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After Marawi, no room for complacency

The Philippine government must follow military victory over Islamist terrorists with renewed peace moves

Local government workers and soldiers walk past a battle-damaged town hall in Marawi on Oct. 19 after government troops cleared the area from pro-Islamic State militant groups.   © Reuters

It seemed like a significant defeat for terrorism. In the week that the Philippine armed forces declared the besieged northern Mindanao city of Marawi liberated, the Islamic State in Syria lost its key stronghold in the city of Raqqa. For Marawi was the shocking mirror image of Raqqa in Southeast Asia. Pictures of Marawi's devastated, shell-pocked buildings can easily be mistaken for drone-filmed scenes over Raqqa. Raqqa's population has mostly fled; many of Marawi's 200,000 inhabitants are living in nearby grimy refugee camps.

While the fall of Raqqa may signal the defeat of IS in Syria, there is little to celebrate in Marawi as troops mop up the last of the motley band of militants who seized the city in the name of IS in May, raising black flags and declaring an outpost of the Islamic caliphate. The fear is that with the government's failure to implement a formal peace agreement on autonomy in Muslim-dominated areas of Christian-majority Mindanao, the moderate Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed the agreement in 2014, may then lose more legitimacy and create new opportunities for militant splinter groups to garner support using imported Islamic extremist tactics and ideology.

In fact, the MILF offered support to government forces battling the Marawi militants, but did so at the risk of alienating the younger rank and file who are increasingly drawn to Islamic extremism through social media and their peers. There have already been skirmishes between rival splinter groups to the south of Marawi, which have seen the planting of black flags; if not contained, there is even the risk that militant groups may try to occupy another city in Mindanao, which is the second largest island in the Philippines, accounting for 20% of the country's 103 million population.

Delays in implementing the peace agreement stem from the transition from the Benigno 'Noynoy' Aquino administration to that of President Rodrigo Duterte last May. The autonomy package agreed to in 2015 can only be implemented after the passage by the Philippine Congress of an implementing law known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law, followed by a plebiscite in the region covered by the autonomy deal.

Duterte, who hails from Davao, a mainly Christian area of Mindanao, has said he supports the peace deal, but favors a more ambitious move toward federalism in the Philippines, which could sideline the agreement reached with the MILF. Duterte eventually pushed the draft Bangsamoro Law before Congress. The legislative process drags on, and in the end may face challenges in the Supreme Court, for the idea of autonomy for the Muslim region has never really appealed to the Philippine political and security establishment.

Notwithstanding these political obstacles, the failure of the peace process at this point in time will further legitimize and embolden extremist forces which can claim some degree of victory for having held a sizable city for five months. This poses a threat to security beyond the southern Philippines and needs addressing at the regional level.

New dimensions

The militants' seizure of Marawi is a game changer. It underscores the hybrid nature and homegrown capacity of the Islamic extremist threat in Southeast Asia and speaks to the need for a more coordinated security approach. Failure to address the drivers of conflict that culminated in the seizure of Marawi exposes other parts of Southeast Asia to similarly spectacular acts of violence.

Indonesia is worried that Marawi sets an example that its own determined jihadist elements might seek to emulate. Meanwhile, across the border in Bangladesh where more than 600,000 stateless Muslim Rohingya have fled after being forced out of their homes in Myanmar's Rakhine State since last October, Islamic militant recruiters are infiltrating the chaotic refugee camps in Cox's Bazaar and hard-line conservative preachers are at work stirring up hatred toward their Buddhist neighbors.

Unitl recently, the biggest fear among regionional governments was that the defeat of IS in Syria would see those who had left the region and joined IS wash back into Southeast Asia. But the situation in Mindanao and now also Rakhine State suggest there is sufficient unaddressed grievance on the ground to generate far greater potential for violence than a handful of returning foreign fighters. Both Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, the senior leaders directing the occupation of Marawi, had affiliation with IS but never went to fight in Syria. They were killed toward the end of the Marawi occupation, prompting the army to suggest the destruction of their movement. But sources in Mindanao believe new leaders will take their place before very long.

Foreign fighters were present in Marawi, but they were not battle-hardened veterans of the war in Syria - they hopped on domestic flights from Indonesia and Malaysia. [NO COMMA] Among one of the last holdouts, a Malaysian academic, who formerly taught Islamic studies at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, did receive training in Pakistan back in the 1990s.

Hurdles ahead

One problem in tackling the extremist scourge is that existing mechanisms of coordination between affected countries, who are mostly members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, are weak and hamstrung by the strong impulse to fend off intervention by other countries. In the case of Marawi, neighboring Indonesia and Malaysia offered to share intelligence, and Singapore provided some "eye in the sky" intelligence gathering capacity. Offers from the U.S. and Australia to provide intelligence support were also accepted. But on the ground, the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which is not trained in urban warfare, were simply unable to take the city.

The challenge to prevent something like Marawi happening elsewhere in the Philippines and the region is two-fold. First, the internationally backed Mindanao peace process needs to be urgently put back on track. Short of swiftly passing the Bangsamoro law, the government could speed up the implementation of other agreed instruments of peace, such as the Bangsamoro Normalisation Trust Fund. The MILF needs an urgent shot in the arm to prevent the further splintering of its ranks.

Second, ASEAN needs to find a way to overcome the orthodoxy of non-interference and develop a capacity to conduct joint security operations. The siege of Marawi would have ended much sooner if regional intelligence and military forces had effectively acted together. And it is not just a question of will - work needs to be done on harmonizing laws, procedures and inter-agency points of contact.

Sadly, neither of these requirements seem likely to materialize at this point. President Rodrigo Duterte has yet to really put his authority behind a swift passage of the Bangsamoro Law. On the regional front, trilateral security cooperation between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, which made a promising start at the ministerial level, has yet to generate a productive coordinated engagement on the ground, where it matters most.

Michael Vatikiotis is Asia director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and author of "Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia."

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