The “Conference on Peace and Prevention of Violent Extremism in Southeast Asia” was held on Sept. 22-23 at the Philippine International Convention Center in Manila. But the organizers might as well have called it a conference on the war in Marawi City because the subject was on everybody’s mind and dominated the discussions. It was in fact the focal point and driving force that led to the holding of the conference.
I was the eleventh-hour substitute speaker for the mayor of Marawi, who had to beg off. I was informed of the task only 48 hours before the conference, but I didn’t complain. I have always been prepared to speak, even impromptu, on anything concerning my hometown. All I needed to do was to recall, collate and arrange in my mind the commentaries I have written on the subject for Inquirer Opinion. It was fairly easy, and even inspiring, to speak about an issue close to my heart.
I spoke at the Special Briefing Workshop on Marawi, one of the breakout sessions of the conference, through the eyes of one who personally experienced the calamity and the agony of a victim—a bakwit, if you may. It was an insider’s perspective of the tragic war. I spoke of the historical and geopolitical importance of the city; its strategic geography; its being the nerve center of the religious, cultural, economic and educational life of the Maranaw; and the factors that make them vulnerable to the Salafi-Wahabbi ideology and its inroads into moderate Islam.
I traced the gestation and transformation of Islamic fundamentalism (Ansarul Islam) to radicalism and finally extremism (Dawla Islamiyah) among the Maranaw. I suggested some immediate as well as long-term measures that the government can institute to address the creeping radicalism and prevent a repeat of the Marawi tragedy in other places. I mentioned in passing a Marshall-Plan-like rehabilitation of the city through Administrative Order No. 03 creating Task Force Bangon Marawi and the assistance of foreign governments, especially altruistic Arabs. (I have discussed all these in my contributed commentaries to Inquirer Opinion.)
The conference was a mother lode of information on best practices and strategies of Asean countries in fighting faith-based extremism. Present were Asean delegates and experts sharing their experience and their government’s strategy in countering violent extremism — food for thought for our defense and security authorities.
I was particularly impressed by the expertise and profound knowledge of Dr. Rohan Gunaratna of Singapore, who talked about the nascence and progression of the extremist campaign globally and regionally, particularly in the Philippines. He talked about the divide between Abu Sayyaf leaders Sahiron and Ispilon Hapilon, and how the Maute group metastasized into what it is now. He asserted that there was no intelligence failure on the part of Philippine authorities but that they are guilty of operational failure — a fact which our authorities will be hard put to deny. He also correctly observed that President Duterte had publicly acknowledged the presence in the country of the Islamic State, while previous administrations were in denial.
Gunaratna also remarked on the influence of foreign fighters on the strategy employed by the Mautes, like when they bought two drones in Davao City a day following the start of the siege in May, to monitor the movement of the military. These and other revelations are unknown to many.
There was unanimity in admitting that the alien IS ideology has gained a foothold in the region, and that employing a regionwide approach to this threat to peace is imperative. Asean stakeholders must continue sharing intelligence information and technical capabilities including tested and effective practices to arrest radicalism.
Kudos to the organizers for a successful conference.
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Macabangkit B. Lanto (email@example.com), UP Law 1967, was a Fulbright Fellow in New York University for his postgraduate studies. He has served the government as congressman, ambassador, and undersecretary, among other positions.