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Amnesty Offer to Muslim Rebels Brings Calm to Philippine Island

The Philippine president’s offer of work and possible amnesty to holdouts from a violent Muslim rebel group that battled troops last year may bring momentary calm to an embattled southern island, experts say.

President Rodrigo Duterte visited that city, Marawi, on May 11 with pledges to provide shelter and “livelihood assistance” to 27 surrendered holdouts of the Maute Group, the presidential website says.

The group joined hands from May through October last year with the Islamic State-backed Abu Sayyaf rebels to fight troops for control of the largely Muslim city. Their fight was part of a decades-old struggle for Muslim autonomy on the southern Philippine island Mindanao.

Duterte’s move will help deter new violence in Marawi in the short term, analysts say, if he proves sincere. That calm would help the city rebuild, allowing more of its 200,000-plus inhabitants to return after fleeing the war. It might raise hopes among other rebel groups on Mindanao, the historically violent island where Marawi is located, for better interaction with the government, they say.

“It’s a confidence building measure to try to perhaps deal with resentment and fears,” said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at University of the Philippines Diliman. “If people of Marawi will indeed be prioritized, then people who sympathize with the Maute Group can look at this as another opening.”

Danger of resurgence

People from Marawi wonder when they can go home. Some worry that government reconstruction will be channeled into an industrial zone rather than the original sites of their homes and stores, Atienza said.

The promise of Chinese reconstruction aid has fanned new fears. she said. China granted $79.5 million in Marawi reconstruction aid as it tries to patch over an old maritime sovereignty dispute. Total reconstruction is due to cost $1.1 billion. Local officials are also talking to a consortium of five Chinese and five Filipino companies about how to rebuild, domestic media reported in April.

Duterte’s offers this month came just ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, casting it as a “diplomatic gesture,” said Rhona Canoy, president of an international school in the nearby city Cagayan de Oro and part of a family active in local politics. People from the city feel “a lot of resentment” because of the extent of war damage, she added.

Suspicions fester

For Maute Group members who surrendered, Duterte indicated last week he would offer “idle land” in their home province to grow rubber trees and produce palm oil, the head of state’s website says.

Duterte said on his visit he would look into the possibility of amnesty for Maute rebels with old arrest warrants but willing to surrender. They “should be willing to talk peace” and avoid Islamic State or any alliance with the country’s armed communist rebels, he said.

The president in office since mid-2016 has tried other routes, including talks with the violent founder of another rebel group, to quell violence by Mindanao.

It’s unclear whether Duterte will keep his pledges to Marawi, Atienza said.

Marawi will be hard to pacify long term, Canoy said, because of its history of trade in illegal goods.

Rebel groups in Mindanao have shown a pattern of retrenching under new names or different locations after fights with troops or police. Muslims have lived in the 21 million-population island’s west and outlying islands for some 500 years, chafing at times against the country’s Christian majority over resources.

About 121,000 people have died from related conflicts since the 1960s and 1,127 died in Marawi last year.

“As far as the long-term peace is concerned, that’s never really been Marawi in the first place, so I don’t know how it’s going to work out,” Canoy said. “Marawi has always been a violent city. It’s been our wild west.”

Muslim Mindanao’s 20 rebel groups may want solutions other than amnesty and a livelihood, analysts caution. One group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, wants Congress to pass a stalled law that would give them greater autonomy following a 2014 peace deal, for example.

Duterte asked Congress in April to pass the law this year, domestic media say.

Foreign sympathizers of Islamic State (ISIS), an international terrorist outfit that weakened last year near its bases in Iraq and Syria, might also reenter the Philippines to help rebels, said Enrico Cao, a Ph.D. student of international affairs and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

Philippine officials suspected that Islamic State-backed Indonesians and Malaysians reached Marawi last year to support the Maute rebels.

“I think the military knows that the ISIS flags have been flying in those villages for some time now. And I think the ideology is very difficult to root out,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.