By Mark Novales and Felipe Villamor
The Philippines will fast-track the reconstruction of Marawi, a southern city destroyed by the five-month battle with pro-Islamic State (IS) militants, a presidential spokesman said Tuesday while warning delays in rebuilding houses could push young Muslims to extremism.
The first 500 temporary shelters will be finished by mid-December and more than 6,000 others are being planned in the weeks ahead, said Harry Roque, President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesman.
“In military parlance that was ground zero, but since there is no more fighting, it is now being referred to as the most-affected area,” Roque told reporters, referring to the city’s commercial district.
“They plan to flatten it and redevelop the whole area,” he told the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines in Manila.
The fighting in Marawi, which began on May 23 and was declared over by the Philippine government in late October, uprooted an estimated 200,000 residents, killed more than 1,000 people and razed houses and other buildings in the lakeshore Islamic city on Mindanao island.
An ambitious reconstruction plan aims to transform Marawi into a modern city by the time the president ends his six-year term in 2022, Roque said.
Roque said he was shocked by the scale of destruction when he visited the city.
“What is scary is when I went there, there was not any living creature moving – not a dog – not a cat,” he said. “It is as if everything was killed or simply left the area.”
He said the government’s Marawi reconstruction team would invite “big-time developers” from around the world to a bid in December.
But many longtime residents do not hold proper land titles in Marawi, an 8,700 hectare (21,500 acre) military reservation that has stayed under the control of Muslim families for generations. This potential snag in the distribution of property in the reconstruction of Marawi is a touchy issue that could reignite conflict.
“So the challenge really is to rebuild Marawi as quickly as possible to give hope to the youth that the proper way to move forward is through becoming active participants as citizens of the nation,” Roque said. “And, of course, we need to create economic opportunities for them, so that they will turn their backs on violent extremism.”
Radical groups exploited by IS
The Marawi clashes underscored how violent extremists could cross borders, security experts say, particularly in this part of Southeast Asia where decades of Muslim rebellion spawned radical Islamic groups exploited by IS.
Roque pointed out that those who fought in Marawi were led by Filipino Abu Sayyaf gunman Isnilon Hapilon, who was backed by several members of a radical Muslim family and fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East.
“I think that the fact that the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are cooperating closely on the issue of terrorism and violent extremism will show that the problem really has become a regional concern,” he said.
While IS largely has been defeated in the Middle East, it has spread its tentacles to the region, according to military officials.
In particular, the Philippine military has had to rely on help from former Muslim separatist rebels in going after smaller IS-backed groups who sprung up elsewhere on southern Mindanao Island after the Marawi fighting.
Roque said Marawi has been “pretty much deserted” with only a few brave residents allowed to go back in batches to check on their destroyed homes and properties because troops were still scouring the landscape for unexploded bombs planted by fleeing rebels.
He said the “primordial consideration” for not allowing all of Marawi’s residents back in is that “the structures are not worth repairing or rebuilding.”
“They really have to be flattened and built from scratch. That’s pretty much the extent of the damage there,” Roque said.
Risks of further radicalization
The regional faction of IS could take advantage of feelings of disgruntlement among residents of Marawi and stage scattered attacks, including “revenge bombings” in Manila and the southern Philippine cities of Zamboanga and Cotabato, said Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.
“The biggest risk lies with further radicalization caused by unhappiness in Marawi reconstruction,” she told reporters recently.
The children and younger siblings of slain militants also could be the next generation of fighters who Manila should worry about, Jones said.
“Who is identifying the families and children of the terrorists killed in Marawi?” she asked, noting there did not seem to be any program to identify them.
Without funding from external sources, militants will now be hard put to keep a militant coalition working together on a regional basis, she said.
“But no one in the Philippines should ignore the fact that Salafi jihadism – the ideology that supports violent extremism – may be here to stay,” she said.