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Non-international armed conflicts in the Philippines

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

The Government of the Philippines is involved in multiple non-international armed conflicts in Mindanao against the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, the Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf Group. Furthermore, the Philippine Armed Forces are engaged in a non-international armed conflict against the New People’s Army.

The Government of the Philippines is involved in multiple, parallel non-international armed conflicts against:

  • The armed group New People’s Army (NPA).
  • A number of non-state armed groups operating in Mindanao. In particular, the non-international armed conflict involves the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, as well as a number of dissident armed factions such as the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Maute Group.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict:

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side in the conflict must be a non-state armed group that exhibits a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict’ in our Classification section.

Intensity of the violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Violence’ in our Classification section.

Non-international armed conflict against the New People’s Army  (NPA)

The New People’s Army (NPA, also known as Bagong Hukbong Bayan) is the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines and has been militarily active in the country since its inception in 1969. Although it operates in the whole country, its activities are concentrated predominantly in Mindanao. International Crisis Group, ‘The Communist Insurgency in the Philippines: Tactics and Talks’, Asia Report no 202, 14 February 2011.

In 2015 and 2016, the intensity of violence dropped significantly. See L. Baron Mendoza, ‘The Philippines: A Long-Running and Multifaceted Conflict in Mindanao’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 123. In 2018, the NPA engaged regularly in armed confrontations against the government in several parts of the country. Between January and March, small-scale armed clashes took place on a near-daily basis across the country. Notably, 64 armed clashes were registered between the government and the NPA, which resulted in 60 fatalities. See International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Philippines (NPA)’, Armed Conflict Database. During the following months, the government and the NPA attempted to resume peace talks. However, fighting between the Philippine Armed Forces and the armed group increased in intensity, with 102 armed confrontations that resulted in 76 deaths. The violence remained small-scale in nature, causing a relatively small number of casualties each time. However, it has taken place on a near-daily basis. For instance, on 10 April fighting in Bato (Camarines Sur province) killed three members of the NPA, while five insurgents were captured. See D. T. Mallari Jr, ‘4 Alleged NPA Rebels Killed, 5 Captured in Camarines Sur Clashes’, The Inquirer, 10 April 2018. On 12 May 2018, in Negros Occidental, two Philippines’ soldiers were killed in armed confrontations against the NPA, while eight were injured. See C. P. Gomez, ‘2 Gov’t Troops Killed, 8 Others Wounded in Clash with NPA in Negros Occidental’, The Inquirer, 12 May 2018. Although the intensity of violence did not remain stable over the past years and allegedly fell below the intensity threshold, this does not imply that international humanitarian law (IHL) ceases to be applicable. Indeed, it is worth recalling that a non-international armed conflict ‘continues until a peaceful settlement is achieved.’ Accordingly, IHL continues to be applicable regardless of oscillating intensity of violence, thus even when the intensity requirement is not met for a certain time. See International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Prosecutor v. Haradinaj et al., Judgement, 3 April 2008, IT-04-84.

Since June 2018, violence has escalated. While the majority of armed confrontations reflect the NPA’s fighting style and have consisted mainly of small-scale confrontations and ambushes, the armed group has also organized more audacious raids against state forces. See International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Philippines (NPA)’, Armed Conflict Database. For example, on 10 August 2018 more than 100 members of the NPA attacked the police station of Lapinig in Northern Samar and looted several weapons. The fighting lasted for 30 minutes and the intervention of paramilitary units proved decisive in putting an end to the attack. See E. Perfecto Jr, ‘NPA Attacks Police Station in Samar’, The Manila Times, 11 August 2018.

Reports indicate that the NPA employs weapons including assault rifles, machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, grenade launchers and anti-tank mines. S. M. Santos Jr and P. V. M. Santos, Primed and Purposeful: Armed Groups and Human Security Efforts in the Philippines, Small Arms Survey and South-South Network for Non-State Armed Group Engagement, 2010. Furthermore, the NPA also resorts to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in order to target state armed forces. For instance, on 12 May 2018 in Mabini town (Compostela Valley province), the NPA organized an attack with IEDs that wounded five state troops. See R. G. Saron, ‘5 Soldiers Hurt in ComVal Town Blast’, Philippine News Agency, 23 May 2018; International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Philippines (NPA)’, Armed Conflict Database. In order to tackle the longstanding insurgency, the government has applied martial law. However, it has organized large-scale attacks against the armed groups sporadically, favouring small-scale confrontations. In September 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte affirmed that the insurgency will be quelled by the end 2019. In order to support his claim, he mentioned that a number of members of the NPA surrendered in 2018. See D. Placido, ‘Duterte: Communist Insurgency Over by 2019’, ABS-CBN News, 18 September 2018; International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Philippines (NPA)’, Armed Conflict Database.

