• Australia and The Philippines, strategic allies & partners
  • Australia and The Philippines, strategic allies & partners

    Nicole Forrest Green, APBC Director and Chair of the Defence Committee speaks with the Secretary of National Defense of the Republic of the Philippines, Defin N. Lorenzana.

    Retired Major General Delfin N. Lorenzana, born in the Southern Philippines Province of Cotabato, Mindanao in 1948, was sworn in as the 36th Secretary of National Defence of the Republic of the Philippines on June 30, 2016. He succeeds former Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin who has described Lorenzana as a ‘good choice’ and a ‘very capable officer’ for the Defence Agency’s top job.

    1). Secretary Lorenzana, you have been described as a rebel fighter having successfully combatted insurgents, rebel and criminal groups as Commander of the Army’s 2nd Scout Ranger Battalion 1987-1989 based in the Malagos District of Davao City - one of two major urban centres in Mindanao, and the political heartland of President Rodrigo Duterte.

    What can you tell us about this period in your life and how you came to meet and work with President Duterte when he was Mayor of Davao City? How would you describe his leadership style, vision and organizational capabilities, and what affect does originating from a region such as Mindanao have on one’s ability to deal with complexity?

    DNL Response: It was a normal command assignment for an Army Officer. I was a newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel in April 1987 when I was designated as Commander of the 2nd Scout Ranger Battalion in Davao City. This was where I first met the then Vice Mayor of the city, Rodrigo Duterte. Nine months after, in January 1988, the Philippines held its first national and local elections after the world renowned People Power Revolution of February 1986. Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte won against the incumbent, Zafiro Respicio. Thus started our partnership in ridding Davao City of the insurgents, together with Lt Col. Franco Calida, the Chief of Police. His leadership was hands on. It still is up to now. He loves to go around the city especially to far flung barangays to talk to the people and elicit their concerns and problems and consequently, to solve those problems the best his office can do. I was with him in most of his sorties to the barangays. We vigorously implemented the “Alsa Masa” (roughly translated as “arise masses”) against the New People’s Army).

    The strategy was for the Army troops to clear an area of NPA-armed components, occupy it for a period of time and try to win back the hearts and minds of the people while the Mayor brings in social and public services like health, education, livelihood support, and infrastructure. By the time I left in August of 1989, we had cleared a huge portion of the city of insurgents particularly the centre and the outlying areas. However, the remote barangays continued to be influenced by the communist insurgents and it took my predecessors several years more before they were eventually cleared. Having been raised in Mindanao had shaped us both to be adaptable and flexible in different situations because it gave us a thorough understanding and respect for diverse people and their respective issues and concerns.

    1A: Question: You both worked together, I understand, to combat communist insurgent groups such as the NPA (New People’s Army) and various criminal elements in Davao. More recently, the militant Islamic organization Abu Sayyaf continues to engender concern in and around the southwest Philippines, claiming responsibility for the deaths of 14 people on September 3, 2016 in Davao City, following a bomb attack in a night market that abruptly halted peace negotiations with the Government. Has this had a substantial influence on both your careers – yours a military career, and the other a civilian trajectory, rising to the heights of the Office of President? Is national cohesion an important priority for the Duterte Administration and to what degree is the Government willing to acquiesce to the demands of radical militant groups?

    DNL Response: Of course! We both grew up in Mindanao, he in Davao City and I in Parang, Cotabato (now part of the province of Maguindanao). We saw first-hand the birth of the Muslim secessionist movement and the spread of the NPA insurgency from Luzon to Mindanao in the early 70s. These two problems have been with us since then. I have been fighting these groups since I joined the Army in 1973 until I retired in 2002. Pres. Duterte’s experience in containing these two groups officially started after he first won as Mayor in January 1988 and has been dealing with them since then until now as President, only in a national scale. We both know the challenge in fighting these forces. The problems he had experienced in bringing development to Davao City in the face of these threats strengthened his belief that peace and order and national cohesion are important priorities if the country is to progress. It is a fact that the communist insurgency and the secessionist movements plaguing the nation for the past four decades have sapped the country of resources which could have otherwise been used for development. For the sake of lasting peace and national unity, the President has made known his willingness to talk with groups opposing the government and is willing to bend backwards to accommodate their demands.

