Winning the Peace in ISIS-Linked Marawi Conflict Just the First Step

Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像
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Rebuilding Marawi will be more difficult than ending the conflict. Indeed, the conduct of the military while ‘pacifying’ the city has a direct bearing on their ability to take the steps I have outlined above, given the mounting grievances over the fighting’s impact on civilians.

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Optimistic that the crisis in Marawi will come to an end soon, President Rodrigo Duterte has already vowed to rebuild the city, setting aside national government funds and offering assurances to provide additional financial resources if need be. As I highlighted in my previous post at New Mandala, the Department of National Defense has already been tasked to lead Bangon Marawi (Rise Marawi), a multi-agency recovery effort convened to help return normalcy to the battle-scarred city.

Military power will not be limited to deploying engineering brigades in the reconstruction of infrastructure, but will extend to the civil administration of basic services and policing functions. In the short term this is understandable, considering that local government institutions in Marawi have been completely crippled by the crisis. A martial influence in rebuilding Marawi also seems logical since the city has been reclaimed against Islamic militants largely through military means, and the military’s role is ultimately further legitimised by the declaration of martial law in Mindanao.

Given that financial resources for rebuilding are assured, a Defense-led rebuilding strategy should have a clear understanding of the competing development challenges and the relationship dynamics among critical actors on the ground. Money can buy materials—but only an in depth understanding of Marawi’s local security challenges can get lasting results on peace and stability. Rebuilding Marawi also requires investments in trust. It is, I argue, primarily a question of rebuilding the state’s credibility among the Maranaos. The primary goal of the military-led Bangon Marawi should be to create the conditions under which the military can remove itself from governance as much as possible.

Due to decades-long armed separatist movements, the security forces have always been the national government’s face in Marawi. Mistrust between them and the Maranao population is primarily rooted in historical grievances surrounding enduring struggle for Moro self-determination. These grievances have now been compounded by the crisis, with the imposition of Martial Law and the continued air strikes to reclaim the city from the Islamic militants.

The government has continued to use aerial offensives to wear down the Maute Group’s resistance, despite consistent pleas from Moro civil society groups in Lanao del Sur to halt them. The groups have also claimed significant disruptions in the flow of relief due to stringent military rule. Many Maranao leaders on the ground have raised concerns about the onerous process required to pass through military checkpoints during relief missions, which they say contributes to the worsening humanitarian conditions of Marawi evacuees. Treatment of civilians detained in connection with the conflict, and the threats of women being raped by the soldiers, are also a major cause of concern for Muslim community leaders. While this allegation was quickly dismissed by the military leadership as “fake news”, such fears have been spawned by President Duterte’s assurance of his taking full responsibility for soldiers’ actions, including their possible rape cases during military operations in Marawi.

Given these tough realities on the ground, I want to highlight some steps that need to be taken so a DND-led rebuilding strategy can start reestablishing community confidence in state institutions during the transition.

1: Recognize legitimate Maranao grievances.

Rebuilding should recognize the legitimate grievances of local populations towards the state. These historical grievances stem from marginalisation, the effects of intermittent high intensity warfare in Marawi communities due to Moro separatism, and the subsequent adoption of purely militaristic tactics to gain control of the city from the Islamic militants. The influence of armed groups in many Maranao communities, and the potency of Islamic militants to attract sympathisers and mobilise members among civilians are, fundamentally, manifestations of these unresolved issues. Protracted exposure to violence, compounded by the traumatic memories of the crisis, are difficult for communities to set aside. Rebuilding should not trigger or exacerbate these problems through inappropriate interventions that provoke the latent hostility that pervades military–community relations.

2: Make room for local culture and civil society.

Rebuilding should be flexible and open to exploring non-military local initiatives that strengthen sources of resilience and improve relationships in Marawi communities. For instance, as a stop gap measure, it might be valuable to explore the potential of traditional Maranao family structures to address residual issues of the crisis and foster reconciliation within the affected communities. However, this should be carried out with caution, and with targeted purpose, to prevent the misimpression that it replaces the functions of government institutions.

The rebuilding strategy should also exhibit a commitment to meaningfully involving Maranao civil society. Although national rebuilding plans are labelled as the result of consultative processes, these consultations are likely limited to different national government agencies, which in reality lack contextual awareness, and are often beset with multiple competing and conflicting agendas. Marawi City has a vibrant civil society, whose representatives have experience in working constructively with the military and government agencies to address development and security issues, such as "rido" (clan feuding, which is prevalent in Maranao communities), insurgency, criminality, and election-related violence. While the role of Moro civil society groups has been most visible in relief and humanitarian assistance, involving them in rebuilding discussions could help tilt and balance the narratives. This would ensure that the voices of Marawi’s most disadvantaged communities are heard, and not just those of Muslim Maranao elites who, while certainly affected by the conflict, come from privileged and therefore unrepresentative family backgrounds.