The Government of the Philippines and the NPA have been attempting to hold peace talks for decades. More recently, in August 2016 peace talks resumed in Oslo, Norway. However, following a series of armed confrontations and mutual accusations between the parties, at the beginning of 2017 the talks were informally suspended. See R. Fernandez, ‘Gov’t, NDFP to Resume Formal Peace Talks on June 28 in Oslo’, Manila Bulletin, 11 June 2018; ‘Rodrigo Duterte: Philippines Leader “Not Ready” to Talk to Rebels’, BBC, 4 February 2017.

Armed groups based in Mindanao

The Muslim-majority Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has been affected by one of the longest armed conflicts, which has been ongoing since the 1970s. Unlike the rest of the Philippines, the island of Mindanao has a large Muslim population. Tensions related to religion, unequal distribution of resources and abuses of power against the minorities led to the outbreak of armed struggles aimed at obtaining the independence of Mindanao. See S. D. Russell and T. Rey, ‘Conflict Transformation Efforts in the Southern Philippines’, in C. Carter (ed), Conflict Resolution and Peace Education: Transformations Across Disciplines, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p 157; C. A. Crocker, F. E. Hampson and P. Aall (eds), Taming Intractable Conflicts: Mediation in the Hardest Cases, United States Institute of Peace (USIP), 2004, p 59. Notably, the Government of the Philippines is engaged in sustained armed confrontations against the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), as well as against the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Maute Group.

In recent years, confrontations between Philippines forces on one side, and the MNLF and MILF on the other, have been reported to be occurring with high frequency. In spite of several recurring attempts to conduct talks to reach a peace agreement, violence has remained sustained and no deal has been reached yet. International Crisis Group, ‘The Philippines: Renewing Prospects for Peace in Mindanao’, Asia Report no 281, 6 July 2016. Nevertheless, during the last months of 2018, armed confrontations between the groups and the government diminished. Perhaps thanks to the ongoing peace talks, the parties engaged in smaller-scale offensives and the armed groups attempted to avoid direct military confrontations when possible. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Military and Security Updates – 2018’, Armed Conflict Database. Although the intensity of violence did not remain stable over the years, this does not imply that international humanitarian law (IHL) ceases to be applicable. Indeed, it is worth recalling that a non-international armed conflict ‘continues until a peaceful settlement is achieved.’ Accordingly, IHL continues to be applicable regardless of oscillating intensity of violence, thus even when the intensity requirement is not met for a certain time. See International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Prosecutor v. Haradinaj et al., Judgement, 3 April 2008, IT-04-84.

More alarming is the violence between the government and a number of armed groups that are affiliated with the Islamic State group (IS), in particular the Abu Sayyaf Group, the BIFF and the Maute Group. On 23 May 2017, in Marawi, members of the Philippine Army attempted to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group, who had pledged allegiance to IS. Although the operation failed, violence escalated and the government imposed martial law over the island, which allows the use of the military to enforce order and the long-term detention of individuals without charge. ‘Marawi Fighting: Troops Battle Militants in Philippine City’, BBC, 25 May 2017. Accordingly, the army started to use attack helicopters to conduct airstrikes that resulted in the deaths of least 20 people, including 13 members of the rebel group and 5 soldiers. In order to re-establish order and regain control over the city of Marawi, the Philippine Armed Forces and the police resorted to air raids and deployed more than 7,000 troops. R. J. Heydarian, ‘Mindanao Crisis: A City on Fire’, Al Jazeera, 26 May 2017.

While the Philippine Government regained control by 23 October 2017, ‘Total Victory Declared in Marawi Over ISIL’, Al Jazeera, 23 October 2017. armed confrontations did not diminish in 2018. Indeed, between January and March 2018 violence continued between government troops and the IS-affiliated non-state actors. Specifically, 30 episodes of violence were registered, which resulted in at least 84 fatalities. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Philippines (MILF)’, Armed Conflict Database. For instance, the government armed forces launched an air and ground attack against the BIFF, using 81mm mortars and 105 howitzers, as well as attack helicopters, tanks and other heavy weapons. The operation resulted in the deaths of 12 members of the opposition group. During the following months, the government continued to carry out large-scale air and ground offensives against several armed groups affiliated with IS, especially the BIFF. M. Saaduddin, ‘Army Launches attacks vs BIFF’, The Manila Times, 10 March 2018.

