Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Marawi Battle Highlights the Perils of a Stalled Peace Process in the Philippines

Marawi Battle Highlights the Perils of a Stalled Peace Process in the Philippines
By Geoffrey Hartman, Fellow, Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

The ongoing battle for Marawi City—the capital of Lanao del Sur Province on the island of Mindanao—between Philippine government forces and Islamic militants with links to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seems increasingly an important bellwether of growing violence in the Philippines’ restive south. Fears that the breakdown of the government peace process with Islamic insurgents would lead to disillusionment and a return to violence, exacerbated by the influence of international jihadist movements like ISIS, appear to be coming to pass. 

The importance of the Marawi battle was not obvious at its start and may not be clear for some time, given the mess of conflicting reports and likely propaganda that surrounds the battle. Fighting in Mindanao is a common occurrence, and even large-scale sieges of cities are not unprecedented. It has been only four years since a similar battle between government forces and Islamic militants for control of Zamboanga City. 

While the fighting in Marawi is not a great departure from the norm in Mindanao, the ISIS links of the key groups involved are a new element that has sparked understandable alarm. The fighting is led by the local Maute group and an Abu Sayyaf group faction led by Isnilon Hapilon—the ISIS-anointed emir for Southeast Asia—which had relocated to Lanao del Sur last year after a government offensive against its original stronghold on the island of Basilan. Cooperation between the Maute and Hapilon groups—self-styled as IS-Ranao and IS-Basilan respectively—has been increasing since both declared their allegiance to ISIS in 2014, but the Marawi siege is a major step forward in coordination between this nascent coalition of ISIS-linked fighters in the southern Philippines. 

Beyond their ISIS connection, the profile of the Maute and Hapilon groups makes them a more worrying long-term threat than previous Islamic militant groups. Both groups are on the rise and have cleverly utilized social media and the ISIS brand to boost their own profiles. The Maute group in particular represents the next generation of Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia, with a leadership educated in Egypt and Jordan and ties to jihadist allies in both the Middle East and other parts of Southeast Asia. The vitality of the groups responsible make the Marawi attack a far cry from the attack on Zamboanga in 2013, led by fighters from the once-central Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) desperate for relevance after being excluded from government peace negotiations with the now-dominant Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). 

The Maute-Hapilon coalition represents a threat to even the MILF, and there are indications that the Maute group has been successfully stealing away young MILF followers disillusioned with their leadership’s continued cooperation with the Philippine government despite the stalling of the peace process. The tabling of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL)—the key outcome of the 2014 government-MILF peace agreement—by the Philippine Congress following the botched Mamasapano raid in January 2015 that killed 44 Philippine police has led to questions in MILF ranks about the wisdom of continuing to work with Manila. 

This problem will get worse the longer the peace process remains stalled, and the Maute group is well-positioned to attract support from the MILF due to its family ties to elites in both the MILF and Lanao del Sur Province. In addition to this local support, the Maute-Hapilon coalition can hope to attract increasing numbers of foreign fighters, both veterans returning from fighting in the Middle East and younger Southeast Asians who choose to pursue jihad closer to home given the dimming prospects for ISIS in Syria and Iraq. 

The battle for Marawi is a wake-up call for Manila on the threat posed by the Maute-Hapilon coalition, and the government should take steps quickly to constrain the ability of these groups to build further support. Much damage has already been done, as the Marawi battle has already boosted the profile of these groups and made them more attractive to aspiring fighters, both foreign and domestic. This will make the challenge of stemming the flow of foreign fighters into the Philippines that much more difficult, putting a premium on boosting cooperation with neighboring countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. 

More importantly, the Philippine government should move forward on the BBL in order to preserve the central role of the MILF and prevent further defections to more extreme groups. Unfortunately, the Rodrigo Duterte administration has complicated an already fraught peace process by relying on a dual-track approach with both a revised BBL and a proposed federal system to address Moro desires for greater autonomy. The introduction of the MNLF into peace negotiations previously restricted to the MILF has also had the predictable impact of complicating talks thanks to having rival groups representing the Moro side. 

Despite these difficulties, there are tentative signs that the BBL may be moving forward again after being stalled for more than two years. A new draft of the BBL was finalized on June 6 and is ready for Duterte’s approval and submission to Congress when it reconvenes on July 24. The BBL died in Congress once before and there is no guarantee that it will fare better this time around, but the fighting in Marawi may have convinced Philippine legislators about the imperative of moving forward on the peace process. 

While Philippine political leadership tries to revive political solutions to the violence in Mindanao, Philippine security forces should also take stock of their military and law enforcement approaches to counterterrorism operations in Mindanao. The track record of Philippine counterterrorism operations in recent years is poor: the 2015 Mamasapano raid was a disaster great enough to derail the peace process, the 2016 Basilan offensive drove Hapilon’s group into greater cooperation with the Mautes, and the attempted arrest of Hapilon in Marawi City in May 2017 led to over a month of urban fighting. There is reason to think these operations are doing more harm than good, and Manila should consider ways to refocus its security operations to pursue terrorist leaders while minimizing the risk of future large-scale conflicts. 

