(Jakarta, 15 April 2021) The Sulu archipelago in the Philippines could face new violence from disgruntled fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) even as Sulu Governor Sakur Tan is claiming success in ending old feuds among the archipelago’s political factions. Unity among Sulu’s political families is likely to be fleeting and in any case is not entirely good news to the extent that it reflects increasing alienation of islanders from the regional government on the Mindanao mainland.
“The Risk of More Violence in the Sulu Archipelago,” the latest report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), examines the complex political divisions in the islands and how the October 2020 death of one key player -- former MNLF chairman Yusop Jikiri – has increased the security challenges there.
“The government needs to find a way to reconstitute Jikiri’s Anti-Kidnapping and Terrorism Task Force (AKTF), but that’s easier said than done,” says Deka Anwar, IPAC analyst. The AKTF was an ethnic Tausug force composed of MNLF and ex-Abu Sayyaf fighters that partnered with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in going after ASG kidnappers and terrorists and in some cases, rescuing hostages. It gave work to MNLF fighters, protection to ASG surrenderees, and intelligence to the military. But it depended on a commander who had the trust of all parties involved, and there is no obvious replacement for Jikiri.
“The danger is that AKTF fighters go to whoever will pay them -- political leaders, militant splinters or kidnapping factions,” says Anwar.
The new report examines how Jikiri’s death has affected political fault-lines in the southern Philippines. Most important is the deepening rift between archipelago’s political elite, led by Gov. Tan, and the preparatory government of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) led by the mainland-dominated Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). But there is likewise a rift in the MNLF leadership between islanders and mainlanders and another between the Jikiri and Misuari factions. Misuari and Jikiri’s son Tong have announced a reconciliation, but few expect it to last. All of these political divisions could affect how armed groups position themselves and what tactics they pursue.
In the meantime, the ASG, severely weakened by military operations and deaths of some of its top commanders, could be looking to take new hostages, simply out of financial straits. While security has been strengthened in the waters off Sabah, Indonesian fishermen working for Malaysian companies out of Sandakan, Sabah, still stray into dangerous territory where ASG kidnappers lie in wait, because that is where the Sulu Sea’s richest fishing grounds lie.