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As terrorism and politics collide in the southern Philippines city of Marawi, evacuees go hungry while new battlelines are drawn. By Peter Murphy.

The battle for Marawi

Children wait for their evening meal at a private evacuation centre in Iligan City in the southern Philippines.
Credit: PETER MURPHY

From May to October last year, there were almost daily reports in the Australian media of the battle against Daesh in Marawi City. Then, on October 17, the battle was over, with the most prominent rebel leaders killed.

This city is located on the northern shore of Lake Lanao, in the province of Lanao del Sur, Mindanao, the Philippines. The Turnbull government had declared the fighting a “direct threat” to Australia’s security and sent in military support, as well as some aid for the 400,000 people displaced.

The evacuees, located in nearby Iligan City, and the municipality of Saguiaran, and on the rural outskirts of Marawi itself, were angry at the total destruction of their homes and looting of their possessions, which they had confirmed by visits back to Marawi. They were even more disturbed to find that 75 per cent of the city has been declared a “military reservation”, with no civilians allowed to return to the area, but that a $10 million military camp is being built there.

Evacuee families of 10 people were receiving just five kilograms of poor quality rice every 15 days. This is consumed in just two days. Australia has promised $26 million in aid over four years.

But in January 2018, the Philippine Department of Social Welfare and Development cut off all relief goods in Iligan City, and reduced the meagre supplies in Saguiaran. At the start of March, only 27,000 people had returned or were in the process of returning to Marawi City, and 312,000 were completely in the dark about where they might end up. Perhaps another 50,000 people had given up and relocated to Cebu or Manila, or emigrated.

Several said that if they were not allowed to return to their homes, and the Duterte government grabbed the urban land for commercial redevelopment, there would be a far bigger war.

 

Since 1999, the Moro areas of south-west Mindanao have seen bloody battles, then peace talks, then more battles between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government in Manila.

The MILF, with about 15,000 fighters, although founded in 1984, emerged immediately after its predecessor, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), signed a “final peace agreement” with the Ramos government in 1996. This MNLF peace agreement had obviously failed to address the grievances of most Moros.

Whatever the merits of the MILF peace agreements, the terms were first watered down and then the bills died in Congress in 2015, leaving the MILF and the entire Moro peace process adrift. Australia had provided aid to underwrite this process.

First in 2010 the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters broke away from the MILF, and then in 2013, the MNLF also condemned the Aquino government deal with the MILF. It initiated flag-raising ceremonies and marches to assert independence. The first such rally was blocked by the police and MNLF leaders were arrested, leading to a massive and destructive firefight in the heart of Zamboanga City.

Then in January 2015, a 400-strong elite police unit acting under US direction raided the town of Mamasapano in Maguindanao province, allegedly to arrest an Indonesian terrorist, “Marwan”. Forty-four of the elite police, 18 MILF fighters and five civilians were killed in a major firefight.

A month later, the Philippine armed forces launched a number of operations against the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in central Mindanao, leading to massive destruction and evacuations.

Thus the Marawi City fighting in 2017, while being the worst, is part of an ongoing pattern of armed clashes between Moro forces and the central government as the MILF peace process first reached its peak in 2012 and then unravelled.

Moro clans in the province of Lanao del Sur did not join the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, but they were in a political vacuum into which the now notorious Maute brothers, Omarkhayam and Abdullah, and Isnilon Hapilon, could step.

 

Hapilon, originally an MNLF member, decided to join the Abu Sayyaf Group after meeting its then leader, Abdurajak Janjalani, in 1994, on Basilan Island. The Abu Sayyaf Group, while having well-educated leaders able to project an Islamic message, mainly operated by robbery, kidnap-for-ransom and extortion, and so caused a lot of difficulties for local communities, and
for the MNLF and MILF.

Hapilon eventually became a significant leader, notorious for kidnapping and beheading. Soon after the emergence of Daesh in the Iraqi city of Mosul in mid 2014, Hapilon swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The US put a $6.7 million reward on his head, and the Philippine government $250,000.

In 2016, the Philipine armed forces forced the Abu Sayyaf Group from Basilan to Sulu Island. There Hapilon tried to align the Abu Sayyaf fighters to Daesh, but they rejected him.

Hapilon then appeared in Butig, a small town south of Lake Lanao, in November 2016, when the Maute brothers and their Daesh-aligned fighters declared control, only to be forced out by the military, with fighting continuing into January 2017.

There were seven Maute brothers, part of an influential family based at Butig, with investments in Marawi City and in Manila. The most prominent brothers, Omarkhayam and Abdullah, had been members of MILF, but left it in 2012. They swore allegiance to Daesh in 2015.

The capture of their parents, Cayamora and Farhana Maute, with a load of arms and explosives in June 2017 certainly demonstrated that the family itself invested in the armed group.

But evidence emerged around then that both Philippine Liberal Party politicians associated with former president Benigno Aquino, and officials close to President Duterte, had been in Marawi City prior to the outbreak of violence.

On the other hand, a July 2017 report by Sidney Jones’s Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Indonesia provided evidence of Daesh funding. Between January and March 2017 $US55,000 ($A73,000) was transferred from Syria through Indonesia to Hapilon and the Maute brothers by Daesh. Jones’s report discounted any significant role for foreign fighters, emphasising the local context.

In fact there is no shortage of weapons in Mindanao, where large private armies are well equipped by their political sponsors, up to the level of the president.

It appears that the national government, and particularly the military command, outmanoeuvred both the Islamic extremists and the Liberal Party opposition in manipulating the dangerous situation in Lanao del Sur.

All this suggests that the Turnbull government’s decision to deploy 80 special forces soldiers to the Philippines to provide urban warfare training could involve Australian troops in a longstanding, deep conflict over Moro rights to land.

Marawi marked a sudden turn in Duterte’s international and domestic policy. He switched from criticism of the US military alliance to embracing it, from support for peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines to open conflict with them. In turn, international criticism of Duterte’s mass murder of drug suspects died down.

By January 2018, three-quarters of all Armed Forces of the Philippines combat battalions were deployed in Mindanao, with about 45 positioned against the New People’s Army and 25 against the Moro communities. South-east Mindanao is not a strong Moro region, but is notable for the indigenous Lumad tribes there and their relatively unexploited forests, agricultural lands and mineral resources. This is also where the New People’s Army is reputed to be strongest.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 10, 2018 as "Battle for Marawi". Subscribe here.

Peter Murphy
is a Sydney-based journalist and chairperson of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines.