The Battle for Marawi has just begun

ON DISTANT SHORE
By Val G. Abelgas

Marawi-City-destroyedAfter five months of seemingly endless battles and bombings, the Philippine military finally was able to declare an end to the hostilities in Marawi, the bloodiest and costliest military operation against terrorists or secessionists ever, even dwarfing the Battle of Jolo in 1974.

The Battle of Jolo, which started when militant forces from the Moro National Liberation Front laid siege on the Jolo Airport in February that year, ended after only four days but the devastation was just as catastrophic. Because the country was then under martial law, very little information on the destruction were available with the death toll estimates ranging from 1,000 to 10,000.

Jolo, the capital of Sulu, was in complete ruins, with the government claiming the Muslim rebels had torched the city and the secessionists saying military air strikes and napalm bombs levelled the city. In any case, after four days of heavy fighting, the government declared total victory against the rebels.

After many failed promises to end the fighting — described by the media as the Marawi Siege or the Battle of Marawi — President Rodrigo Duterte and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana declared with finality on Monday that the fighting was over with the military capturing the last building where some 30 Maute Group fighters had holed out despite losing their leaders Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute a few days earlier. Forty-seven bodies were recovered from the building, adding to the casualty list, according to government authorities, of 822 militants, 162 government forces, and 47 civilians killed in the five-month siege.

And just as the MNLF siege left Jolo in complete ruins, the Marawi battle left the Islamic City of Marawi totally uninhabitable with nearly all homes and buildings, except for the city’s towering mosque – which was obviously left untouched by both government and militant forces – destroyed, pockmarked with holes caused by bullets and armored shells.

The five-month fighting and the relentless military air strikes also left more than 400,000 residents displaced, homeless, traumatized and facing an uncertain future. They have been told they could go back to their homes, but there are no homes to go back to, just painful reminders of the devastation and death that occurred in their otherwise peaceful and progressive city.

The battle started on May 23 when military forces tried to catch Hapilon, Abu Sayyaf’s top leader and reportedly the designated leader of the proposed Islamic State in Southeast Asia. But unknown to the military, Hapilon’s Abu Sayyaf men had joined forces with Omar Maute’s Maute Group and had actually been preparing for a siege of Marawi, which raised serious doubts on the intelligence capability of the military and the police.

The Maute Group had been able to gather arms and ammunition, most of them believed supplied by the ISIS through Malaysia, using an elaborate system of tunnels, just as the Vietcongs did during the Vietnam War. The Maute forces were clearly prepared for a long siege. The raid against Hapilon prompted the Mautes to put their plans into action, perhaps prematurely. They seized key buildings, took hostages and raised the IS flag in some areas.

President Duterte declared martial law all over Mindanao on the same day, explaining that it was necessary to fight terrorist extremism that was threatening to engulf the region. Whether the martial law declaration was necessary remains debatable despite the victory, with many saying the overwhelming superiority of the army in terms of logistics and manpower would defeat the few hundred attackers even without martial law.

Nonetheless, the army and the police deserve commendation for their gallantry and perseverance in going after the attackers, and President Duterte should get praise for his relentless determination to annihilate the terrorists, although debates would continue for months on whether the military victory was worth the devastation, death and emotional trauma it brought to the city and its people.

The experience of the Battle of Jolo should serve as a lesson for the Duterte administration. The Jolo siege has shown that the Mindanao problem will never be solved by a purely military solution. In the end, the problem can only be solved by a delicate balance of the military and political solution.

While the government won the military battle in Jolo, it evidently lost in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslims. The destruction of Jolo left many traumatized youths of the region susceptible to radicalization and recruitment by the separatists. More than 43 years since that military victory in Jolo, the region continues to be hounded by armed groups, bandits and terrorists who have one common goal despite the differences in their actions – to put up a Muslim state in the region, autonomous and independent from the Catholic-dominated national government in Manila.

The Battle of Marawi is over, but the Battle for Marawi has just begun. The government should stop gloating over the victory and start fulfilling its promise to build a new and progressive Marawi over the city’s ruins. It should make sure to win the hearts and minds of the more than 400,000 residents who had to flee from the fighting, and it wouldn’t be easy and it would be costly.

The government has estimated the cost of rebuilding the city at a staggering P56 billion, not counting the P5 billion cost of the military operation. The Duterte administration will need all the help it can get to rehabilitate the city and bring back its people’s lives to normal. Rejecting a sizeable offer of financial aid from the European Union and other countries just because they are critical of Duterte’s human rights policies is a move in the wrong direction.

Aside from rebuilding the city, the government must find a political solution to the long nagging problem of pacifying the Muslims’ desire to have an autonomy that would be acceptable to at least most of the parties concerned. The national government will have to take the bitter pill and accept the fact that that part of the region has always been the home of Muslims since the early days of the country’s history, and should therefore take this matter into consideration when mapping out a political solution.

The Battle of Marawi took all of five months to win. The Battle for Marawi could take much longer and should be treaded more carefully, or there will be a deadlier and costlier battle perhaps another 43 years from now in another part of Muslim Mindanao.

(valabelgas@aol.com)


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