Visiting Bangsamoro leaders seek ‘safe, dignified return’ of Maranaws to their homes
NEW YORK CITY—Transitional justice under the newly signed Bangsamoro Organic Law should tackle first and foremost the bombing of Marawi and its aftermath—not only the plight of some 80,000 people still unable to return to their homes and about 1,000 missing persons, but also the cultural loss to the Maranaws from a war that was so unexpected and many feel uncalled for.
“They bombed our mosques, they bombed our madrasas, they bombed our schools. How can we go back to normalcy if these things are not restored? Marawi is not an ordinary land for us. These are also serving as the grave of our forefathers,” said Tirmizy Abdullah, associate professor at Mindanao State University, at a forum held here August 3.
“Long before there was [the] Philippines, there was already Marawi. We are indigenous people of Marawi,” Abdullah added, revealing that the Maranaws’ indigenous knowledge system and many old manuscripts were lost as the city was reduced to rubble last year.
Titled “Understanding violent extremism in the midst of peace prospects in Mindanao,” the forum was organized by the New York chapter of Nonviolence International, a group that is engaged in capacity-building efforts among the Bangsamoro people through its Southeast Asia chapter.
Abdullah said he was speaking at the forum as one of the thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) who feel left out in the cold by the Philippine government, which is negotiating with investors on the rehabilitation of the most affected area of Marawi.
“It is very clear that what the Philippine government is doing when it comes to rehabilitation is not community-led,” he said.
“People [are] coming from outside of Marawi, coming to us and telling us this is what is good for you—we’ll build condominiums in the city, we will get Chinese money. So the entire framework of rehabilitation is very problematic, it is not community-led and the people of Marawi are one in opposing that one,” Abdullah added, saying that Maranaws found the current approach “very insulting and very unfortunate.”
It is also a big “NO” to the government’s plan to build a new military camp in Marawi, which Abdullah cited as a violation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro (CAB), the final peace agreement forged by the Philippine government with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in 2014.
“Our fear is that since lots of the provisions of the CAB are not found in the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), it might strengthen the narrative of the violent extremists,” Abdullah said, who noted however that as a peace advocate along with his two fellow speakers, he is “guardedly optimistic” about the BOL despite concerns on inclusivity, implementation gaps noted in the past, and the capacity of the MILF to run a bureaucracy.
‘This is not Afghanistan’
Samira Gutoc, resigned Bangsamoro transition commissioner, told the forum that Maranaws want the government to finish clearing Marawi’s most affected area of bombs so that they can start rebuilding their lives.
“Our challenge to the security sector is now to remove the bombs that you put in our community—600 days later, 70 bombs are still to be found and is preventing us from returning home. After 600 days, and you bombed our community in three days—why would it take that long, sir? Please tell me. It was easy for you to bomb our community, but it’s hard for you to pull out what you bombed us with?” Gutoc said.
Describing the hardship of IDPs living in evacuation centers or with relatives, she narrated how babies did not survive the heat in Iligan City because they were accustomed to much cooler climate in Marawi City, which is about 600 meters above sea level.
It was also a culture shock for many women. “Can you imagine living your whole life in a house that’s your own built from every peso, and then you have to live where comfort rooms are shared with everybody? So it was the first time for many women to be able to share a comfort room with other women that they didn’t know. In the culture that kind of is very conservative—you’ve never seen other people, you’ve never met other people because you’re just stuck in your house with your cousins who are your only exposure in your life, it was disconcerting. It was really a different experience altogether,” Gutoc said.
She revealed that many walked 39 kilometers to reach safety in Iligan City because public transportation simply froze during the Marawi siege, with public utility drivers also busy trying to get their own families out of danger.
“There was no siren, there was no public announcement, there was no advisory, there was no megaphone saying to go from here to where, no direction. So from zero persons walking to half a million people, more than the population of Marawi, which meant the nearby provinces of the nearby municipalities of Marawi had to also leave the city because some of the air strikes were also affecting already them.
“So this is not Afghanistan, this is not Syria, this is the democratic capital of Asia. [The] Philippines is your small America, we were your colony for 40 years, you introduced James Bond to us and all. But then, what happened, what happened?” Gutoc told the audience in New York.
“All the tactics—naval force, air force, water force, every force that was existing in the Philippines was brought to a small community, a small village-like community that had no malls, no access to wifi, couldn’t call out for help as much, didn’t have newspapers—no, that wasn’t our privilege. We couldn’t tell our story but every day was the story of how our houses were bombed and you could read it, guys, because you have strong wifi. We didn’t know what was happening with our kin,” she added.
Gutoc, who is one of the Muslim community’s women leaders and was involved in rescue missions during the Marawi siege, mentioned that about 1,000 people remain missing today. About 3,000 were trapped inside Marawi City during the war but the government has only come out with a list of 1,700 casualties, she explained.
Unlike some in Mindanao who favor extended martial law, IDPs of Marawi feel vulnerable with the continued military presence. “Martial law meant that the decision for whoever is allowable to enter our villages is decided by those in uniform. So it doesn’t matter if you have your scrapbooks, if you have your private albums, some precious treasure that you have to pick up in your residence, that you didn’t have time to pick up, it doesn’t matter because that is not important anymore,” Gutoc said.
Flashing a slide showing how much the Philippine government has spent for wars in Mindanao, which have led to more than 100,000 dead during each regime since Marcos’ time, Gutoc warned of dire consequences of what she referred to as “war games.”
“Historically, we’ve spent for war, but we’ve spent less for schools. We live in Marawi, Lanao where there’s no wifi. How can we download information? How can we learn without books and libraries? After 600 years of our existence as a people, 600 years of Bangsamoro, you spent PHP200 billion every president for war,” she said.
