“Our troops are excited that we are nearing the end,” claimed Restituto Padilla, spokesman of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), in a mixture of Filipino and English this week when asked by the media about the ongoing battle to liberate the besieged city of Marawi. “[W]e’re nearing to a conclusion.”
It has been almost a month into assault on Marawi by a large contingent of Islamic State (IS)-linked fighters under the command of the local Maute Group, also known as Daulah Islamiyah Fi Ranao or the Islamic State of Lanao (ISL).
For weeks, the Philippine government has been under domestic and international pressure to defeat the first large-scale effort by IS-linked elements to carve out controlled territory in Southeast Asia.
As the casualties mount, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte embarked on a grueling schedule, meeting grieving families and encouraging men in uniform to take the fight to the terrorists. But as the clashes intensified, Duterte suddenly fell from public view, including on national Independence Day on June 12, for almost five days.
The Malacanang presidential palace downplayed the president’s absence, stating that Duterte simply needed rest to “rejuvenate” and spend “private time” with his family.
The episode, however, rekindled lingering concerns over the 72-year-old president’s health, with Duterte himself earlier admitting to suffering from Buerger’s disease, a rare disease of the arteries and veins, and taking potent pain killers for a back injury sustained in a motorcycle accident.
In response, several senators called upon the government to be more transparent on the matter in order to avoid uncertainty and confusion, especially amid an ongoing crisis in Duterte’s home island of Mindanao.
“The health of the president of any country is not his and his family’s private affair alone,” argued Panfilo Lacson, a leading senator, who is broadly seen as independent. “It is a matter of public concern.”
Upon his re-emergence, Duterte claimed that he simply “went on a trip somewhere,” though he “cannot divulge” further details, since he traveled “incognito.”
“To my countrymen, do not worry too much. Don’t you want a new president after a year? I’m good. I’m alive,” quipped Duterte before an enthusiastic crowd in Butuan City, Mindanao. Constitutionally, the vice-president will automatically succeed the president in the event the latter is permanently disabled or deceased.
Currently, however, the Philippine Supreme Court hearing an electoral contestation case filed by Ferdinand Marcos Jr against the current Vice-President, Leni Robredo. Given Dutetre’s close ties to the Marcos family, and with clear tensions with the Robredo camp, there are worries about a potential political crisis in a succession event.
The Supreme Court is also examining several cases, filed by human rights activists and opposition legislations, which question the legality of Duterte’s recent declaration of martial law in Mindanao.
Concerns over Duterte’s health and his martial law proclamation, however, are unlikely to go away anytime soon. For now, the country remains focused on the grinding battle of Marawi and the prospect of future terror assaults across the nation.
Incorporating cutting-edge insurgency tactics from the Middle East, the Maute Group, accompanied by other local extremist groups and a legion of foreign fighters, has managed to hold onto portions of the city center despite heavy bombardment and Special Forces operations.
The rebels still control checkpoints on several bridges across the city and have slowed down and eluded the AFP through a combination of strategically located snipers, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and a sophisticated network of underground tunnels.
The government in Manila has accused local officials of abetting the Maute group, which reportedly prepositioned weapons and equipment across the area well before the clashes with security forces. With the help of American intelligence, equipment, and Special Forces, however, the Philippine military has gradually managed to take back much of the city.
According to the government, its troops are currently in control of 96 out of 100 barangays, or neighborhoods, in the now war-torn city, which has been ravaged by heavy armed clashes between the military and IS-linked elements.
The impending liberation of Marawi will be greeted with a mixture of joy and dread, given concerns over future terrorist attacks and the almost complete devastation of a once bustling city.
Marawi, the Philippines’ largest Muslim-majority city and commercial hub of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), is now a ghost town, with death and destruction dominating the landscape.
Nearly the entire of the city’s population, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, is now trapped in refugee camps with no clear future in sight.
A growing number of observers have come to compare Marawi to Mosul in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria, two former Middle Eastern commercial hubs which were ruined after intense fighting between government and IS-linked forces in recent years.
With Mindanao emerging as a new magnet for regional jihadi extremists, many on the run from Iraq and Syria, the Philippine government is seeking maximum possible help from neighbors and allies, particularly the United States.
Manila also faces a daunting post-conflict reconstruction challenge, not to mention the constant threat of sleeper-cells and renewed clashes in Marawi’s surrounding areas in the future.
Recently riding a high tide of popularity as a no-nonsense, tough-talking leader, Duterte now faces the difficult task of not only reassuring Filipinos about his personal health, but also exhibiting effective leadership to address a deepening crisis in his home island with implications for the entire region.