Unanswered questions about the Marawi City conflict

The official narrative leaves much to be explained about how and why the conflict started and was fought the way it was, causing as it did, mass evacuation and the destruction of the city.


The conflict in the “Siege of Marawi” between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the “ISIS Inspired Maute Group” lasted about 5 months-late May to late October 2018- and destroyed a large part of the city. Casualties included over a thousand dead and nearly 300,000 displaced from their homes. The government explains both figures as a necessary result of urban fighting against well entrenched, well-armed and fanatical Muslim extremists that had been planning the uprising for months.

The official narrative leaves much to be explained about how and why the conflict started and was fought the way it was, causing as it did, mass evacuation and the destruction of the city. The accurate number of civilians killed remains in doubt, as does the number of human rights abuses, including looting, by the military and the Maute Group (such violations have been denied by the AFP while those of the Maute Group have been referenced in general by the media).

There has been much media attention to the proposed plans for rehabilitation, with estimates of costs running to 60 billion pesos, but the bureaucratic process established to complete the task, the indications that the city will become a “tourist hub” and corporate participants considered as major players (still unnamed) while the former residents appear to be excluded from a significant role, all raise concerns about what will actually be the result of the rehabilitation scheme.

What follows is an attempt to background the above questions and others that an independent inquiry, preferably a Peoples’ Tribunal, or even a congressional inquiry might investigate, although it would be naïve to expect the latter to do the necessary task of revealing the reality behind the militaristic triumphalism.

The figures on lives lost

There must be an independent assessment of the actual toll of human lives, and injuries, in the five months long “siege”. The cost in human lives of the Marawi operation is disputed, but figures released on 22 October 2017 by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are as follows:

Overall- “more than 1100” killed overall, made up of:
“Terrorists” – “more than 900 Filipino and foreign militants”
AFP and PNP- 163 (GB-about 20 killed by aerial bombing by the AFP)
Civilians- 47 (as of 9 October 2017)
To be determined- 0
Injured- no figures provided

There are several questions about those figures. What criteria was used to categorize dead people as “terrorists’? Who made that determination? Given that the number of Maute/Abu Sayyaf/foreign fighters is not known, but considering that there has been no official estimate that even approaches 900, and local informants put the number far lower, can it be possible that some of those designated as “terrorists’ were actually civilians? A further question also arises: why were there no bodies about whom the determination has not, or because of massive injuries, could not be categorized? It is difficult to believe that after such heavy bombardment there were no bodies that proved unidentifiable. The suspicion remains that such bodies may just have been lumped in under the category “terrorist”. Amnesty International commented: “Government forces may also have carried out disproportionate air and ground attacks”. stating also that the civilian deaths from military and militant attacks was “likely significantly higher than the official count”.

Human rights abuses by the AFP

Amnesty International has alleged substantial human rights abuse by the Maute group, and their horrific and sectarian crimes have been widely reported by the media and condemned domestically (even by Moro separatists) and internationally. Amnesty also alleged human rights abuse by the AFP, saying “Marawi’s civilian population has suffered immensely amid one of the Philippine military’ most intensive operations in decades”. (See the Amnesty report “The ‘Battle of Marawi’: death and destruction in the Philippines”). Little has appeared in the media concerning this allegation. Yet, according to Amnesty, the military “detained and ill-treated fleeing civilians and also engaged in looting…Their extensive bombing of militant-held areas of Marawi City wiped out entire neighborhoods and killed civilians, highlighting the need for an investigation into its compliance with international humanitarian law”.

BULATLAT FILE PHOTO: Soldier on duty at Marawi City. (Photo courtesy of Anto Balleta)

A local human rights group, Kalinaw Mindanao, along with a fact-finding mission, the International Interfaith Humanitarian Mission, involving some 30 foreign delegates from 9 countries and 5 continents, have documented nearly 400 alleged human rights abuses by the AFP.

While a spokesperson for the AFP has said all complaints would be investigated, the government has continued to claim that there were no human rights abuses under martial law. Similarly, the government denied there had been looting, yet AFP officers on the ground were forced to admit that there had indeed been looting by troops and this would also be investigated.

Should we wait for investigations by a military with every reason to dismiss the claims and a very poor record over decades of known human rights violations?

Why was the destruction of the city so comprehensive?

Why the city was largely destroyed is not clear. The superficial answer provided by the Duterte administration is that there was an armed group, “terrorists” of the Maute Goup “inspired by ISIL”, in well entrenched positions; therefore, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) decided that the only way to dislodge them and to “liberate” the city was by use of aerial bombing, artillery-including mortars- and heavy weapon fire.

Many Maranaws claim that the escalation of the conflict was unnecessary, that the heavy-handed attempt by the AFP to seize the Abu Sayyaf leader Hapilon during a dhujur (a large public gathering of Muslims) was ill-judged and badly bungled. Reports indicate that three local women were killed in the brawl that erupted when the military moved in to the crowd with the intention to arrest Hapilon. Many commentators say that what could have been a small, well informed police operation at an appropriate time was instead an oversized and ineptly planned military confrontation. It is said that while the Maute Group was planning an uprising, they were not ready for it on May 23, 2017. They insist that the vast destruction by the AFP was a response to an opportunity which arose, and was taken, to punish the Moros and build a new, different “open city” after the destruction of the Islamic city with its particular culture and norms inconsistent with a modern prosperous Filipino city.

Others contend that the government and its business allies had in mind for some time that the Islamic city should be “redeveloped”, and that the Maute uprising presented the opportunity to start the process through the use of artillery and aerial bombing (the latter seems to have been commenced very early in the “siege”). Thus constituting a new chapter in the history of “disaster capitalism”.

In any case, it seems that aerial bombing has political dimensions. Governments of today have learned “the lesson of Viet Nam”, none more so than the USA which was heavily involved in “tactical advising” the AFP at Marawi, according to US Ambassador Sung Kim (Karen Davila TV Program, Head Start, ABS-CBN, 4 December 2017). Substantial numbers of military deaths in war will bring resistance on the “home front” to the war. No doubt that would be an even bigger issue when the soldiers are being killed “at home” while being seen on TV, and even more so where those also being killed are citizens of the same country, as in the Marawi battle. Although it must be said that in this instance the government and media casting of the Maute as “terrorists” aligned with foreign groups such as ISIS, supplemented by foreign fighters, and supported by Muslim civilians, served to allay any doubts that they needed to be eliminated even if the cost in civilian lives was high.

An aerial bombing operation would limit the number of AFP (and PNP) personnel killed in skirmishes with the Maute fighters. There were, in fact, relatively few such casualties and, of course, the glorification of their deaths and the triumphalism of the military leaders outweighed any significant opprobrium about the deaths of the glorious AFP heroes. (Ironically, nearly two dozen of whom were accidentally killed by the bombs dropped by the AFP -just “friendly fire”, or collateral damage, as they say.)

Amnesty International has stated that the “disproportionate” bombing campaign possibly could be categorised as a war crime. Many would agree. The government has not yet convincingly established the necessity for the destruction of a large part of the city.

Can the country rely on statements of the AFP in view of its intel failures?

Once again, following in the path of numerous ‘intel failures’, the intelligence function of the AFP seems to be dysfunctional. One question often heard over the past months is how did the Maute Group become so well equipped inside the city, and dug in, without being noticed by military intelligence? Surely that was an intelligence failure of immense proportions. More important, in a sense, is what it says about the relations between the Moro people and the AFP, indeed the local people and the government. Clearly many people must have known what was going on, yet did not have sufficient identification with the government to let its people on the ground in on the secret. One supposes that hundreds of years of oppression and discrimination does breed such an attitude toward Manila and its local military.

Marawi evacuees
BULATLAT FILE PHOTO: Tents in the transitional site in Pantar, Lanao del Sur (Photo by Marya Salamat/Bulatlat)

Intel comes from communities that trust the military and the government. Any intention to improve the gathering of intelligence by pouring more money down the institutional drain should be resisted. Until governments, and specifically the AFP, gain the trust of the people, intel gathering will be inconsistent at best.

What is the formal policy of this government on killing Filipino civilians?

Should Filipino civilians be sacrificed, as they were in Marawi, whenever “terrorists” must be dislodged from urban redoubts? President Duterte has made his position clear when discussing the “war on drugs”: those who threaten the nation can be killed. He has in fact encouraged the killings, and rewarded those who perpetrate the killings. And this for even those who are only “alleged” to be involved with drugs to a minimal extent. When the innocent civilian has been killed in such operations, Duterte has justified it as just “collateral damage” in a war.

When it comes to armed conflict, where there appears to be an immediate threat, the question must also arise: is it an accepted policy now of the AFP and the defence establishment that civilians may be killed and considered justifiable “collateral damage”? Has this been part of the advice, the training, received from the USA and Australian military sent to indoctrinate the AFP in “modern anti-terrorism” urban warfare? Shouldn’t it be formally debated by the Congress? Surely, to paraphrase the American freedom slogan “no bombing of Filipinos without representation” must apply in a democracy.
To what extent were foreign fighters involved?

Media accounts and AFP statements suggested that the Maute Group was “supported by foreign fighters”. This refrain was bound to have a delegitimating effect on any claims that the conflict was a continuation of the historic Moro struggle against domination from Spanish, USA and Filipino colonialism, external and domestic. It also was suited to influence foreign opinion makers that the Marawi conflict was an extension of the global war of “international terrorism” and needed to be supported, which of course the wannabe regional Sheriff (USA) and Deputy Sheriff (Australia) very quickly did, followed by China and Russia.

Thus far it appears that very few foreign fighters actually took part in the fighting, and only two, both Malaysians have been named: Mahmud Ahmad and Amin Baco. It was alleged there was also an Indonesian involved, though not named. In addition, in the aftermath of the battle for Marawi, and in the lead up to the announcement of an extension of Martial Law, the AFP claimed that “foreign looking” men were seen with a unit of BIFF fighters in North Cotabato, although after many weeks, nothing more has been heard of these mysterious figures.

To fully understand the conflict in Mindanao, it is important that the government gives an accurate picture, based on hard data, of the composition of the insurgents. It should not encourage misleading narratives involving foreign influence. The Moros may have been “ISIS inspired” and even waved an ISIS flag, but it seems more relevant that they were Moros with centuries of grievances to drive them to what was, inevitably, a suicide mission.

Rehabilitation and recompense

There is no doubt that rebuilding Marawi will be extremely costly. Preliminary estimates have reached nearly 60 billion pesos, and given the likely traditional budget overrun in such operations, it could be far more. Much depends on the choice made as to what kind of city will be constructed, and who will decide. Will it be a city for the people, with full and effective prior and ongoing consent, or will the city be built for business and commercial interests, with no effective participation of the people. Thus far, it appears that the second possibility is the more likely. That would not be surprising, for as Naomi Klein has spelled out in her perceptive work, Disaster Capitalism, the temptation to favour capitalist over pro-people re-development has been a widespread phenomenon following recent disasters.

The signs are there. In late October, top bureaucrat and neo-liberal economist, Department of Budget and Management Secretary Benjamin Diokno, established the inter- agency Task Force Bangon Marawi, consisting of 23 government agencies to “lead the recovery, reconstruction and rehabilitation of Marawi City”. No mention of people representation there.

