NEARLY everybody I have spoken to would like to know why President Rodrigo Duterte failed to show up at the 119th Independence Day rites at Rizal Park on Monday, after cancelling the traditional vin d’honneur for diplomats earlier. As many, if not more, would like to know why, aside from raising the Philippine flag in front of a shell-shocked building in Marawi, the military, backed by the US Special Forces, failed to make good its promise to “liberate” that city from the Islamic State (IS)-backed Mautes.
It is no mortal offense for the President to miss an early morning flag-raising ceremony, especially if he had been running around from a military camp in Cagayan de Oro to Villamor Air Base in Pasay City the day before; but a simple official explanation, not several conflicting ones, would have helped. It took Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano to say the President was completely fogged out after an exhausting all-night schedule that had taken him from Mindanao to Manila to pay his respects to some combatants who had fallen in the siege of Marawi.
This earned more respect than the lame statement from an unnamed Malacañang official saying the President was “not feeling well.” But why did it have to come from Cayetano? This was the job of the press secretary, if there was a functioning press secretary, or the presidential spokesman if he was up to it. But all Mr. Ernesto Abella, the spokesman, could say was that the President would not be able to come to the Luneta, without giving any reason for it. It was a cop-out, amounting to a dereliction of duty.
Counting the chicks prematurely
As for the “promised” dislodging of the IS/Maute militants from their dugout on the 119th anniversary of our Independence, that was subject to a host of variables, and could not be predicted with mathematical accuracy. There was no dishonor in missing the self-imposed deadline, which most people decided not to take seriously anyway; it only reminds us not to count the chicks before the eggs are hatched. It also tells us that the Marawi situation has become far more complicated than previously thought.
DU30 says Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS leader in Syria and Iraq, had specifically ordered the Marawi attack, and a good number of IS-trained foreign jihadists, more than previously reported, have joined the Mautes. These reportedly include at least 40 Indonesian fighters, belonging to Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), and led by the notorious terrorist Aman Abdurraham, and anywhere from six to 28 Malaysians, including Dr. Mahmud bin Ahmad, also known as Dr. HandzalahApiyah, the alleged original “brains” behind the IS faction in Southeast Asia. Mahmud is reportedly being positioned to succeed “Emir” IsnilonHapilon, the current leader of Dawlah-ul Islamiyah Wilayat al-Mashriq (the Eastern Province of the Islamic State), should he get killed in the current fighting.
Mahmud, 39, is a former lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Malaya, who had trained with the al-Qaida in Afghanistan in the 1990s, after studying at the Islamabad Islamic University in Pakistan. He is known to have recruited Malaysia’s first suicide bomber, known as Ahmad Tarmimi Malki. In 2014, he came to Basilan as part of a four-man NGO team, gave some money to a local orphanage and a madrasah, left for Malaysia and then returned to Basilan, where he trained with the Abu Sayyaf Group on terror bombings, etc. He has since been linked to at least two terror attacks on the military. One of his three companions has been killed, but he continues to operate with the other two. In November 2015, he reportedly started to form the IS faction in Southeast Asia, which is now known as Dawlah-ul Islamiyah Wilayat al-Mashriq (the Eastern Province of the IS).
The presence of foreign jihadists tends to confirm reports that the IS has decided to make the Philippines, rather than Malaysia or Indonesia, despite their much larger Muslim population, the Southeast Asian center of militant Islamism. It seems safe to assume that the IS leadership is determined to supply the Eastern province with fresh recruits coming from Malaysia, Indonesia and as far as Yemen and Sudan, should the military, supported by US Special Forces, succeed in wiping out the Mautes. However, observers are amazed that despite the large number of troops that have been poured into the operation, the government has not been able to evict the militants from their lair. After 21 days of fighting, the Mautes have not run out of ammunition or food and other provisions, either. Obviously, the supply routes have not been cut.
The Mautes could be wiped out, but—
One assessment suggests the situation could change in another two weeks, and the military could overrun the Mautes’ position, despite their well-placed snipers. The Maute brothers, who are leading their group could finally get killed (amending earlier reports of their premature deaths), Hapilon himself could get killed, and his presumed successor Dr. Mahmud himself could get killed; but even if all these things happened, the IS pool of militants may not be easily exhausted.
