Marawi

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Ma. Isabel Ongpin

MARAWI is on our minds. It is a city in Mindanao where most of us have never been to.

I visited Marawi once decades ago. My husband’s grandmother in Cagayan de Oro City (Esperanza Roa Ongpin) saw to it that I went to Mindanao on her invitation when she found out I had never been there. She made an effort to take me herself or send me places outside Cagayan de Oro and Bukidnon to her relatives. This was in the 1960s and I managed to visit Ozamiz City and Jimenez in Misamis Occidental as well. I met many relatives of my husband who had deep Mindanao roots.

Marawi was different. A short ride from Iligan City which was an up-and-coming progressive city of Lanao del Norte, it was in the neighboring province, Lanao del Sur. Marawi then was small and sleepy, or maybe that’s how it seemed to me as a day tripper. Now I know that there was more than met the eye.

I was surprised to see pine trees and Lake Lanao. The setting of the city was beautiful though there was a certain rough and raw appearance in the streets and houses at the time. Nick Joaquin wrote a memorable article about it in the old Free Press then. Mindanao State University’s campus was vast and green with very few buildings, more grass than concrete. But with foreign grants and a generous government budget, I hear it now has a multiplicity of buildings. Getting appointed as its president at times involves much controversy and debate. Government appointments are sought and fought over more than usual here.


When I went to a sari-sari store in the midst of the city, I saw a stack of cookie cans on the shelves and wanted to buy one. That is when the vendor told me that they were just there as ornaments and were empty. That gave me the impression of want and distance from the prosperity of Iligan, the energy of Cagayan de Oro and the serene beauty of Bukidnon. There was something almost elegiac here like fading glory.

This was before Martial Law and the resistance it elicited in Muslim Mindanao to giving up firearms to the government. It started a war between virtually all of Morolandia and the martial law administration. I do not recall hearing about ideological tendencies or manifestations then, except for resistance to authority and religious fervor. I do not remember the majority of women wearing hijab or complete head coverings either. The Muslims were just being themselves—rugged, independent, daring individualists or defined tribal groups under leaders unafraid to take on anyone that bothered them. One went about Marawi carefully and observantly.

I obviously did not notice how feudal it was. Marawi is the seat of the Maranaos with their multiple royal families, the clans that they represent and the servers, followers, cohorts that sustain them and define them. All departments of government are in their hands. Their elected leaders come from the elite and are our original political dynasties. Is this political Islam?

Note how Maranaos traders—which they have always been—are scattered all over the country as though voting with their feet about where they want to be. Opportunity for them seems to be elsewhere, anywhere not there.

Fast forward to today after the Martial Law depredations, the Moro National Liberation Front, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Abu Sayyaf, the IS, the BIFF, and now the Mautes, vis-à-vis a city that has grown, has defined itself as militantly Islamic, controlling its people and future via its powerful families. Meanwhile, smuggling, government contracts given to the favored few, basic services in deficiency, opportunities only for the ranks of the elite, and some very rich families and many poor families and that is what you see in Marawi today.

Before the fighting engulfed its people, its infrastructure, its educational institutions, its residences, its mosques and churches, hospitals, commercial areas, streets – all of the city—it was a feudal fiefdom. The fighting seems to have been motivated to perpetuate the status quo in favor of some prominent and wealthy families ostensibly following an ideology to which you may include the Mautes. The move to arrest the ideological leader, Isnilon Hapilon (if he may be described as that) precipitated the crisis. When government gets too close, independence must be sustained and fought for even if it literally means burning your own house, putting your own people in harm’s way. It may mean adapting to an alien ideology that promises to be on your side. This is the perennial tension between the government and the Muslims. We wish it were not so and we try to understand what motivates one and the other, so that they do not come to a modus vivendi. Only hard work to bring about trust and equality can set things on balance for peace and tranquility, if ever these words can apply to this part of our country. What kind of hard work is difficult to define. What may mean something to one means nothing to the other or some such imbalance of direction and motivation.

Meanwhile, a peace process has been derailed by political infighting, communication has broken down and different ambitions carrying contemporary ideologies have intruded to bring things nearer a war, a war which no one really wins.

If the government will rehabilitate Marawi, it has to be more than a massive infrastructure effort. It should include a vision and plan, not only of the physical aspects of the city but more so its relationship to the rest of the country, its positive adherence to democratic values, its loyalty and obedience to the republic and its laws (no smuggling, no parallel armies, no family above country moves). Accept and follow the Constitution. Is this possible? Already the competing dynasties are struggling to take control during and after the chaos. It will be back to square one if there is just a change in dynastic governance. Strong leadership from the national level is required along with a deep understanding of what ails this part of the country and an inspired or creative or imaginative way of dealing with its grievances while bringing a better social equilibrium.

Let at least both sides try again.

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