Why the Battle of Marawi was a political turning point within South-East Asia

It could be argued that the Battle of Marawi that existed from March to October 2017 within the Philippines was a political turning point for South-East Asia. This essay will examine what specifically the Battle of Marawi was and what is its significance for the region. The following points will be examined in detail: ASEAN Pre 9/11, ASEAN Post 9/11, Post 9/11 ASEAN Philippines and dealing with these problems. After which, the essay will explain what specially happened during the Battle of Marawi, followed by how this was a watershed for ASEAN.

ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is a regional intergovernmental organisation that encompasses ten nations within South-East Asia. It “was established on 8 August 1967 in Bangkok, Thailand, with the signing of the ASEAN Declaration” [1]. As part of the ASEAN Declaration, ASEAN aims “to promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law” [1]. In addition to this, Article 2.C in ASEAN’s “Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) of 1976” [2] states that “non-interference in the internal affairs of one another” [2] must be respected amongst ASEAN’s member states. What this shows is that ASEAN aims to maintain political stability within SE Asia whilst not interfere with the domestic politics of each individual member’s jurisdiction. This is a key component of ASEAN and its internal politics.

Before 9/11, ASEAN had faced many different problems within the internal fabric of South-East Asia. These included terrorist attacks in Indonesia and the Philippines during the 1980’s and 1990’s. It is because of events like these that has led to an increasingly concerned environment within ASEAN’s areas of influence, forcing it to deal with the problem of terrorism and transnational crime. The Declaration on Transnational Crime in 1997 and an ASEAN Action Plan to Combat Transnational Crime in 1999 indicates such concerns. In the Declaration on Transnational Crime, ASEAN describes the “pernicious effects of transnational crime, such as terrorism, illicit drug trafficking, arms smuggling” [3]. ASEAN’s resources and attention were heavily invested into dealing with these issues which were increasingly affecting its nations. Why this is prominent is that these attempts to legislate and politically deal with these issues were occurring before the events of 9/11.

ASEAN directly post-9/11, like the rest of the world, descended back into an anarchic world. ASEAN immediately responded at the next ASEAN Summit by focusing directly on terrorism and counterterrorism. This is because the “attacks on the US in 2001 provided a strong impetus for the region to come together to fight terrorism and related crimes through cooperation at the multilateral, regional and bilateral levels” [4]. How this is shown is that, less than two months after 9/11, all “10 member countries of ASEAN adopted the 2001 ASEAN Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism a their Seventh ASEAN Summit on 5 November 2001 in Brunei Darussalam”[4].

What this meant for ASEAN in terms of counterterrorism was a massive increase into the ASEAN nations’ ability to “enhance information/intelligence exchange to facilitate the flow of information, in particular, on terrorists and terrorist organizations, their movement and funding” [4]. This was directed upon the internal Islamic terrorist activity within ASEAN nations like Indonesia and the Philippines.

In the wake of this, terrorist acts and terrorism in general became more widespread. These incidents mostly occurred in Indonesia and the Philippines, an example of which is “the Bali Bombings in October 2002 and the Marriott Hotel bombings of 2003 in Jakarta, Indonesia”[5].

Alongside this, even before 9/11 had the Philippines faced several major problems in the realm of terrorism and counterterrorism, the reasons for this existing is due to Mindanao, a region in the “southern Philippines” [6] which has a “long history of conflict” [6].

 The Philippines’s demographics consists of a Christian majority of “approximately 93 percent of the population” [7], followed by a significant Muslim population. The majority of Muslims in the Philippines belong to Mindanao. Alongside this, Mindanao has nearly four times the number of Muslims than the rest of the Philippines, with the islands total having around “23% following Islam” [8]. The reasons for this are due to most of Mindanao’s history possessing a separate region with its own distinct culture and identity.