Fujuri Indama, Hapilon’s deputy in Basilan, could make a bid for the leadership; or the Ansar al-Kilapa Philippines in Sarangani, South Cotabato and Sultan Kudarat whose leader “Tokboy” was killed last year, or the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Maguindanao could seek to replace the Mautes. The IS, which is far more dangerous than the Mautes, could migrate to Lanao del Norte, or to the NPA stronghold in Compostela Valley and Davao del Norte and form an alliance with the NPA. Under the direction of IS international, more fighters could come from Malaysia and Indonesia and even from Africa.
The mass media report that at least 191 Mautes have been killed, suggesting a very high kill ratio against the Mautes. Our own sources from the ground, quoting alleged figures from the Operation Center, claim that 138 Mautes have been killed, as against 58 government troops, three policemen and 21 civilians. The same sources claim 91 government troops wounded, four policemen, and 124 civilians, and an unknown figure for the Mautes. Whether we are talking of killed or wounded, the risk is high that some civilian casualties may be mistaken for Mautes.
Many support, but only the US involved
China and some other countries have expressed support for the anti-IS operation, but so far only the United States has decided to get involved. The US presence is a source of encouragement to many Filipinos, and a source of distress to some others. It has raised hopes that the DU30 government would have an extra arm, like Russia and the US in the case of Syria, in its fight against the Islamist militants. On the other hand, it has also raised fears that as in Syria, it could give a foreign power an excuse to get involved in its internal politics. Both Russia and the US are helping Syria fight the IS, but the US would like to see President Bashar al-Assad out while Russia says the Syrian people alone should decide whether or not Assad should remain their president.
The US presence, according to some street protesters, has unduly “internationalized” the conflict, as though it were, in fact, a purely domestic conflict. In reality, it is a global and civilizational conflict: what the IS wants to impose on Western civilization is a World Islamist Government, against which Russian President Vladimir Putin, for one, has correctly proposed a coalition of all governments, working as one under international law to reject and evict the extremist menace.
Unfortunately, DU30 is now caught in his own rhetoric. He has threatened to “separate” his government militarily and economically from the US, and align it with China and Russia “against the world.” Since last October, when he announced this position during a state visit to China, he has initiated some loans and military purchases from Beijing and Moscow, but he has done nothing to disturb the Philippines’ security and defense agreements with the US.
These include the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty, which provides that an armed attack against either party within the treaty area would constitute a direct and immediate danger to the security of the other, and would be promptly responded to by that party, according to its constitutional processes; the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows US forces to make short-term visits to the Philippines to conduct joint military exercises, among others; and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which allows the US to station its forces, equipment and facilities inside Philippine military bases.
With the Marawi crisis prompting DU30 to proclaim martial law and suspend the privilege of habeas corpus all over Mindanao while he was visiting Moscow on May 23, 2017, the military was compelled to call on the US for help and the latter responded by sending in its Special Forces. DU30 has tried to dissociate himself from this episode, by trying to make it appear that he had nothing to do with the request to the US. This of course is plain nonsense. Having declared martial law, despite the constitutional questions that have been raised against it before the Supreme Court, he has put the whole of Mindanao under his military control, and no foreign military personnel could possibly participate in the anti-IS campaign there without his consent.
Nation’s survival, not DU30’s wounded pride
But the real problem confronting DU30 and the rest of us has nothing to do with his wounded pride. The survival of our predominantly Catholic Christian nation with its mainstream Muslim minority, in the face of this global Islamist menace, takes precedence over all political agendas. If DU30 believes martial law is the solution, he must comply with the Constitution to make it a completely valid and legitimate constitutional exercise, whose only purpose is to defeat the IS, rather than to give him unaccountable and illegitimate power.
Since we cannot win this battle alone, we must try to win the support of all. In Mindanao, we should mobilize the various Moro groups in order to solidify and strengthen the mainstream Islamic community which alone can provide the antidote to extremism. Within Southeast Asia, we should try to win Indonesia and Malaysia to our side and organize our own regional coalition against this global challenge. In all this, DU30 must try to lead by following the rule of law and the Constitution, instead of trying to outsmart the legal order and everybody else.