Philippine officials say they are winning a monthlong fight against violent Muslim rebels in a southern city and expect a return to normalcy. But experts caution of new violence if the underlying discontent outlasts the battle.
Government forces “continue to gain (a) foothold” in parts of the southern city of Marawi that were previously controlled by the Maute Group, a terrorist group that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State and laid siege to the city May 23, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said Wednesday via the presidential website.
Fighting to date has killed 369 people, including 276 suspected terrorists, the Manila Times reported Thursday.
A 'safe haven' again
“We are well aware of how the Philippines is presently embroiled in some peace-and-order problems, but I firmly believe that all these shall come to pass,” Angelito Banayo, the Philippine government’s unofficial envoy to Taiwan, told a Taipei business conference Monday.
“Many other countries have gone through or are still embroiled in similar problems and nonetheless their economies continue to flourish,” he said. “And let me assure you that our government is taking the bull by its horns so that in the very near timeline the Philippines will be a safe haven, a profitable opportunity and a friendly environment.”
But as the government says it’s already preparing to rebuild Marawi, a city of about 200,000 people, experts caution it must brace for long-term economic impacts and ensure peace around the ever-restive Philippine island of Mindanao to stop more sieges or mass violence by other rebel groups.
Not easy to put down
The government lists 20 rebel operations in Mindanao, where related violence has left about 120,000 people dead since the 1960s.
“The proliferation of these armed Muslim groups throughout the island would probably spur the Christians to arm themselves — that’s happened in the past — and arm themselves and organize into militias,” said Eduardo Araral, Mindanao native and an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.
“That to me is more worrying because this might degenerate into a Christian-Muslim war, which it is not. But that is what the ISIS wants,” he said.
The Moro people, Muslims who reached impoverished Mindanao and the adjacent Sulu Sea of the Philippines centuries ago, resent the Catholic Philippine majority for what they see as unequal rights to resources. Their anger has hatched some of the armed rebel groups.
Military spokesperson Restituto Padilla said via the presidential office website that 16 buildings in the largely demolished Marawi had been cleared of militants. Troops are examining outlying areas now to prepare for “rehabilitation,” he said. Tens of thousands of civilians have escaped to other cities, and troops have rescued 1,645 as of Wednesday.
But in a sign that rebels still hold sway in parts of Mindanao and its 21 million residents, Wednesday the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters rebel group raided a village in the province Cotabato. The military forced the rebels to leave, Padilla said.
“(The Maute) might have been set back or maybe routed up to a point, but it doesn’t mean that the threat of violent extremism no longer exists,” said Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, University of the Philippines political science professor and a Mindanao peace negotiator under the past president.
“As we can see, there are other groups that have kept coming and other cells can just reorganize from the remnants of all of these groups that have been routed,” she said.
Rehabilitation will take time, experts warn, and impoverished Mindanao may feel economic aftershocks.
Tourism and hotel occupancy will fall as foreign governments officially warn their citizens against travel to Mindanao over fears of terrorism, Coronel-Ferrer said, while investors who had expressed interest before the Marawi battles may reconsider.
Partly because of its violent past, Mindanao lags the economic development unfolding in other parts of the Philippines.
To curb rebel groups in the future, government officials should push for an autonomy-sharing law that was to follow a 2014 peace deal with the insurgency group Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Araral said. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte this year expanded membership of a commission that was established to work out details of the law.
Groups that fall outside an autonomy-sharing law would still take up arms on Mindanao but with less support or space to operate.
“The vacuum where they could establish footholds would be constricted,” he said.
Threats will remain “even after the Marawi crisis is resolved,” Padilla said. The Armed Forces of the Philippines’ media office did not answer calls from Voice of America.
On Thursday, the military’s public affairs head expressed regret that the fighting in Marawi had taken a month, but he said the operation “cannot be rushed,” GMA News Network reported.
Government troops are also still battling Abu Sayyaf, a rebel Sulu Sea group known for kidnapping and beheading tourists. Duterte stepped up the fight against Abu Sayyaf shortly after taking office a year ago. The group, estimated at 400 people, may have Islamic State backing, and it was suspected of working with the Maute Group last month.