The people of Mindanao who are majority of Muslims are simply known as the ‘Moro’ people. The Moros have a strong history of resistance against what they deem to be foreign forces. These forces include Spanish, American and Japanese occupation for over 400 years. For many Moros, they consider these four hundred years as part of a long ‘national liberation movement’ of the Bangsamoro or Moro Nation. It is this which has been the main source of the Philippines’s problems in dealing with terrorism.

Due to this history of resistance it in turn led to the formation of the “Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)” [9]. The “MNLF uses nationalist rhetoric to call for an independent state in the Southern Philippines” [9]. Alongside this the MNLF claims that its ideology is not based on religion but acts as an independence movement based on egalitarianism and self-determinism, something which is irreligious.  At the same time as this, within Mindanao there has also been another movement known as the “Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)” [9], an Islamic splinter group of the MNLF. The MILF and the MNLF had both led insurgent movements and guerrilla warfare throughout Mindanao from the 1960’s to the late 1980s. This almost ended with the formation of the “Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM)” [10] on the 1st August 1989. The idea behind this was because Mindanao had its own culture and identity. To avoid future conflict, the Filipino government decided to create the ARMM within Mindanao.

For a time, this was for many a sign of peace within the region and an end to the hostility of the Moro conflict. However, some members of MNLF and some more radical Islamic members formed Abu Sayyaff “in 1991 during the peace process between the Philippine government and the nationalist/separatist terrorist group, the Moro National Liberation Front” [11]. Within a short space of time, the MILF refused to be a part of ARMM and continued with its insurgency in Mindanao. In 1997, a ceasefire had been organised with the MILF and the Philippine Army.

The ceasefire in question lasted until 2000 when the Filipino government cancelled the ceasefire. In response to this, MILF declared a Jihad against the government and the army.  This was done by the then President Estrada, “who launched an all-out war against the MILF in 2000 while he was still the president of the Philippines” [12]. What this shows is that the Philippines has a very complicated and delicate past in relation to dealing with the issue of terrorism.

In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a surge in terrorist activity within Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. This rise in aggression witnessed the formation of the “Maute Group”. The Maute Group was a combination of MILF and Abu Sayyaff militants, forming in 2012. Alongside this, “Abu Sayyaf and Maute group pledged allegiance with the Islamic State and pledged to support each other in fighting the Philippine government” [13]. The reasoning for this was to continue its insurgency within Mindanao.  At the same time as this, Islamic State (ISIS) had been formed and started to gain power within the Middle East. The effect of this was massive within Southeast Asia due to the inspiration that these ideals had around the world. The two such groups which took inspiration from this idea given out by ISIS was Abu Sayyaff and the Maute Group.

Therefore, since the events of 9/11, the Filipino government implemented several measures to deal with this problem. Firstly, this came in the form of The Human Security Act (2007). The idea behind this piece of legislation was to expand the nation’s ability to deal with terrorism. An example of this is that “this bill clarifies to Philippines Law Enforcement Agencies to arrest suspected terrorists without warrant and bestows the authority to detain suspects for 3 days”, meaning that the Filipino government had been granted further powers in tackling militants in Mindanao.

Secondly, the government passed the responsibility of dealing with domestic terrorism from the military to the national police of each region. The local police therefore had more power in dealing with these problems on a local level, instead of relying upon the national government and army to deal with these issues.

Thirdly, the Filipino government asked for foreign assistance in dealing with these issues. This came from mostly the United States (U.S). The U.S had provided financial and military assistance to the Philippines with “a major grant of 200 Glock pistols, 300 M4 carbines, 100 grenade launchers, four mini-guns and individual operator gear worth P250 million was delivered” [14]. Alongside this, many other nations also helped provide training and advise to counter-terrorism forces in the Philippines. These included Israel, as “Duterte is eager to improve security cooperation with Israel, which has sold the Philippines three radar systems and 100 armoured vehicles” [15] Australia is also amongst these nations, stating that “Australian military spy planes will start flying over the southern Philippines to help the fight against Islamic State (IS) group” [16]. Overall, what this shows is that the Filipino government before the Battle of Marawi had already started to implement many different methods in dealing with the issue of terrorism within the Philippines.

