussion with 17 students (12 male, 5 female). During the discussion, the students unanimously agreed on a few things: they wanted a full autonomy for Mindanao to implement Sharia law, citing Acheh as an example; they said that they were being oppressed by the Philippine government, saying that it was a Christian agenda to suppress Muslims; they were supporters of the separatist groups in the region, and they had no problems cooperating or joining external terror groups that would help them achieve their goals; they disliked the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) because they were not pure Muslims and admitted that some of their family members were involved with the rebel groups.
He also managed to speak to two members of the AKP, one of which could speak Malay since he used to work in Sabah. According to them, the AKP was being suppressed by the Philippines government, with their members being prosecuted and killed in attacks.
It is important to note the narrative at use here, employed by both by the students and the AKP members. According to them, the people in Mindanao aspire for more autonomy to pursue their own way of life, in accordance to their own principles. The powers that be, namely the Philippines government, with support from foreign governments, were not allowing them to pursue them. And not only that, they were also being punished for it. Harassed, prosecuted, jailed and murdered. They were being attacked because of who they were and what they believed in. The on-going “under siege” narrative has now become a mindset that is repeatedly being echoed by vulnerable communities all over the world.
Before leaving Marawi City, our field operator met with another local, a teacher at a Tahfiz school. They both met at a state-owned mosque in Marawi City, which is also the headquarters of the Maute group. Recruitment for the group was happening in Tahfiz schools and local universities, and that there were Malaysians in the group including Dr Mahmud, the lecturer from Universiti Malaya. A lot of the financial support for the group comes from Malaysia, and he suspected the person in charge of this was a Malaysian, a religious teacher cum silat master. At the time of meeting, there were already 32 Malaysians reported to be in Marawi City.
After the fighting in Marawi occurred, I spoke to a contact in East Sabah, to connect the dots and understand its implications towards neighboring Sabah. When I first asked him how the situation was now in Sabah, he said that in West Sabah, people have been busy with the Kaamatan festival. “It’s all about Kaamatan,” highlighting the fact that in West Sabah, just like in Peninsular Malaysia, people are either not affected at all or they are not concerned about the events happening just across the border. “But in East Sabah things are a bit different,” he said.
He maintained that the situation in East Sabah was “not that terrible yet,” but there was a brewing concern that needs to be addressed. For the longest time, the relationship between the Suluks in East Sabah and the rebel groups in Mindanao have always been based on economics. The well-funded rebel groups sought allegiance from the Suluks by offering them a small amount of money or basic necessities, which is considered a lot for the financially challenged Suluk people. There are also some family ties between the Suluk and the Filipino-Tausugs due to movements of both peoples crossing the border, which dates way back before colonial times.
Neglect by Malaysia?
However, over the past few years, a new narrative has emerged among the Suluks. According to our contact, the Suluks now are talking about how they are being pushed to the corner, exploited and neglected by fellow Malaysians (a claim that has a lot of truth in it), and at some point they will band together and join a group that will champion their survival. Just like how the Malays in Peninsular identify themselves as Malay-Muslim first, not Malaysians, the Suluks identify themselves as Suluks first. Added with the cultural familiarity and filial relationship with the rebel groups in Mindanao, and of course their close proximity, it is not difficult to guess which side they might turn into.
Speaking to Vilashini Somiah, a Sabah ethnographer and PhD candidate from NUS, she said that although there are no apparent tension or conflict have been reported, she did find that certain ethnic groups tend to be “extra guarded due to a perceived idea that the state is particularly suspicious of them.” “I cannot say for certain if the state operates in that manner officially,” said Somiah, “but perception is a strong and powerful tool and this feeling of suspicion has certainly added to public tension.”
I must stress here that I am not suggesting the Suluks in East Sabah have no loyalty towards Malaysia and that we should see them as a problem. They are Malaysians, they are entitled to be treated equally as Malaysian citizens and it is our responsibility to ensure their wellbeing. And because of that it is important for us to look into this matter seriously, to prevent the unrest in Marawi to spill over into our borders and affect the lives of our fellow Malaysians.
One area of concern is migration, and the movement of militants in and out of our borders. “I cannot see the state neglecting this part of the Sabah coast any longer. The latest pack with Indonesia and the Philippines in joint patrol efforts to protect piracy prone waters has actually significantly slowed down irregular migration towards Sabah but it most definitely has yet to put a full stop to it. There are always loopholes to finding one’s way into the eastern coastal areas of Sabah. It just takes plenty of patience and diligence,” said Somiah.
In IMAN, we believe in a holistic approach in preventing and countering violent extremism. This means going beyond the traditional security approach, and start to really look into the push and pull factors, protecting vulnerable communities by building resilience. In the case of East Sabah, this includes being a real ally to our fellow countrywomen and men, making them an integral part of our nation, while promoting awareness on ISIL and other terror groups and their implications towards our survival and way of life.
Badrul Hisham Ismail is the Programmes Director of IMAN Research. He also makes films.
This is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of IMAN Research.