Three years ago, the siege of Marawi was in full-swing. A failed attempt by Philippine troops to capture Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, on 23 May 2017, had prompted a militant uprising which would last until October. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) soldiers were pitted against ISIS-affiliated jihadis led by Hapilon and his co-conspirators – the Maute brothers – in fierce street-to-street urban warfare.
By the time the battles ended, 1,200 – including 920 militants and 168 AFP soldiers – had been killed. 350,000 residents had fled their homes, unable to return to a city left in a state of ruin. Near-daily IED blasts and government airstrikes had flattened the central Banggolo district, where AFP bomb-disposal experts have since been working to clear debris and safely locate and detonate unexploded ordnance.
The last-known bomb was destroyed in October. Yet construction work has been slow to pick-up pace, even as 126,000 evacuees still reside in transitory shelters or with relatives across the Lanao provinces. Rebuilding Marawi, known as the ‘Islamic city’ with its symbolic Grand Mosque and majority-Maranao Muslim population, will be key to peace in a region afflicted by separatist conflict since the mid-1970s.
Last year, a peace accord was finalized between Manila and the region’s largest rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), ending hostilities and forging a new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). The inauguration of the region last March signalled the arrival of self-governance, and a chance to address the grievances of western Mindanao’s Moro Muslim population.
Since then, violence perpetrated by the ISIS-aligned groups whom laid siege to Marawi has dwindled. Yet amid the perceived slow pace of reconstruction, further delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, local frustrations are rising. A ‘growing sense of despair’ fuelled by a ‘lack of urgency’ in rebuilding the city is now raising fears of a fertile recruitment pool for jihadi groups intent on spoiling the peace process.
Reconstruction efforts directed by Manila
Manila has dismissed such criticism. In the aftermath of the siege, President Rodrigo Duterte created Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM), headed by Housing Secretary and former AFP general Eduardo del Rosario, to oversee rehabilitation efforts. A lengthy operation to clear unexploded ordnance from the former ‘Main Battle Area’ got underway in 2018 and was completed late last year, paving the way for the reconstruction of the worst-hit Banggolo district. The area was the city’s bustling commercial hub.
But from the start, plans have faltered. The initial plan, to give the entire task of rebuilding Marawi to a Chinese-led consortium, collapsed amid a political tussle over future visions for the city. Instead, the work was split into multiple projects, with government departments responsible for public works and highways, energy, health and education to award separate contracts to firms to build roads, electricity infrastructure, communications networks and drainage systems, as well as new hospitals and schools.
The role of TFBM to co-ordinate the projects within an overarching plan is inevitably a mammoth task. The task force aims to fully rebuild all public infrastructure and utilities by late-2021 before residents are permitted to return to Banggolo; although in some areas people have been able to start repairing damaged homes. Residents must obtain a building permit, by providing proof-of-ownership alongside a design plan, yet many are concerned that in undocumented cases their homes might be demolished.
COVID-19 setback compounds past delays
The government-led rebuilding of Banggolo looked set to pick-up pace earlier this year, but movement restrictions imposed to contain COVID-19 have delayed work by several months. From 20 March, cities and provinces in the BARMM began to be placed under ‘enhanced community quarantine’, before the whole region transitioned to ‘general community quarantine’ on 1 May. Yet lockdown measures were eased on 16 May after the BARMM was declared ‘low-risk’. The BARMM has seen 100 cases and four deaths from COVID-19 – far fewer than other parts of the Philippines, despite its weak health system.
While noting the impact of COVID-19 in restricting the movement of labour and materials, TFBM chief Eduardo del Rosario revealed early in June that preparatory work has continued, allowing firms to ‘go full blast’ in July. He said in a press release that TFBM remains committed to the 31 December 2021 deadline, and has urged project contractors to ‘work 12 hours a day’, or ‘double time’ if necessary. In further comments, del Rosario said he aims to ‘prove government critics wrong’, and labelled a claim of ‘inaction and neglect’ alleged in May by vice-President Leni Robredo as ‘very inaccurate and unfair’.
TFBM has highlighted the reconstruction of the Mapandi Bridge – a key entry-point into the city centre that witnessed fierce clashes at the height of the siege – and work to repair the 18.97km transcentral Marawi road as evidence that progress is being made. Government support for 25,300 still-displaced families is also seen via the provision of rice, cash assistance, livelihood training and tractors for local farming co-operatives. Yet despite the help available, displaced residents living in cramped conditions in transitory shelters, vulnerable to the threat of COVID-19, are increasingly desperate to return home.
