The destruction of the Islamic city of Marawi has tragically confounded the aspirations of President Rodrigo Duterte, the small-town mayor who became the Philippine President and has discovered that his ambitions outweighed his capabilities.
Based on his experience as the mayor of Davao City, where he had a friendly relationship with the region’s Muslims, Duterte promised during his presidential campaign to deliver an elusive peace in the southern Philippines in his term.
The fighting that raged throughout Ramadan to flush out terrorists pledging allegiance to the Islamic State has reached catastrophic proportions not seen in the recent cycle of violence on Mindanao island. The Islamists at the very epicenter of his polity say they want to establish a caliphate, with jihadis crossing onto Mindanao’s unguarded beaches from Yemen, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries.
The president too has not been seen in public – raising serious questions over the 72-year-old’s health –for the most part of the crisis that has claimed more than 400 lives, displacing tens and thousands of Muslims, while the military battled in what was once a heritage city that has gone to ruins, the fighting now tapering off in its sixth week.
Suddenly appearing at the presidential palace for the late celebration of Eid al-Fitr, Duterte said he was saddened and angered and fell back to his default mood of cursing the tragedy of the Maranao tribe in Marawi – whom he had often boasted were among his blood families.
No longer the tough guy
And the tragedy for the president is that his pulse of Mindanao, of which he is a “proud son,” is no better than those of his predecessors who also had to face the rawness of the decades-long conflict. It has dismantled his armor of being the tough guy in the neighborhood.
The map of Mindanao has been scorched with far too many killings, battles, burnings – reaching major proportions seemingly every two years, the last of which was a botched police operation in early 2015, before that a rebel siege in a largely Christian city in 2013, and the killings of scores journalists by a warlord family in late 2009.
The battle for the city of Marawi in northwestern Mindanao, whose population once numbered 200,000 but which is now wrecked, has defied military logic, with the commanders forced to send in the armor and artillery and to pour down bombs in a series of air strikes, asking help from the Americans that Duterte had scorned, to bear the brutal challenge of the terrorists’ arsenal of high-powered weapons.
No longer fighting and running
It used to be that rebels would fight, withdraw, and fight another day. Not this one.
The president hadn’t realized that the Maute group that he had belittled would strike in such a spectacular show of force. He said himself that if it had been a war against the old guard of the Moro National Liberation Front and its breakaway Moro Islamic Liberation Front, he would have “endured it and pleaded peace with you.”
“What is painful to me is the entry of a fractured ideology and they don’t even know what they’re doing. All they want is to kill and destroy,” he said. “If they went to a forested area, claim a particular mountain and fight there I could have forgiven them.”
That was the specter of Marawi: radicalization choosing Mindanao to make its mark in Southeast Asia from orders in the Middle East. When the fighting broke out on May 23, the terrorists could have taken over, raised the black flag over the hills of the army brigade camp, to establish a wilayat, an Arab word for a dominion, that would have been of unimaginable consequences. They were stopped in the nick of time.
The president said it would not have worked anyway, because “we are a Malay race, we are not that brutal and we respect life.” Had he not known that terrorists who had first come to the shores sowing violent extremism in the minds of the local rebel groups were from Indonesia and Malaysia, and were ethnic Malays?
Mindanao is an open park for the terrorists crossing the waters from neighboring countries in the southern fringes; and without strict identification control and border patrols that are emblem of internal security. it’s a walk to the rebel enclaves.
The plains and the mountains around the borders of Lanao del Sur (of which Marawi is a part) and Maguindanao provinces have been training grounds since the 1990s for Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya. It was then that an Indonesian named Ibrahim Ali was among the first batch of the so-called cadets.
It was Ali, according to one intelligence report, whom the IS had wanted to designate the emir for Southeast Asia but who was killed in a shootout in late 2015 in the Philippines’ Sultan Kudarat Province, that was intended to capture a leader of another rebel group. The military was to discover later that it was Ali the bomb maker who was among the casualties.
Consequently, it was a daring leap for Isnilon Hapilon to be named the emir for the Southeast Asian Caliphate from his Abu Sayyaf rebel base on Basilan island to the mainland’s northwest frontier to join forces with the Maute family – steeped in money and in clan wars – that held fort in a remote town called Butig, about an hour away by land from Marawi.
