One year ago, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stood in the ruins of the southern city of Marawi and declared it ‘liberated’ from terrorist influence. But for the tens of thousands of civilians still unable to return to their homes, the ongoing presence of the Philippine military and the unflinching rule of martial law suggest not liberation but occupation
A year since the guns fell silent, the Islamic City of Marawi is still in ruins. Five months earlier, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) had launched a desperate operation to capture the head of a terror group pledged to Islamic State. In retaliation, militants from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups set churches and schools ablaze, raising their black flag above the ashes to declare the city a new caliphate in the global jihad. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were driven from their homes as the pounding of government artillery reduced the city to rubble. Only when the bodies of Isnilon Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute, the commanders of the insurgent groups, were dragged from where government snipers had laid them out did the fighting end.
But the war still hangs heavy over Marawi City. Drieza Lininding, chairman of the Moro Consensus Group civil society organisation, said that tens of thousands of refugees from the fighting continued to languish in makeshift shelters, unable to return to the homes that they’d left behind.
“We still have more than 2,000 families – that’s more than 50,000 individual persons – who are still displaced,” he said. “Most of them are scattered around the Philippines.”
The capital of Lanao del Sur, a province of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, Marawi City has long been an enclave of the Philippines’ Muslim Moro community. For decades, much of the southern island of Mindanao has struggled for independence from the Philippines’ predominantly Catholic central government in Manila – an insurgency that has seen tens of thousands of lives lost as different separatist groups splinter and unite and fracture once more as the nation lurches towards an uneasy peace.
Some people are now calling Marawi City occupied. Because for more than a year now, they’ve built this prison
With the rise of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups, violent Islamist splinter factions that have publicly pledged allegiance to Islamic State, the more moderate Moro Islamic Liberation Front has pursued a united front with President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, fighting side by side with the nation’s military on the streets of Mindanao. Next year, the group hopes to ride the ensuing wave of goodwill to self-rule in January through a nationwide vote on the creation of an independent Bangsamoro state. But for those who watched the Philippine military reduce the nation’s largest Muslim city to a burned-out husk in its fight against extremism, the prospect of peace is looking distant indeed.
Rooted as they are in centuries of Christian settlement in the predominantly Muslim region, these fears have hardly been helped by what critics see as a heavy-handed approach of the AFP that sees every Muslim in Mindanao as a potential soldier in an armed insurgency that has raged for decades. The Moro Consensus Group’s Lininding cited the government’s plan to build a 10ha military base at the site of the siege’s bloodiest battles as a sign that Duterte’s legions had not come as liberators, but as conquerors.
“It’s an invasion,” he said. “Some people are now calling Marawi City occupied. Because for more than a year now, they’ve built this prison – we cannot even visit our home, we were only allowed a few hours by the government to salvage whatever was left of our homes. It’s very sad for us. And the government is declaring this victory – what victory? From who?”
Joseph Franco, a research fellow specialising in counterinsurgency at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said that resentment towards the military is growing: “Some community leaders are becoming more receptive to the idea that Marawi was a plot to destroy Islam. It is very conspiracy theory-ish but it is not a good sign if some known community leaders are starting to air this out.”
Many of those who have yet to return to the broken spires of Marawi feel alienated from an achingly slow reconstruction process that has seen the Duterte administration reach out to a consortium of Chinese companies that have pledged to help the local business community transform the gutted city into a thriving modern metropolis. For a people who pride themselves on having fought off the imperial ambitions of the Spanish, Americans and Japanese, the prospect of turning over the rebuilding of their homes to an apparently unaccountable foreign power hits a historically raw nerve.
Zachary Abuza, a professor at Washington, DC’s National War College, said that the government’s abortive approach to rebuilding the shattered city had planted the seeds for a resurgence in the kind of armed terror that brought the nation to its knees little more than a year ago.
“The next Marawi will be Marawi,” he told Southeast Asia Globe. “The residents and IDPs [internally displaced persons] remain seething with the government’s mishandling of reconstruction. This will not end well for the government. The appropriation of land for a large military base to provide security will only fuel resentment and insecurity. It is hard to imagine the government’s handling of this being much worse.”
Abuza was also scathing in his assessment of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ unchecked devastation of the city, unleashing the full might of its artillery on both militant and moderate alike.
“My takeaway about the AFP is that they remain poorly trained and led,” he said. “They continue to use artillery as a counterterrorism tactic, which is why Marawi looked like Raqqa. They do this in central Mindanao all the time, knowing all too well that it will lead to civilian casualties. And they engaged in some looting in Marawi, which doesn’t help their public image.”
Why is martial law still in place? Who are the enemies? Are we the enemies?
But for many of those who still rankle at the military’s excesses, the ongoing imposition of martial law across the entire Mindanao region makes any criticism of military rule untenable. Speaking to local media, University of the Philippines former law dean Pacifico Agabin said that Duterte’s decision to declare martial law gave the armed forces almost unlimited power over the people of Marawi.
“If the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus is suspended, you cannot hold public meetings and speak against the government. Complete silence,” he said. “You cannot travel to the area where there’s fighting. Freedom of movement can also be suspended in places which the military determines [as unsafe].”
Lininding argued that the military were using the cover of martial law to suppress the rights of the local people.
“Why is martial law still in place? The fighting was settled almost a year ago,” he said. “Who are the enemies? Are we the enemies? We know that they want to suppress us, to instil fear among the people so we will turn a blind eye to whatever they’re doing. Because of the martial law, we can do so little. We cannot protest, we can only do so much on social media.”
Nor is it even clear how many innocent lives were lost during the street fighting, with initial reports of fewer than 300 Maute fighters slain rising to almost 1,000 when the fighting ended. With no reliable investigation into the number of dead, Lininding said, it was impossible to say just how many of the so-called terrorists killed in the assault had actually been members of Islamist groups.
“Until now, there is no clear data on how many civilians were killed at ground zero,” he said. “This is also a concern – some people are afraid to come forward and say, ‘My relative was lost in ground zero’ because the military might accuse their family or their loved ones of being Isis sympathisers or Isis members. We are being persecuted – and we can do so little.”
Perhaps most worrying is the perverse financial incentive that the outright war against Islamist terror – or Muslim independence – in Mindanao has created for the nation’s armed forces. Although the US has long supported the government’s counterterror operations in the Philippines’ restive south, the spectacle of a Philippine city under siege by Isis-linked militants has drawn increased financing for counterterror operations from as far afield as Singapore, Japan and Australia. Abuza said this surge in funding had created a moral hazard for a military already bloated by billions of dollars siphoned from international donors over the years – much of which was used mainly for personnel costs.
“They have no incentive to end the conflicts,” he said. “They are gravy trains. We need to ask very hard questions about corruption within the AFP. Where the hell did the Mautes and the Abu Sayyaf group get enough guns and ammunition for a five-month siege?”
It is a question the Duterte administration cannot afford to ignore. Pointing to a series of recent skirmishes between the military and remnants of the Maute group, Abuza said he believed the war for Mawari was far from over.
“Marawi has once again put the Philippines at the centre of counterterrorism in Southeast Asia. It is the only place that militants can actually hold territory,” he said, adding that it was not yet clear whether the Middle East-based Islamic State was prepared to declare a formal caliphate-linked territory within Southeast Asia. “But it is clear that the militants in the region want it declared. To that end, foreign fighters will continue to make their way into the southern Philippines.”