The Philippine government recently marked the third year since Marawi City was retaken from fighters allied with the Islamic State (IS), who seized the southern city on May 23, 2017. On October 17 of that year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared inside an army camp that the city had been “liberated from terrorist influence,” prompting cheers from a crowd of soldiers.
To indicate that the jubilation was premature, gunfire was still heard from the main battle area several kilometers away as a remaining band of gunmen took a final stand following the death of their top leaders a day earlier. It took another six days to completely clear Marawi of IS fighters, and for military offensives to be officially terminated.
Mr. Duterte’s declaration in 2017 came with a pledge to immediately jumpstart efforts to rebuild the ravaged city. Three years on, it is still too early for congratulations.
The five-month war had reduced to rubble the city’s main business district, formerly known as Dansalan, which had been the center of the local Maranao people’s life for centuries. Observers likened the destruction of Marawi to the devastation visited upon Manila, a city once known as the Pearl of the Orient, as it was liberated from Japanese control in 1945.
The city’s desolate landscape is a grim reminder of how the Maranaos were excluded from the decisions that have a lasting impact on their community. It is also a stark reminder of how authorities shrugged off initiatives by traditional and religious leaders to drive away the militants and spare the city further destruction.
It can be recalled that during the third week of the siege, some 50 sultans and datus from the Lanao provinces met and requested that President Duterte enlist their help in convincing IS elements to withdraw from the city. In a three-page manifesto addressed to the Philippine president, these traditional leaders asserted that conflicts between them could be resolved through traditional negotiation and that they were not condoning the act of the Maute group and its IS allies.
Already sidelined in the decision to wage the war on their city, the Maranao public was left in the dark, yet again, in formulating a roadmap for reconstruction. Many were not even adequately informed about why authorities barred them from visiting their own ruined homes.
The 2017 siege did not happen in a vacuum, nor was it a capricious thought by leaders of an emerging IS wilayat (province) in Southeast Asia. Rather, it was part of a planned expansion into new territories, as IS continued to lose ground in the Middle East.
Social, political and economic deprivation in Lanao del Sur province first allowed the militants to take root in Marawi’s fringes. Unable to imagine a good future under such conditions, many Maranao youth were lured into offering their lives to the Islamist cause in exchange for rewards in the afterlife. But this mobilization was rooted in the broader context of historical injustice, discrimination and marginalization of the Bangsamoro people that have festered since colonial times and been perpetrated by successive national governments.
IS elements also exploited resentments over snags in creating a new autonomy setup granting greater powers to the Bangsamoro people to govern their affairs. Civil society groups earlier warned of violent stirrings with the non-passage of a new autonomy law in 2015.
With the superior whack of the military, the remaining IS members scampered to Maguindanao and Sulu provinces three years ago, regrouping in a more amenable setting, and waiting for the chance to strike anew. They manifested their presence again in suicide attacks in Sulu and roadside bombings in Maguindanao, starting in 2019.
The IS elements’ staying power shows the futility of simply countering them with brute force, or of curtailing the freedoms of the people. Successful efforts to deal with IS radicalization were founded on giving due regard to the value of human life and liberty. Here, government and civil society has a wide space for collaboration in weaning affected populations away from violence and in supporting communities in finding solutions to pressing social problems.
With an infusion of public funds, the Philippine government’s reconstruction efforts seem to have finally taken off. But a proposed law to provide compensation to families whose properties were destroyed in the war still hangs in the balance.
Because of reconstruction delays, many displaced families continue to languish in evacuation sites where basic facilities and services are wanting. As of September this year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees counted 25,367 families or 126,835 individuals still displaced due to the Marawi siege.
If only enough time and effort were invested to listen to the Maranao voices, government leaders could have learned early on their simple hope – that is, to be able to rebuild their lives as soon as they can in the communities they and their forebears have long called home.
Amid delays in the government rehabilitation and reconstruction of Marawi, and despite being seen as possible suspects of IS radicalization, the Maranaos have demonstrated that they are not simply “vulnerable sectors” and that they can be positive partners in building resilience in their communities. Some of these local-led initiatives, among many, are community-led and youth-led media in Lanao and surrounding provinces; partnerships between civil society, religious and traditional leaders and madrasas (Islamic schools) on peace education; and advocacy on institutionalizing transitional justice and reconciliation initiatives.
As the Maranaos chart a new future for Marawi, it is incumbent upon the Philippine government to help them ensure the region will never experience a similar tragedy again. Here, a holistic and community-driven framework for addressing the roots of conflict is imperative.
On October 23, 2017, Marawi was, indeed, freed of IS fighters. But the conditions underpinning the feelings of marginalization and disempowerment that drive violent conflict persist. Only by placing communities at the helm of durable solutions can terrorism be nipped in the bud and lasting peace be built and realized.
Gus Miclat is the Executive Director of the Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID), and Regional Representative of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict-GPPAC.