Ninety; that’s the number of Filipino soldiers and police officers who’ve been killed in the Battle of Marawi – the city in Lanao del Sur on the southern island of Mindanao seized by Islamic militants 52 days ago. These are young men who enlisted in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) to serve their country and keep it safe – young men who were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend their fellow citizens. Now, the country owes them a debt of gratitude it knows it can never fully repay.
They should never be confused with the wretched individuals who wear the uniform and exploit their authority for their own greed and prestige. Philippine law enforcement over the years has seen plenty of those ‘men of dishonour’ – at times they’ve reduced the uniform services of this country to a laughing stock.
The men who wore the uniform and fell in battle in Marawi City are a very different breed. They’ve more than earned the respect of the nation they died for. Every last one of them should be honoured for the service they gave.
The enemy’s at the gates, their countrymen are being killed in unspeakable circumstances, and opposition politicians are more interested with flaring a domestic dispute in the cozy chambers of congress in Manila. What’s their sacrifice; that they had to work late on Friday and face the traffic going home?
Exploiting a national crisis of this dimension is just about as low as politics can sink. And sink it continues to do as the anti-Duterte mob pours scorn on the president’s martial-law proclamation attempting to stymie any extension to the measures.
Among that mob are the likes of senators Antonio Trillanes IV, Franklin Drilon, Francis Pangilinan, Bam Aquino, Risa Hontiveros and the otherwise-engaged custody-serving alleged drugs profiteer, Leila de Lima. Also the so-called “Magnificent Six” – House of Representatives members, Edcel Lagman, Gary Alejano, Teddy Baguilat Jr, Emmanuel Billones, Capiz, Edgar Erice, and Tom Villarin.
To that we can add powerful elements of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, the episcopal hierarchy of the country’s Roman Catholic Church; civil-liberties lawyers and student groups. In short, the usual suspects who coalesce around any cause that targets Duterte.
Undoubtedly, the president’s opponents will be filing a “reconsideration request” appealing the Supreme Court’s decision last week in which, overwhelming, 11 of 15 justices rejected challenges to the martial-law declaration.
We believe the measures imposed on Mindanao will be extended once the 60-day limit has been reached. That comes on 21 July. We also believe that members of the Liberal Party opposition and their allies in the civil liberties community will continue to call foul. They can’t help themselves; they live in blinkers.
They’ll continue to raise the spectre of a dictatorship waiting in the wings – a complete nonsense notion. Duterte’s a committed regionalist for a start; he wants to devolve power from the centre and give greater autonomy to the regions, not keep power at the centre in the hands of the chosen few which is where the political will of his opponents seems to lie.
Also, Duterte wants this battle over as quickly as is humanly possible – but he also knows that Marawi City is part of a far broader war. It will not hasten the pursuit of peace if he gets back Marawi only to lose cities in other parts of Mindanao. One of the problems Duterte’s critics still seem to have is in identifying the events of Marawi for what they are.
The Islamic State-linked nexus of the Maute Group, Abu Sayyaf and others never viewed Marawi City as a goal in itself – far from it. This was just a first staging post – admittedly an iconic one given that it’s the only Muslim City in the Philippines – for a much bigger campaign.
The prime objective of Isnilon Hapilon – the Abu Sayyaf chief, mastermind behind the attack on Marawi and the Emir of All Islamic State (IS) Forces in the Philippines was to prepare the terrorist infrastructure that would secure vast tracts of south and western Mindanao as an IS stronghold. Phase II would be to spread out from there – north across the Philippines; west into Indonesia, Malaysia and the rest of maritime Southeast Asia.
Marawi City’s relevance in this scheme of things is as a logistics hub and a rallying point. On a smaller scale, it represents the IS-won cities of Mosul in Iraq (which it’s now all but lost) and Raqqa in Syria (which will be the next to fall). And it’s precisely because of the territory which IS has been haemorrhaging in the Middle East that Hapilon’s mission has been so crucial.
In short, Hapilon’s forces didn’t overrun Marawi to provide a retirement home for IS fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria; they took it over for the purpose of establishing a new centre of global terror. And all that’s stopping them right now are AFP troops and PNP officers.
It’s fitting then that while those efforts seem to warrant little thanks from the political elite in Manila, they’re being recognised by one force that knows perhaps better than any, the demands of fighting Islamic State – the Kurdish Peshmerga, the warrior clans of northeaster Iraq that have spearheaded the war against Islamic State in their home region for the past three years.
Recently, in a letter received by the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad, a Peshmerga fighter expressed support for the Philippine war effort and offered solidarity with Filipino government forces in Marawi City. Peshmerga is a Kurdish word meaning “in the face of death” – and denotes the selfless sacrifice of troops in war.
The letter, released by the embassy’s Chargé d’Affaires, Elmer G. Cato, said: “From the Kurdish Peshmerga to the Filipino Peshmerga, we express our solidarity with you in the fight against the Islamic State. We hope and pray for your victory against Daesh! [an acronym for the full title of al-Dawla al-Islamiya al-Iraq al-Sham (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant)]. Long live the Philippines! Long live Kurdistan”.
Cato knows the significance of that message. Last November he met with a Peshmerga commander in Erbil in northern Iraq and learned how his small poorly armed force had held the line and prevented IS forces from reaching the ancient city.
A second letter – this one from a Kurdish journalist – was also received by the Philippine Embassy. It read: “As the Peshmerga succeeded in defeating the Islamic State from this part of the world, the barbaric terrorists appeared in Marawi. The friendly people and government of the Philippines are now fighting this brutal terrorist organization. The Islamic State is a threat to the entire world. This is why we have to work hand in hand to fight this common enemy”. Those words should be pause for thought Filipino politicians who seek to make political gains by creating divisions in society just to have their way.
Well, perhaps not unexpectedly, the young men of the AFP and PNP who hourly run the gauntlet of snipers in a broken city many miles from Manila – fighting street to street, house to house as they attempt to reclaim this urban mess from the barbarians who took the city over – are more respected by Kurdish tribesmen than they are by their own elected representatives.
That speaks volumes for a political class which prizes the removal of their president above supporting their troops; pampered politicians whose biggest daily battle is with Manila’s traffic while those charged with restoring peace operate in the jaws of death in a place where terror has sucked all normalcy out of life.
When all this is over, it’s to be hoped that the Philippine Congress can find some time in its busy schedule to consider erecting a war memorial in Marawi City for all the servicemen who laid down their lives so that those same congressmen could continue to practice the freedoms which they don’t always tolerate in others.