    As of this writing, talks with the CPP/NDF/NPA which started in August in a very promising mood has been terminated by the President after three soldiers were massacred by the CPP-NPA on February 1, 2017 while their unilateral ceasefire was still in effect. At the same time, the Comprehensive Agreement for the Bangsamoro which seeks to provide an area with greater autonomy for the Muslims is also continuing. We, the people from Mindanao, earnestly want these initiatives to succeed.

    2). Entering the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) in 1969, graduating in 1973 to join the Philippine Army, you have occupied various positions from platoon, company, battalion and brigade commander, then Head of the Army’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM). It is understood you supported the paramilitary group Alsa Masa as a precursor to the Citizens Armed Force Geographical Unit (CAFGU) which later became a major component of the military’s anti-insurgency campaigns of the 1990’s. Under your watch, when leader of the Army’s 601st Infantry Brigade in Cotabato, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) kingpin Tahir Alonto was captured, and the hostages in 1999 kidnapped for ransom, safely released. It is also said that you also spearheaded the military operations that secured the MILF’s main fortress Camp Abubakar in July of 2000. And when in charge of the Light Armoured Brigade (LAB) and anti-coup Task Force Libra in 2001, with three battalions under your command, you prevented a mob from occupying Malacanang - the Presidential Palace in Manila – and an attempt to unseat serving President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. In what way do these achievements serve you in your new role as Secretary of Defence, and how can you bring your skills and experience to safeguard, strengthen and reinforce democracy in the Philippines?

    DNL Response: To set the record straight, I did not personally participate in the operations to secure Camp Abubakar from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2000. Nonetheless, I contributed one of my units, the 25th Infantry Battalion under then Major Glorioso Miranda (now the Philippine Army Commander) as reinforcement. He and his battalion stayed in Camp Abubakar until it was secured. My role in that campaign was to secure Camp Omar, another MILF camp, in Maguindanao together with the 303rd Brigade under Colonel Alfonso Dagudag (who later became promoted and retired as Major General). The SND post is so overwhelming and daunting I almost declined it. I spent several days mulling over it in my mind, asking myself: can I handle the post? What are the expectations from me by the President and the country? I made a lot of introspection and carefully thought about the main challenges of the job: the terrorist threats, insurgency, the secessionists, the West Philippine Sea, drugs (in support to law enforcement operations), challenges in the AFP modernization, among many others. I also asked myself whether or not I was professionally and emotionally prepared for it. I went over my military career, assignments, diplomatic experiences, schoolings, among others to check how capable I really was. Then, I consulted my family who assured me that they would support whatever my decision would be. I had to be comfortable with my decision before accepting or declining the President’s offer.

    Also, my assignment in practically every region of the country mostly in Mindanao have given me firsthand knowledge of the security problems besetting our country and the challenges that confronts our soldiers. They also gave me intimate knowledge of what the AFP needs in terms of training, organization, and equipment that will give them a better prospect of doing their jobs better. In the end, I came to the conclusion that I could do the job. I was convinced that everything I had gone through as a soldier and a diplomat had prepared me for it, and that I could, in fact, be a positive addition to the President’s official family.

    In doing my job, I shall always be guided by my oath of office, which underscores that I will support and defend the Constitution of the Philippines. Throughout my career as a soldier, officer and public servant, I have always been guided by this oath. I have always seen to it that my soldiers were loyal to the same oath which guided their actions to properly discharge their functions. I was always quick to reprimand or punish those who committed abuses and ensured that the communities we served were made aware of their rights thereby encouraging everyone to report any abuse committed by soldiers. I shall hold sacred and uphold the same oath as the SND.

