TAIPEI - The end of a five-month war against Islamic State-backed Muslim rebels in the Philippines is now challenging the government to stop any retaliatory strikes and pay a multi-million dollar reconstruction bill -- or risk more discontent.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared Monday the battle between his troops and the Maute Group of Muslim rebels has finished after five months. Fighting has killed at least 700 people and displaced most inhabitants of the once 200,000-person city of Marawi on the Philippine archipelago’s southernmost major island of Mindanao.
As battles wound down last week, Duterte warned of possible new violence on Mindanao, home to an estimated 20 Muslim rebel groups. Rebuilding Marawi will take at least $97 million before people can move back from nearby tent cities. There is also the question of what to do about martial law, which Duterte declared over all of Mindanao to fight the rebels.
The end of fighting this week “doesn’t mean the problem with violent extremism has also ended,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Philippine advocacy organization Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.
“There may be other Marawis whose capability [has] not yet been totally destroyed, because we’re talking of an alliance of groups,” he said.
Threat of another insurgency
The four-year-old Maute Group, though set back because of the war, has sympathizers among the ethnic Maranao who live near the battleground, Casiple said. Some may expect a victory later after the defeat in Marawi, he said. It had also pledged allegiance to Islamic State, a Middle Eastern sponsor of terrorist acts abroad.
Abu Sayyaf, a Philippine rebel group known for kidnapping foreign tourists and for its support from Islamic State, also remains intact after fighting alongside the Maute Group, experts believe.
The Maute Group has endured a “huge” loss but eventually it will regroup, possibly in poorly policed parts of nearby Indonesia, said Bibhu Routray, a visiting security and counter-terrorism professor at Murdoch University in Australia.
“This war, it’s not going to end terrorism in the Mindanao region at all,” Routray said. However, he said, “it will take a while” for the Maute Group’s remaining people to go fight again. “They’ll need some time to regroup, reorganize, recruit more people,” the professor said.
The impoverished island of Mindanao, which has 21 million people, has shaken the government with violence over the past 50 years, leaving about 120,000 dead over that period. Clashes stem from resentment among Muslims who settled on the island and along the adjacent Sulu Sea some five centuries ago. They believe the Philippine Christian majority controls an unfair share of resources and some Muslims want more autonomy.
Duterte warned Thursday against possible retaliation from terrorist groups after the end of fighting in Marawi, Philippine media outlets report.
Any new violence on Mindanao before year’s end could prompt a second extension of martial law across the island as officials have not said its year-end expiration is necessarily the last. Some Filipinos worry Duterte aims to spread martial law to other parts of the country as a crime-fighting tool.
Millions of dollars in reconstruction work
The government is massing funds now for Marawi’s reconstruction. China, India and Thailand have offered aid so far, the presidential office website says.
The government could build a new city on its own land in one or two years rather than the longer process of clearing rubble to rebuild on the old sites of people’s houses, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.
It must come up with funds for reconstruction at the risk of making the largely poor displaced population feel sympathetic toward the rebels, he said. If needed, he added, it might borrow from a development bank or from China. A year ago this month, China pledged $24 billion in aid and investment.
“These people have no more jobs, no more livelihood,” Araral said. An estimated 72,000 refugees live in camps. “The government would have to step up and do something about it. The least the government can do is to build back their lives.”
The presidential office website, citing assistant civil defense secretary Kristoffer Purisima, says some of the $97 million for reconstruction will pay for construction of 1,100 “transitional shelters.”