More than three months since Filipino troops liberated Marawi City from the clutches of Islamic State-inspired militants, the former urban battle zone remains restricted to residents eager to return and rebuild their lives.
On January 30, President Rodrigo Duterte oversaw a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a second military camp in Marawi, symbolically on the site where the former City Hall stood before it was badly damaged in the battle.
Moderate Muslim leaders fear the establishment of a new permanent military presence in the city could serve as a lightning rod for militant recruitment, particularly amid rising local frustration with the pace and terms of resettlement and rehabilitation.
At least 350,000 of Marawi’s residents, or over 77,000 families, were displaced by the fierce urban warfare fighting.
Duterte, who donned military fatigues and rallied troops during the five-month battle that killed over 1,100 people, mostly militants, has visited Marawi eight times since the beginning of the siege. Last month, he personally handed out certificates to residents who were given shelter by the state.
But in reconstruction and rehabilitation, Duterte’s administration seems increasingly out of touch with rising local resentments.
The devastating siege, sparked by the Islamic State-aligned Maute Group and supported by foreign fighters, represented the heaviest combat Filipino troops had seen since World War II.
The fight subsequently triggered Duterte to place the entire island of Mindanao, home to over 20 million people, under rights-curbing martial law. The order was later extended until the end of 2018. It survived a constitutional challenge that was junked by top judges in early February.
Critics see the blanket order as overkill and aimed ultimately at rolling back liberties. The government terminated military offensives and declared victory on October 23, exactly five months after the militants first attacked Marawi, a Muslim majority city of religious and historical significance.
They also feel the government’s priority on restoring stability has come to the detriment of the city’s still languishing residents. Social Welfare Department data showed that only 26,400 families from 36 of the city’s almost 100 villages had been allowed to return to Marawi as of December.
The remaining 50,000 plus displaced families continue to languish at 66 evacuation centers or with their relatives in towns surrounding the lakeside Marawi. Many are now desperately waiting to return home and resume their livelihoods amid fast dwindling official relief assistance.
Duterte handpicked retired military General Eduardo del Rosario, concurrently the government’s housing czar, to lead Task Force Bangon (Rise) Marawi (TFBM), a body composed of various government agencies tasked with rebuilding and rehabilitating the war-torn city.
Yet it’s not clear to residents and observers that Duterte’s government is dedicating sufficient funds to rebuild the devastated city, much of which lies in rubble from ordnance fire, including militant improved explosive devices and government aerial bombardments.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier estimated it would cost over US$1 billion to completely rebuild the city. But so far the government has allocated only US$292 million (15 billion pesos) for the task. Nor is the government delivering on its recovery program, with only half of 1,100 targeted transitional shelters completed as of late January.
Del Rosario says the government plans to construct 6,000 temporary housing units and another 3,000 permanent residences that will be awarded to those whose homes were completely destroyed in the conflict.
Reconstruction at “ground zero”, an area covering 250 hectares straddling 24 villages with an estimated population of 11,000 families, is expected to begin in late April, del Rosario said at a January 26 press briefing in Malacanang Palace, the presidential seat of power in the Philippines.
“Ground zero remains restricted to civilians because of the ongoing clearing operations by the military for unexploded ammunition and ordnances. After the military finishes the clearing operations, then we will start rehabilitating the 250 hectares,” he said.
Destruction of buildings in the ground zero zone has left behind three million tons of debris, del Rosario said. He projected restoring the area will take four years, or until December 2021, a few months before the end of Duterte’s six-year term.
Development of a second military camp in Marawi, the one for which Duterte recently broke ground, will cost an estimated US$7.8 million and is expected to be completed in two years, or by February 2020.
With the military’s existing Camp Ranao in Marawi, local Muslim leaders have openly criticized plans for the new facility, arguing that the money would be better spent on development, rehabilitation and the humanitarian needs of victims.
Marawi’s sultan, Abdul Hamidullah Atar, has openly bemoaned the government’s perceived as slow efforts in rehabilitating the main battle area, as well as Duterte’s decision to develop a second military camp in the now military-controlled city.
“The government is prolonging the agony of the victims hardest hit by the war by not allowing them to enter and not immediately rehabilitating the main affected area,” Atar told Asia Times. “And now the development of a second military camp within the city…these are fertile grounds for Islamic militants to hire new recruits, banking on their deprivation and the supposed abusive tendencies of soldiers.”
The Muslim leader said he has documented at least 3,000 cases of looting allegedly perpetrated mostly by soldiers during the five-month war with the Islamic militants who attempted to establish Marawi as a “wilayat”, or province, for Islamic State in Southeast Asia.
He also believed that the massive military offensive that relied on aerial bombings and artillery strikes was deliberately conducted to flatten the core of Marawi as part of a plot to develop the new military installation.
“Whatever they (military) take, we will pay to avoid trouble,” Duterte assured the tenements that will be affected by the military development that is designed to span 10 hectares. Officials point to a Presidential Proclamation issued on December 23, 1953 which declared 6,000 hectares in Marawi as a military reservation as legal justification for the move.
But the move is quickly losing local hearts and minds. Tindeg Ranao, an association of evacuees from Marawi, has also slammed the Duterte government for apparently giving priority to the development of a new military camp over the increasingly dire needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs).
“He is an inconsiderate leader with a misplaced priority for Marawi. We lost our homes, our livelihood and some family members due to the military airstrikes and militarization and now he is putting importance on strengthening the military,” the group said in statement.
Tindeg Ranao also expressed concerns that the new military camp will serve as a base for United States forces, whom the government acknowledged played a key role in defeating the Islamic State-linked militants, mainly through intelligence-sharing and tactical advise.
Del Rosario revealed the government has not yet chosen the developer to be responsible for rehabilitating the ground zero area. He said reconstruction would be announced by an official ground-breaking ceremony and has stressed that Marawi’s recovery and reconstruction is “high on the list of the Duterte administration.”
But those official assurances are wearing thin with locals who perceive a disconnect between the government’s promises and the lack of progress on the ground.
Sultan Atar has implored the government to consider the cultural and religious sensitivities of the local population in its reconstruction work and take steps to prevent the spread of negative popular perceptions that militants could exploit to stir new instability in the region.
Atar, for one, believes that much of the violence could have been avoided if local Muslim leaders had been allowed to play a more prominent mediating role at the start of the conflict.
“If Duterte did not immediately declare martial law and [if] the local traditional leaders were given the chance to negotiate with the Islamic State militants, even for just a few days, the war may not have lasted for five months and the destruction in Marawi may not have been this horrible,” the sultan said.