Maranao leaders offer to talk to militants to end siege

ILIGAN CITY (MindaNews / 15 June) – Maranao traditional leaders in the Lanao provinces have asked President Rodrigo Duterte to give them a hand in driving away the Islamic State-inspired militants who are laying siege on Marawi for over three weeks now in the hope that they can “return to our beloved city” before the end of the month-long Ramadan.

Some 50 sultans, datus and baes met here Thursday to muster consensus on what they will do to resolve the Marawi crisis and save the city from further destruction due to ongoing fighting between government troops and the militants.

Army soldiers patrol the streets of Marawi City. MindaNews photo by Froilan Gallardo

“Somehow, we could have influenced (the actions of) this radical people, however our voices were never recognized by the government to negotiate with them,” read a three-page letter-manifesto signed by the traditional leaders, most of whom evacuated here because of the armed hostilities in Marawi.

Several traditional leaders reportedly met with a handful of military and national security officials and discussed possibilities of them contributing to ending the crisis.

Abdul Hamidullah Atar, sultan of Marawi, said the negotiation should be aimed first at ending the fighting to spare the city from further destruction, and second, to address the discontent of the Maranao youth which is founded on real situations of social, political and economic deprivation.

Atar revealed that early in the siege, when he was trapped in the city for six days, he began reaching out to the militants to find a way to resolve the crisis peacefully.

“They were responsive to my suggestion to sit down and talk,” said Atar, who is also a conflict mediation and peacebuilding professional.

“If you must know, Mr. President, conflicts between us can be resolved by us using traditional negotiation. These radical people in some way respect the elders of a clan,” the leaders’ letter-manifesto read.

In the current dynamics of Maranao communities, many traditional leaders no longer command political and economic power like they do in the olden days. But they continue to wield social influence as shown in their ability to preside over resolution of conflicts among families and clans.

Imposing a temporary ceasefire should be the first step to begin the resolution process, said Sheikh Haron Ali Tomawis, 92, the oldest among the traditional leaders.

As if to answer Mr. Duterte’s tirades against the Maranao people for the growth of violent extremism in their communities, the leaders’ letter-manifesto said: “Mr. President, we are not condoning the act of the Maute group and their allies…. In fact majority of the population of Marawi were supportive to the government’s efforts to end the invasion of these militant group in our beloved city.”

Had this process been instituted early on, the fighting would not have prolonged and Marawi could have been spared from devastation, a somber Banny Masnar, sultan of Balo-i, said in an interview in the sidelines of their meeting.

Masnar is confident the young Maranao militants will listen to them.

“We can constructively approach them. We want to talk to them on the basis of our common ancestry,” Masnar explained.

Masnar said he was really depressed at the thought of their “failure to defend Marawi” from being controlled by the militants.

“Our proud history shows how we defended our land against the colonial intentions of the Spaniards, Americans, and Japanese. But not now with these radical boys,” Masnar said in a cracking voice.

“Because we left the city, we practically entrusted it to the Philippine Army to defend,” he added.

Asked how they would deal with the multi-ethnic composition of the fighting militants now in Marawi, Atar is confident that if the Maranao contingent would decide to disengage from the clashes, the rest of the forces will follow as they are only hosted there.

Apart from members of the so-called Maute group, the militants fighting in Marawi include Tausug and Yakan fighters of the Abu Sayyaf and several foreigners, all under the command of Isnilon Hapilon, acknowledged emir of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia.

The Lanao del Sur forces are under the control of the brothers Abdullah and Omarkhayam Maute. Sources said it is now Abdullah Maute who has control over the militants as Hapilon is no longer around the war zone.

Addressing the militants, Ali Macadaag, sultan of Talaguian, said: “Please release the hostages and get out of Marawi now.”

The militants are believed to be holding over 100 hostages, including Catholic priest Teresito Soganub, known to Maranaos as Fr. Chito who is vicar-general of the prelature of St. Mary in Marawi.

The Philippine Army estimates that up to 230 militants are still in the city, slugging it out with government troops.

“We love Shariah and the book of Allah,” the traditional leaders told the militants, but added “their action is not the right approach to voice their demands and sentiments.”

They lamented that “the good people in Marawi and Lanao… suffered a lot” for the militants’ actions, noting the devastated private properties and public infrastructure.

“Enough is enough. We cannot implement Shariah if our city become ashes,” the Maranao leaders told the militants.

“Islam respect and value humanity and we urge this group to release their prisoners and leave the city in the name of peace,” they added.

But the Maranao leaders also worried that instead of crushing them, “the total destruction of our city …. through continuous fighting and bombardment may even multiply the forces” of the militants. (Ryan Rosauro / for MindaNews)