ASEAN defense ministers agreed Monday to work closely to combat what they described as a regional terrorist threat after the Philippines declared an end to a five-month siege by pro-Islamic State (IS) militants in southern Marawi city.
In a joint statement, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations expressed its full support to Manila in addressing security concerns in Marawi, and acknowledged the need for “enhanced regional cooperation through intelligence and information sharing, increasing surveillance and promoting awareness among the public about the threat of radicalism.”
Ministers representing the Southeast Asian bloc’s 10 members – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – also reaffirmed their commitment to preventing tensions from escalating in the South China Sea, and they “strongly urged” North Korea to comply with all relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.
ASEAN came out with the statement hours after Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that troops had finally defeated a band of Islamic State-backed militants, who launched a siege of Marawi on May 23 in a failed bid to establish a regional IS caliphate.
More than 1,000 militants, soldiers and civilians died in the fighting that reduced the once-scenic lakeshore city into rubble.
Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein underscored that much had changed during the past decades in dealing with extremism, which should be met head on, he said.
“We must be firm and bold, yet strategic and concerted in our approach when dealing with extremists and militants who take up their cause all in the name of religion,” Hishammuddin said.
While a U.S.-led international coalition had succeeded in battling IS in the Middle East, “the disturbing prospect, however, is that the Asia Pacific is now in Daesh’s crosshairs,” he said, using another acronym for IS.
“This threat to our region is real and multi-dimensional, whether from returning fighters, regional franchises or, more disturbingly, from self-radicalized lone wolves,” he said.
“There is a grave danger that existing fault-lines in our region will be exploited, as well as exacerbated, by Daesh’s increasing presence,” Hishammuddin said.
Muslim-majority Malaysia was one with the Philippines, a predominantly Catholic country, as it moves to rehabilitate Marawi after five months of fighting there, he said, even as he emphasized that what happened there could easily be replicated elsewhere.
With the militant group’s members being able to blend in to the population, it has made it difficult even for the military to detect and preempt attacks, he said.
“The sobering fact is that there are no good military options in our fight against Daesh,” Hishammuddin said. “Neither counter-terrorism, nor counter-insurgency, nor conventional warfare is likely to afford us a clear-cut victory against the group.”
He said ASEAN should instead move for “offensive containment,” one that combines a limited military campaign with diplomatic and economic efforts.
“Meeting the threat of religious extremism cannot be met by one country alone. The problem, as we have seen, does not respect national borders and thinking that any one nation can go it alone is delusional,” Hishammuddin said.
Philippine presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said that with the fighting in Marawi ending, the government was now focusing on efforts to rebuild the city, home to about 200,000 residents displaced by the fighting.
“We have successfully concluded what has been, so far, the most serious threat of violent extremism and radicalism in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia,” Abella said.
“With the liberation of Marawi, our focus now shifts to the enormous and challenging task of rebuilding, reconstruction and rehabilitation of the Islamic city,” he said.
Razlan Rashid in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.