The President has claimed that he will “prioritize helping the poor. Never mind the wealthy”. But his populist line is no longer easy to believe. In line with more worrying comments from others, he also said “Marawi will regain its splendour. It will become beautiful again”. Nothing there about rebuilding the city to house the poor and the former residents. A further question about the kind of city to be re-built concerns the huge “military reservation” in the centre of the city? The government has not indicated whether a major military base will be retained within the city. Again, there could be major decisions made that exclude the interests of former residents and those who might be allowed to re-establish their former homes in the reduced space such a base would entail.

What are some of the Manila “experts” saying about how to redevelop the city? Department of Tourism Assistant Secretary and spokesperson, Frederick Alegre, must have said what many are thinking: “the agency recognizes the potential of Marawi as a tourist destination.” Indeed, Senator Richard Gordon, former Tourism Secretary, chimed in with his vision: “to convert Marawi City and other municipalities around Lake Lanao into a tourist hub to help it rise from the ashes of war.” According to him, Malacanang supports the idea. Not exactly a pro-people scheme.

Will there be a war museum or some other memorialization of the tragic demise of the old city, or perhaps a “Siege of Marawi Theme Park” for the tourists? It is informative to compare the view from Manila with that from Mindanao. The former comes from ‘renowned architect and urban planner’, Felino Palafox, Jr.: “Ground zero should be preserved as a lesson for future generations… to remind the public how a city could fall to terrorism” (or be destroyed by the government?) From Mindanao comes a radically different view, that of the President of Mindanao State University, Macapado Muslim: “Do not make it a war museum as suggested by some…it will institutionalize and perpetuate the wounds and pains of the war in the minds of the M’ranaws”. He alone seems to realize the need for the participation of the people in the planning and rebuilding, although his comment seems to mediate that consultation through “concerned local sectors” and mentions leaders and local government units, thus seemingly discounting direct involvement of the people.

FILE PHOTO: The road towards Padian port and market in Marawi city (Contributed photo)

In view of some of the government announcements about redevelopment of the city, the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines and Kalinaw Mindanao issued a statement concerning the “government programs to rehabilitate Marawi which seem likely to be devoted towards gaining profits from the war and devastation”. This concern would not be lessened by the Duterte plan to ease the limits on foreign capital investment in the country, as well as the predicted involvement of the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and Japan in the redevelopment of Marawi.

A thoughtful sketch of how the city might be rebuilt, taking into consideration the needs of the people and modernization, has been put forward by the Director of the Mindanao State University Press, Elin Anisha Guro. She emphasizes the importance of recognizing traditional Maranaw culture in new public spaces, but also emphasizes the need for a green city (solar panels; botanical gardens and herbarium; and argues it should be “a garden and vegetable city so we do not need to go down to Iligan City to buy a twig of kalamunggay”). She recognizes, as governments seem not to have for too long, the need today for better internet connectivity. She accepts there will be tourism, but balances this with the interests of the people and the development of new thinking within the context of traditional values (public art, centers for artisans, women, children and youth).

Which path the government takes in redeveloping Marawi City will go a long way toward answering the question: will there be peace in Mindanao? To go down the path of Disaster Capitalism, and cause bitterness in the hearts of those who would be excluded from their beloved city in the future, will be an unforgivable crime against the Maranaw community.

The questions raised above must be answered by the Duterte administration as the Filipino public deserves an accurate, comprehensive account of the Marawi operation and its plans to redevelop the city, not more denials, glib assurances and triumphalism. The people have a right to know. After all, they will be paying for it. And expecting that it will not make matters worse.

Given that such questions are unlikely to be answered by the Duterte bureaucrats who will wish to impose a solution to the continuing “crisis” experienced by the hundreds of thousands displaced as a result of the conflict at Marawi, and will certainly avoid answering for the destruction of the city, there should be an independent tribunal, a Peoples’ Tribunal, to investigate the Marawi disaster. (https://www.bulatlat.org)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gill H. Boehringer is a former Head of the Macquarie University School of Law, Sydney, Australia, now Honorary Senior Research Fellow. The author haS also carried out social research in the Philippines for more than a decade and currently studying conditions in Mindanao.

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