AFTER some four long months, the battle of Marawi against so-called Islamic State-inspired elements seems to be drawing to a close in the Philippines.
The majority of hostages taken as human shields by the terrorists have either been rescued or escaped as government forces close in on the remnants of the terrorists and their captives. The cost of the battle has been horrendous. More than 800, including about 150 Philippine troops, have died. An entire city, perhaps the most prominent centre of Islamic civilisation in the entire country, lies in ruin, its 250,000 or so inhabitants, plus tens of thousands more in its vicinity, displaced, some perhaps permanently.
There will be troubling questions as to whether the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte — elected a year ago on a platform of restoring law and order across his archipelagic nation — dropped the ball when it failed to detect the infiltration of the terrorists and their stockpiling of munitions and supplies in an urban centre that allowed them to drag the fighting out this long.
The tragedy that is Marawi, though, is perhaps the tragedy also of the entire Philippines. Nothing seems to faze Filipinos and certainly not their political class, and this is not intended in any positive way.
When urban warfare consumes an entire Philippine city, Filipinos and their politicians remain almost completely distracted by the usual things. When they should be standing united and focused behind their government at a moment of some existential threat as it fights a ferocious real battle, the usual everyday and seemingly eternal issues dividing Philippine society remain front and centre on the country’s airwaves, in its political discourse and in popular consciousness.
The Philippine Congress has, in recent weeks, been conducting its almost theatrical endless hearings on matters as varied as fake news, corruption scandals and extrajudicial killings in the wake of Duterte’s signature campaign against illicit drugs.
There appears even to be an orchestrated political campaign to undermine if not entirely oust Duterte, who, unsurprisingly, is fighting back almost in kind against those he perceives to be his political adversaries. Real political opponents of Duterte are relatively few, but they are energised by those in powerful traditional media and by the courts which, in a system as dysfunctional as the Philippines’, still hold unprecedented potential sway to checkmate even a popular president, if not remove him altogether.
The most critical issue in the immediate aftermath of the impending end of the battle for Marawi is the rehabilitation and rebuilding of the city. This calls for a massive exercise to corral domestic and international attention and resources towards that urgent task.
The task is critical if for no other reason than to avoid the seething discontent and alienation felt by many Filipino Muslims from boiling over in the wake of Marawi’s destruction. If mishandled, Muslim anger may only be exacerbated, heightening what lies at the root of the very thing that brought on Marawi’s grief: the jihadists’ sense of being hard done by by the powers that be.
A corollary task — more intractable and, therefore, even more challenging — is finally bringing about a grand political settlement that pacifies the majority of Filipino Muslims. This task now also runs some danger of eluding the first Philippine president from Mindanao, home to most Muslim Filipinos.
Duterte seems to be still harbouring notions that he can be the grand conciliator and unifier who succeeds in bringing Muslim groups together under his cherished political vision: a federal Philippines. But, as political opposition seems to be conspiring to crowd around him and reduce his room for political manoeuvring, any grand political vision Duterte may have can only become even less and less achievable as he goes forward.
The less grandiose proposals for Muslim Moro political autonomy of Duterte’s two immediate predecessors were ultimately done in by the same elite-controlled and mostly self-serving institutions out to preserve elite perks and privileges (the courts and the Philippine Congress).
These institutions are again now giving Duterte political headaches. They will baulk at anything even more far-reaching that the president may have in mind for Filipino Muslims. Duterte will be well advised to trim his sails and not open too many battle fronts simultaneously. He has acknowledged the war against illicit drugs may consume his presidency. Peace negotiations with communist rebels have broken down. Pacifying Filipino Muslims may be what remains to assure Duterte of his legacy.
[email protected] John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak.