Fighting between military and Daesh-inspired group turn Philippine city into a battle zone

28th Jul 2017
Fighting between military and Daesh-inspired group turn Philippine city into a battle zone

A building in Marawi City, Mindanao in the Philippine  is set ablaze by air strikes carried out by the Philippine Air Force on June 15, 2017 (Photo: Mark Jhomel/ Creative Commons)

Fatima Tahara, Manila, Philippines

More than 400,000 people have been driven out of their homes in Marawi City after close to two months of an armed encounter between the Daesh-inspired Maute Group (MG) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The sole Islamic city in the predominantly Catholic Philippines known for its cool weather, clear lakes, and fine mosques and madaris, is now defined by ruins, airstrikes, and a worsening humanitarian crisis.

As its residents – the largely religious Maranaos – were preparing for Ramadan on May 23, Government forces attempted to apprehend the leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Isnilon Hapilon, believed to be taking refuge with members of the MG in Marawi. Both groups vocally support the Daesh ideology. The MG retaliated by occupying main streets and strategic buildings in the centre of the city, including the Amai Pakpak Medical Centre, the city’s largest hospital. Their show of force eventually snowballed into sporadic skirmishes with the military, effectively putting the entire city on lockdown as men, women, the elderly, and children were forced to flee their homes in the face of growing military operations that included aerial bombardment.

Marawi, the capital of the poorest province in the Philippines, is part of the region affected by the decades-long armed struggle of rebel groups coming from the indigenous Bangsamoro/Moro people [The Moro, also called the Bangsamoro or Bangsa Moro, are the Muslim population of the Philippines]. In 2014, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro was signed culminating seventeen years of negotiation between the Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), one of the two major Moro groups asserting the Moro’s clamour for self-determination. The Moro National Liberation Front, on its part, signed the Final Peace Agreement with the Government in 1996. The unsuccessful attempt of the previous administration to usher the enactment of the Bangsamoro Basic Law – the domestic law that would converge the principles of the two peace processes and implement the political provisions of the peace deals – stunted the progress of the peace process. The delay, among others, is seen as adding fuel to the frustration of younger, less patient members of Moro society. This, analysts, predict, allowed violent extremist ideologies to take root in their minds, particularly the belief that state apparatuses cannot be trusted and that resort to political processes in lieu of violence to assert their causes is unreliable.

The siege also led the President to declare Martial Law not just in the conflict-affected Marawi and its nearby cities but expanding to the whole of Mindanao.

Such prerogative, which practically increases military presence and authorities in the covered area, is given to the President by the 1987 Constitution for a maximum of sixty days to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion, or rebellion. The Supreme Court recently denied petitions filed questioning the sufficiency of the factual basis for the declaration. The effectivity of Martial Law is set to expire on July 22 but the President has already called on the Legislature to authorise the extension of the same until the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the internally displaced people of Marawi City are staying in the homes of their relatives or in overcrowded and unsanitary evacuation centers, unable to go back to school or their regular places of livelihood, and often having to face instances of discrimination such as the refusal of apartment owners to rent out to Muslims, or police officials supporting the introduction of an ID system for Muslims to weed out terrorists elsewhere in the country.

Latest figures from the regional government and other news reports also reveal that 102,758 families (465,692 individuals) have been displaced, more than 500 people (including 52 civilians) have been killed, and 18 schools damaged affecting 22,714 students and 2,933 teachers in the course of the war. Yet, following the military’s completed clearing operations in some parts of the city, and despite repeated calls from civil society, the Government’s green light to allow residents to return to their homes is nowhere near in sight.

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