The Battle of Marawi itself began in May 2017. This started when government forces clashed with the militant groups linked to ISIS, mainly Abu Sayyaff and the Maute Group. The anti-government forces attacked several different places within the city of Marawi. These included burning down a Catholic church and two schools before eventually occupying the main sections and bridges of the city.

The initial weeks were chaotic. While Philippine authorities rushed forces in to extract pinned-down elements, create a perimeter, and manage over 100,000 displaced citizens – the militants consolidated themselves in several strongholds. In addition to this, the militants flew drones to observe the military and collected hostages, raping and torturing them.

The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, was internationally known for his ‘robust’ approach towards such matters. Within the Philippines, he had a reputation as a peace broker but also a reputation as a strong man. This was mostly due to his time of being the mayor of Davao City within Mindanao. Under his leadership as president, Duterte has declared martial law in Mindanao in response to the crisis. Exploiting his reputation as a negotiator, Duterte sought to deal with these issues through both military actions and negotiations.

Most significantly, the President reached out to the two biggest Muslim insurgent groups in Mindanao. These were both the MILF and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. Many members decided to stand with the government and organise “peace corridors” for evacuation.

After five months of fighting, the Battle of Marawi came to an end after two militant leaders were killed by government troops in a military assault. On 23 October 2017, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that the five-month battle against the terrorists in Marawi had finally ended.

The fighting within the city had taken a massive toll on the Philippines. Its cost, according to government figures, was at least 1,000 dead and thousands more wounded. The rebuilding of the city has already taken 3 years; the total cost currently amounting to around US$1 billion. Due to this, the Battle of Marawi has led to a massive review on terrorism in Philippines and South-East Asia as a whole.

Due to this major political event, it could be argued that it became a political turning point. The nations of ASEAN in the aftermath of the Battle of Marawi have been affected in many ways. Firstly, many nations of ASEAN have launched joint anti-terrorism taskforces, shown by their statement that “Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia will launch joint patrols in waters off the Mindanao region this month to counter threats from Islamic State group militants” [17]. What this shows is that ASEAN countries were now prepared to work directly together in dealing with the issue of terrorism.

Secondly, ASEAN has started to see the creation of further military bases being set up to deal with the issues of terrorism and transnational crime. Indonesia has already done so, stating it “will build more military bases on some of its most outer islands, including Morotai Island in North Maluku, which shares a border with the Philippine island of Mindanao where Islamic militants have attempted to control a city” [18]. The reasoning for this is that further military bases will aim to help with the issues of Islamic terrorism within the region.

In conclusion, the event in question has led to a large increase of interest in how to deal with terrorism within Southeast Asia. This has led to further developments into understanding terrorism within the region and of the Moro conflict. This is because many people did not believe that the creation of a caliphate by ISIS-like forces could happen in somewhere outside of the Middle East. This has not been just a turning point for the Philippines but also for ASEAN, due to the organisation’s increased emphasis on political cooperation as a means of dealing with terrorism within all of South-East Asia.


 [1]. ASEAN | ONE VISION ONE IDENTITY ONE COMMUNITY. (2019). Overview – ASEAN | ONE VISION ONE IDENTITY ONE COMMUNITY. [online] Available at: https://asean.org/asean/about-asean/overview/ [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].

[2]. ASEAN | ONE VISION ONE IDENTITY ONE COMMUNITY. (2019). Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia Indonesia, 24 February 1976 – ASEAN | ONE VISION ONE IDENTITY ONE COMMUNITY. [online] Available at: https://asean.org/treaty-amity-cooperation-southeast-asia-indonesia-24-february-1976/ [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].

 [3]. ASEAN | ONE VISION ONE IDENTITY ONE COMMUNITY. (2019). ASEAN Declaration on Transnational Crime Manila, 20 December 1997 – ASEAN | ONE VISION ONE IDENTITY ONE COMMUNITY. [online] Available at: https://asean.org/?static_post=asean-declaration-on-transnational-crime-manila-20-december-1997 [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].