    3).You have international experience, and considerable exposure to regional allies both Australia and the United States. You served as Defence and Armed Forces Attaché at the Embassy of the Philippines in Washington D.C., (2002-2004) where you successfully lobbied for compensation for Filipino soldiers who served under American Forces in WWII. You helped to develop the terms of reference for joint exercises between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the U.S. Pacific Command in Basilan and have attained an MBA with a major in Operations Research from the Ateneo Graduate School of Business in the Philippines. Our readers will be interested to learn that you completed strategic studies at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.

    2016 marks 70 years of formal bilateral relations between Australia and the Philippines which began on 22nd May 1946. Our two nations share many common perspectives and have proven to be natural allies, with historic ties in the area of defence. Currently, and in terms of military security, there are exchanges of education and skills training, including police led engagement. Last year, Australia expanded its support with the gift of two decommissioned Balikpapan class military landing craft (LCH vessels), our former HMAS Tarakan and HMAS Brunei, re-commissioned BRP Ivatan (AT298) and BRP Batac (AT299) into the Republic of the Philippines Navy. Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett AO, CSC, RAN was joined at HMAS Cairns in Northern Australia by his Philippines counterpart, Flag Officer in Command Philippine Navy, Vice Admiral Jesus Millan at a ceremony to gift the landing craft to the Government of the Philippine on July 23, 2015. Three other LCH vessels decommissioned by the Royal Australian Navy are being acquired at a negotiated price by the Philippines to replace some of the ageing navy logistic and landing tank ships that are expensive to maintain.

    What are the reforms outlined by former Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and the priorities identified under the Philippines Defence Modernization Program, and do you plan to implement them for the benefit of the DND and Government of the Philippines currently?

    DNL Response: Under the term of former Defense Secretary Voltaire T. Gazmin, my predecessor, numerous reform programs have been started and implemented through the multi-year Philippine Defence Transformation Roadmap 2028 (PDTR 2028). The Defence System of Management (DSOM) which includes AFP Modernization, has enhanced DND-wide management and continuing professionalism. These reforms are geared towards making the DND a more credible defence organization, a reliable partner in national development, and a strategic player in the Asia Pacific Region by 2028. Secretary Gazmin has, in fact, started the AFP Modernization in a big way. The PhP85B (roughly $3.2B) that was spent during his term may be modest compared to what our neighbours are spending but definitely huge to our troops who have not had even a fraction of that money in the past to buy new equipment. The first five years or the First Horizon of the 15-year Modernization Program started by Sec. Gazmin will end this year. As the Second Horizon starts in 2018, we are now lining up our wish list for funding. We would be very delighted to get the same funding as the First Horizon, but then, it all depends on what Congress will give us.

    Question: Would you like to see stronger ties and greater cooperation between Australia and the Philippines in a wide range of defence areas and what recommendations would you make to improve naval exchanges and capabilities between our two nations?

    DNL Response: The Department of National Defense is open to greater cooperation with its neighbours, Australia included. In fact we have a bigger military to military engagement with Australia than any of our ASEAN neighbours. The extent of this relationship is second to that with US. We have signed a Status of Visiting Forces Agreement with Australia that governs the Exercise Dawn Caracha between armies and Exercise Lumbas between navies here in the Philippines, as well as the Exercise Dusk Caracha between armies in Australia. The Philippines also participates in the Australian Exercise Kakadu.

    The Australian Army, likewise, participates in Exercise Balikatan - the PH-US annual exercise. We want to use these exercises to gain access to Australia’s best practices on a wide range of defence activities and be exposed to its latest defence equipment, with the hope of acquiring them through government-to-government mode of transaction.

    4). Territorial disputes in the South China Sea are not new. They involve both island and maritime claims, and touch on contentious issues such as oil and gas exploration rights, fishing, and freedom of navigation given the corridor’s vast importance for shipping to particularly Australian trade, where daily volumes are triple that of all maritime traffic passing through the Suez Canal. The Spratly Islands are one of the major archipelagos in the South China Sea which complicate governance and economics in this part of Southeast Asia due to their location in strategic shipping lanes. This archipelago lies off the coasts of the Philippines, Malaysia and southern Vietnam. Of the approximately 45 islands, cays, reefs and shoals that are populated all contain structures that are occupied by military forces from Malaysia, Taiwan (ROC), China (PRC), the Philippines and Vietnam.

