Marawi on my mind
First of all, our greetings to the officers and men of the Philippine Air Force. It was on July 1, 1947, that the Philippine Army Air Corps was redesignated as the Philippine Air Force and raised to the level of a separate, major command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Its first commander was then Maj. Pelagio A. Cruz who would later become the first AFP chief of staff from the ranks of airmen.
Tomorrow the Air Force family, led by Lt. Gen. Edgar R.
Fallorina, marks its 70th anniversary, with a parade and review honoring the Commander in Chief, President Duterte, at Air Force City, Clark Air Base, Pampanga. Among the awardees during the anniversary rites are two officers, Lt. Col. Rolando Peña and Maj. Melkie Tadeo, both winners of the Gold Cross Medal for “gallantry in action and heroism in the face of grave danger against local and foreign terrorists in Lanao del Sur, on
April 22-23, 2017.”
We have very short memories and so, for a better appreciation of what is taking place in Marawi, we need to take a quick look at the recent past.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 9, 2013, approximately 200 Moro National Liberation Front fighters belonging to a faction led by Ustadz Malik, a senior aide of MNLF founder Nur Misuari, entered Zamboanga City and occupied four barangays. The group took more than 200 civilians as hostages. One of their main objectives was to hoist the Bangsamoro Republic flag at the Zamboanga City Hall to symbolize their breakaway from the Philippine Republic.
These actions led to the closure of the Zamboanga International Airport, with the cancellation of all incoming and outgoing flights, and the paralysis of vital economic activity in the city. The conflict also led to the displacement of over 100,000 people and the destruction of more than 5,000 homes.
In the end, the Zamboanga siege lasted two weeks and six days (Sept. 9-28, 2013), with some 183 renegade MNLF fighters dead, 25 soldiers killed, and close to 100 civilians dead and wounded. The leader of the group, Commander Malik, escaped and today remains at large. I am also reminded that the Philippine Military Academy lost three young graduates in the almost three weeks of fighting in Zamboanga. They were 1st Lt. John Christopher Rama, a platoon leader with the Light Reaction Company of the Philippine Army, who was killed during a clearing operation in Barangay Sta. Barbara; 2nd Lt. Florencio
Meneses with the Scout Rangers, and 1st Lt. Francis Damian, son of retired Brig. Gen. Roberto Damian.
It is interesting to note that the Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) headquarters is located in Zamboanga City. Some of the units under this command are the 1st Infantry Division, 6th Infantry Division, Joint Task Force Sulu, Naval Forces, Wesmincom, and elements of the 3rd Air Division. Obviously, the renegade MNLF forces were not awed by the presence of Wesmincom headquarters at Camp Basilio Navarro, right in Zamboanga City. They went straight into what was for all practical purposes the lion’s den.
The question asked by my civilian friends at that time was how were 200 MNLF fighters with high-powered firearms able to move into Zamboanga City, one of the major urban centers in Mindanao without prior detection by the AFP? It is the same question being asked today as regards Marawi.
Last May 23, Maute terrorists aided by Abu Sayyaf gunmen and other militants took over sections of Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur, and its largest city. The timing was impeccable. President Duterte and practically the entire high command of the AFP were in Moscow for a state visit. The situation forced the cancellation of the presidential trip and triggered the declaration of martial law in Mindanao.
As I mentioned in an earlier column, I was in the United States for much of the month of June. When I returned I relayed to senior officers at GHQ the concern of many of our people abroad about what was happening in Marawi. The question most often asked was, “How much longer was the siege going to last, and is the AFP on top of the situation?” I suppose those are the same questions being asked by people here at home.
Allow me to offer a few of my own observations.
The siege of Marawi has similarities as well as differences with the siege of Zamboanga four years ago. Zamboanga is a largely Christian community while Marawi is an Islamic center with a Muslim majority. The attack on Zamboanga was perpetrated by a local MNLF group with no foreign support while the Marawi takeover was carried out by a combined Maute-Abu Sayyaf coalition with close links to the Islamic State (IS). However, their objectives were similar. In the case of Zamboanga, the mission was to raise the Bangsamoro flag at the Zamboanga City Hall as a sign of independence. In the case of Marawi, the aim was to hoist the black standard of IS in the capital of Lanao del Sur and to declare it a wilayat, or province of IS.
As of today the siege of Marawi has resulted in over 400
casualties, including 317 terrorists, 82 government soldiers and 39 civilians. The military losses are the highest in recent Philippine history. Some 350,000 people have been displaced from their homes. If not neutralized soonest, the pocket of resistance in Marawi will become stronger and the continuing conflict will draw more supporters from local militant groups and from other parts of the region.
So, how much longer must we wait for the siege to end?
My guess is that before July 24, the Department of National Defense or the AFP must declare the official cessation of hostilities and the return to government control of the entire city. Mopping up operations may still continue.
Why July 24? It would be awkward for the Commander in Chief to deliver his State of the Nation Address after one year in office, with even just one square kilometer of the country still in the hands of IS-affiliated terror groups.
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