3: Make the local state work better.

Rebuilding must integrate measures to strengthen local government. Marawi has always suffered from poor governance, contributing to pervasive poverty and underdevelopment among Maranao communities. This could be attributed to the dominance of the clans in Marawi politics, whose influence is deeply entrenched in local government institutions. Clan dominance is often motivated by access to state power, presaging patronage relationships in communities where a high level of loyalty and connection with clans would mean family or communal protection and security; control of resources, particularly in the local government’s share over national wealth; and the prestige to lead and rule by virtue of the informal tradition of a datu system—a social arrangement of communal leadership that remains prevalent in Moro society.

Without losing sight of the urgent need to address humanitarian and rehabilitation concerns of the evacuees, a Defense-led rebuilding plan should take these institutional challenges in consideration. In any case they may have little choice, since the local government apparatus may have previously be non-functional, or the remains of it may not be well-functioning.

Reforms in local governance systems are an important goal. For example, gradual reforms in the peace and order council and the policing functions local governments can be pursued so they can effectively address public safety and security. Doing so will also relieve the military of policing and developmental roles, allowing the soldiers to focus on their primary duty to defuse national security threats present in the area. Lessons can be drawn from the reform experiences of the regional government in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which has seen progress in its pursuit of good governance after enduring excruciating years of predatory clan leadership.

4: Remember what’s worked elsewhere.

Rebuilding Marawi should also draw lessons from the AFP’s implementation of Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP)—Bayanihan (Unity) in Muslim areas, particularly when engaging in Lanao communities where armed contestations are likely to occur. IPSP-Bayanihan, which expired in December 2016, had enabled the development of people-centered security initiatives that are co-owned or co-shared by both security forces and communities in Sulu and Basilan provinces, including in the Piagapo town of Lanao del Sur in Mindanao.

As one of the main actors in rebuilding Marawi, government security forces will be in constant interaction with communities, especially in areas that are near the camps of Moro revolutionary armed groups, or where lawless or militant groups tend to operate. Constructive engagement between communities and security forces in these contested areas is still limited. Mutual distrust spanning from past experiences of armed violence, unresolved grievances, and cultural differences have prevented communities and security forces from working together to address security concerns.

On the one hand, security forces have been largely perceived by communities as ineffectual protectors of the central state, or otherwise regarded with resentment or hostility. On the other hand, communities are mostly suspected by security forces as sympathisers, allies, or keepers of those they consider the enemy of the state. These deep-seated relational gaps impel misunderstandings, incite heated tensions, and may ultimately end up in violence. The Development Support and Security Plan (DSSP)—Kapayapaan (Peace), which replaces IPSP — Bayanihan, could take lessons gained from the earlier framework, especially given that among the priorities of the new military campaign strategy is to quash terrorist threats posed by Islamic militants such as the Maute Group. While DSSP — Kapayapaan may seem to give security forces a free hand to encroach upon religious and cultural sensitivities, a defence-led rebuilding could also allow it to provide avenues for security forces to establish, cultivate, and nurture fruitful relations over time with Muslim Maranaos, based on mutual trust.

5: Work alongside the broader Mindanao peace process.

Lastly, the process of rebuilding Marawi should complement the gains of the peace agreement with the Bangsamoro. Established mechanisms or protocols that are within the bounds of the peace agreement, such as humanitarian corridors and joint ceasefire committees, can serve as a legitimate force of cooperation and unity for humanitarian and security-related concerns. In fact, hundreds of civilians who are trapped have been saved in in areas where government forces and Maute Group are heavily engaged in a firefight while relief have started to flow in conflict zones when the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) established peace corridors in Marawi. While maintaining security is one of the main priorities during transition, rebuilding should consistently take into account the coordinative roles of joint ceasefire committees from the government and the MILF when interdicting criminals or suspected terrorists who may take refuge in MILF communities, and when addressing illegal drug problems to prevent armed ‘misencounters’ during military operations in MILF recognised territories.

Rebuilding Marawi will be more difficult than ending the conflict. Indeed, the conduct of the military while "pacifying" the city has a direct bearing on their ability to take the steps I have outlined above, given the mounting grievances over the fighting’s impact on civilians. While the local population can be pragmatic and may submit to the demands of working together to rebuild their communities, this does not mean that they no longer harbor antipathy, or that they feel settled with groups or government institutions they generally not able to trust. It is on this context that the pursuits for rebuilding Marawi should be careful not to alienate or undermine existing grievances just because of a political pledge from the centre to rebuild urgently.

This article was first published at New Mandala ­– a specialist website on Southeast Asian affairs based at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The original can be found here.

TNL Editor: Edward White

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