    In March 2016, former President Aquino created the National Task Force for the West Philippines Sea to secure state sovereignty and national territory and preserve the marine wealth in its waters and an exclusive economic zone for the benefit of the Filipino people. In July 2016, an arbitral tribunal convened under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ruled against China’s maritime claims in the Spratlys’ a case brought before it by the Philippines. How do you envisage the current impasse will be resolved, and what progress has been made to date particularly with China (PRC) in order to reduce the level of tension and reach a reasonably, amicable solution under the circumstances?

    DNL Response: If one looks at the issues in the South China Sea (SCS) from the point of view of the International Law, one can see that the Philippines has incontrovertible rights over a huge swath of the SCS that the Chinese government has included inside their so-called “nine-dash-line.” Regrettably, they ignored the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of which China was among the signatories and rejected the ruling by the international arbitral tribunal which classified the nine-dash-line as devoid of historical and legal bases. The Chinese government knows this and that is why they did not participate in the arbitration proceedings. They have used their propaganda and military might to enforce their claim.

    What President Duterte decided to do was to manage the dispute rather than force China to honour the ruling. He visited Beijing last year and had a one-on-one talk with President Xi Jin Ping which tackled many things including trade, people-to-people exchanges and military cooperation. His tact was to get the Chinese to agree that we could temporarily set aside our dispute, to be resolved at a later date. Meanwhile, we should allow traditional fishermen from the Philippines, China and Vietnam to go back and fish in the area. Since the visit of Pres. Duterte to China, the situation in the Scarborough Shoal has dramatically changed.

    The Chinese Coast Guards no longer deny Filipino fishermen from venturing into the area but still, they have maintained their presence there in total disregard of Philippine rights under the UNCLOS and the PCA ruling. There is a prevailing sentiment by some leaders and businessmen that a possible joint exploration of any minerals, gas and oil in the West Philippine Sea could further reduce the tension and would benefit the people of both countries. While no formal talk has occurred to pursue this proposal, it is in fact gaining traction in the higher echelons of the government. I believe that engaging China in a dialogue has lowered the tension in the area and brought back some semblance of status quo ante.

    Question: There are some unintended and unlikely consequences that have flowed from this dispute in terms of I noticed ethnic minorities. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has declared its support for China against the Philippine Government in the South China Sea dispute, citing both China and the Moro People as victims of Philippine colonialism. They note China’s historical friendly relations with the Sultanate of Sulu in the region. What is your view of the current situation in the South China Sea and how does the Duterte Administration aim to resolve it?

    DNL Response: Note…the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) is the original ‘liberation front.’ The MILF (the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) broke away in the late 70s over a number of disagreements with the MNLF and despite the overture of the President to both groups that he would work for the creation of a separate Bangsamoro entity under the Philippine Constitution, Nur Misuari leader of the MNLF, seems to be ambivalent about it. The MILF was totally on board but Misuari maintained that they would not be part of these talks. Perhaps Misuari felt left out in these talks given that he considers himself an authority and a pre-eminent personality in any Mindanao settlement issue. To be honest, we are uncertain what Misuari and his MNLF followers will do once the CAB (Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro) is implemented.

    Question: What is the depth of the defence relationship between the Philippines and China and are you looking to expand and improve the strategic relationship, given that China is a very important regional participant?

    DNL Response: The Philippine-China Defence relationship is very limited at present. In 2004, the Defence Department signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Chinese Ministry of Defence covering a host of military activities. We have had four Defence and Security Talks. China has donated engineering equipment to our Engineering Units, and we sent five (5) students to the Chinese National Defence College but they have not sent anyone yet to the National Defence College of the Philippines. That was the extent of the engagement since the MOU was signed. The military to military contact completely stopped when the Philippines filed the case on the South China Sea in the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

    Despite our current disputes in the West Philippine Sea, we feel it is advantageous to expand and improve our strategic relations with China for several reasons.

