Marawi refugees want to go back home but cannot. Is this a smokescreen for Chinese corporatism using Muslim extremist strife?
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – How are the indigenous people in war-torn Marawi in southern Philippines coping after it was declared under Martial Law in order to wipe out Muslim extremists? Are they on their way to becoming whole again?
Three brave peace advocates from Mindanao flew to New York in the summer of 2018 to tell the world that all is not well as far as their lives are concerned. Samira Ali Gutoc Tomawis, Tirmizy Abdullah, and Drieaza Lininding, said that the Bangsamoro (Moro people) wanted to go back to their ancestral land and rebuild their lives but could not.
The Duterte government, they said, has continued to militarize Marawi in preparation for a development plan apparently propelled by Chinese investors. The peace advocates were in a forum called “Understanding violent extremism in the midst of peace prospects in Mindanao.” It was organized by the New York chapter of Nonviolence International, a group engaged in capacity building for Bangsamoro, in mid-August 2018.
Lininding, who had teared up when he said he missed Marawi, said that the Iraqi people were so much fortunate than the Bangsamoro people, because they were allowed to return to their lands and rebuild their lives.
“We want the Filipinos in America to know that we want to go back to Marawi in a dignified manner,” he said.
Abdullah, a graduate of the Mindanao State University, said that the government’s rehabilitation plan for Marawi was problematic because it was not community-led. “We lumad (natives) say no to the military garrison that is being set up in Marawi that could accommodate 6000 soldiers. There is no clear plan for the rehabilitation of the land and people. Our homes and indigenous systems are now gone. But the military is set up to secure Chinese investors. It is very insulting and humiliating that people from outside telling us what is good for us. That they build condominiums and we will get Chinese money,” Abdullah lamented.
In October 2017, Pres. Duterte declared Marawi as liberated from Muslim extremists. But Martial Law continues to this date.
Gutoc, a lawyer and a local legislator who resigned from government, told Filipinos in public forum in New York that they came to the US to tell the stories of people torn by war, which the world does not know, because of the lack of internet access.
The Seige that Hurt the People More
Gutoc said that during the Marawi siege, government had failed to provide warnings to prepare people for evacuation. “The bombings happened when civilians were still inside the city. There were no sirens to tell us in advance of bombings and shellings. This is not Afghanistan or Syria. This is the Philippines, supposedly a democratic place in Asia. But what happened? What happened? The people had to walk 39 kilometers to Iligan city, the nearest city in order to take refuge. This is not a movie. This is our story,” an emotional Gutoc said.
According to Gutoc, the south had always been regarded as a war game for the Philippine government. “This is not just about one president, but of seven presidents who looks at the South as a war game, where generals get promoted upstairs and some child becomes an orphan or becomes a rebel,” she said.
A member of the Task Force Marawi, Gutoc said there are still more than a thousand missing individuals as a result of the siege and that there were 3000 people were trapped during the siege, not 1700 as government claimed.
The continued Martial Law, she said, is detrimental to the refugees who wanted to come back. “Martial law meant that the decision for whoever is allowed to enter our villages is decided by those in uniform,” she said.
Gutoc said that there are still about 70 bombs that are still to be found and removed from the villages, thus preventing people from returning to their homes. “You bombed our community for three days. And 600 days later, it is hard for you to pull out what you bombed us with,” said Gutoc, referring to the security sector of government.
Famidah Dirampaten, a UTS student who attended the forum and a native of Marawi, had an emotional reaction. “Some of the ancestral homes of my parents and properties built by my father from his hard-earned money for many years had burned down during the horrific siege. It really pains me knowing from the narratives of my relatives and the rest of my fellow Bangsamoro Maranaos on their sentiments on how despite the war is over, they just don’t understand why they cannot go back and build own their homes. The nagging question is how long would it last to wait for the rebuilding of Marawi.”
Lininding, the third to speak, said that he used to support Pres. Duterte. His group is pushing for a congressional inquiry to look into the truth behind the siege.
“We were blamed that we coddled the Maute group. It is on record and we can prove this. Our local leaders went to the military camp and proposed that they will be the one to engage this terrorist group. But the military rejected the offer. Religious leaders and civil society leaders also initiated talks with the Maute group, which was at first willing to leave Marawi,” he said.
Lininding implored: “We’d like for people to convince or pressure the Philippine government to heed to our appeals or sit down with us for peace talks.”
Filipinos in New York who heard the narratives of the three peace advocates promised to give support to the peace efforts in Mindanao and for the rights of the indigenous peoples to return to their land. (Photos by Elton Lugay and Famidah Dirampaten)