It was believed the Mautes had previously harbored radicals, one of whom was an Islamic teacher from Indonesia who was killed in late 2012.
Two of the Maute sons became the up-and-coming terror bloc generation, going by the deeds of the Islamic State that were evidently a departure from the main rebel groups negotiating peace with the government. The Maute group was responsible for the bomb attack last September in President Duterte’s hometown of Davao, a blow to what was supposed to be an impenetrable “alternate seat of power.”
Twice in the midst of the crisis in Marawi, the president withdrew from public view, sparking rumors of failing health. He had boldly announced that the siege would come to an end on the Philippines’ Independence Day, June 12, but that didn’t happen as the battle went on to take control of the city while he himself missed the celebration that was expected of a president. His spokesman said he needed to rest.
Meanwhile he had declared martial for the entire island of Mindanao, reminding his guests at the palace gathering for the Muslim festival, seated at ornate tables under bright chandeliers, that the Marawi crisis had forced his hand.
“I knew everything,” he said, “I knew the deployment of the snipers and where they hid the weapons. I already had a complete picture and I knew it would be a long fight.”
He had been in Moscow when the fighting struck in the afternoon of May 23, raising the question of how much he really knew, when on his Russian trip he had in his entourage about 50 police and military generals that included senior commanders and their deputies who took their wives along in what became evident as a junket.
Scattered information from the intelligence community had sensed that something was afoot a couple of weeks in advance, sources said, taking notice of a swelling of forces in the Maute stronghold. One intelligence group from the Navy, dubbing their project Target Pocket Bingo, had been following Hapilon for about three years, maybe more.
Eventually crumbs of information led them from the southern islands all the way up to Marawi, where special units of the army and the navy were called in for the hunt. Within half an hour gunfire erupted from the building in which Hapilon was believed to have been staying, triggering a battle that has changed dimensions in the conflict.
The military said Hapilon might have escaped the fighting and that they believe one of the principal Maute brothers has been killed. Weeks on, the president told his audience in the palace that a casualty among the Maute family was a cousin, “did you know that?” – putting himself in a perplexed state of having been deceived, making him a victim among the thousands of Maranaos who had lost what they had because of “this adventure.”
He promised, again, to rebuild Marawi from the rubble, to bring back its prosperity – if by that he meant its shadow economy thriving on guns and drugs and other illegal trades. The city may well be the denouement of things that can’t go back to the way they were before. It was one of those “ungoverned spaces” labeled by the navy’s special operations force that has caused radicalization to fester.
The military was one step behind in having tried averting it, but it wasn’t fast enough to douse the fire of violent extremism.
After it has been destroyed in order to save it, Marawi has to be resurrected with a symbol erasing the past. It will have to start on a clean slate, this crisis being a heartbreaking wake-up call for all of Mindanao. The president may have to stop harking back to his one-dimensional view of the Muslim narrative, because it has to move forward or risk greater failures.
He said he couldn’t bear watching the suffering on television, he would turn it off or change the channel to watching cartoons instead.
Madinnah, Saudi Arabia—The fighting in Marawi is nearing its fourth week, and the prospect is dim that it would end soon. Meanwhile, the Daesh-inspired Maute-Abu Sayyaf forces have achieved their mission of gaining international recognition and the imprimatur of self-proclaimed Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
He is the namesake of his late father, who was an officer like him, as he, the son, is now as old as his father was then. When did he become so like his father, those who saw him growing up in Fort Bonifacio ask? Men reared in the Courage, Loyalty and Integrity of the Philippine Military Academy, a generation apart but with the same awareness of their solemn pledge as commissioned officers to serve the country and its people. There are many fathers and sons (and now daughters), and close relations who serve or have served in the military, as a family tradition to be honored by passing the baton in patriotic service.
But the heirs to the dignity and respect earned by their fathers in the military might have never thought that they would still have to go through harsh testing of ethics and conflicted loyalties in yet another thrusting into Martial Law, after the victorious EDSA People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship and brought democracy back in 1986. For Rodrigo R. Duterte has opted to be Commander in Chief of the military over his civilian role as President for the people, in the reversal of the normalcy of civilian rule over military rule, when he declared Martial Law in Mindanao (only there, so far) on May 24.