    First, China is a superpower in its own right and we could benefit from its robust defence industry. Secondly, greater interaction would prevent miscalculations in the disputed area. Thirdly, our people-to-people relationship is long and deep that dates to centuries before the coming of the Spaniards. The Philippines is home to a sizeable Filipino-Chinese community and we would like to capitalize on this affinity to our advantage. Fourth, China is the biggest market for our agricultural products.

    5). In January 2016, the Philippines Supreme Court ruled that a security accord with the United States was legal, and the natural consequence of this decision would be to allow more U.S forces into the country. The 10-year agreement signed in 2014 but not implemented due to legal challenges was to see more US engagement with the Philippines combined with assistance provided in building military centres. Former President Benigno Aquino had negotiated the accord to help the Philippines improve its military capabilities.

    You have lived, worked, negotiated and dealt with the United States of America extensively. The history between your two countries is a combination of colonialism and dependency, mutual aid and shared values, unity in the struggle to fight communism, and a variety of binding historical, military and economic ties that date back to 1898 and the Spanish-American War, which resulted in the transfer of sovereignty over the Philippines from Spain to the United States. Since then, the relationship has witnessed considerable knocks, setbacks, successes, difficulties and highlights but the Alliance is undoubtedly a solid one despite the rhetoric - past and present.

    I can personally attest to an innate pride I have seen and experienced among the Filipino people when it comes to questions of national sovereignty and independence inherent in the nation’s heroic figures such as the King of Mactan Island who resisted Magellan, Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio.

    Question: Would you clarify and describe the Duterte administration’s position on defence arrangements (including intelligence gathering capabilities) with both current allies and proposed international partners? Japan for example, has an ongoing commitment to delivering patrol ships for the Philippine Coast Guard and in leasing surveillance planes to reinforce coastal defences.

    Could you envisage Australia as a preferred defence partner in the future for the conduct and operation of joint exercises and defence projects? AUSTAL, an Australian defence contractor with operations in Cebu, build littoral combat ships and patrol boats; do you feel they have the potential to add value to the capability of the Philippine Defence Forces and could you envisage a closer, productive working partnership with AUSTAL?

    DNL Response: Currently, we are being assisted by the US on critical ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) operations. The US has been supplying us with second-hand vessels and transport planes in the past decades. In fact, the US has been the major source of our military equipment since the end of World War 2.

    We are aware that this arrangement cannot go on forever since our need for better and newer assets to replace ageing ones becomes more pressing. Besides, we also want to develop our own capabilities using our own resources. Lately, the Japanese government has provided the Philippine Coast Guard with vessels and the Philippine Navy with surveillance planes for which we are so thankful, but for the Philippine Air Force, our modest modernization fund would have to be allocated for the procurement of short haul aircraft as well as multi-role combat aircraft.

    As to your question whether or not Australia will be a preferred defence partner in the future for the conduct and operation of joint exercises and defence projects, it is worth exploring and only time will tell if we can progress enough to this level. But the current relationship is beneficial to both countries. Australian military has a lot of things that our AFP currently needs: tactics, best operational practices and defence equipment. Presently, we already have a robust military to military engagement on exercises in the Philippines as well as in Australia through a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA). Also, next to America, we regularly send a big contingent of military personnel to study in Australian military and civilian schools under the grants of the Australian Defence Force.

    Yes, Australia has a wide variety of defence capabilities that the Philippines may acquire through leasing, provided however that the MOA on defence cooperation, as earlier mentioned, be strengthened. In terms of joint military exercises with Australia, I deem it necessary not only to increase interoperability among Allied countries but also to develop inter-military and maritime cooperation. Based on open-source research, AUSTAL has remarkable performance in terms of shipbuilding and services. With a facility located in Cebu, it can be a potential partner in terms of enhancing the Philippine Navy’s capability and capacity in shipbuilding and in repair and maintenance of the our ships.

