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Residents of Marawi spending Ramadan in evacuation centres as the city is under siege. AFP Photo

MALAYSIANS will celebrate Hari Raya this year the usual way: in relative peace and prosperity.

Sure, there are concerns about rising cost of living and decision day looms as a fresh general election approaches.

The most immediate concern is commuting safely to and back from hometowns and kampung; the roads and highways being such predictable and tragic scenes of carnage nowadays from our own carelessness.

Amidst such relatively mundane concerns, let us all spare some thought for the less fortunate, not just within our borders, but even beyond.

As Malaysian Muslims celebrate overcoming personal trials and tribulations over Ramadan, think of all the residents of Marawi in the Philippines, all 250,000 of them, spending the entire month in evacuation centres or with friends and relations across the country.

Marawi matters not just for Muslims everywhere, but also for those who wish that peace is not so elusive for anyone anywhere.

The city prided itself as the Muslim City of Marawi and that is no small claim. It is the only reasonably-sized city in the Philippines that is majority Muslim. Many non-Filipinos mistakenly assume the entire island of Mindanao as majority Muslim. Nothing is further from the truth.

Progressive waves of settlement by Filipinos (invariably Christians) from elsewhere in the country over centuries have altered the demographic complexion of Mindanao. That only feeds into the deep sense of grievance and alienation felt by many Muslim Filipinos who, along with other local indigenes, were once the majority on the island.

Independence, however, is no longer an option, even if some still harbour such hopes. Muslim-majority bits of Mindanao are now like disjointed Bantustans and will never make a viable, contiguous independent entity on their own.

It is interesting to note that the unofficial “capital” of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao or ARMM (created by the Philippine government with the Moro National Liberation Front or MNLF) is Cotabato City, further south of the island from Marawi. That is because Cotabato is within the ARMM region but separate from it since, being Christian-majority, it opted not to be a part of ARMM.

ARMM — a two-decade political experiment — had been deemed by ex-Philippine president Benigno Aquino III (whose mother Corazon Aquino initiated the rapprochement with the MNLF when she was herself president) as a failure.

The fault lies at least as much with MNLF and in particular, its erstwhile leader, Nur Misuari. One cannot claim autonomy and yet blame all on Manila.

Disgruntled MNLF leaders left to form the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF and, after a decade and a half of negotiations with the Philippine government (under Malaysian facilitation), forged a separate agreement to create the Bangsamoro entity, politically stillborn as at the end of the second Aquino administration.

Such a heady mix of political baggage and frustrated political aspirations understandably is now hugely fertile ground for extremists from within and without the Philippines claiming to fight in solidarity with the so-called Islamic State.

And, how more devious can these extremist fighters get than holing themselves up within Marawi, ensuring that any fight with government forces will result in protracted urban warfare and just possibly the complete destruction of the city and ultimately, reaping a perverse, diabolical propaganda victory that will prolong the sense of political grievance by Muslim Filipinos for several more generations perhaps?

Which is why, if nothing else, a speedy revival of the Bangsamoro peace track is absolutely vital, perhaps more so than ever before.

Under Rodrigo Duterte, the first Philippine president from Mindanao, great hopes still reside for Mindanao peace despite a full year now of seemingly always forlorn hopes.

Duterte still has overwhelming popularity and a super majority in the Philippine Congress to push through his own peace agenda and, if the lesson of his two immediate predecessors is read properly, to have in place a realistic peace on the ground the soonest possible rather than aim for some “perfect” solution that will get politically derailed in the end.

An imperfect peace can be built upon over time, and provide immediate solace and hope to people who otherwise have little to hope for.

Duterte has promised billions of pesos towards rebuilding Marawi and directly apologised to its displaced in a nearby city. With peace in hand, it may provide just the sort of impetus for a large infusion of investments from both the Muslim and wider world. But first, the peace must be won. 

John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak. He can be reached via [email protected]

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