A view from 'Ground Zero' of the war-ruined Philippine city of Marawi, March 21, 2019. Photo: Bong Sarmiento

Nearly two years since Islamic State-aligned militants laid devastating siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi, tens of thousands of stranded residents still dream of returning to their homes and businesses.

But rather than laying blame solely on the Philippine government for the slow and inadequate response, displaced locals are pointing to another culprit for their misery and woe: China.

Two consortiums led by state-owned Chinese firms, namely the Bagong Marawi Consortium (BMC) and Power Construction Corporation of China Ltd, have come under rising civil society fire for the delays in rebuilding and resettlement.

Both consortiums have apparently pulled out of the bidding for rebuilding contracts over terms and conditions after months of protracted negotiations with the Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM), the government agency coordinating reconstruction.

The Philippine Department of Finance (DoF) has estimated that 72.2 billion pesos (US$1.4 billion) is needed for the complete reconstruction and rehabilitation of Marawi, the country’s only Muslim majority city.

Negotiations bogged down with BMC due to its to alleged failure to prove its legal, technical and financial capacities, people familiar with the situation told Asia Times.

The talks with PowerChina were halted after TFBM was advised by other government agencies it could face legal challenges if it undertook the entire rehabilitation of Marawi with only a single developer, the same sources said.

FILE PHOTO: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (C) poses for a picture with female soldiers during his visit at Bangolo town in Marawi city, southern Philippines October 17, 2017. Malacanang Presidential Photo/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
President Rodrigo Duterte (C) with female soldiers at Bangolo town in Marawi City, October 17, 2017. Malacanang Presidential Photo/Handout

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. On October 17, 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte, during his seventh high profile visit to Marawi, declared the city “liberated” from the terrorist siege and that the day marked the “beginning of rehabilitation for the people.”

As many as 360,000 individuals were displaced by the five-month-long urban warfare. Some 70,000 evacuees currently reside in squalid evacuation sites, transitional shelters or with relatives, waiting for the government to allow them to return to start rebuilding their broken homes and structures.

Despite Duterte’s high-level pronouncement, it took over a year for the TFBM to hold symbolic groundbreaking rites for the rehabilitation of the city’s so-called “Ground Zero”, also known as the most affected area (MAA), on October 31, 2018.

Almost 18 months after the city’s “liberation,” the MAA, covering 24 villages and spanning 250 hectares, remains a woeful sight of devastated buildings and structures bereft of residents, save for stray dogs and cats.

Drieza Lininding, chair of the Marawi-based civic organization Moro Consensus Group, has blamed the lack of reconstruction progress and resettlement of the city’s stranded residents on the state’s unsuccessful negotiations with what he sees as aggressive Chinese contractors.

“Months after the liberation of Marawi, no groundbreaking happened because they (TFBM) were busy talking with the Chinese-led consortium to rehabilitate the city through a joint venture agreement,” Lininding told Asia Times on the sidelines of a congressional inquiry on Marawi held last month. “It has consumed a lot of time.”

A war-torn building at Marawi’s Ground Zero, March 21, 2019. Photo: Bong Sarmiento

The protracted and secretive talks have also raised eyebrows with independent observers.

Two of the Chinese firms under the BMC – China State Construction Engineering Corp Ltd, which is owned by the Chinese government, and the privately-held China Geo Engineering Corp – were previously blacklisted by the World Bank in 2009 for allegedly conspiring with Philippine companies to rig the bidding of road projects the international lender partly financed.

BMC appealed the decision but TFBM field office manager Felix Castro Jr told Asia Times via text message on March 27, that “the motion of BMC [to rebuild Marawi] is moot and academic with the shift of procurement to public bidding.”

Even if the two Chinese-led consortiums are now out apparently of the running to serve as a single developer for Marawi’s delayed rehabilitation, sentiments against China’s involvement in rebuilding the city still linger.

“No way. We don’t want Chinese involvement, especially state-owned Chinese corporations,” said Lininding, when asked if they will still welcome Chinese contractors in the rehabilitation of their war-torn city. He said many in Marawi feared Chinese investment could lead to a “debt trap.”

“We are afraid, especially we have Lake Lanao as a resource. We don’t want to see Chinese firms taking control of (the lake) if we can’t repay the cost they will incur in rebuilding our city,” Lininding said.

Lake Lanao is the second largest lake in the Philippines and the largest on the southern island of Mindanao. The lake serves as a major source of hydropower in the country’s underdeveloped south.

A deserted lane at the center of Marawi city, March 21, 2019. Photo: Bong Sarmiento

To be sure, China has responded generously to calls to help Marawi recover from the Islamic State-instigated conflict, including through donations of heavy equipment worth 155 million pesos ($3 million) that have been used in the construction of transitional shelters outside of Ground Zero.