Armed violence between government forces and the Maute Group, affiliated to IS, have been equally intense. For instance, on 20 June 2018 Philippine troops launched an attack in an area that was believed to shelter the head of the opposition group. Following intense fighting, five members of the Maute Group were killed, while more than 11,000 residents were forced to flee their homes. ‘Philippines: Thousands Flee as Army Hits ISIL-Linked Maute Group’, Al Jazeera, 20 June 2018.

Organization

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Organization’ in our Classification section.

New People’s Army

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) is composed of a military wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), and a political wing, the New Democratic Front. The latter is an umbrella organization, comprising a number of communist groups and controlled by the CPP. It has been the point of contact for the government and has played a crucial role during the peace talks as the representative of the communist groups. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Philippines (NPA)’, Armed Conflict Database.

The NPA has been militarily active in the country since its inception in 1969. The armed group has been fighting with the aim of overthrowing the government of the Philippines by using guerrilla-style warfare. See ‘Guide to the Philippines Conflict’, BBC, 8 October 2012. It has a centralized structure. The head of the CPP, Jose Maria Sison, leads the NPA from self-exile in the Netherlands. The armed group has approximately 100 regular guerrilla fronts and some hit squads, who carry out assassinations of prominent political figures. The local units are led by commanders, who are responsible for organizing the military operations. The organization of the attacks, the tactics and the capacity to carry out military operations across the country further highlight that the NPA meets the degree of organization required by international humanitarian law. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘New People’s Army (NPA)’, Armed Conflict Database.

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)

In 1968, the Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM) was established in order to obtain independence for the southern Philippines’ minority Moro Muslim population through political means. A. L. Strachan, Conflict Analysis of Muslim Mindanao, GSDRC, 2015, p 13. As President Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in Mindanao in 1972, the MIM started to shift towards an armed campaign for independence. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), founded in 1969, supported the military nature of the struggle and started engaging in armed confrontations against the government. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)’, Armed Conflict Database.

Originally, the MNLF was highly organized with a hierarchical structure. The Central Committee was in charge of leading the armed group. The committee was led by Nur Misuari, recognized as the head of the MNLF. The Bangsamoro Armed Forces (BAF) was the armed wing of the group, which also had a Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal and a National Congress. The 1996 peace agreement signed with the government led to disagreement within the MNLF and triggered its fragmentation. Currently, the group does not retain the centralized structure of its origins and is composed of separate factions. Nevertheless, its military capabilities and the ability to conduct negotiations with the government and speak with one voice suggest that it meets the organization requirement. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)’, Armed Conflict Database.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was founded in 1977 as a splinter faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Its aim is to pursue political and religious autonomy for the Moro Muslim residents in Mindanao. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)’, Armed Conflict Database. It is currently considered the largest armed group operating in the Philippines, with an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 members. See L. Baron Mendoza, ‘The Philippines: A Long-Running and Multifaceted Conflict in Mindanao’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 119; The Asia Foundation, Philippines at a Glance, 2017, p 146.

The group has a hierarchical and defined structure. Specifically, it is led by the Central Committee, which determines the policies of the group. Among the members of the Committee, three leading figures emerge: the group’s Chairman, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, the Vice-Chairman, Ghazali Jaafar, and the Chief Peace Negotiator, Mohaqher Iqbal. Together, they play a crucial role as mediators between the group and the government, especially during peace negotiations. The military wing of the group, called the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), has a structure comparable to that of a regular army. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)’, Armed Conflict Database. The conclusion of peace agreements with the government, as well as the capacity to conclude and implement ceasefire agreements, further suggest that the MILF meets the organization requirement. L. Baron Mendoza, ‘The Philippines: A Long-Running and Multifaceted Conflict in Mindanao’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 119.

Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG)

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) was founded in 1991 as a breakaway faction of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), with the aim of establishing an Islamic state in Mindanao. L. Baron Mendoza, ‘The Philippines: A Long-Running and Multifaceted Conflict in Mindanao’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 121. In 2014, Isnilon Hapilon, one of its senior members, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. The latter has been influencing the tactics of the group, which have evolved since 2014. Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflicts (IPAC), Pro-Isis Groups in Mindanao and Their Links to Indonesia and Malaysia, IPAC Report no 33, October 2016, p 7.

