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Local Ethnic Customs Complicate Recovery for War-Torn Philippine City

  • Ralph Jennings

FILE - Damaged buildings are seen inside a war-torn area in Marawi City, southern Philippines, Oct. 24, 2017, after the Philippines announced on Monday the end of five months of military operations in a southern city held by pro-Islamic State rebels.

A southern Philippine ethnic group’s unique clan structure, historic dependence on local trade, and chilling family feuds are setting back efforts toward quick recovery for a city demolished this year by war.

The war between government troops and the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group insurgency in Marawi ended in October after razing much of that city, allowing the central government to plan for reconstruction through at least 2019.

Some practices of the local Maranao people, many living outside the city now as refugees, are expected to complicate the resettlement effort that already faces sticky land-rights issues.

“That there are cultural practices and traditional authority structures that are very, very strong, the fact that this is a contested area with a lot of informal settlers as well, these are the things that would have to be taken into account and provide some complications to the whole process,” said Miriam Coronel-Ferrer, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines.

FILE - Residents who stayed at evacuation centers, because of the assault of government troops against pro-Islamic State militant groups, were allowed to return to their homes in Basak, Malutlut district in Marawi city, southern Philippines, Oct. 29, 2017.
FILE - Residents who stayed at evacuation centers, because of the assault of government troops against pro-Islamic State militant groups, were allowed to return to their homes in Basak, Malutlut district in Marawi city, southern Philippines, Oct. 29, 2017.

Ideas about reconstruction

As the Philippine government calculates the cost of reconstruction in Marawi, it will find that Maranao people have their own ideas about how, Coronel-Ferrer said.

Some land where new houses could be built is ancestral, making clan hierarchy a factor in who resettles where. But the Armed Forces of the Philippines effectively controls much of the city’s land.

The Maranao, part of a bigger population of Muslims who have felt the Philippine Catholic majority controls an unfair share of resources, may not be able to prove land rights, especially if they settled informally, analysts say.

People who were well off before the war might feel entitled to several new houses despite vague ownership records, experts say. One fear is that “too many people with interests will try to grab lands,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of Philippine advocacy organization Institute for Political and Electoral Reform.

“These are real complications,” Casiple said. For the Maranao, he said. “The key question is whether they are still part of the negotiations for things that are being negotiated about them.”

The Philippine budget office has announced funding of $392 million through 2019 to help rebuild the city. That amount is seen covering less than half the estimated cost of replacing all the burned and bullet hole-ridden houses.

The May 23 to Oct. 24 war killed about 1,100 people and displaced 364,000.

FILE - Three residents of a Philippine evacuation center for Marawi war refugees pass the afternoon Nov. 15, 2017. At least four other cities are helping care for refugees, some of whom have moved as far away as Manila.
FILE - Three residents of a Philippine evacuation center for Marawi war refugees pass the afternoon Nov. 15, 2017. At least four other cities are helping care for refugees, some of whom have moved as far away as Manila.

Discord among refugees

Maranao social customs and a belief in Islam already make life hard for refugees who fled during the war to safer cities elsewhere on the island of Mindanao.

Social welfare workers in nearby Cagayan de Oro, a city with 19,000 refugees at the peak, have separated Maranao families to ensure they do not fight with one another, said Teodoro Sabuga, a city social welfare and development officer who helps oversee refugee aid.

The ethnic group is known for retaliatory violence, called “rido,” between families and sometimes neighborhoods, especially where legal authorities are considered weak or in the face of injustice.

“We have noticed that the IDPs (internally displaced persons) from Marawi were not open to staying in the evacuation centers, because their preference is to stay with their families given the ‘rido’ issue among brother Maranaos,” Cagayan de Oro Mayor Oscar Moreno said. More than 50 families had lived at the chief evacuation center at its peak.

FILE - Cayamore Maute, who said he is the father of two brothers whose Maute group of Islamist militants led the seizure of Marawi City two weeks ago, is guarded by policewomen after his arrest in Davao City, southern Philippines, June 6, 2017.
FILE - Cayamore Maute, who said he is the father of two brothers whose Maute group of Islamist militants led the seizure of Marawi City two weeks ago, is guarded by policewomen after his arrest in Davao City, southern Philippines, June 6, 2017.

Loss of income

One of those clans was the Maute Group, an insurgency formed by two brothers in Marawi in 2013. The brothers died during their war with government troops, but other families now blame survivors for inciting the conflict that demolished houses as well as small businesses that were an income staple for many Maranao people, Casiple said.

Maranaos had earned money from providing services around Mindanao State University and military installations in their old hometown, once home to 200,000 people. Since the war made business unsafe to impossible, some have ventured as far as the capital of Manila to try selling things in the streets.

The Philippine armed forces chief of staff expressed support last week for “clearing operations, post-conflict assessment and rehabilitation of the city,” the military’s website says.

The threat of fresh violence in and around Marawi now keeps refugees from trying to go home.

But as Muslims, some feel uncomfortable sending children to schools in largely Christian Cagayan de Oro. With Marawi’s safety unclear, refugees are debating whether to live long-term in other cities.

“They have a lot of fear that if they send their kids to a school that’s predominantly Christian, they may be either bullied or treated badly,” International School Cagayan de Oro President Rhona Canoy said. “For many of them, this is the first time they came out of Marawi.”

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