Retired military captain on a mission to better understand violent insurgencies

Retired army captain Cheng Xu left his 10 year military career to seek answers to a vexing question: how is it that some insurgencies turn violent and spiral into seemingly chaotic and unending horror, while others achieve their objectives and resolve with relative peace and speed?

Cheng Xu’s work as a University of Toronto PhD student is driven by tragedy that occurred in 2015

Cheng Xu joined the military when he was 18 years old. This official military portrait is from 2015, eight years into his military service. (First Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group - 1 CMBG )

* This episode originally aired on October 1, 2021.

Cheng Xu was at the Canadian Forces Base near Wainwright, Alta., when he heard the news that Robert Hall was kidnapped by the Islamist militant group Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines.

It was 2015 and the insurgent group aligning itself with ISIS kidnapped Hall and three others, and demanded millions in ransom. 

At the time, Hall's son was a soldier under Xu's command. 

"I felt extremely helpless. I consider him a good friend," said Xu. 

The militants executed Canadian John Ridsdel in April 2016 and then Hall in June 2016, after the Canadian government refused to pay the roughly $8-million ransom per hostage.

'How could this happen?'

"I felt utterly powerless to offer him any kind of support other than to just be there for him," said Xu.  "I was in shock. I was confused. I was angry. I had all kinds of emotions that I wasn't capable of processing at the time, because this just felt so incomprehensible. How could this happen?"

Cheng Xu in June 2014 on Operation Reassurance in Poland. Xu left the military in 2017 to pursue his PhD. (Canadian Forces )

Xu left his nearly 10 year military career in 2017 to pursue answers. 

He enrolled in a political science PhD program at the University of Toronto, with a focus on insurgencies, counterinsurgencies, and rebel movements.

He made a brief trip to the northern Philippines but wasn't able to get to the southern region of Mindanao, as it was under martial law.

"I thought that perhaps by closing that physical distance... it would allow me to maybe grapple with the reality of it a little bit more rather than just as an abstract concept," said Xu.

While in the north he learned about another rebel group — an alliance between communist guerillas and warriors from Indigenous communities. They were most active in their campaign against the Ferdinand Marcos government in the 1970s and 80s. 

In 2017 Cheng Xu travelled to the Kalinga province in the Philippines to better understand why insurgencies produce radically different outcomes. (Villia Jefremovas)

"Here I was safe and sound in the [northern] Philippines, sitting next to somebody that I was told was a former insurgent and probably still is armed, having a nice talk over coffee and pastries while at the same time, at the very same moment in the south of the Philippines in Marawi City, Abu Sayyaf is holding the entire city hostage and the government is bombing it to the ground," said Cheng.

Hierarchical rebels

The contrast between the south and the north got him thinking about what might be at root of the differences. 

Through the course of his PhD he is testing a few theories.

"So the first hypothesis that I had was… rebels who come from hierarchical social environments are much more likely to engage in prolonged conflict than rebels from communitarian or egalitarian social orders," said Xu.

"So then we would expect conflicts involving hierarchical rebels to last for much longer."

And he argues that rebels from hierarchical social environments will be less likely to come to peaceful and lasting resolutions.

(Retired) Captain Cheng Xu is pursuing his PhD in political science at the University of Toronto, with a focus on insurgencies, counterinsurgencies, and rebel movements. (Dewey Chang, Massey College)

"The flip side of that is that rebels that are coming from communitarian or egalitarian social orders, once hostilities have terminated, they are not likely to pick up arms again and resume hostilities," said Xu.

Xu hopes his work will provide further useful context to help de-escalate future violence.

"I truly don't believe that any member of Abu Sayyaf  — any of the people who took Robert Hall, John Ridsdel and Sikjen Stad and Marites Flor — I don't believe any of those individuals woke up one day and just decided that that was the action that they were going to take, and that Abu Sayyaf was the group that they were going to join," said Xu. 

"I believe they were a product of their social environment. This is not to absolve them or to excuse the action that they have taken and the lives that they have taken. This is just to say that they were brought up in a particular social environment that had opportunities and constraints."

Guests in this episode:

Cheng Xu is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto.

Victor Taylor is a retired Filipino businessman and hostage negotiator.

Villia Jefremovas is Professor Emerita at Queen's University department of global development studies.

Joachim H Voss is an anthropologist, photographer, and former director-general of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). His book of photos from the Cordillera Mountains region is called Ritual/Life: Sagada Photographs 1976–1982. 

Magnus Öberg is a senior lecturer and the Director of the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP).

Zachariah Mampilly is the Chair of international affairs at City University of New York, and author of Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life during War and Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change.

* This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell. It is part of  Ideas from the Trenches, an ongoing series about outstanding PhD scholars across the country. 

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