Falling short in Marawi
Last Wednesday marked the first anniversary of the start of the siege of Marawi City — and the imposition of martial law in all of Mindanao. It weighed heavily on President Duterte’s mind. At the 120th anniversary rites of the Philippine Navy the day before, he struck a somber, reflective note. “We had a very sad experience in the Marawi siege and we all know that we’ve fallen short in some respects in the way it was handled.”
He meant this in both an official and personal capacity. He lamented the number of deaths, saying he did not expect that the Maute group would have “so much ordnance and that the fight would take us about four months to finish.” (It took exactly five months; the military proclaimed complete victory on Oct. 23.) But he also acknowledged the impact the siege would have on his own legacy, saying he knows it would leave “a dent in my own history when I go out of government service.”
“All of these faults, if it is indeed one, or our faults, it belongs and it falls on my shoulders as commander in chief,” the President said.
He is right. The excessive use of force he authorized the Armed Forces to use resulted in the destruction of a large part, the very center, of the country’s only Islamic city. The scale of the bombardment was such that the Maute group, which sought to reinvent itself as the Mindanao branch of the so-called Islamic State, used the devastation of the city as propaganda; the group said it wanted to save the city from the government, and in retaliation the government was destroying the city.
The complete military victory may have undermined the power of such propaganda—but the real danger lies ahead. The heart-stopping images of the ruined center of Marawi have the potential to radicalize many young and even not-so-young Muslims.
The President knows this only too well; this is part of what he means when he says Marawi will also leave a dent in his legacy.
But what is truly risky, for the Duterte administration and for the country as a whole, is an incomplete, incoherent, even incompetent approach to the rehabilitation of the city. That is what will truly feed discontent, in a place and among a people already under great strain.
First, and as the International Committee of the Red Cross has pointed out, around 230,000 residents of what was once a thriving urban center remain displaced, one year after the siege started. Using taut diplomatic language that could barely contain the urgency of the matter, the head of the ICRC delegation in the Philippines called for greater efforts from the government. “Efforts to rehabilitate Marawi and assist its people must be stepped up to reduce the suffering of thousands of those who were displaced over the past year. The efforts are there, but these must match the growing needs of those who face prolonged displacement and are close to despair,” Pascal Porchet said. Worse, as many as 65,000 of the displaced will not be able to return to their area for the next two to three years—and the seeming lack of urgency on the part of the government can only amplify the sense of frustration and injustice that many of the displaced already feel.
Second, and as the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has reported, the “vaunted multibillion-peso rehabilitation and reconstruction program remains a patchwork of disconnected promises mired in multiple problems.” Worse, the rehabilitation plan looks ready to accommodate Chinese companies blacklisted by the World Bank and contractors associated with Mindanao political clans. At the same time, despite all the talk of consultation with stakeholders, there is a growing sentiment in the city that the needs and insights of the residents themselves are not being truly heard. This seeming lack of respect for their experience can only add stinging insult to grievous injury.
Third, despite the all-clear, military rule in Mindanao continues. This is a festering source of unhappiness in Marawi and its surrounding areas. Rubber-stamped by an accommodationist Supreme Court, the imposition of martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus has driven concerned citizens to argue their case before Congress and in the streets. This seeming overkill, this unnecessary show and use of force, can only sharpen the sense of discrimination the proud citizens of the Islamic City of Marawi now feel.
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