“I hope in the soonest time, you will find a new heart to forgive my soldiers, the government,” lamented Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, visibly distraught by the scale of devastation across the once bustling city of Marawi in his home island of Mindanao.
For the past month, a large contingent of Filipino soldiers with the help of American intelligence and Special Forces has sought to wrest control of neighborhoods under the control of heavily armed extremist groups linked to the Islamic State (IS) international terror organization.
The clashes and aerial bombardments have forced almost the entirety of the city’s population to flee and caused the deathes of more than 300 people, mostly members of the Maute Group, which led the siege along with a legion of fighters from other corners of Mindanao and as far away as the Middle East and the Russian Caucasus.
“I did not have any choice. They are destroying Marawi,” said Duterte, pleading for patience and understanding from the victims and their families. “I have to drive [the terrorists] out…I am very sorry.”
The Philippine government hopes to liberate Marawi before the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan. As the liberation of Marawi looms, there is growing concern about post-conflict reconstruction as well as the prospect of IS affiliate groups wrecking havoc across Mindanao.
It’s unclear how many Islamic State-linked fighters have leaked out of Marawi hidden among civilian evacuees.
About 300 members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), another IS affiliate group in the Philippines, launched a daring assault on Barangays Simsiman and Malagakit in Pigcawayan, North Cotabato. The militant group reportedly attacked a primary school, looted houses, stole family animals and took three families as hostages.
The IS-affiliate fighters were quelled by local security forces, who managed to free 31 hostages unharmed, including 12 children. But there are worries that the assault is the beginning of a new wave of attacks by a medley of extremist groups, as they apparently seek to establish an autonomous caliphate in Mindanao.
Back in 2015, bloody clashes between the BIFF and Philippine Police Special Forces in Mamasapano, an area under the control of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), almost nixed the highly promising peace negotiations between the government and rebels.
The cold-blooded massacre of 44 members of police Special Forces, allegedly by MILF members in tandem with BIFF fighters, also hardened public opposition to any major concessions to the rebels, specifically the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which would have paved the way for an autonomous region for Filipino Muslims.
The incident exposed the often blurry lines between the more extreme rank and file members of the MILF on one hand, and the IS-affiliate groups like BIFF and Maute Group on the other. The latter groups have taken advantage of the deadlock in peace negotiations to build up membership and broader ideological appeal.
Up to 300 members of the Maute Group were recruited from families of former members and supporters of the MILF.
Faced with the threat of terror contagion, Duterte has warned about the prospect of full-scale sectarian civil war in Mindanao if local Christian communities begin to arm themselves in response to attacks by IS-affiliate groups and other Muslim extremists. Christians are a majority on the southern island.
He has also doubled down on his earlier pitch for resuscitating peace negotiations with major rebel groups, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
To facilitate peace negotiations, Duterte underscored the importance of his federalism agenda, under which, absent the passage of the BBL, he aims to give more political autonomy to Muslim-majority regions of the Philippines.
He also promised to “rehabilitate” the war-torn city of Marawi, which he proclaimed, “will be beautiful again.”
The president, who ran on the promise of bringing peace and development to his home island, allocated 20 billion pesos (US$400 million) for the rehabilitation of Marawi and other affected areas, twice the original amount proposed by the Department of National Defense.
To dispel concerns over his recent disappearance and leadership mettle, Duterte lashed out at leading members of the opposition — including his fierce critic Senator Leila De Lima, who is currently in jail awaiting a trial for drug-related charges — for raising questions over his health.
Last week, the Filipino president was out of public sight for almost five days.
De Lima, along with other leading senators, asked the government to be more transparent about the issue since the “public needs to be fully informed.” “De Lima is only interested to hear of my dying or death,” fired back the tough-talking president, claiming that his absence was largely due to an incognito trip to an unidentified location in Mindanao.
As he enters his second year in office, Duterte faces not only questions over his brutal war on drugs and repression of critics, but also his competence as the first Mindanawon president. As the crisis in Mindanao deepens, his sky-high popularity is bound to suffer among those who had placed hope in a leader they identified as one of their own.
He must now contend with the double challenge of uprooting and defeating terrorism while also bringing badly needed development to his home island.