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ASEAN must adapt its approach to Marawi

ASEAN Must Adapt Its Approach To Marawi

Author: Joseph Franco, RSIS

Manila continues to grapple with the challenges of countering violent extremism. Nearly a year after the battle for Marawi, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of martial law over Mindanao is yet to address fully the threat posed by groups linked to the so-called Islamic State (IS). Winning the war against violent extremism in Southeast Asia will require greater cooperation among ASEAN states.

ASEAN was quick to act when the fighting erupted in Marawi. Singapore was one of the first countries to send humanitarian supplies to the beleaguered city. Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines established joint trilateral border patrols to prevent the movement of terrorists.

Southeast Asian countries also cooperated closely in knowledge-sharing to confront violent extremist groups following the siege. ASEAN defence ministers are now discussing the establishment of the ‘Our Eyes’ Initiative, which seeks to further institutionalise pre-existing intelligence-sharing mechanisms.

Information operations by the Philippine military complemented its combat operations during the battle for Marawi. Partnerships with major social media companies and other states led to the systematic takedown of harmful content. Confronting terrorist ideologies online denied IS-linked groups full control of the informational space.

But the military defeat of the Maute Group and its IS-linked allies in Marawi is only the first step in rebuilding the city.

The ruins of what was once the commercial heart of Marawi stand testament to the long-term disruption posed by violent extremism. The razing of dozens of mosques and madrasahs (educational institutions) in Marawi imperils the city’s status as the Philippines’ centre for Islamic learning. Delayed reconstruction of the city would only lead to resentment and create a wellspring for terrorist narratives in the future.

Growing polarisation within states can lead to the emergence of other potential ‘extremisms’ besides the brand of violence associated with IS and other resurgent groups such as al-Qaeda. This is apparent in ASEAN, which has witnessed the continuation of sectarian violence. Violence has come from a broad range of actors, from inchoate nationalist movements to secessionist groups.

There is an emerging consensus that countering violent extremism can be more effective through the implementation of non-securitised digital literacy and public education programs than the promotion of counter-narratives. Southeast Asian youths remain vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremist groups.

Unfortunately, the distribution of government capacities among ASEAN member-states is too uneven to pursue a holistic counter-extremism effort. One way to level the playing field is to identify capacity gaps and share lessons learned through events such as the regional counter-terrorism symposium that was held in Singapore in October 2018.

As ASEAN pushes to create a resilient and networked community of peoples, states should act to enable joint initiatives on counter extremism. ASEAN’s long record of fostering both governmental and non-governmental diplomatic initiatives would make it unnecessary to reinvent the wheel in this regard.

Beyond upstream efforts to inoculate vulnerable populations from violent extremism, ASEAN can help improve the quality of life in Mindanao. The Bangsamoro Organic Law is expected to bring meaningful political and economic autonomy to Filipino Muslims. But its success rests on the ability of local elected officials to take the lead in bringing progress to their communities. ASEAN can help balance uneven levels of local governance in Mindanao by focussing on capacity-building programs.

Addressing the socioeconomic roots of conflict in Mindanao is a long-term project. But its benefits go beyond dissipating the sources of rage that violent extremists tap into for their radicalisation activities. Gaining valuable experience in promoting good governance could pay dividends even in non-security issues across Southeast Asia. Economic and political development forges stronger communal bonds. This could help stem the increasing appeal of populist politics and the intolerance it breeds within states.

Multilateral security mechanisms should only be the start of a holistic counter-extremism effort in Southeast Asia. National-level best practices can be found across ASEAN, whether involving states or non-state entities. The challenge lies in taking what works from one country and adapting it to suit local conditions in another country.

Adversaries like IS are continually evolving, seeking to exploit emerging technologies and build their own illicit networks. States and their partners, whether technology firms or civil society organisations, need to adapt quicker. The destruction wrought by IS-linked militants in Marawi is a cautionary example of what happens when drivers of conflict are not systematically addressed and security services become complacent.

Joseph Franco is a Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

A version of this article was originally published here on RSIS.

This post first appeared on East Asia Forum, please read the originial post: here

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ASEAN must adapt its approach to Marawi