 [4]. ASEAN | ONE VISION ONE IDENTITY ONE COMMUNITY. (2019). ASEAN Efforts to Combat Terrorism, by S.Pushpanathan, Phuket, Thailand – ASEAN | ONE VISION ONE IDENTITY ONE COMMUNITY. [online] Available at: https://asean.org/?static_post=asean-efforts-to-combat-terrorism-by-spushpanathan [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].

 [5]. Sidel, J. (2007). The Islamist threat in Southeast Asia. 1st ed. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p.1.

[6]. BBC News. (2019). Guide to the Philippines conflict. [online] Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-17038024 [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].

[7]. U.S. Department of State. (2019). Philippines. [online] Available at: https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/2013/eap/222161.htm [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].

[8]. Rssoarmm.psa.gov.ph. (2019). Muslim Population in Mindanao (based on POPCEN 2015) | Philippine Statistics Authority – ARMM. [online] Available at: http://rssoarmm.psa.gov.ph/release/54739/factsheet/muslim-population-in-mindanao-%28based-on-popcen-2015%29 [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].

9. Cisac.fsi.stanford.edu. (2019). FSI | CISAC | MAPPINGMILITANTS CISAC – MMP: Moro National Liberation Front. [online] Available at: https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/moro-national-liberation-front [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].

10. ARMM Official Website. (2019). ARMM History – ARMM Official Website. [online] Available at: https://armm.gov.ph/discover-armm/history/ [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].

11. Web.archive.org. (2019). MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base. [online] Available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20060827045351/http:/www.tkb.org/Group.jsp?groupID=204 [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].

12. Melican, N. (2019). Estrada stands by all-out war strategy vs MILF. [online] Newsinfo.inquirer.net. Available at: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/668386/estrada-stands-by-all-out-war-strategy-vs-milf [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].

13. Trackingterrorism.org. (2019). Maute Group / Islamic State of Lanao / Daulat Ul Islamiya / Daulah Islamiyah (ISEA) | Terrorist Groups | TRAC. [online] Available at: https://www.trackingterrorism.org/group/maute-group-islamic-state-lanao-daulat-ul-islamiya-daulah-islamiyah [Accessed 30 Oct. 2019].

Republic of the Philippines House of Representatives Bill on Human Security Section 3

^ “Analysis and review of the Philippines Human Security Act 2007″(March 16, 2007),

14. Viray, P. (2019). Fact check: Duterte’s claims on US aid to military | Philstar.com. [online] philstar.com. Available at: https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2017/10/23/1751665/fact-check-dutertes-claims-us-aid-military [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].

15. Aljazeera.com. (2019). Duterte thanks Netanyahu for help in ending Marawi siege. [online] Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/09/duterte-netanyahu-marawi-siege-180903133410283.html [Accessed 12 Nov. 2019].

16. ABC News. (2019). Australian spy planes to fly over Philippines in IS fight. [online] Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-23/australian-spy-planes-to-fly-over-philippines-in-is-fight/8645086 [Accessed 16 Nov. 2019].

Voice of America. (2019). US Special Forces Helping Philippines Fight Militants in Marawi. [online] Available at: https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/us-special-forces-helping-philippines-fight-militants-marawi [Accessed 15 Nov. 2019].

17. NST Online. (2017). Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia to kick off joint patrols off Mindanao to fight militants: Hisham. [online] Available at: https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2017/06/245285/malaysia-philippines-indonesia-kick-joint-patrols-mindanao-fight [Accessed 13 Nov. 2019].

18. Post, T. (2017). Indonesia to build military base near southern Philippines. [online] The Jakarta Post. Available at: https://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/06/08/indonesia-to-build-military-base-near-southern-philippines.html [Accessed 13 Nov. 2019].