By Hadi Azmi
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to bolster bilateral security ties Monday as they talked about the Islamic State (IS) and pledged to curb the spread of extremism and terrorism in the Southeast Asian region, sources and official statements said.
Mahathir received Duterte at his office in Putrajaya, the nation’s administrative capital, after the 93-year-old Malaysian leader participated in oath-taking with fellow members of the parliament.
“Both leaders were pleased with the commitment shown by both countries to curb the spread of extremism and terrorism in the region,” according to a statement from Mahathir’s office. “Malaysia also expressed support toward peace and development in Mindanao, Southern Philippines.”
In a short text message, a Mahathir aide told BenarNews that the two leaders talked about Islamic State (IS) terror group during their private meeting.
“Yes, they did talk about IS among other issues,” the source said, without elaborating.
Duterte was on a private visit to Malaysia – his first with Mahathir. He met his Malaysian counterpart Saturday night during the fight between the Philippines Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao and Argentinian Lucas Matthysse – billed as the biggest boxing match in the country since the 1975 heavyweight clash between Muhammad Ali and Australian Joe Bugner.
Mahathir arrived at the venue during the sixth round, giving him only one round to watch the Filipino icon deliver his seventh-round knockout.
A statement from Duterte’s office in Manila released after Monday’s meeting, said the Philippine leader “pointed out the need to address terrorism and violent extremism, as well as transnational crimes, such as piracy and armed robbery at sea along with illegal drug trade.
“President Duterte expressed appreciation for Malaysia’s sustained support for the quest for just and lasting peace and development in Mindanao,” the statement said, referring to the southern Philippine island where pro-IS militants operate.
Last year, militants led by acknowledged IS regional leader Isnilon Hapilon laid siege to the city of Marawi in Mindanao. Security forces effectively ended the Marawi siege by killing Hapilon after five months of gun battles that also killed about 1,200 people, most of them militants.
Hapilon’s force was backed by Southeast Asian militants and other foreign fighters, including Indonesians and Malaysians, in a plot that caught the Philippine government by surprise.
Two Malaysians who had allegedly helped plan the Marawi siege, Mahmud Ahmad and Amin Baco, were believed to have been killed as the Philippine military closed in on the militants. Their bodies have not been found and authorities in the nearby eastern Malaysian state of Sabah recently included their names on a list of wanted militants.
IS-linked Malaysian fighters, along with some Indonesians, pose serious threats to Philippine security as they are believed to have settled in areas near Marawi, security analysts and military officials previously told BenarNews.
Mahathir had been known as a strongman because of his reputation on handling human rights when he governed Muslim-majority Malaysia for 22 years beginning in 1981. But analysts believe he has softened his strongman image since his opposition bloc demolished the ruling party in the May 9 general election.
Meanwhile, Duterte remains the focus of international criticisms as rights groups have said that as many as 12,000 people have been killed in the drug war under his administration. Official figures reflect only about 4,000 deaths and authorities said those occurred in shootouts with police officers.
The statement from Manila said Duterte and Mahathir “renewed and reaffirmed the long-standing brotherhood and friendship between the Philippines and Malaysia.”
Both sides offered few details on what transpired during the talks. A BenarNews source in Mahathir’s office said Manila had requested keeping details of the meeting private.
Before the meeting, Duterte spokesman Harry Roque said the Philippine leader was planning to talk about insurgency and IS.
Piracy against ships in the region remains an issue for Southeast Asia, which in recent years has become a hotbed for IS-linked militants, according to analysts.
Malaysia aids in peace process
In 2016, Malaysia brokered the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels on the southern island of Mindanao. Malaysian participation has evolved to include monitoring of an interim ceasefire pact forged by the two parties about two decades ago.
The peace process involved the drafting the Bangsamoro Basic Law, a legislative bill that will allow for the establishment of the Muslim-majority Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Mindanao as a political entity in the predominantly Catholic Philippines.
The BBL spells out the proposed autonomous region in the south, its scope and powers. Its passage is expected to bring peace Mindanao, the country’s mineral-rich southern third where many areas remain mired in poverty because of the insurgency.
The 12,000-member Moro Islamic Liberation Front dropped its bid for self-rule to settle for an expanded autonomy when it signed a peace deal with Manila four years ago.
The Philippine Senate and the House of Representatives in June passed their respective versions of the law, but the lawmakers have come under criticism for allegedly watering down certain provisions. Duterte is expected to sign the bill on July 23 prior to delivering his State of the Nation address before a joint Congress.