Beijing also committed a grant of 1.1 billion pesos ($20.8 million) during the pledging session for the Bangon Marawi Comprehensive Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Program in Mindanao’s Davao City last November.

In June 2017, at the height of the siege, China provided firearms and ammunition worth around 370 million pesos ($7 million) to help Filipino troops fight the Islamic militants, and later gave a 15 million peso ($284,546) donation for initial relief assistance to the siege’s victims.

Li Lin, consul general of China’s consulate in Davao City, said China’s 1.1 billion peso grant would be used to construct a bridge and a stadium in Marawi, with the works expected to start within the year.

He said that Beijing merely wants to help rebuild the ruined city as part of China’s improving ties with the Philippines under Duterte. He said claims that anti-Chinese sentiment is rising in Marawi are “baseless.”

“The support from China to participate in post-war Marawi … is a gift from the Chinese government,” he told Asia Times on April 2 at the Chinese consular office in Davao City. Li said there was still a possibility of state-owned and private Chinese firms investing in the war-torn city.

He also lamented that his country is being made a “scapegoat” for the delays in rehabilitating Marawi.

Chinese consul general Li Lin gives an address in Davao City, April 27, 2018. Photo: Facebook

“I hope this is from a small number of people misled by Western media, or stories told by opposition parties. It sounds very strange to me,” Li said. “(Even) if it is a general public opinion, that you have these kind of worries, or even this strong sentiment against (China), this is groundless.”

The wider international community has so far contributed humanitarian assistance worth at least 6.9 billion pesos ($130.6 million) for relief operations, DoF data shows.

But Abdul Hamidullah Atar, the Sultan of Marawi, has chided the government for failing on its promise to expedite the city’s rehabilitation, saying that thousands of families are still languishing in various evacuation and transitional shelter sites that have ”dehumanized” them for almost two years.

“We wanted to see stakeholders’ actually taking part in decision-making to chart the rehabilitation and reconstruction of their respective homes and the city,” Atar said in a manifesto submitted on March 20 during a public hearing on the Marawi siege held by the House of Representatives.

“The master plan was rammed into our throats” and there was “no real consultation with the locals,” he told Asia Times in a separate interview.

The TFBM, which has repeatedly denied there was a lack of consultation, now refers to the MAA master plan as the Marawi RISE Plan, with “R” standing for resilience, “I” for identity, “S” for sustainability, and “E” for evolution.

Marawi sultan Hamidullah Atar in a 2017 file photo. Photo: Facebook

Atar has repeatedly said that local rather than foreign contractors should undertake Marawi’s rehabilitation, and that the city’s residents should be given first priority for construction jobs once the state-backed rehabilitation work starts.

Still, it’s not clear that Ground Zero residents will be allowed to return to their homes any time soon.

Secretary Eduardo del Rosario, the TFBM’s chair and the country’s housing czar, has set a deadline for clearing debris and unexploded ordnance from the city by August 30.

Speaking on March 19 before hundreds of residents attending a consultation dialogue with internally displaced people (IDPs) from the MAA, the retired military general said that residents will be allowed to return by the “first week of September” to repair their ruined properties.

Residents of the least affected areas of the MAA might even be allowed to return “as early as July,” he said, with the caveat they will need to get permits from the city government before they can start to repair their properties.

Del Rosario set the completion of Marawi’s total rehabilitation by “December 2021”, likely a pie-in-the-sky prediction considering that reconstruction work at the MAA has yet to begin. An estimated three million tons of debris was left at Ground Zero from the siege and government response.

As of March 20, 49 unexploded ordnance (UXOs) have yet to be recovered from the 70 UXOs dropped by military aircraft, the main reason why, according to del Rosario, residents are not allowed to return to their Ground Zero homes.

Doubts were also raised for the return of the IDPs to Ground Zero in September since of an estimated 6,861 damaged structures, only 610 owners, or less than 10%, had given their consent for the demolition of their structures as of March 15.

Displaced Marawi residents in a tent city evacuation center, March 21, 2019. Photo: Bong Sarmiento

Norphia Dipatuan, a mother of six who has endured harsh conditions at a tent city evacuation site, said she is praying to go back to Ground Zero by September so that her family can finally start to rebuild their broken lives.

“When it rains, it leaks. When the sun is high, it is very hot inside,” she lamented on the hardships her family has endured at the tent city when Asia Times visited the evacuation site last month.

“I want to sell cooked foods again to augment the family’s income should Ground Zero be again accessible to all,” she said, her eyes staring blankly at the horizon.

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