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More could've been done to prevent Marawi siege, Esperon admits

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon on Friday admitted that although the government saw the Marawi siege coming, it could have done more to prevent it from erupting. PPD/File

MANILA, Philippines — The government saw the siege of Marawi City coming but could not totally prevent it from happening, according to National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, as he offered a defense of the administration's actions in the runup to the siege on the country's only Islamic city.

Esperon's defense came as former President Fidel Ramos on Friday offered a veiled criticism of the government over its handling of the Marawi siege, saying that the crisis could have been averted had it conducted more consultation and forged consensus with different stakeholders.

Reacting to Ramos' statement, Esperon conceded that more consultations could have prevented the fighting in Marawi.

He however added that even before the crisis erupted, they had already received reports starting from initial fighting with the Maute group in Butig town in late 2016 to the moment they mobilized and moved their forces to Marawi City.

This was the reason they decided to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, the appointed emir of Southeast Asia, which precipitated the fighting on May 23.

He said that even if they had heard of the stockpiling of supplies including armaments in the area they could not act as this could have been the doing of local warlords in Marawi, where he said unlicensed firearms are ubiquitous.

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Knowing there was stockpiling was one thing, and knowing that the Maute fighters would use the armaments was another, he said.

'No such thing as complete intelligence'

Esperon, a former chief of the Philippine military, said that many things could have been averted with better intelligence which, he admitted, had shortcomings.

"There is no complete or perfect intelligence," said Esperon.

"This is not an excuse. There is no such thing as complete intelligence. Otherwise, there would not be big incidents that we know even in big countries," he added, referring to attacks in more economically developed countries in Europe.

The 123-day-old Marawi crisis is the most serious security problem for President Rodrigo Duterte during his more than one year in office and has claimed the lives of hundreds of militants, soldiers and civilians.

It has also displaced hundreds of thousands of residents of the lakeside city and destroyed many of the city's infrastructure as the military bombarded its business district in an effort to flush out the militants.

The former president, speaking at the Conference on Peace and the Prevention of Violent Extremism in Southeast Asia, said that Duterte should have convened the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Committee more frequently to talk about issues facing the government.

This could have averted a crisis such as Marawi, according to Ramos who was one of the people who prodded then Davao City Mayor Duterte to seek the presidency.

"The Marawi crisis could have been prevented if only there was more of consultation and consensus," Ramos said.

He said that the government should include in its consultation members of the opposition as well as vulnerable sectors such as women, the youth and the elderly.

"We talk about the current issues including violence, including terrorism, including insurgency, including organized crimes, including drugs, including corruption, including all the problems that beset the government," he said.

'More consultation would have averted crisis'

He said that the current Congress had passed only the budget bill and the proposed law postponing village and youth council elections, in contrast during their time when they were able to pass 227 reform laws in six years or an average of 1 reform law per nine days.

"Now the consultation is only among the party leaders. Ano 'yun? Patronage politics," Ramos, president from 1992 to 1998, said.

Amina Rasul-Bernardo, the president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, said the proliferation of illegal firearms had been an incessant problem in Muslim Mindanao.

"Anybody from the community who lives there knows which lords have what kind of stockpile," said Rasul, one of the conveners of the ASEAN security forum in Manila.

Bernardo said that the Maute brothers, who were raised and who have lived in the area for many years, would know who among the local warlords had which kinds of weapons as these were not shy about brandishing these in public.

"It was not a failure of intelligence, but the problem was you had these interlocking complications," she said.

Bernardo said that what's important as this point was to prevent the spread of what happened in Marawi to other communities.

The rehabilitation or de-radicalization of the captured militants was also important, she said.

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