The day before, fighting in Marawi City “erupted after security forces raided a safe house where they believed Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the infamous Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang and Philippine head of IS, was hiding” (AFP 05.27.2017). Hapilon has a $5-million bounty on his head from the US. “The raid went spectacularly wrong as dozens of gunmen emerged to repel the security forces, then tore across the city while flying black IS flags” (Ibid.) Another botched military operation? Like the botched Mamasapano operation in January 2015 to capture the “Osama Bin Laden of Asia,” Zulkifli Abdhir alias Marwan, for a $6-million bounty? Forty-four Special Action Forces men were killed in that encounter.
In the Marawi encounter, the militants who retaliated by burning buildings and holding innocent civilians captive belonged to the Maute group (estimated 263-strong) that has emerged only in recent years in Mindanao and gained strength on the proceeds of drug money, Duterte said in his report released Friday to Congress to justify Martial Law (Ibid.). At least 44 people have died in the fighting, including 31 militants and 11 soldiers, officials said Thursday. The violence has forced thousands of people to flee and raised fears of growing extremism in the country (AP 05.26.2017).
“To my countrymen who have experienced Martial Law: it would not be any different from what President Marcos did. I’d be harsh,” Duterte announced. “If it would take a year to do it then we’ll do it. If it’s over with a month, then I’d be happy. To my countrymen, do not be too scared,” said Duterte, a native of Mindanao (Reuters 05.23.2017). He said he would consider some security measures in the central Visayas region next to Mindanao to facilitate arrests, and could even declare Martial Law nationwide (Newsweek 05.25.2017). To those now even more scared, Duterte said: “Martial law of Mr. Marcos was very good” (Nikkei Asian Review 05.25.2017). Whatever happened to “Never Again”? (“Marcos Martial Law: Never Again” by Raissa Robles)
Former President Fidel V. Ramos, leader of the military component of the EDSA Revolution, said Friday that Martial Law across Mindanao was not justified, and called for it to be quickly revoked (Newsweek op. cit.). Christian Monsod, one of the framers of the 1987 Constitution, had said in various media interviews that the situation in Marawi City does not qualify as rebellion, as basis for declaring Martial Law (Rappler 05.25.2017). The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, a group of human rights attorneys, called it “a sledgehammer, knee-jerk reaction” that would “open the flood gates for unbridled human rights violations” (Reuters op. cit.).
Duterte said Martial Law would mean checkpoints and arrests and searches without warrant, and it would go on for as long as necessary (Newsweek op.cit.). “Anyone now holding a gun, confronting government with violence, my orders are spare no one, let us solve the problems of Mindanao once and for all,” he said. “If I think you should die, you will die. If you fight us, you will die. If there’s an open defiance, you will die, and if it means many people dying, so be it. That’s how it is.” (Ibid.)
In pep talks to troops, Duterte warned soldiers and operatives of Martial Law not to commit abuses, specially human rights offenses. “The consequences of Martial Law and the ramifications of Martial Law, I and I alone would be responsible. Just do your jobs, I’ll take care of the rest,” he said in Iligan City, where most Marawi residents fled (CNN 05.27.2017). But in total contradiction, he added a crude joke, “If you rape three people, I will admit that I did it” (Ibid.). How is the soldier to think, behave and act, in the conflicted order of battle in Martial Law?
The soldier is perhaps the worst-fated casualty of Martial Law. Though trained to protect and preserve peace for fellowmen, he is stripped by the same authority ingrained in himself and in his leaders that told him not to hurt others — now to exact obedience and compliance from others with whatever it takes. The soldier, within his rank and immediate situation exercises near-absolute power over civilians who before were his protected “family” in the country that all together call home. Indeed it is a bitter prescription for near-irreversible schizophrenia that Martial Law would impose this split-personality upon the soldier, as he moves from democratic civilian-rule-over-military, to Martial Law’s military-rule-over-civilian and back again to the former.
We weep for the unfairness to our soldiers for the conflict in them, in their honest passion to serve the people. We thank the many generations of soldiers who have zealously adhered to their death, to the values and principles of integrity and respect for human rights. And we pray for those in the military who succumb to the temptations of power and influence in Martial Law.