Mindanao at the crossroads 

The southern Philippine island of Mindanao is increasingly being seen as Asean’s frontline in the battle against so-called Islamic State.

Unfortunately the Philippines’ president, the bruising Rodrigo Duterte, appears to lack the subtle touch required to unite forces against militancy in the region and offer a path to persuade young men away from extremism.

The Philippine government estimates that more than 350,000 people have been displaced in the fight for the besieged city of Marawi as the authorities begin to total the human and economic cost of the five-month conflict.

The fact it lasted so long has done much to expose the limitations of the archipelago’s woefully underfunded armed forces.

Insurgencies and armed conflicts have ravaged Mindanao, the second-largest Philippine island, for 40 years, killing more than 100,000 people.

While the Marawi conflict has shown the limited effectiveness of Manila’s armed forces, it did lead to limited government cooperation with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Philippine rebel group. It has an estimated 12,000 members and has fought for independence or full autonomy for Muslim Mindanao for decades and routinely clashes with the authorities.

In January 2016, the MILF said it had created a task force to block Isis recruitment campaigns on the island. In September, it battled terror groups which pledged allegiance to Islamic State in central Mindanao, with assistance from its long-term enemies in the armed forces.

At the MILF headquarters in Camp Darapanan, its leader, Al Haj Murad Ebrahim told Channel NewsAsia that peace talks must succeed if extremism was to be contained.

After years of waging warfare, the commander said that he wanted peace and warned that IS was exploiting the protracted talks with Manila to boost recruitment.

“If the problems in the Philippines worsened, Malaysia [and] Indonesia will be affected,” Murad told the broadcaster.

“The longer this peace process takes, the more people are going to be radicalised. They try to influence young people. Tens of years have been spent on the peace process but nothing happened,” the 69-year-old said.

“They try to get young people to join their group, saying that only by means of violence, could we achieve our aims,” the rebel leader added.

Four out of the five poorest regions in the Philippines were on Mindanao in 2015, according to the Philippines Statistics Authority.

Mindanao is home to more than 20 per cent of the Philippines’ total population and the vast majority of its Muslim minority.

Marawi was the largest city in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, a specially designated area that was granted a degree of autonomy from Manila in the 1980s.

The terror group’s bid to get a foothold in Asean, by raising its black flag in Marawi, unsettled governments across Asean.

On the international front, the arrival of jihadis from Malaysia and Indonesia in Marawi, led to the first trilateral maritime and air patrols in the Sulu Sea. A dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia over the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo had previously prevented cooperation.

In August, all 41 mayors in the province of Lanao del Sur signed a declaration labelling the Maute group that seized the city “enemies of the Maranao people”. Muslim clerics also issued a fatwa condemning terrorism.

Apparent cooperation between the government, veteran insurgents and Asean neighbours could help limit Islamic State’s efforts to create an Asean caliphate.

The reconstruction of Marawi could also offer an opportunity to reduce suspicion of “imperial Manila”. It has been proposed that residents, many of whom are sheltering in camps, could be offered funding to immediately rebuild their homes.

But that seems a distant hope at the moment.

The remains of over 700 combatants and civilians killed in the conflict have yet to be recovered in the ruined city.

Lanao del Sur crisis management committee spokesman Zia Alonto Adiong told the media this week that the human remains were delaying rehabilitation efforts.

“You cannot reconstruct the main battle area if you still have there remains scattered around,” Adiong told journalists.

The military said retrieval teams could not go into the former war zone because the area was still littered with thousands of homemade bombs.

And explosives cannot be fully cleared because low-level conflict rumbles on, with the military saying it is still hunting down about 20 Maute stragglers.

While Duterte will probably look for military solutions to the crises in his native Mindanao, he should also be aware of the significant role poverty and high unemployment have in driving young men to look for paradise under the shadow of the sword.

What is left of Marawi. Picture credit: YouTube