Frustration rising among long-term evacuees
Anger among evacuees though, pre-dates the untimely arrival COVID-19. Back in November, Marawi Reconstruction Conflict Watch (MRCW), a civil society organization founded to monitor the rebuilding of the city, issued a strongly-worded statement after attending a public Congressional hearing on the issue. MRCW criticized a lack of transparency and accountability in the Manila-led rebuilding process, labelling it a ‘total mess’. Aside from lamenting the slow-pace of construction work, MRCW criticized the delayed passage of a compensation bill, alleging that Maranaos are being ‘treated as second class citizens’ and were blamed by the authorities for the incursion of ISIS that led to the five-month siege. The group also asked Duterte to reverse a controversial decision to build a new AFP camp in Marawi.
Dissenting voices have also emerged from those in power, at the local and national level. Al Haj Murad Ebrahim, interim Chief Minister of the BARMM and former head of the MILF, who in his position must tread a fine line between BARMM citizens and Manila, has sought to reassure Maranao Muslims that the government remains committed to the project while acknowledging that the job is ‘far from over’. Other BARMM lawmakers have been more vocal and called for TFBM’s leadership to be overhauled. Mindanaoan politician Amihilda Sangcopan has asked the agency to hold a ‘State of Marawi Address’ to tell evacuees when they can ‘go home to their beloved city’, while detained opposition senator Leila de Lima has lamented the ‘suffering, worsening poverty and dispossession’ of Marawi’s ex-residents.
ISIS recruitment and the BARMM peace process
The effort to re-start construction following the COVID-19 disruption comes a year into the three-year BARMM transition period; designed to implement the peace deal and secure a lasting peace in Moro-majority western Mindanao. The MILF is currently disarming its 30,000 fighters, while ordinary citizens have placed their hopes on the new autonomous region to end decades of large-scale armed conflict.
Yet radical groups – born out of the Moro separatist rebellion and later inspired by ISIS ideology – are still active and aim to upend the peace process. Abu Sayyaf pose a risk in the Sulu islands to the west, while the Maute Group and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters remain present in the provinces of Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao. Further delay in rebuilding Marawi could assist in their recruitment. A U.S. diplomatic cable, released in February, noted that ‘public anger at the Philippine government’s extended delays in providing for the reconstruction of Marawi has allowed extremist elements to re-gain a foothold in the city’, warning that a negative public perception of efforts to rehabilitate the city had likely ‘reinforced extremist anti-government narratives and contributed to terrorist recruitment’.
The AFP has reported recruitment by the Maute group in towns around Lake Lanao, on which Marawi sits, in the three years since the siege, with the militants offering a financial incentive for young men to join-up. Although the strength of militant groups has undoubtedly declined since the height of the siege, when the Mautes and their allies deployed 1,000 fighters in the city, such reports drive concern that a failure to rebuild swiftly could create an atmosphere conducive to the terrorists’ bolstering their ranks – by targeting displaced residents seeking a way out of homelessness, joblessness and poverty.
‘I want to finish the projects during my time’
The BARMM, in which the hopes of Mindanao’s Moro Muslims are invested, has little control over the reconstruction of Marawi. The fate of the city lies with the central government in Manila. Earlier this year, after releasing funds for construction in the Banggolo district to begin, Duterte remarked: ‘I want to finish the projects during my time’. Despite confirming he would go ahead with plans to build a new army base in the city, he said ‘I am not after the Maranao’, arguing it is necessary to prevent a repeat of the siege. Duterte’s term ends in 2022, around six months after TFBM’s deadline to rebuild the city.
If the deadline is not met and reconstruction efforts drag on for years, Marawi risks becoming another ‘open wound’ driving recruitment to rebel groups unsatisfied with the peace process. Former chief of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) – the failed predecessor to the BARMM – Mujiv Hataman, has warned that a failure to rebuild in good time could lead Marawi to become the modern equivalent to the 1968 Jabidah massacre, which drove recruitment for the old Moro separatist groups. In the current context, as ISIS allies look to rebound, such a scenario would pose a huge security risk.
With the BARMM in place and the MILF disarming, Manila could not have a bigger incentive to deliver on its promise to rebuild Marawi – and ensure the peace gains made since the siege are not reversed.
A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.