Reporting by Melinda Holmes
This week ICAN’s executive director Sanam Anderlini and program manager Melinda Holmes were in the Philippines meeting with representatives of southeast Asian women-led organizations working for peace and the prevention of violent extremism in Indonesia, Malaysia and southern Thailand. Hosted by the Philippine Centre for Islam and Democracy (PCID) and its president Amina Rasul Bernardo, the delegation engaged in strategic planning and consultations for the development and deepening of regional collaboration through the Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL).
Our visit was seen to be very timely given the situation in Marawi City, which was seized by Maute fighters on May 23 after the military attempted to arrest an Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) commander. The army remains in pursuit of an estimated 200 fighters. This situation took many by surprise here who were aware of the increasing threat of extremism but believed radicalization remained an isolated phenomenon. Our discussions on the prevention of violent extremism and the role of gender and women, were grounded by real-time reports from Marawi and analysis of both the response and the context from which this violence emerged. In Manila and Cotabato City we met with women activists and organizers from Mindanao, local and regional government and military officials with diverse perspectives on current events. While much of the information coming out of Marawi is unconfirmed, given that the city remains inaccessible, we have reports from those engaged in providing humanitarian relief to the internally displaced people (IDPs) and with contacts remaining in Marawi.
The military is reportedly bombing Maute positions within the city in pursuit of an estimated 200 fighters. There was widespread conjecture that the fighters were able to enter the city by blending in during a large convening of religious leaders held there recently. The bombing is described as surgical strikes however reports of nightly strafing and the unfortunate deaths of seven Filipino soldiers in a “friendly fire” incident on June 1 illustrate the imprecision of such forms of violence. Of the population of approximately 200,000, 10-15% of civilians reportedly remain inside the city, including some who have chosen to remain to support those unable to leave, such as some members of the faith-based women’s organization Noorus Salam, who have barricaded themselves in the university campus. The rest of the population has fled causing serious congestion on the roads and making relief and rescue operations prohibitive.
As of May 29, there were just over 40,000 IDPs registered and staying in evacuation centers in the region, while many others are staying with relatives in private homes. Many fled toward neighboring Iligan City from where relief efforts to meet the extensive humanitarian needs are now being coordinated by both the government and civil society organizations. Civil society is mobilizing to provide food, hygiene and psychosocial support, almost exclusively through individual donations. There are reports of those who could not access transportation simply walking out of the city to get away from the fighting, including elderly, children, and pregnant women. Those who have left to the other side of the city are in inaccessible rural areas under the control of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). There is now a joint effort by the military and the MILF to establish a peace corridor there to provide security and relief, and importantly to demonstrate commitment to sustaining the peace process despite the escalation of violence by extremist groups and the establishment of martial law in Mindanao.
There is great concern among civilians, military and political leaders alike that this situation could upset the hard-won peace and ongoing process. The slow realization of peace dividends have led to a loss of hope among some, especially youth, in the region. If the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) – which will establish an autonomous Bangsamoro entity in Mindanao – is jeopardized, people believe it will cause further instability in the region.
At the same time, while it is normal practice in Marawi for security forces to go house to house looking for members of extremist groups, several women reported that for the past couple of months the military has escalated this practice, detaining young men of fighting age and leading to a rise in recruitment to the violent extremist groups in the region. Many people are also worried about the possibility of harsh implementation of martial law as the region experienced in the past, although we heard no reports of abuses and many assurances from the military that this will not transpire. President Duterte’s statement condoning rape by soldiers, which he claimed was a joke, reinforced these fears. Women in Mindanao felt the remarks were deeply disrespectful and promoted impunity for abuses. The statement will also benefit extremist groups as a narrative for recruitment.
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