NOW approaching its fourth month, Marawi City remains to be a battle zone where no resident has been allowed in the so-called Ground Zero, the very center of the city where terrorist snipers are still putting up a fight.
Last August 22, 2017, the Mindanao State University (MSU)-Marawi campus re-opened classes for school year 2017-2018, two weeks later than when the first semester was supposed to begin.
While just last September 6, 2017, Brigadier General Rolando Joselito Bautista, commander of the Joint Task Force (JTF) Marawi, said classes in Sultan Conding Elementary School, Sikap Elementary School, Cabingan Primary School, Banga Elementary School, DatuTambak Elementary School, Rorogagus Elementary School, Bito Elementary School, Pendolonan Elementary School, Abdulazis Elementary School, Camp Bagong Amai Pakpak Central Elementary School, Sugod Elementary School, and Mipaga Elementary School started Monday, September 5.
"We are nearing the end of the battle with the gunfight confined to the main battle area in the besieged city. Security measures are being tightened to preempt any attempts by the terrorists to hamper classes," Bautista was quoted as saying in news reports.
But while there are assurances of an end to the conflict while the IS-influenced Maute Group is still able to keep up the fight, there are rumblings somewhere else, specifically in the Cotabato area.
President Rodrigo R. Duterte gave a hint of this in his extemporaneous speech before the Mindanao Business Conference in Cagayan de Oro City Saturday night.
"The Cotabato will explode one day," he said. He attributed this to land dispute, particularly because there are overlapping claims over land rights in this historically conflict-ridden area.
"Land dispute 'yan. These are the things that contributed to each other including government because of corruption," he said after pointing out that at least three government agencies are giving out land titles: the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP), and the Land Registration Authority (LRA).
While land dispute is at the bottom, everything else has been raised to the level of global terrorism as a result of unaddressed issues and unresolved contentions of government neglect and abuse made worse by military actions through several decades.
This is apparent in the warning raised by the Assessment Capacities Project (Acaps), an academic and research institution based in Switzerland, that is dedicated to providing up-to-date information on more than 40 key crises around the globe to the humanitarian community.
In its Crisis analysis dated September 2, 2017 for the Philippines covering September 2017 to February 2018, it sees the likelihood of "IS-related groups taking control of territories in Central Mindanao", as the report title reads.
The report points to the divided Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) where its leaders are pushing for a peace settlement with the government, but its factions are supporting the IS-inclined Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Maute Group.
"Compounding the support of the MILF, the ability of these armed groups to operate is enhanced by the limited number of AFP forces in central Mindanao and the lack of intelligence capacity to monitor the threat posed by these groups. Some areas remain under the control of MILF forces. Intelligence services have long struggled to gain a clear overview of the threat posed by IS-affiliated groups, with contradicting reports of their strength (number of fighters, scope of foreign fighters, links with local communities)," the report read.
Pointing to Marawi and why the siege has not yet been done with until now, the report attributes this to the "new warfare strategies" that the Maute group has developed while it plotted to take over Marawi City.
"The three month-long Marawi siege has been made possible by Maute fighters’ use of snipers, tunnels, and sufficient preparation (food and ammunitions stock). This has prevented the AFP from retaking Marawi quickly. Moreover, despite suffering severe backlash in previous operations such as in Butig, Lanao del Sur in 2016, the Maute groups have shown both resilience and capacity-building skills," the report said.
The ethnic and clan links of the terrorist-affiliated groups make the situation even more difficult and the outbreak of more conflict likely as Acaps predict them to be. Add into the mixture the private militia that Moro clans have been keeping plus ethnic basis of all this, and you have a most complicated situation that can be triggered further, especially as the Duterte Administration is striking down on illegal drugs and corruption in government.
Thus, the Acaps analysis sees a heightening of attacks and recruitment by the terrorists in the next six months.
"The combination of armed groups uniting under the IS flag, their connection to local communities, and their links with former insurgencies have strengthened these armed groups’ capacity to hold territories in central Mindanao. Violence will likely increase over the next six months in central Mindanao and IS-affiliated groups will seize territories as a result. Attacks will be carried out simultaneously by IS-affiliated groups in order to divert AFP’s response, weakening their ability to counter IS’ long-term control of territories," the report said. "Whatever the losses are for IS-affiliated groups involved in the Marawi crisis, the length of this battle will be their first major comprehensive success and will likely trigger recruitment and increase their capacity to carry out new large attacks and to hold territories."
SunStar Davao has sought the comment on this report by Armed Forces of the Philippines Eastern Mindanao Command chief, Lieutenant General Rey Leonardo B. Guerrero, on this but he said that the issue is best addressed by the Department of National Defense.
SunStar Davao tried to reach out to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, but he has not responded.
Published in the SunStar Davao newspaper on September 11, 2017.
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