Geoffrey Hartman is a fellow with the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Biweekly Update
Duterte apologizes as battle for Marawi City continues 
The Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 26 claimed that the Maute group’s leadership is “crumbling” as the siege of Marawi City—which has caused more than 375 casualties, including 70 soldiers and an estimated 280 militants—continues for the fifth week. Fighting resumed in Marawi on June 25 following an eight-hour cease-fire declared by the government to allow residents to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte on June 20 apologized to Marawi residents for declaring martial law on Mindanao, saying it was necessary to fight the terrorists destroying the city. 

Key terrorist leaders reported to have escaped Marawi siege 
Malaysian police on June 25 announced that militant leader Mahmud Ahmad is believed to have escaped from the siege of Marawi City in the Philippines, contrary to previous reports that he had been killed in the fighting. The Philippine military on June 24 made a similar announcement about the likely escape of Isnilon Hapilon, the emir of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia and the target of the Philippine government raid that triggered the fighting in Marawi. Hapilon is believed to have planned the Marawi offensive with the Maute group, with Mahmud providing financing for the operation. 

China cancels high-level visit, border exchange with Vietnam over maritime dispute 
Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, cut short his visit to Vietnam on June 18, and China’s Defense Ministry subsequently canceled the 4th Vietnam-China Border Defense Friendship Exchange on June 20. Fan left Hanoi abruptly after meetings with Vietnam’s prime minister, president, and defense minister, reportedly due to Vietnam’s rejection of Chinese demands that it refrain from hydrocarbon exploration within China’s nine-dash-line claim in the South China Sea. Fan was scheduled to visit Hanoi on June 18-19 before observing the border exchange on June 20-22. 

Southeast Asian officers board Japanese warship on South China Sea cruise 
Military officers from the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states on June 19 boarded a Japanese navy Izumo-class helicopter carrier in Singapore for a four-day cruise of the South China Sea. The cruise demonstrated helicopter operations and gunnery exercises, but did not cross China’s claimed nine-dash line in the South China Sea. ASEAN military representatives also attended a separate three-day event in Japan beginning on June 20 that included seminars on international maritime law and the observation of military disaster relief drills. 

Thailand approves national strategy bill to ensure enduring military influence 
Thailand’s National Legislative Assembly on June 22 unanimously approved the National Strategy Act, which creates a National Strategy Commission that will consult with future governments over the next 20 years to implement a legally binding national strategy. The commission will initially be led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and will include representatives of the armed forces, business community, and other elite groups. The commission will draft a 20-year national strategy for cabinet approval, to be revised every five years in cooperation with future governments. Critics say the national strategy and unelected commission monitoring its implementation will give the military enduring influence over Thailand’s politics and economy. 

Hun Sen tells opponents to “prepare your coffins” 
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Indonesia settles tax dispute with Google 
The Indonesian government on June 14 reached an agreement with Google to settle the company’s tax bill for 2016 and the terms for future tax payments, but the government did not comment on whether the sides had reached agreement on payments for previous tax years. Indonesian officials had previously said that they planned to seek five years of back taxes from Google, which they allege failed to pay enough tax on digital ad revenue generated in the country. Indonesia has stepped up its enforcement efforts on tax payments by corporations under Finance Minister Sri Mulyani.

Singapore prime minister apologizes for family feud 
The siblings of Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong on June 14 publicly accused their brother of abusing his power by attempting to preserve the family home against the wishes of their father, the late Lee Kuan Yew. In a series of exchanges on Facebook and in the press, Lee’s siblings accused him of ignoring their father’s will—which called for the home to be demolished—for his own advantage by exploiting the family legacy to create a political dynasty. The prime minister on June 19 apologized for the public disagreement, which he said had affected Singapore’s reputation, and promised to address questions on the matter when Parliament reopens on July 3. 

Malaysian first lady implicated as 1MDB asset seizures continue 
The U.S. Justice Department on June 16 alleged that nearly $30 million stolen from Malaysian state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) was used to buy jewelry for the wife of “Malaysian Official 1,” previously confirmed to be Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak. Separately, Australian model Miranda Kerr on June 27 turned over to the Justice Department $8 million in jewelry gifted to her in 2014 by 1MDB-linked financier Jho Low. The Justice Department seeks to recover about $1.7 billion in assets bought with money misappropriated from 1MDB and has previously seized a Picasso painting given to Leonardo DiCaprio and the rights to two Hollywood films. 

Myanmar military kill three in raids on alleged terrorist training camps in Rohingya areas 
Myanmar’s government on June 22 announced that its security forces killed three men during a raid on a suspected Rohingya insurgent training camp in northern Rakhine State. The camp is alleged to be run by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, the same rebel group accused of attacking military border outposts in October 2016. During the raid, described as an “area clearance operation,” security personnel seized weapons and ammunition from the camp in a mountainous area near the border with Bangladesh. 

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