MANILA: On May 23, militants from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups stormed into the city of Marawi in Mindanao and occupied large parts of it.
Claiming allegiance to Islamic State (IS), they laid siege to buildings, homes, places of worship and took hostages. Three months on, there is no clear end in sight for the Philippine troops who continue to battle the militants.
And the siege is no longer just seen as a local threat. Local militants, joined by foreign fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and other ASEAN countries, are using the city as a staging post to declare Islamic State's first "province" in Southeast Asia.
Marawi - still under martial law - is now at the epicentre of the region’s homegrown terrorism threat
"The problem has now come into ASEAN with the situation in Marawi. But it is clear that even if the situation is contained, other provinces are at risk," said Ng Eng Hen, Singapore’s defence minister.
"IS-linked elements plus other extremist groups, have formed networks and intend to advance their plans to turn Southeast Asia into a situation similar to Iraq and Syria."
This issue is not new. Southeast Asia has long been a fertile ground for the expansion of Islamic terror networks. Various international extremist groups have had a continued presence in ASEAN countries including the Jemaah Islamiyah, Al Qaeda and now IS.
WORKING TOGETHER TO TACKLE TERROR THREAT
In 2001, ASEAN leaders expressed their determination to address the threat of terrorism through the ASEAN Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism. They resolved to intensify their efforts to prevent and suppress the activities of terrorist groups in the region.
Recently ASEAN has made more concerted moves to address the new threat.
On Jun 19, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines agreed to fight trans-border terrorism activities on the Sulu-Sulawesi-Celebes Sea by launching maritime patrols.
And on Jun 22, foreign ministers, police and military chiefs from the same countries gathered in Manila, with one concern: How to combat the rise of terrorism in the region?
"No country is immune from terrorism, this threat is beyond border," said Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in her opening remarks. "Your challenges are Indonesia’s challenges and also the challenges of the region."
The meeting concluded with attendees agreeing to enhance effort and cooperation in addressing the root causes and underlying conditions of extremism including poverty, narcotics, crime and social injustice.
The countries agreed to enhance the intelligence and information sharing amongst all security and intelligence agencies and review and implement all of the existing agreements on terrorism and violent extremism to make a cross-analysis comparison of each country’s laws on terrorism with a view to enhancing legislation.
"Let’s just remember if other countries have nationals in Marawi or Mindanao who are extremists, they are as much a threat to their home country - it is the same thing with what happens in Iraq and Syria," said Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano.
"Jihadi extremists from other countries - some stay to fight, some stay to organise. We discussed the different nationalities involved: How to keep them out of Southeast Asia and how to ensure they will not cross borders."
OFFERS OF HELP
The Philippines has admitted it is not equipped to deal with the threat on its own and other ASEAN countries have showed their concern by offering humanitarian and other assistance in the Marawi siege.
Singapore, for example, has offered to deploy drones for intelligence and surveillance, and provide urban warfare training.
“(Philippine Defence Secretary) Lorenzana expressed the need for training in urban settings and it just so happens we have been preparing for this,” said Dr Ng.
“We have an urban training village to train our soldiers to do counter insurgency in built up areas. So this is very suitable for the operating environment that the Philippine armed forces now finds itself in Marawi and in other places in Mindanao, and in the future too."
Malaysia and Indonesia have also offered to help, but it has been suggested that more can be done in terms of defence cooperation.
"The conflict in the Philippines serves as a 'honey pot', attracting the wild bees in Malaysia and Indonesia and even Singapore," said Boogie Mendoza, president of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
"Therein lies the challenge … the response must be joint collaboration not only in intelligence but in joint operations as well."
GOING AGAINST PRINCIPLE OF NON-INTERFERENCE?
But the sharing of troops could cut to the heart of the regional bloc's principle of non-interference.
"I would consider it as a boon and bane," said Chester Cabalza, military and defence analyst. "There are some strengths where you see the ASEAN way working because there are some issues where you have to use non-interference in terms of policy making and in terms of decision making."
He added: "But in terms of terrorism, which is real and which affects civilians, there should be some degree on how to address the issue and there should be some flexibility when it comes to sovereignty issues in addressing terrorism."
As ASEAN turns 50 on Aug 8, the battle for Marawi and the security of Southeast Asia continues to be threatened.
The Philippine constitution prohibits foreign forces from directly engaging in actual combat on Philippine soil, except when asked to do so by the government. But the experience from the Asian tsunami in 2004 could prove to be a learning point.
The scale of the destruction caused by the tsunami made ASEAN countries realise the need for their militaries to work together to tackle regional crises.
The member states rushed to draft the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response, but took a considerably longer amount of time to adopt this agreement.
Marawi can now be seen as the litmus test to see if defence cooperation among ASEAN member states can be taken to another level.