A hat too many

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

The Islamic Holy month called Ed’l Fit’r officially ends today. Always proudly tracing his Maranaw roots, President Rodrigo Duterte earlier declared a special nationwide holiday all over the country for this Islamic religious event. This is to enable our Filipino Muslims to observe it in accordance with their traditions along with the rest of the Islamic world.

The Holy month of Ramadhan started in a sad note though for Filipino Muslims. Inspired by the deadly international extremist group Islamic State (IS), Filipino Muslim radicals led by the Maute brothers laid siege in Marawi City last May 22.

The Maute siege prompted President Duterte to impose a Mindanao-wide martial law. The martial law proclamation limited its effectivity for 60 days only.

So far, there has been no spillover of the Maute siege elsewhere. But fellow IS-influenced radical extremists from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) apparently tried but failed to create diversionary raids in North Cotabato last week. Their usual antics were foiled anew.

As of this writing, fighting against the Mautes still continues in Marawi City after a month of skirmishes inhabited by estimated 200,000 people, 90 percent of whom are Muslims. Trying to step up the pace of the clearing operations, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have resorted to air strikes to pound strongholds of the Mautes inside the city.

As government forces currently conduct clearing operations, the number of displaced Marawi residents is also growing bigger and bigger each day. This is not to mention the rising number of casualties, sadly children and non-combatant civilians. Many of them killed in the fighting but some died after getting sick at the evacuation centers. 

Spread out in several temporary evacuation centers, the government expects greater need for food and other relief goods for the so-called “bakwits,” especially for most of the Muslim families and their children now that their fasting period observed during the Ramadhan is over.

Hopefully, national government agencies such as the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and the Department of Health (DOH) are up to their respective tasks to prevent the Marawi situation to turn into a humanitarian crisis.

President Duterte earlier announced plans to allocate P20 billion for the rebuilding of the strife-torn Marawi City as soon as government forces have driven out the last of the marauding Maute-led terrorists. But reconstruction efforts could only start once government gains full control of the city and totally defeat the enemies of the state.

The AFP have confirmed the Mautes were being aided by their foreign Islamic brothers from neighboring countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore all the way to Pakistan and Yemen to as far as Chechnya in Southern Russia. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier reported eight foreign jihadists have been killed in separate gun battles between government troops and Maute militants in Marawi City.

With porous borders that we have in our country, these foreign extremists enter through our Mindanao backdoors.

This is why it is important for our government to step up its diplomatic offensive to win over the support of these countries similarly situated with IS threats. Already, President Duterte in a telephone conversation with his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo reportedly pressed for a trilateral cooperation with Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines in the common battle against IS-influenced extremists groups.

The three countries have agreed “to work together to jointly develop and implement counter-terrorism measures and strategies to prevent future terrorist attacks in the region.”

Likewise, there is wisdom for President Duterte to try to win over the support also of our Middle East friends to help put an end to Islamic radical groups like the IS. The President has already chalked up goodwill when he made state visits to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar one after the other in April this year.

Unfortunately, Qatar finds itself in the middle of stormy relations with fellow Arab states. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain cut economic, diplomatic and travel ties to Doha on June 5. Doha’s independent-minded approach, including perceived dovish stand on Iran and alleged support for Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, has angered the four Arab states. Qatar has denied the accusations.

Attending a dinner hosted for select members of the Philippine media last Wednesday night, Qatar ambassador to the Philippines Ali Ibrahim Al Malki reiterated to us his government’s denials and swore his country’s being a good citizen of the world.

Despite this diplomatic row with fellow Arab states, the ambassador reassured us that Qatar remains committed to its official commitments to President Duterte forged in the Doha state visit last April 14-16. According to the ambassador, the biggest Qatari business groups are coming to Manila later this year to finalize the investment agreements signed during the state visit of President Duterte. He said Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is considering the invitation of President Duterte to make a reciprocal state visit to the Philippines.

The ambassador disclosed he appreciated the efforts of newly appointed Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano who he said went out his way to correct a knee-jerk reaction to suspend the deployment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to Qatar following the boycott call by the four Arab states against his country.

Upon Cayetano’s intercession, the suspension order issued by Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Secretary Silvestre Bello III was eventually lifted. According to the ambassador, there are more than 250,000 OFWs employed in Qatar who are highly paid and treated well in his country.

The ambassador lamented the Qatar Embassy in Manila learned about DOLE’s suspension order only through media the next day. “They (DOLE) could have called us first and inquire from us if there is any danger to Filipinos in Qatar,” the ambassador rued.

The DOLE Secretary might be too busy parleying with communist leaders. As the head of the government peace panel, it always takes Bello out of DOLE to embark on frequent travels to and fro Europe doing his other job.

This is just one of the hazards of wearing a hat too many and when the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing.

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