TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Philippine residents are settling in for a long war against Muslim rebels entrenched in a southern Philippine city, despite government pledges of a speedy end, analysts say.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and military officials have promised to quickly defeat the Maute Group at its base, Marawi city. Analysts say fighting in the city on the embattled island of Mindanao could go on as long as that group or its sympathizers pose a terrorism threat, and there is no sign of the threat abating. Rebel violence has killed about 120,000 since the 1960s on Mindanao and curbed the largely impoverished island’s economic development.
“Sometimes it’s contradictory when they say there are only a few barangays (neighborhoods) that are controlled by the Maute Group, but still they cannot stop,” said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at University of the Philippines Diliman.
The government may have miscalculated the rebels’ reach when the battles began in May, she added. Their funding and support network could also extend to other cities and countries, making them harder to beat, scholars in the Philippines say. About 20 other rebel groups also operate on Mindanao to demand more autonomy from the Philippine government.
Officials predict final battles
Duterte on Tuesday “assured that the end of the siege is in sight” when he met in Manila with 35 displaced children from Marawi, according to a statement on his website. Duterte has also vowed to rebuild the city.
As of Monday Philippine media report, 603 terrorists had been killed along with 130 soldiers and police officers and 45 civilians. More than 183,000 people, most of Marawi’s original population, have been displaced.
On Sunday Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was quoted in the Philippine Star online as saying troops were “preparing for final assault” in Marawi. The defense department was not available Friday for comment. Officials had said in June the Maute Group had been confined to just four neighborhoods of Marawi.
Life goes on
“A lot of people want the fighting to end and the reconstruction of Marawi to start,” said Antonio Ledesma, archbishop in the Mindanao city of Cagayan de Oro. But citizens of his city about a two-hour drive from Marawi expect little change for now.
“Actually a number of Muslim families have moved (from Marawi) over to Cagayan to Oro,” Ledesma said. “We’re also trying to provide aid to them, but life on Cagayan de Oro is as it is, not much problem with the situation there.”
Martial law declared for all of Mindanao has affected few people aside from vehicles stopped at road checkpoints, another Cagayan de Oro dweller said in July. Duterte declared martial law through Dec. 31 to make it easier for police and troops to make field decisions in Marawi.
“Outside the immediate vicinity of Marawi, it seems like everything is sort of business as usual,” said Christian de Guzman, vice president and senior credit officer with Moody’s in Singapore. Government officials have infrastructure plans for Mindanao that are still on track, he added.
“It seems to be more of a political issue rather than one that has had an actual economic impact,” de Guzman said.
Welcoming the war
Normally unaffected by the fighting itself, many Filipinos welcome a longer war if it means eliminating rebels who could spread violence to other parts of the country, analysts say.
In April, Abu Sayyaf tried to stage an attack on the tourist island of Bohol, its first outside Mindanao. Four suspected terrorists, three soldiers, two civilians and a police officer were killed in the initial fight. More rebels died in follow-up skirmishes.
Seventy-five percent of Filipinos trusted the military last year, according to surveys by Metro Manila-based research institution Social Weather Stations, and as of June 57 percent supported the declaration of martial law throughout Mindanao.
Troops believe the Maute Group is working with Isnilon Totoni Hapilon, a leader of Abu Sayyaf, a sympathetic rebel group known for kidnapping and beheading foreign tourists along the Sulu Sea west of Mindanao. Islamic State, the terrorist outfit in Iraq and Syria, last year called Hapilon its Southeast Asian “emir,” the policy nonprofit Counter Extremism Project said.
“People are also thinking it’s good to contain them, otherwise the Maute Group will spread into the Visayas and Luzon Island,” Atienza said, referring to central and northern islands of the Philippine archipelago.