    Depending on what could be agreed upon, our Naval shipyard personnel may be allowed to undergo relevant trainings provided by the AUSTAL to improve their skills and knowledge on the latest technology on ship building.

    NAVSHIP could also seek best practices of AUSTAL as benchmark in providing sea systems support and other services. However, all our defence procurement activities are naturally process driven and must undergo open and competitive bidding pursuant to Republic Act 9184 or the Philippine Government Procurement Law.

    6). Australia’s record in extending emergency assistance and disaster relief to the Philippines particularly in the wake of natural disasters such as Super Typhoon Haiyan is excellent. In November 2013, approximately 500 Australian Defence Force personnel including the crew of HMAS Tobruk and a deployment of Army Engineers, provided in-country support to the relief effort at the request of the Philippine Government. Australia’s Aid Program is based on the premise of restoring conditions for peace and stability, quickly, building stronger institutions, and in providing medical assistance and essential supplies through NGO partners registered with the Government. Other areas of success and development are directed towards the economic empowerment of women and education of children particularly girls.

    The November 2013 relief effort highlighted the importance of regional sea lift options due to airfields being inaccessible and land infrastructure impassable according to Australia’s Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Barrett AO, CSC, RAN. In terms of naval capabilities, is the current reliance of the Philippine Navy on the use of frigates and coastal defence craft adequate, and has consideration been given to the purchase of submarines wherein a country such as Australia may be in a position in the future to offer to sell some of its current class of submarines, (plus associated training, repair and maintenance support) which are in the process of being upgraded while the construction of a new French design of submarine by DCNS for the Royal Australian Navy’s new fleet of submarines is underway?

    DNL Response: Typhoon Haiyan was a seminal experience for the Philippines on disaster management. We found out how severely inadequate our program was. To be completely cut off from the devastated area for more than 12 hours unable to provide assistance to the victims was unpardonable, utterly frustrating and discomforting, so to speak. No excuses could exonerate the unpreparedness of the government even if it was the first time that the country experienced such a super typhoon in recent memory. It was particularly grating to the victims that the first responders to arrive after the AFP troops were the US and Australian navies, bringing in massive relief goods. But we have learned since then.

    We, at the Defence Department, are confident that the next super typhoon would be met with better preparation and better post-disaster actions. Since Haiyan, we have acquired a Strategic Sealift Vessel (SSV) from Indonesia that is capable of holding 500 people and becoming a floating hospital. It can launch small boats from its hold and carries with it two helicopters. A second similar SSV from Indonesia is due for delivery in May 2017. We also have other assets to support our Disaster Management Program such as C130 aircraft, helicopters and small boats. We are bent not to repeat the Haiyan experience. The Philippine Navy is still inadequately equipped, though. It still has a number of vintage vessels dating back to Word War II, which we are phasing out as we acquire newer ones.

    We are in the process of revisiting the wish list of Horizon 2 to find out what is the optimum number of floating assets we can acquire to suit our requirements to protect our maritime territory and EEZ. It would be a healthy mix of assorted vessels supported by early warning systems, both fixed and mobile. A submarine is in our wish list, too. The older RAN Oberon-Class had been mentioned in the past but a check with the Australian Defence Attaché says that it has been fully decommissioned some time ago now replaced by the Collins Class. If we ever buy a submarine, we will definitely look at the Collins Class. 

    7). Islam arrived into the Philippines in 1380 with Karim ul’ Makhdum the first Arab Trader that reached the Sulu Archipelago and Jolo in Southwestern Philippines. From this, base trade expanded throughout the Island and overtime so did Islam. The arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century saw Catholicism take root in the country but the Spanish were not successful in converting Muslims to Christianity particularly in the South. Three centuries of Spanish rule saw continual, intermittent warfare that combined political, economic and spiritual aims. This plus Spain’s negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims (the Spanish word Moro meaning Moors was first used in a derogatory way) influenced negative perceptions of each other.

