Who was Omarkhayam Maute?

Salient facts of Omar Maute’s life are still absent from internet sources. For example, we don’t have his birthday. I can guess that he was in his late 30s or early forties when he died (on October 16, 2017, US time) given that he was a teenager in the 1990s. There is no mention of children he might have had with his Indonesian wife though it’s reasonable to assume he probably did. Reports of his death surfaced in February 2017 and then in August 2017 and then now, announced definitively, hours before I write this.

It drives home the uncomfortable fact that the very open Western resource of internet articles and social media allows these subversive groups to enter and exit our world and use our openness to their own advantage while they enjoy at least some semblance of privacy. One article claimed 63 Facebook accounts sourced to the Maute group. They say he used social media for recruiting. And yet, we don’t even know his birthday.

It also brings home another already obvious fact that is often ignored: while the ruling class of the Philippines is decidedly Western-oriented, Malaysia is our closest neighbor. The Southernmost tip of Balabac Island, part Palawan province, is just over 20 miles north of the Malaysian island of Pulau Balambangan and Sibutu Island in the province of Tawi-Tawi is 8.7 miles east of Sabah, Malaysia. But in order for someone from Manila to fly to Kuala Lumpur, they would have to travel slightly more than 1500 miles, just a touch less than the distance between SFO and Pierre, South Dakota. While Mindanao does have international airports as far south as General Santos City, the capital and its Western-facing leadership are emphatically Manila-centric. In fact, until Duterte was elected, it was largely assumed that Presidents were chosen by the occupants of Southern Luzon.

A slight peer into Omar Maute’s background and it becomes apparent that the lives (and boundaries) of the Philippines do not match the imagination of its leaders. Omar Maute was educated in Egypt at the Al Azhar University in Cairo. He married an Indonesian woman and, based on the limited comments, seemed integrated into her family. In Western-facing Manila, this kind of international reach is only achievable by those who can afford the cost of PAL flights and Western tuition. Meanwhile, there exists a subculture that seems to have blended lives and identity with the Muslim world…to the extent that they are educated and conversant in Middle Eastern languages as was Maute.

If there exists within the Philippines this entirely different cultural pull, Maute and his clan are artifacts of negligent leadership. They are negligent for failing to represent this demographic and they are negligent for not recognizing the dynamic. For at least 50 years, Manila has been happy to pretend that the country does not really count beyond its borders. I witnessed this first hand as I watched (from afar) my uncles bootstrap Cebu’s recovery from Typhoon Ruping in the 1990s. Today, with the death of one of the leaders of the Marawi siege, I finally understand why Duterte was elected. It might have been about drugs, sure. It might have been a repudiation of the status quo and those who benefitted. But it was Mindanawans (and other Southerners) calling for leadership that understands them.