On an overcast Tuesday morning, thousands of stone-faced, slightly fidgety soldiers with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest rebel group in Southeast Asia, have assembled in a palm-encircled clearing at the group’s headquarters outside Cotabato City on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. A flag bearing the army’s sigil and slogan—“Victory or Martyrdom”—quivers in the breeze, as the voice of an imam reading from the Quran crackles over the PA system. Once the prayer has finished, Sammy al Mansour, the 68-year-old chief of the army, rises from his chair alongside his fellow rebel leaders and ascends the podium.
Barrel-chested with wide jowls and close-cropped hickory hair, Sammy is a battle-hardened guerrilla. He began ambushing Filipino army soldiers when he was 17 and spent the next 40 years leading Islamic revolutionaries in a bloody struggle for independence, during which he suffered several wounds, including a near-fatal bullet through the hip. Yet today, his speech is no warrior’s rallying cry.
“The peace process must be taken seriously,” he declares to the soldiers, all of whom are unarmed and dressed in matching white polos rather than their standard tiger-patterned battle fatigues. Also in attendance are journalists and NGO workers, invited by the Moro Front, which is increasingly open to outside visitors. The rights of Mindanao’s Muslims, Sammy goes on to say, can only be secured by rejecting extremism and embracing legitimate politics. The soldiers raise a tepid cheer. The time for war has passed.
With the twilight of an insurgency, peace has dawned on Cotabato City. A deal between the government and the rebels—in which they’ve ceded the fight for an independent Islamic state in exchange for regional autonomy—is but one sign of the gradual transformation of an area long plagued with poverty, violence and corruption. Security has improved, and commercial development is flourishing. But the specter of terrorism, frustration among the youth and an uncertain future for the rebel army threaten to plunge Cotabato back into chaos.
Some 20 minutes from the Moro Front headquarters, along a winding road with rumbling gravel trucks and stalls dangling bunches of stubby bananas, lies Cotabato City, whose ramshackle settlements spread over low hills into a wide floodplain braided with swollen, muddy rivers. Cotabato was once considered the most dangerous city in the Philippines. Throughout the decades-long separatist war—during which Filipino soldiers reportedly massacred and raped Muslim civilians and desecrated mosques—insurgent skirmishes were frequent. In 2005, the then-US ambassador to the Philippines called the city a “doormat” for terrorists. Sundown was a de facto curfew, with abductions, bombings, and political assassinations common.
Now, colorful government billboards boast of dramatic reductions in crime. On warm tropical nights, residents stay out late to peruse shops for jeans and pirated DVDs, or eat soft-serve at the new McDonalds. In the atrium of an unfinished mall, two dozen young people practice Zumba surrounded by small boutiques selling Adidas shoes, Giordano handbags, and Fubu T-shirts. The city’s first modern supermarket recently opened, with a full produce section, stale muzak and aisles of imported foodstuffs bathed in fluorescent light.
Foreigners landing at Cotabato’s single runway airport usually have their passports checked and are asked to identify their NGO, assumed to be visiting for one of the many international development gatherings that churn through the city’s two secure hotels. But there is a nascent tourism industry. The city government has been holding cultural exhibitions and promoting local attractions. After a dinner of goat biryani at an Arab restaurant, a young Saudi tourist introduces himself, saying that before heading to the resort island of Palawan, he and his friends are visiting Cotabato to see the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque, the largest in the Philippines and considered, with its gold domes and towering 140-foot high minarets, a masterpiece of Islamic architecture.
Still, a sense of violence lingers. Bong, a retired Philippine Army soldier from the island of Bohol who had been stationed in Mindanao and now runs a taxi business, tells me this is the safest he and his family have felt in three decades living here—but that as a Christian, there are certain outskirts of Cotabato he avoids. “I don’t want to get beheaded,” he says, only half-joking. Checkpoints with bundled razor wire and heavily armed soldiers mark the roads in and out of town, as martial law has been in effect since May last year, when ISIS-linked militants stormed the nearby city of Marawi, sparking a brutal six-month battle that displaced more than 200,000 and left some 1,200 dead. Roadside wanted posters featuring mugshots of known terrorists are grim reminders that several ISIS affiliates remain at large.
Despite pockets of commercial development, Muslim-majority Mindanao is one of the poorest regions in the Philippines, and political and economic grievances are driving extremism. At a cafe plying single-origin coffee and flat whites, Johira and Arhama, two hijab-wearing university graduates in their early-twenties, organize spreadsheets and make phone calls for a local government development project, a job they say they beat out hundreds of candidates to get.
“Joblessness is the No 1 problem here,” said Johira. “You usually need family connections or a backer to get work.” Applicants often adopt Christian names because employers, many of whom are Catholic transplants, discriminate against Muslims. “Frustration is a reality in Mindanao,” Mohagher Iqbal, the septuagenarian lead negotiator for the Moro Front, told me. Even after the peace deal, many Muslims still feel marginalized, with some falling victim to ISIS social media propaganda tailored for an angry, wired young generation.
As they prepare to govern under the new autonomy law, Moro Front leaders like Sammy al Mansour are trying to prove they can guarantee peace and order in Mindanao. Units of his army patrol the remote jungles and marshlands riddled with ISIS militants, many of whom had once been part of the Moro Front. Sammy tells me he’s confident he can woo some of these extremists back into the fold. But, in a jarring rebuke of that effort, three deadly ISIS-claimed bombings rocked the region at the end of the summer.
Perhaps of greater concern were the thousands of insurgents gathered at rebel HQ that Tuesday morning—heavily-armed fighters who had spent their lives in jungle camps and were trained only to wage war. The rally was meant to shore up their support for the peace agreement, but none of the leaders who spoke explained how exactly life would improve. There is no plan to integrate the insurgents into the state’s security forces, or to involve them in the local economy, such as in the tourism industry, as former FARC rebels in Colombia have done. And if the spoils of peace—homes, jobs, cash—fail to trickle down to these warriors, then shopping malls and supermarkets will do little to deter crime and extremism. “I am a veteran of one thousand and one battles, but I am a neophyte in the art of governance,” the Moro Front chairman Haj Murad Ebrahim tweeted shortly after the autonomy law passed. Lasting peace in Cotabato—and the security of the Philippines—depends on him and his colleagues learning that art.