“So, this is not Duterte—President Duterte, sir, this is not about you. This is about seven presidents, this is about every President who looks at the South as a war game, a place where generals get promoted because the southern part of our country, Sulu, is a war game of- and some guy gets promoted upstairs and some child becomes an orphan or becomes a rebel, a member of that group. We don’t have orphanages for them. Can you imagine? And they’re the recruits to that group, Maute group. These new groups would challenge any output of this peace talk anyway. So that’s our fear as young people working for peace. We created new resentments that create new groups, orphans who are not taken care of,” the Muslim community leader added.
Drieza Lininding, chairman of the Moro Consensus Group (MCG) and the third speaker at the forum, described himself as a DDS, “dating Duterte supporter” (former Duterte supporter), and teared up when a video of Marawi was shown, saying, “We miss our home.”
Formed four months before the Marawi siege, the MCG had documented incidents involving the Maute terrorist group a year before the siege. MCG is seeking a congressional inquiry because it believes the widespread destruction could have been prevented had the Philippine government taken the threats more seriously.
“While we took all the beatings, we sacrificed a lot, we also are the ones being blamed—that we coddled this [Maute] group, that we welcomed this group. It’s on record—we can prove this, that’s why it is very important to have an inquiry—[that] during the siege and the day after that, May 24, our local leaders, our barangay leaders, went to the military camp and t proposed that the military, the government to allow us Maranaws, the barangay and their volunteers, to take up arms and they will be the one to engage this terrorist group who occupied some barangays in Marawi City. And also some of our mayors including the governors went to the military that we should be allowed to take up arms. But the military, the government rejected that offer,” he said.
He added that religious leaders and civil society leaders had initiated talks with the Maute group, which seemed open at first to leaving Marawi City. “In fact, in the earlier days, they [were] more open to abandon Marawi City because for them, it’s just more of a propaganda. They just want to hoist the flag of ISIS there and to show to the world that they occupied this place, but some of them are not really that serious. Some of them also didn’t expect the kind of response that they [got] from the government,” Lininding said.
Another concern is the government’s seemingly flimsy plans on the rehabilitation of Marawi. “There is no definite plan because until now, they keep on saying that they are negotiating with some Chinese firms, which our group opposed because we don’t want the movement of any Chinese firms in Marawi because we know, you know, when it comes to the movement of these Chinese, there are some rumors that of course we cannot confirm, we don’t want to give our land to this Chinese group,” he said.
In some respects, he said the people of Iraq are better off than the Marawi IDPs because Iraqis had been allowed to return to their homes after the war. “We are on the 14thmonth now since the siege took place and seven months now since Marawi was declared a liberated city, but we were only allowed for few hours and days to visit and take whatever is left of our properties and homes. So you see, I think we are the only place in the world that the residents were not allowed to return and rebuild their homes,” he said.
Sharing Bangsamoro story
The Bangsamoro speakers also shared their thoughts and experiences in Washington, D.C. at a forum held a day earlier. Lininding said their goal for the American tour was to get their message across to “people who can convince or pressure [the] Philippine government to at least heed our appeals or sit down with us.”
Juliet Payabyab, a community leader in New York who organized local donations for the rebuilding of Marawi, vowed to share the Bangsamoro speakers’ message across America.
“It was a great opportunity to learn and hear more on what happened and is still happening in Marawi—meeting the speakers who all came from Marawi to share to us not only their experiences during the bombing, but also their desire for peace and order, and their goal to rehabilitate Marawi. We hope to be able to share their stories with our friends in the Northeast and help them rebuild their lives, ruined infrastructure and be able to keep their ancestral lands,” Palabyab told INQUIRER.net after the forum.
Potri Ranka Manis, a descendant of the Dirampaten Royal house of Lanao who is now based in New York, revealed in another interview that her family lost their ancestral home and five other houses belonging to first cousins during the bombing of Marawi. She also confirmed that members of her family have not been allowed to return until now.
“It is a good act that the three Meranao bakwit were able to talk about their condition one year after the Marawi siege. It is so heartbreaking to hear that it is not only the building, the houses that are [under] siege but totally the hearts, minds and morale of the Meranao,” she told INQUIRER.net.
“It is very alarming that the Meranao are not allowed to rebuild their own city and if there is a promise to rebuild, it is given to the highest bidder foreign corporations. Is the delay in rebuilding Marawi a tactic of gentrifying Marawi and using the ecozone plan that was presented before by Bangon Marawi [Task Force Chairman Eduardo] Del Rosario?” she added.
Manis said the situation in Marawi reminded her of what happened in Hawaii when land was acquired from local folk in order to build a military base “to protect the foreign corporations and eventually make the Hawaiians a threatened species.” “Is this what is happening to Marawi?” she wondered.
Alluding to this widespread suspicion among Maranaws, Abdullah noted that in contrast to the uncertainty over the rehabilitation of Marawi, the Philippine government has firm plans on establishing a new military camp, which locals view as an outpost to protect foreign investor interests.
“In relation to Marawi, there is loss of identity among the minoritized Maranaws. We could not go back to the ground zero, the most affected area. That’s why one of our demands is for safe and dignified return of our people. We don’t want the tag ‘displaced’ to be our permanent identity. We demand for our safe and dignified return. That’s one of the things that we are asking from the government because for as long as the people are displaced, more vulnerabilities will be open for them to become violent extremists. We don’t want our young people to be more radicalized, to become violent extremists. That’s why we want our people to go back,” Abdullah said.