Tomorrow, May 23, is the first anniversary of the Marawi siege. The battle began when Islamic State loyalists, the Maute group, supported by terrorists from Sulu and Basilan, as well as armed thugs working for politicians and drug syndicates, took over large parts of Marawi City. President Rodrigo Duterte was then in Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin. He cut his trip short to preside over the Marawi’s liberation at all costs.
For the first time in Philippine history, after World War II, the nation witnessed sustained urban warfare that the Armed Forces were ill-prepared to fight at the early stages of the battle. But our warriorship; adaptability; flexibility; and teamwork proved to be the winning formula. During that time, I witnessed, as well as kept abreast, with the AFP’s joint operations and combined arms that pulverized ISIS strongholds in the city.
It took the AFP almost five months to accomplish the mission led by Gens. Carlito Galvez (CG, WESMINCOM), Rolando Bautista (CG, Tabak), Alexander Macario (CG, LRR), Glen Paje (CG, FSRR) and Ramy Rey (CG, SFRA), and Alvin Parreño (CG, PM). The Army was ably supported by the PAF, PN, PNP-SAF, PCG and AFP Reservists; and friendly forces that provided aircraft for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR); ordnance, arms and ammo; and special equipment for urban warfare.
Most of the Maute militants who launched the five-month siege were killed in the fighting. However, remnants of the Maute and other radical groups are re-grouping in Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, the rural areas outside Marawi City, and elsewhere in Mindanao. The BIFF, which has fraternal links to some units of the MILF that don’t subscribe to the peace talks, is a Daesh (ISIS) leaning group have been waging guerrilla warfare mainly in the hinterlands of Maguindanao and North Cotabato.
And while the immediate terrorist threat has diminished, slow movement on the political front to kick-start the rehabilitation process gives these groups more time and space to grow. The military continues to carry out operations, and this time the local communities are helping because of what they saw and what could happen to their communities, as reported by Col. Romeo Brawner, Jr., Deputy Commander, JTF Ranao.
In January, there were three encounters with Maute and in each case, residents blew the whistle. Some of the militants have surrendered and are providing information and insights about their group and networks. Martial law continues to be in place across Mindanao giving the military a freer hand to stop and arrest suspects, resulting for instance in the recovery of more than 1,600 loose firearms in the Lanao provinces.
Despite their decimation in the battlefield, the government cannot rest on its laurels.
What the Daesh-leaning groups now lack in manpower, they still have in resources. The intelligence sector believes that they’re using cash and gold worth tens of millions of dollars, looted during the fighting, to recruit hundreds of fighters for fresh attacks. Their main threat now is Abu Dar, a militant who survived the Marawi siege and touted to succeed Isnilon Hapilon as leader of the Islamic State in the Philippines.
Not too long ago, PM Lee Hsien Loong, currently the ASEAN Chair, warned at the opening of the regional summit in Singapore that IS continues to threaten the region despite their military defeat in Iraq and Syria, while evolving technologies have made countries more vulnerable to cyberattacks.
Reports are rife that the Surabaya suicide attacks are the start of renewed hostilities to make up for the Daesh’s spectacular collapse in the Middle East. And the Philippines is ground zero, land of the kuffars (infidels) being the only Christian country in the region and, therefore, a prime target by Daesh or al Qaeda terrorists. We’ve been struck before and will likely be hit again if we fail to maintain our newly found “whole-of-nation” vigilance. The security situation in Mindanao continues to remain fragile and while the battle of Marawi was won, the war is far from over.
Violence due to real, exaggerated, and/or imagined hurts have erupted time and again in Mindanao. A potential threat could be perceived failures in Marawi’s rehabilitation by TF Bangon Marawi which recently announced its choice — a consortium of Mainland Chinese and Filipino-Chinese investors — to restore Marawi and build it better. There are grumblings from the community that they are not being consulted.
Another security risk is the fact that most Marawi residents don’t have title to the land and property they occupied, which are now ruined.
Marawi is a military reservation but years of negligence and poor governance led to widespread illegal occupation.
The only solution is to grant the now displaced long-time residents, official titles of ownership soonest possible in close consultations with the rehabilitators, to avert unwanted trouble and bloodshed.
Another foreseen flashpoint is the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), whether it is passed or not. If Congress approves it, BBL will still have to pass the Supreme Court’s scrutiny, the final interpreter of the Constitution.
As for me, there should only be one Flag, one Nation, one Homeland, one Constitution, one Government. Duplication and usurpation of roles and responsibilities are administratively and operationally unacceptable.
Every Filipino is entitled to live, work and worship freely anywhere in our one Republic, one Philippines. No one needs a special hamlet to do all that.
Marawi symbolized our division as a people.
We’ve been divided by our own selfish and egotistic cultural traits and by forces that wish to control or conquer our will. But Marawi has also pointed the way to unity to surmount the consequences of division. There’s more cooperation today between government and society to prevent another “Marawi” and rebuild it better for future generations. That’s the kind of mind-set we need to advance the concept of One Philippines: building a better Philippines by being better Filipinos for all Filipinos.
That’s the kind of mind-set that will drive good government, responsible citizenship, poverty reduction and the rise of the new united Filipino nation. “Kayang kaya kung sama-sama!”
Rafael M. Alunan III served in the Cabinet of President Corazon C. Aquino as Secretary of Tourism, and in the Cabinet of President Fidel V. Ramos as Secretary of Interior and Local Government.