What Marawi teaches us

MARAWI was not known to the world at large until recently. It is a scenic city in Mindanao that is popular among the locals. To the Muslims it is better known as an Islamic city in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

It houses the Mindanao State University main campus where many Christian students enrol to study alongside their Muslim counterparts. In other words, there is relative peace and security in Marawi vis-a-vis other regions that are more often in the news with headlines on violence.

That said, much of the current events in Marawi revolve around the "unconventional" leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte who is the first president of the Republic of Philippines to hold office from Mindanao, where he made his mark as a mayor of Davao City.

In less than two months into his presidency last year, he sounded the alarm predicting an "IS disease" that may grip Mindanao. He has now been proven right.

What was not predicted perhaps is the involvement of the Maute family as an apparent source of the crisis. Allegedly the family was hardly known until a few years ago, and took almost everyone by surprise (think Lahad Datu incursion) when it started the bloody war on May 23.

The president was said to be surprised, more so as to how the Maute family sustained the fight for over a month, leaving hundreds dead and injured, with tens of thousands displaced.

Duterte was then visiting Russia when it all happened compelling him to cut short his visit and subsequently declaring martial law in Mindanao. At the same time he raised pertinent observations as to how is it that the Maute militias seem to be well-equipped with a steady flow of ammunition and weapons. The lesson: the origin of terror is not predictable.

What is more surprising is Duterte's suspicion of "possible corruption in the military and defence establishment". Some of the firearms and ammunitions used by the militants allegedly can be traced to the Department of National Defence's (DND) Ordnance Division, "including some department personnel".

The recovered firearms and boxes of ammunition have DND markings. Added to this, is the claim from the police that the "cargo came from Manila a few weeks before the Marawi siege broke out" implicating gunrunning syndicates. Whether these operatives are funded by other groups is an open question. The lesson: corruption can be turned into a convenient weapon by the enemies.

On this score, the president's "no mercy for corrupt appointees" stance is well-placed. He has fired appointees in the government even with the slightest hint of corruption, let alone (re)appointing any one of them! Related to this he remarked: "If you are into graft, you are into graft. And if I'll just suspend you for days or even months and you go back to service of the government and you have been at it, high probability that you'll do it again." This is something that Malaysia needs to be very mindful of given the current practice.

It is therefore sobering to discover that the president has adopted a comprehensive strategy that focuses on "whole systems approach" in carrying out the mission to combat and contain the extremists. Namely, taking into account not just economics (which most leaders do, some obsessively) but well within the context of social injustice, law and order, peace, and "a sense that they belong to one nation".

Here again Duterte is steadfast and categorical in his words and actions. He is unwilling to compromise in any way the sovereignty of his nation come what may; especially in dealing with other powers like the European Union and the United States that have even threatened the Philippines with sanctions.

His response has been that his government will not be forced to yield and stop whatever it deems to be good for the Philippines and its people. For example, in the fight against drugs and extremism. "If they do not want ties, they want to cut trade, fine. We will survive," Duterte remarked casually, while daring his detractors to file more cases against him before the International Criminal Court. The lesson: leaders walk the talk.

The bottom line: "It's my duty to destroy people who will destroy my country." A sure sign of confidence and commitment seldom heard of. When challenged many stay rather muted or more fashionably tweet to distract others from the real issues at hand.

No doubt that the Marawi crisis being so close to home has many invaluable lessons to draw from. And how courageous leadership could singularly make a difference in ensuring that the dignity of the nation and people are always held high.

It is not just a matter of military intervention per se, rather a more holistic strategy rooted in a deep sense of belonging to the nation – perhaps the key to it all. In this regard Duterte's first year in office that coincided with the unfolding of the Marawi terror provided a convincing overall rating of "high" morale coming from the community – business and civil, particularly the little people on the street who had suffered enough.

As a leader his authenticity comes across very clearly as someone who genuinely embraces the people-first principle unreservedly. To such an extent that when he "failed" or was "unable" to deliver although it was not entirely due to his doing, he has the humility to apologise (a rarity among leaders) over the plight that he took responsibility for.

A case in point, when he was not allowed to visit Marawi city during the peak of the operations, he said: "But you know, I cannot just sit on my ass in my office while the people suffer." These words, ably summed up the lessons from Marawi not just for the good times, more so during the bad ones. The question is whether we will learn from them before it's too late?

The writer was in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao recently at the invitation of the local authorities. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com