SPECIAL REPORT

‘Win the hearts of the people’ to prevent extremism, govt urged

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THE government is trying its best to balance its act to end the Marawi crisis without opening new avenues for a protracted war between the military and the Islamic State-linked Maute group, Maj. Gen. Restituto Padilla, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman, said.

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Security expert Richard Heydarian said President Rodrigo Duterte has to handle the Marawi crisis “very carefully with the added element that there are also sectarian things involved here.”

“Of course, it was not the fault of AFP that the war started. But you know how the narrative will come out, right?” he said.

Heydarian raised the possibility that the Maute remnants would some day “resurrect” and create another problem.

Local politics might play a role. “I mean ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is just an over layer. Parang lasagna e. May mga family feudalism, etc. (It’s like lasagna. There’s family feudalism),” Heydarian said.

Padilla assured the public that the military was aiming to crush the entire Maute group and prevent a protracted war.

“We need to get all of them. Some managed to escape. But these were just a few. They can create trouble later on. But we’re trying to arrest them,” Padilla said.

Heydarian warned the government against complacency. “They’re going to come back sure. Because if the top leaders of the Maute brothers will be eliminated, there’s going to be some organizational vacuum for sometime.”

“It’s not true that if you kill one of them someone who is a lot crazier will come up. It doesn’t happen that way,”
he said. “If you look first at ISIS, which used to be al-Qaeda of Iraq, when they killed, you know, al-Zarqawi and other leaders, you know by the end of 2009 the leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq were gone. It took them until 2013 and 2014 to become a force…So, it’s a big factor if the Philippine government can eliminate the top tier of the (Maute) leadership,” he said.

Bangsamoro bill crucial

Sen. Juan Miguel Zubiri, who hails from Bukidnon province in Mindanao, said the quest of the Bangsamoro people of Mindanao to achieve genuine autonomy would be a crucial factor against the resurgence of radicalism.

Zubiri called for the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) to address the decades-old grievances of Muslim Filipinos. The Bangsamoro Transition Commission on July 17 submitted its draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law to President Rodrigo Duterte.

It hopes to implement the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the 2014 final peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

“If we pass the BBL, there will be de-escalation of the war,” the lawmaker said.

“If we don’t pass it, they might think it’s a treacherous move on our part and they may decide to take action,” he added.

Zubiri said he was worried that if there would be another conflict in Mindanao similar to the Marawi crisis, the national government would have to move most of the armed forces from Luzon and the Visayas to Mindanao.

This could mean the rest of the Philippines would be open to attacks by other armed groups such as the communist New People’s Army, he said.

‘Win the hearts of people’

Datu Abul Khayr Alonto, Mindanao Development Authority head, said the specter of a protracted war between the government and the military would “depend upon how the national and the local governments will manage the crisis and post-crisis situation in Marawi City.”

“The right strategy to veer away from a long-protracted war against the IS-inspired Maute group is to win the hearts of the people,” said Alonto, who holds the rank of a Cabinet secretary.

He also raised the need to immediately “arrest all the drug lords and politicians who participated in the Marawi City siege.”

“It was very frustrating for the IDPs (internally displaced persons) to see the unabated illegal activities of the drug lords from Marawi and Lanao del Sur.”

“This will ensure that there will be justice and that they will have a bright future despite the crisis. If we can win over and rally the support of the people, then we can isolate and eventually eliminate the violent extremists within our midst,” he added.

Heydarian said the government must immediately address reports that some Muslim youth, specifically those directly affected by the crisis, have become “sympathetic” to the cause of the Maute.

“We know certain politicians are helping them. I mean you wouldn’t be able to build all of these networks unless certain [politicians helped them]and pre-position [their]equipment,” he said.

“But my fear is, it’s going to be more than just political calculation. We know that there were tribal politics involved,” he said.

Islamic State as ‘glue’

Heydarian also pointed to the presence of foreign terrorists who helped and apparently continue to aid the Maute. “The presence of foreign fighters from as far as the Middle East, Saudi, Yemenis, and Russian Chechnyans, that’s scary.”

“So, that means in the future you have more and more foreign fighters coming in as ISIS gets (defeated) in the Middle East,” the security expert warned.

“And the second factor is, how jihadist extremist groups have come together under the ISIS ideology despite their tribal competitions. So, you have the Tausugs-Abu Sayyaf, you have the Maranao-Maute.”

That’s why the Moro National Liberation Front split, and led to the creation of Moro Islamic Liberation Front,” he said.

“But now you see the radical splinters are coming together. So, the ISIS brand is gluing them together. So, you cannot underestimate the power of ISIS as an ideology,” Heydarian said.

He noted that Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the Islamic State chief in Southeast Asia, relocated from Basilan all the way to Lanao del Sur to join the Marawi siege.

“When they were competing it was good to isolate them and bog them down. Once they come together they can launch coordinated attacks,” he said.

Poverty not the only factor

This is the reason the military is very cautious in neutralizing the IS-inspired local extremists. “And even if you defeat the Maute in the battlefield you might still lose the war if you handle it badly because down there the Maute can still come back and recruit. They can disappear, come back,” Heydarian said.

Zubiri agreed, saying: “It’s not just because they live in abject poverty, it’s not just they are illiterate, some people are illiterate to join these extremist groups but you have also to remember that they also have a bad history.”

“Whenever they recall what their elders had told them about the decades-long injustices on their people, they harbor resentment in their hearts,” he said. “So, it’s very easy for them to be agitated and that is why it’s important for government to show that we are responsive to the needs of every Filipino including our brother Moslems.”

“The benefits we give to those in the Visayas and to Luzon we should also give to our brother Moslems. That is the way to do it. With all things equal, they must receive equal benefits from the government,” he said.

One of the problems that must be addressed in Mindanao is corruption and inefficiency in the delivery of government services.

“And we also have to give them further autonomy so that they can also promote their traditional and cultural practices among themselves so that we would not force them to speak Tagalog or adopt Christian culture and tradition,” he said.

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