A peace group in Manila warned that recent armed clashes between the military and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Mindanao is a “preview of more violence” in the region ahead of the elections in 2022.
The peace group International Alert Philippines said the firefight that erupted on March 18 in Datu Saudi Ampatuan town was only the latest episode involving the military and the BIFF.
The military claimed it attacked BIFF forces that allegedly tried to thwart the establishment of a joint peace and security team in the village of Kitango, Datu Saudi Ampatuan town.
The BIFF in the area has reportedly escalated armed attacks in recent months, targeting indigenous groups including the Teduray in municipalities such as South Upi.
“This may be an effort to demonstrate the group’s superiority over other extremist groups in the area and hence gain more recruits and support,” said Francisco Lara Jr., senior peace and conflict adviser of International Alert Philippines.
He said it can also be part of a “slow burn” or a gradual yet deliberate escalation of violence that can lead to a major political battle before or during the 2022 elections.
The first Bangsamoro parliamentary election is schedule for 2022 along with the election for local posts although there have been proposals seeking to desynchronize the parliamentary and local elections.
Other groups in Mindanao have expressed support for a delay in the parliamentary election by extending the life of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority, the interim administrator of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
International Alert warned that violence and the “shadow economies” in drugs and weapons will combine and feed into the violence surrounding the political contests.
The peace group warned that the BIFF will “continue to be a threat,” despite the military campaign against it and reports of surrenders among its members.
Lara said the armed group continues to receive funding from other armed groups, including the so-called Islamic State.
He said the group also receives “protection money” from local politicians, businessmen, and violent entrepreneurs involved in “deadly shadow economies.”
Research done by International Alert showed that the illegal drug and weapons trades in the region has continued despite a government crackdown.
Lara said law enforcers seemed focused on the more urgent issues of extremist violence and the COVID-19 crisis.
“Reports from our early response network reveal how some local politicians are orchestrating violent incidents to depict the [regional transition body] as ineffective,” said Lara.
He maintained that the move is aimed at weakening the legitimacy and authority of the Bangsamoro transition government.
International Alert Philippines warned that if the violence continues, another attack on a political or cultural center similar to the capture of Butig town and Marawi City, in 2016 and 2017, respectively, will happen.