Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

Even if he is not battling a serious disease as is strongly rumoured, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had good reason to disappear last week between his no-show for the country’s Independence Day on June 12 and the celebration of Father’s Day six days later.

A month into the siege of the country’s biggest Muslim city, Marawi — in Duterte’s home province of Mindanao — by groups that have aligned themselves with the so-called Islamic State (also called ISIS), the country’s military has been unable to seize back control (they have revised the completion date for this twice). It’s now a vague “we are confident we will accomplish our military objective soon”. Duterte has refused to negotiate, preferring to kill and bomb his way to what will be a very hollow victory.

The battle for Marawi is a very different nightmare to that the one IS has visited upon the Middle East. At the centre of the Marawi conflict is the sprawling Maute family, infamous, until recent months, not for its adherence to archaic fundamentalism or any zealous promotion of sharia law, but for its criminal enterprises and ruthlessness in a region that that has, for generations, been rent by vicious clan warfare, replete with revenge killings.

It is true the two Maute brothers leading charge were educated and apparently radicalised in Egypt, although interviews with former classmates have thrown up no stories of such radicalisation. The group has joined with long-time Filipino radical kingpin Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the notorious Abu Sayyaf radical group, who has a $5 million bounty on his head in the US. Abu Sayaff has long used kidnapping and piracy to help fund its operations, based in the chain of Muslim-occupied islands centred around Sulu and Basilon, which stretch from Mindanao to Borneo.

The considered explanation for the sudden appearance of IS in a country that is only 5% Muslim and majority Christian (Catholic) — itself an anomaly in Asia (tiny East Timor aside) — is that the Mautes’ allegiance to Islamic State comes from a murky mix of opportunism on both sides: expediency and ideology, in that order. There are foreign fighters, according to the military, also in the mix.

Duterte must certainly shoulder some of the blame with his singular focus during the first year of office on the ongoing horrific, presidentially sanctioned campaign of extrajudicial murders of drug dealers, users and at least a few innocent bystanders, which observers say is being carried out by (always masked) death squads, assumed to be members of security forces — such is the precision and efficiency of the “hits” that now number more than 12,000.

[State-approved vigilante ‘death squads’ in Philippines kill 1900 — and counting]

Allowing IS to gain a foothold in Marawi and make such a deadly statement of intent has been compounded by the subsequent underestimation of his enemy’s strength in terms of both fighter numbers and firepower. The result: a city of about 300,000 people has been all but emptied, triggering a growing humanitarian crisis. By one official count, issued June 17, at least 59 people have perished from disease and illness in teeming evacuation centres. A food shortage looms as well, although foreign aid is starting to trickle in.

An unknown here is how many more have already died in so-called “home-based” refugee situations. The majority of people displaced from Marawi, tens of thousand of families whose average size is five, according to aid workers, are staying with relatives. So far, there is only sketchy data on who these people are and where they are staying as there is no group or groups co-ordinating aid. Unfortunately, the gravity of the situation will only become clearer as families who have taken in Maranaos, as the people from Marawi are known, start seeking help themselves.

Mindanao is the poorest region of the Philippines; many there face a day-to-day struggle for survival even without relatives staying. People from the towns and villages around Marawi rely upon on the city centre for jobs and/or income from trading goods and services, so their own livelihoods have been either punctured or completely shattered. Right there is a double-edged multiplier effect already building as just one of the socio-economic aftershocks. Marawi is now suffering a daily pounding from bombing raids, twice each day. Nobody knows how much of the city has been destroyed by hefty 200-pound bombs and the fires they create.

Anger has now turned to the radicals who have ignored appeals from local sultans and imams to leave mosques they shelter in. And they still hold several hundred hostages as human shields.

Indonesia, Malaysia and other nations, including the United States, fear the conflict signals a new training ground for terrorists. The Philippine military claims about 40 foreigners have been among the 500 IS fighters besieged in Marawi. At least one Saudi, a Chechen and a Yemeni have been killed. In all, more than 200 militants have died in the battle so far, along with at least 59 Philippine soldiers and 26 civilians. Reports say 100 or so decomposing bodies litter the city’s streets.

The end of the Marawi siege — when it comes — could well mark an escalation in terrorist attacks across the region. This has forced Duterte back into the arms of the United States, but like many Filipinos, he was keen to be forever rid of the country’s former colonist master, which is assisting in the operation. The US prematurely pulled dedicated anti-terror forces out of Marawi three years ago and already Defense Secretary James Mattis is talking of getting them back.

But for the largely innocent locals of Marawi, the real horror is the years of rebuilding that lie ahead in a benighted region where the critical link of trust between Christian and Muslim communities that have coexisted for 500 years has been shattered. Meanwhile, thousands of people shelter as the rains get heavier in a dozen or so evacuation centres, so many of them children whose lives will not return to normal for a long while.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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