The battle for control of Marawi City has been going on for a month already, and there is still no end in sight despite the assurances from the Duterte administration and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It could be remembered that the armed clashes erupted May 23 when a joint operation by the AFP and Philippine National Police (PNP) to capture terrorist leader Isnilon Hapilon, who is said to be the leader of the Islamic State or ISIS in Southeast Asia, was met by heavy gunfire. By that evening, President Duterte declared martial law in the whole island of Mindanao. By May 25, AFP declared that there were only 30 to 40 local and foreign ISIS fighters left in Marawi City.
However, a month after, AFP troops still have not flushed out and defeated the ISIS fighters and have not yet gained complete control over Marawi City. The first deadline for the AFP to clear Marawi City was set last June 2, then June 12 Independence Day. After failing to meet these, the AFP declared that it would no longer set another deadline.
The AFP announced this morning June 22 that the ISIS fighters, numbering around 100, are holed up in a one-kilometer corner of the city.
Government soldiers deployed in Marawi City must already be in the thousands. The AFP troops were reportedly being aided by US troops, who purportedly were limited to intelligence and logistical support. The AFP has also been pounding the city with artillery fire and bombing strikes.
Marawi City has a population of around 200,000 and a land area of around 87.55 square kilometers. It has 96 barangays. It is said to be the least populated of the highly urbanized cities in the country. Marawi City has the second smallest land area in Lanao del Sur province.
Thus, it is a riddle why the thousands of AFP troops, with a tremendous amount of firepower, have not yet driven ISIS fighters away, much less neutralize them. And yet the battleground is an urbanized center, not a remote, mountainous, forested vast tract of land, where hiding places are aplenty, tanks and APCs have difficulties traversing the terrain, and jets and bombers are rendered blind.
Perhaps, what is happening now in Marawi City should serve as an eye opener to militarists that overwhelming superiority in the number of troops and in firepower does not guarantee a quick victory.
Second, what the government is dealing with is not just a small band of terrorist fanatics. Otherwise how could this small band of fighters hold off thousands of troops with superior firepower and logistics for a month?
What is confronting the government and making it hard for AFP troops to swiftly defeat the Maute group and take control over Marawi City is the centuries-old oppression of the BangsaMoro people. In the first place, this oppression has made parts of Mindanao a fertile ground for recruitment of groups fighting the government, including ISIS.
No amount of firepower and military superiority could stop an oppressed people from finding outlets for their anger and ways to put an end to their oppressive conditions. This may also be the reason why despite its proclivity for terror, random violence and mass killings and its extremist fundamentalist ideology and practices, ISIS has been continuously attracting new recruits.
The Duterte administration may win the battle after a few more weeks, but this war will refuse to go away.
Thus, the Duterte administration – instead of focusing all its energies in trying to defeat the Maute group and other Moro rebel groups – should analyze what could be done to uplift the lives and promote the rights of the BangsaMoro people, starting from respecting their right to self determination.