With white flags to indicate they are non-combatants, residents continue to flee as troops battle militants in Marawi, the Philippines, yesterday. Philippine forces say they now control most of the southern city. AP pic

KOTA KINABALU: A handful of militants from the region is in troubled Marawi city in southern Philippines to back the notorious Maute group, which is seeking recognition from the Islamic State.

Mindanao-born lecturer Dr Ayesah Uy Abubakar said the attack launched by the terror group in Marawi City last week was its way of making a name for itself and not likely linked to the death of Malaysian IS recruiter Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi recently.

Ayesah, who lectures at Universiti Malaysia Sabah here, said Malaysians and Indonesians, and others from the region, were probably in Marawi supporting the Maute group.

She said the Maute group was based in the Lanao del Sur area,  with Marawi City as the capital, and the attack and kidnappings it had committed in the past were to build a reputation for itself internationally.

Melaka-born Wanndy was killed in a drone attack in Syria on April 29. Wanndy had led militants from Malaysia in Syria since 2014 and was responsible for recruting fighters and coordinating attacks.

“The violence started because the Philippine armed forces conducted an operation to locate Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who is now part of Maute.”

Reportedly, the group fired back and violence spread throughout Marawi city, where two Malaysian militants were among those killed.

Following the attack, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the southern region of Mindanao, home to about 20 million people, as clashes escalated.

As of yesterday, the Philippine authorities confirmed those killed included 61 Maute militants, 20 troops and 19 civilians.

Ayesah,  who is attached to the Humanities, Arts and Heritage Faculty,  said there were several factors why militants were making their presence known in southern Philippines:

SECURITY threats from Abu Sayyaf, the main group responsible for kidnap-for-ransom activities;

PURGING of leaders and groups involved in the drug trade;

BREAKAWAY groups like Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who are dissatisfied with the peace process and have resorted to violence to get the attention of the government;

PRESENCE of private armed groups that are normally organised by politicians and private businesses; and,

ONGOING and incomplete peace process with MILF, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA), which continues to face obstacles in how the government can implement its signed agreements.

While former president Benigno Aquino III accomplished the Bangsamoro Basic Law, Ayesah said this had not been passed by Parliament.

“Despite that, Duterte appears to be more open to MNLF, MILF and CPP-NPA.

“However, there are no signs and guarantees that his allies in Parliament will support this.

“There is also the fact that Philippine society is awash with firearms and ammunition, legally and illegally owned, as the country follows American gun ownership laws.”

In this environment, she added, there were more weapons owned by individuals than the combined weapons of the three non-state groups (MILF, MNLF and CPP-NPA).

     “This is the abnormal security situation in the country. As such, it is understandable that any group wanting to be recognised and heard uses violence.”

Ayesah said the conflict hurt the economy, wellbeing of the people and wasted the strength of defence forces.

“When a government fights non-state actors, this causes a long-term fracture in nation building. This is why peace processes are pursued.”

She, however, said peace processes were never easy, because there were those who had an interest in keeping conflicts alive.

Being a witness to the impact of armed conflicts in Mindanao, Ayesah, who is a Bangsamoro, is passionate about using development to bring about peace.

Her peacebuilding work has focused on the peace process between the Philippine government and MILF.

In her doctoral work, Ayesah has designed sustainable human development and peacebuilding frameworks, which are adopted by the Bangsamoro Development Agency as the core of the Bang-samoro Development Plan.

Asked whether she agreed with the use of martial law, she said: “He (Duterte) has imposed it. Our opinions do not matter at this point. But many people in Mindanao hope martial law will not be imposed for too long. People have a bad memory of martial law.”

Ayesah said people in Mindanao were hopeful that the armed forces would continue to be a credible enforcer of the law.

“It helps that the military leadership made a public statement that it will uphold human rights and international humanitarian law. This is a first in history.

“This military transformation is the result of decades of peace education by civil society groups in Mindanao and their cooperation in the peace process.”

Ayesah said governments must not work alone but engage with non-governmental organisations to build peace.

“In the experience of Mindanao civil society and the Philippine government in the peace process, their partnership contributed to its success.

“Perhaps it is time that governments consider this possibility of partnerships with the civil society groups.”

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