Following Hapilon’s death in October 2017, ‘Philippines Military 'Kills Islamist Isnilon Hapilon’, BBC, 16 October 2017. the group has weakened and splintered into factions. Despite an apparent lack of defined structure, it is reported to be highly disciplined both financially and militarily. L. Baron Mendoza, ‘The Philippines: A Long-Running and Multifaceted Conflict in Mindanao’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 121; J. Alindogan, ‘Inside Abu Sayyaf: Blood, Drugs and Conspiracies’, Al Jazeera, 24 July 2016. Therefore, it may be argued that it still meets the organization requirement.

Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)

The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were established in 2011 as a breakaway faction of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)/Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM)’, Amred Conflict Database. In 2014, the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. L. Baron Mendoza, ‘The Philippines: A Long-Running and Multifaceted Conflict in Mindanao’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 112.

The BIFF was originally led by its founder, Kato, a former member of the MILF. When Kato left the MILF, he was followed by a number of members of the original armed group and was able to maintain order within the new organization. However, following his death, the BIFF splintered into three different factions. Although they do not have a centralized leadership, they maintain similar warfare tactics and common aims, thus suggesting that they still operate as a unified front. Whether there is a common leadership or some form of coordination between the factions, however, remains unknown. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)/Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM)’, Armed Conflict Database; L. Baron Mendoza, ‘The Philippines: A Long-Running and Multifaceted Conflict in Mindanao’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 122.

Maute Group

The Maute Group was founded between 2010 and 2011 by brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, with the aim of establishing an independent Muslim state in Mindanao. Although its founders were members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), they decided to create a new group, as opposed to forming a splinter organization. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Maute Group’, Armed Conflict Database. In April 2015, the Maute Group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and adopted its black flag. ‘“Foreigners Fighting” With ISIL-Linked Philippine Group’, Al Jazeera, 26 May 2017.

Under the leadership of the Maute brothers, the group had a centralized organization that allowed concerted military operations, such as the assault on Marawi in May 2017, which resulted in a five-month siege of the city. Amidst the fighting, the Maute brothers were killed by the Philippine Armed Forces. M. Betteridge-Moes, ‘What Happened in Marawi?’, Al Jazeera, 29 October 2017. Consequently, the original hierarchical organization of the group ceased to exist. Nevertheless, it has been reported that the Maute Group is recruiting new members, which could suggest that it is reshaping its internal organization. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Maute Group’, Armed Conflict Database.

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for the minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active part in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.

All parties are also bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database of customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas.

State parties

Non-state parties

  • The New People’s Army (NPA) is the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. It has been militarily active in the country since its inception in 1969. The armed group has been fighting with the aim of overthrowing the Government of the Philippines by using guerrilla-style warfare. See ‘Guide to the Philippines conflict’, BBC, 8 October 2012.
  • The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) is fighting against the government to obtain independence for the southern Philippines’ minority Moro Muslim population through political means. A. L. Strachan, Conflict Analysis of Muslim Mindanao, GSDRC, 2015, p 13.
  • The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was founded in 1977 as a splinter faction of the MNLF. Its aim is to pursue political and religious autonomy for the Moro Muslim residents in Mindanao. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)’, Armed Conflict Database. It is currently considered the largest armed group operating in the Philippines, with an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 members. See L. Baron Mendoza, ‘The Philippines: A Long-Running and Multifaceted Conflict in Mindanao’, in A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, 2018, p 119; The Asia Foundation, Philippines at a Glance, 2017, p 146.
  • The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were established in 2011 as a breakaway faction of the MILF. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)/Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM)’, Armed Conflict Database. In 2014, the group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. L. Baron Mendoza, ‘The Philippines: A Long-Running and Multifaceted Conflict in Mindanao’, A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, p 112.
  • The Maute Group was founded between 2010 and 2011 by brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute, with the aim of establishing an independent Muslim state in Mindanao. Although its founders were members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front MILF, they decided to create a new group, as opposed to forming a splinter organization. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), ‘Maute Group’, Armed Conflict Database. In April 2015, the Maute Group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and adopted its black flag. ‘Foreigners Fighting With ISIL-Linked Philippine Group’, Al Jazeera, 26 May 2017.
Last updated: Monday 7th January 2019