    With Islam linked to ethnicity, neglect and marginalization, economic disparities between Muslim and Christian areas particularly in the South continue today. Would you discuss some of the Government’s initiatives aimed at ending the fighting in this region of the country with the MNLF, MILF, ASG all of whom have sought or still seek an independent Islamic state, as well as some of the programs launched to help Muslims, and promote the idea that Islam is part of an inclusive national heritage, given that the religion predates by 200 years the arrival of Christianity into the Philippines?

    What reasons do you give for the recent Islamic resurgence? While the 100 million strong population of the Philippines is around 85% Catholic, there are Muslim communities in many provinces with mosques becoming part of a wider landscape across the entire country. Is it not the case that Philippine workers returning from periods abroad in countries like Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, often arrive back in the Philippines having kept their new religion? What consideration is being given to improving the economic conditions in the south given the inextricable, inalienable links between poverty and terrorism?

    DNL Response: The Muslim problem in Southern Philippines is complicated. Having been raised in Cotabato, I have seen firsthand how the towns have been governed by local Muslim leaders. I do not believe that the area was purposely neglected by the national government in terms of allocation of development funds as many researchers have reported and Muslim leaders want us to believe. They received as much as the Christian-dominated areas did but their leaders lacked the capacity to govern and there was rampant corruption. The intermittent fighting between the Muslims and Christians is another inhibiting factor.

    But the biggest hindrance, to my mind, is the constant jockeying for power by various clans that had brought about so much bloodshed. What they wanted the central government to do was to grant each clan and/or family its own fiefdom through the creation of provinces and towns from existing ones and they got just exactly as they wished. Maguindanao and Lanao, two of the larger Muslim provinces, are dotted with small towns which by themselves cannot raise enough revenues to support their bureaucracy. However, in Maguindanao, former Governor Andal Ampatuan succeeded in creating towns for each of his sons. The rising “Islamic nationalism” that President Duterte loves to talk about, with origin that harkens back to several centuries before the coming of the Spaniards and Christianity, is also true. The resurgence of this Islamic radicalism started when Filipino Muslims who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets came home and started propagating the tenets of Al Qaeda. This was reinforced by Arab missionaries who came to Mindanao under the guise of putting up Islamic schools (madrasas). In the past, our troops have encountered other nationalities such as Morrocans, Indonesians, Malaysians and Singaporeans working with the Abu Sayaf, the BIFF (Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighter- a break away MILF group), and the Mautes. Arriving Muslim Filipino workers from the Middle East who have been radicalized or non-Muslims who converted to Islam have likewise added to the growing strength of this radical Islams. Some of them who are from Luzon became the anchor of Muslims from Mindanao to spread themselves across the country resulting in the growth of mosques in these areas. Fortunately, they have remained peaceful and have not shown any tendency to create trouble.

    We believe that the main driver of these movements is economic. The ARMM (Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao) is the most undeveloped region in the Philippines. While there should be massive government intervention to uplift the economic condition in this area, there must also be an improvement in governance. The central government should apply governance regulations to the Muslim areas similar to what it does in other areas. Muslim leaders have gotten away with massive corruption in the past by intimidating regulatory bodies and their maintenance of private armies with tacit approval of central government. Lately, the President talked about a massive infusion of economic package in Basilan, Jolo and Tawitawi. He also believes that a federal system of government will give the Muslim region an equal share of government support and the Muslim leaders a better chance to prove their ability to govern as well as their competence to run their own affairs. Only time will tell if this is so. In the meantime, our security forces will continue to launch combat operations against these Muslim radicals.

    Thank you Defense Secretary Lorenzana very much for taking the time to speak with me personally, an indication of the importance placed on the Australia-Philippines defence relationship. It has been a great opportunity also to make your plans and policy direction known to the international community.

     

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