Dispossession and a trail of broken government promises offer terrorist headhunters the perfect recruitment well in Marawi, the southern Philippine city devastated by a five-month war in 2017.
“We don’t really matter at all,” said members of the Marawi Reconstruction Conflict Watch (MRCW), a private monitoring group, composed of residents who track government rehabilitation efforts.
Contrary to the Philippine government’s rosy picture of a galloping reconstruction program in the city, close to half of a US$197 million rehabilitation fund remains unspent, with only a month before the national treasury takes it back.
Thousands of families remain displaced. There is little interest in a compensation bill in Congress that would allow residents of a once thriving commercial center to regain their livelihoods.
But it is the reason for the languishing pace of reconstruction that could spike a growing feeling of alienation and gift terror groups with a well of recruits.
“We are now being told that the blame is being placed on the citizens of Marawi for the incursion of [Islamic State fighters] in 2017, or that we do not deserve financial aid because we are rich anyway,” said the group during a meeting with journalists last week.
“It appears clearly to us that we don’t really matter at all,” they said.
That the MRCW is even speaking at all should ring alarm bells for the government.
Since it launched in 2018, the monitoring group has tried to work quietly with state agencies and the local government, wary of getting dragged into political frays.
The MRCW, which works with the organization International Alert-Philippines in a new program for early intervention in conflicts, has largely operated under the radar of media to give the government breathing space in the aftermath of the war.
The organization was created “not to condemn or denounce, but to troubleshoot problems that may arise out of the rehabilitation process and lobby the government to take steps that will not fuel further anger and frustration of the people,” said Saripada Pacasum Jr., who was a “white helmet” volunteer rescuing trapped residents at the height of the shooting war.
Martial law, imposed by President Rodrigo Duterte on May 23, 2017, the first day of the war, has allowed residents a respite from various social conflicts, including deadly family feuds that could have escalated into major battles.
But centralized governance and a military mindset have sidelined local officials and residents, giving them no voice in decision making.
Jalila Hadji Sapiin, 28, the youth sector representative in the MRCW, said the local government’s inclusion in the multi-agency Task Force Bangon Marawi, is mainly symbolic.
“Their observations, suggestions are largely ignored,” she noted, citing conversations with local officials.
The group’s patience frayed following congressional hearings into delays in Marawi’s reconstruction.
Discovery of how the national government views Marawi is a dagger to the gut, said Pacasum who described how residents have organized to respond to early reports of infiltration by extremist groups.
“Nobody wants another Marawi. I have seen too many dead, children, mothers,” said Pacasum, before breaking down in tears during the media briefing.
Fedelinda Tawagon, president of Dansalan College Foundation, which was completely destroyed by government airstrikes, said the private sector must be included in the government’s compensation package for victims.
“Private schools and hospitals service a big majority of Marawi’s population, which is known for the premium it places on education,” said Tawagon.
Tarpaulin signs celebrating degrees and passage in various examinations hang from almost every other home; more Marawi women complete higher levels of education compared to other areas in the Bangsamoro autonomous region.
“Private schools have lost the opportunity to provide services,” said Tawagon. The state university in Marawi cannot accommodate everyone. Elsewhere, Muslim youth struggle with discrimination.
“We are from the ground. Why don’t you listen to us?” said the exasperated educator.
Sapiin, meanwhile, warned that the disenfranchisement of young people to education presents a fertile ground for extremist views.
President wasn’t joking
At the heart of the new unrest is the inability of residents to re-enter “Ground Zero,” the commercial center that suffered the most from aerial bombardment.
The demolition of the remaining structures in the war zone, even without the consent of owners, and the government’s plan to push through with the construction of a new military camp are still under dispute.
The MRCW also found little interest in the passage of the compensation bill, which the government views as admission of accountability for the devastation.
Worse, the group discovered a painful truth: President Duterte was not joking during the times he blamed Marawi residents for their destruction.
Eduardo del Rosario, chairman of the agency tasked to rebuild Marawi, said last month that those capable of reconstructing their destroyed buildings should shoulder the expenses.
In Congress, the reconstruction monitors found government officials echoing the president’s oft-repeated claim that Marawi residents deserved their fate because they had allowed the city to become a hub for narcotics syndicates and extremist groups.
“All we heard was generalizing,” said Pacasum. “We are all lumped as drug lords. Is this because we are Muslims, so we are not treated equally with the rest of the country?”
The MRCW said the government’s worldview has pushed Marawi residents against the wall. Everywhere they turn, they see a dead-end.
Before talking to the press, Pacasum and his colleagues discussed the potential consequences of breaking their silence. They expect attacks. They know the president’s ire can be deadly.
But the alternative is no better, they say. If you don’t stand up for your rights, you die, too.
Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of UCA News.