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Philippine Authorities Urge Calm After Attacks In The Country's South


In the Philippines now, authorities are urging calm after attacks on places of worship. On Sunday, more than 20 people were killed in a church bombing, and a grenade attack on a mosque left two people dead on Wednesday. These attacks came after voters in the southern part of the country approved a new autonomy plan that was aimed at ending decades of conflict between Muslim separatists and the central government. This is a conflict that has left more than 100,000 people dead. Michael Sullivan reports from Manila.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The 2017 siege of the city of Marawi by ISIS-linked extremists; the kidnappings, beheadings and bombings by the notorious Abu Sayyaf terror group - these are the things that have grabbed the media spotlight. The new Bangsamoro autonomy plan - not so much.

ZACHARY ABUZA: This is the first chance we have for lasting peace in Mindanao. I think people really want to give this a chance.

SULLIVAN: That's Zachary Abuza, author of "Forging Peace In Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, And Reconciliation." Peace in this case has been a long time coming.

STEVEN ROOD: Over the last 45 years, there have been numerous attempts to give or negotiate more autonomy, none of which have been actually fulfilled.

SULLIVAN: Steven Rood is a fellow at the research firm Social Weather Stations in Manila. He also says that this time feels different, after the government passed the law in July and after voters in largely Muslim Mindanao did the same just days before Sunday's church bombing.

ROOD: Some 85 percent of the people voted in favor of having this new law, which has the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, at least for a three-year transition, running this new autonomous region.

SULLIVAN: The mainstream separatist MILF had been fighting the government for over 30 years. But it settled for a deal that gives the region greater autonomy and more control over its rich natural resources.

GLENDA GLORIA: It also puts them in charge of the peace and order situation in the region. It gives them a very powerful responsibility - as well as resources - to make sure that peace happens in Mindanao.

SULLIVAN: That's a tall order, says Glenda Gloria, managing editor of the online news service Rappler and the co-author of "Under The Crescent Moon: Rebellion In Mindanao," a region that's long suffered from economic and political neglect, one ripe for exploitation by ISIS-linked extremists.

GLORIA: You have to remember that the out-of-school youth rate in Muslim Mindanao is bigger than the national average. So there are a lot of unschooled young people who are vulnerable to recruitment by ISIS.

SULLIVAN: And then there's Marawi. In May 2017, ISIS-linked militants and foreign fighters occupied and held parts of the Muslim-majority city for five months before being driven out or killed by the Philippine military. The city was left in ruins; 15 months later, it still is. Rommel Banlaoi is the chair of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.

ROMMEL BANLAOI: The longer you delay the rebuilding of Marawi, the more opportunities for the Islamic State to recruit and replenish their members.

SULLIVAN: Some analysts say Sunday's church bombing was meant to disrupt the peace process. But Samira Gutoc, a Marawi native who helped draft the new law, isn't worried.

SAMIRA GUTOC: There's always a sporadic incident of bombing grenade that would happen when a landmark event happens in Bangsamoro. And the landmark event right now is the Bangsamoro Organic Law "yes" vote.

SULLIVAN: Scare tactics, she says, haven't worked in the past and shouldn't now.

GUTOC: There's no Muslim-Christian conflict here. Religion is not the problem. It is just about wackos out there who think that they have the monopoly of what's right.

SULLIVAN: But security analyst Rommel Banlaoi says the challenges in Mindanao go way beyond Muslim extremists.

BANLAOI: From the ruling oligarchs, from the warlords, from the criminal groups and even from Christian local politicians - if the MILF cannot make a difference, then I think the Mindanao conflict will persist.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "VAULTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.