By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – Sittie Rahma Asim, a 33-year-old single mother of two, used to earn up to P1,500 or $29 a day, selling grilled snacks near her home in Marawi City. This income is on top of what she earns from her small sari-sari store in front of her house in Officers Line, Panggao Saduc village. She also sells clothes and kumbong or headscarfs.
“It’s not like us to ask for charity. We make do with whatever small profit we make,” Asim said in Filipino, in an interview with Bulatlat.
Like many Meranaws who are known as merchants, her good business sense has given her earnings, from which she had built her own concrete house on their family lot. She also acquired basic home appliances, such as a stereo component, a flat-screen TV, comfortable beds for her two sons and herself.
But like the 400,000 residents of the city, she had to leave her home and her little comforts when fighting broke out between government troops and the Dawlah Islamiya on May 23. Stuck as bakwets or evacuees in Saguiaran, they spend their day mostly waiting for relief goods, and longing to return to their old, peaceful lives.
Asim and other Meranaws are worried that that may not happen, with the looming entry of big foreign and local businesses which the Duterte administration has involved in the rehabilitation of the war-torn city. Worse, they fear that as Duterte cozies up to the US government, the city may become one of the “agreed locations” for a US military base.
The only Islamic City in the country used to boast of a bustling trade, with its myriad small merchants, cottage manufacturing and agriculture. The entry of giant corporations will displace all that and change the way of life in the city.
Asim, a member of the Marawi evacuees’ group, Tindeg Ranao, is now in Manila as part of the Lakbayan ng Pambansang Minorya. She and other bakwets have brought their call to the national capital: that Marawi is for the Meranaws and the people, not big business and foreigners.
Simple living in Marawi
The Meranaws, or “people of the lake,” get their name from resource-rich Lanao or “lake,” one of the world’s 15 ancient lakes. The hydroelectric power plant installed on Lake Lanao and its only outlet, Agus River, gives 70 percent of electricity in Mindanao. Amid abundant resources, the Meranaws have led simple lives, in the city they have inherited from ancestors who have fiercely defended it, along with the lake.
“We don’t even have SM in Marawi,” Asim proudly said, referring to the shopping mall conglomerate which is found in many urban centers around the country. There is also no Jollibee, the popular Filipino fast food restaurant which some even falsely use as a gauge of an area’s development.
Instead, they have various locally-owned shops and fast food restaurants and stalls that serve halal. In this atmosphere thrived small handicraft industries that produce distinctly Meranaw weavings, mats, metal crafts and other hand-made products.
Able to eke out a living in their land of birth, it is rare to meet Meranaws who become overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
The city also boasts of its cool climate. “It’s not hot, it’s not cold, the air is fresh,” Asim said.
Her neighbor, Diamond Gote, 33, also tends a small store in Panggao Saduc. She has built a single-story home for herself and her five-year-old daughter, separate from the family house which stands on their ancestral lot. With income from her store, she has saved enough to buy home appliances, such as a refrigerator, TV and a desktop computer.
For weekend leisure, she and her daughter go to the plaza and parks inside the sprawling Marawi State University (MSU), as many other Marawi residents do. When she has extra money, they take the 45-minute travel to Iligan City, where there are malls, and yes, Jollibee.
Gote and Asim are hopeful that their homes remain intact, because these are located near the National Power Corporation (NPC) compound, which has been spared from bombardment. The two, however, feared that their houses have been looted, as they learned was the case of their neighbors.
Orao Sarip, 50, a peasant from Papandayan village, also longs to return to tilling his land. He and his family have evacuated to live with relatives in Iligan city. They still rely on government relief goods, and he worries that they have burdened his kin with whom they are staying.
“It was peaceful before. We could sleep soundly at night, we eat three times a day and the children go to school,” Sarip recalled life before the conflict. Now, he said many families were forced to live apart, in separate evacuation sites, and others with relatives. Fortunately for his family, a relative accommodated him, his wife and their six children.
Sarip has no idea what has become of his home and farm, on which he used to cultivate corn, rice and vegetables.
All roads lead to Marawi
As Marawi bakwits are raring to return and rebuild their lives in the ruined city, so are the biggest local and foreign investors. In July, President Duterte formed Task Force Bangon Marawi and ordered P20 billion to be set aside for the city’s reconstruction, in which the private sector will be given a significant role.
Government also announced that tycoon Lucio Tan has pledged to help with the housing construction, while Dennis Uy, president and owner of Phoenix Petroleum has created a fund for soldiers fighting in Marawi. Meanwhile, Senator Richard Gordon proposes to turn Lake Lanao into a tourist spot, like Venice, Italy.
The national minorities alliance, Sandugo, criticized the involvement of profit-driven private companies, which it said “give aid with strings attached.”
“Naturally the planned rehabilitation of Marawi is suspect. On the former homes of Maranaos that were razed to the ground shall rise businesses, infrastructure and military reservations, while evacuees rot and lose their dreams of ever reclaiming their city, their lives and livelihood,” said Jerome Succor Aba, Sandugo co-chairperson in a statement.
Aba said many foreign investors have long been eyeing Lake Lanao because of its oil reserves.
Foreign funds are also streaming in. The US, through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and China were the first to pledge assistance in July. On Sept. 15, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said government has received pledges of billions of pesos from Japan, Thailand and the European Union.
Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) said that aside from the US, Australia is pushing its military and business interests in Marawi. Australia has a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the Philippines, and its troops are among those giving technical assistance to government soldiers in Marawi.
“Under the cover of the war in Marawi, Australian big business is pushing to claim the untapped riches of Mindanao,” said Bayan in a statement.
“In exchange for military intervention, Australia positions itself ahead of other nations in securing lucrative business deals especially in the reconstruction of Marawi and the exploitation of Mindanao’s resources,” the group said.
Even before the fighting broke out, the Australian corporation TierOne Communications International has a planned $60 million-dollar investment for a telecommunications project in Marawi. The company has announced it will push through with the project.
Even the military has laid claim on Marawi. In August, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has dug up a 1953 presidential decree which classified 6,000 hectares of the 8,700-hectare city as military reservation. The AFP gave assurance that they will not turn the city into a military camp, still, many doubt why they raised the issue in the first place.
The Duterte administration has continued the US-led War on Terror, with the offensives against extremist groups like ISIS and the local Dawlah Islamiya. Progressives warn that the same justification may be used to turn Marawi into one of the “agreed locations” for US military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca). With its location and temperate climate, Marawi can serve as a rest and recreation hub for US troops, just as Baguio did during the American era.
Ironically, the Dawlah Islamiya had gained foot in Marawi in spite the presence of a US military installation inside Camp Ranao. This was where Filipino translator Gregan Cardeño was found dead and suspected to have been abused by American soldiers in 2010.
Rehabilitate Marawi for the Meranaws and the people
Evacuees like Asim insisted that any rehabilitation should not displace the residents, who should be allowed to rebuild on their own lots. She said “building better” should only mean bigger roads, for better mobility within the city. But everything else – the market place, the residences – should remain where they are and not be replaced with malls and private enterprises.
Farmer Sarip said it pains him to hear the AFP claims that Marawi is mostly a military reservation. He said not many Moros hold titles to their land, but their ancestral claim to the land is based on the burial ground of their ancestors.
“Where will we live? We will be removed from the place our ancestors have fought for,” he said.
Sandugo leader Aba said the concentration of Meranaw population in Marawi is due to their historic defense of the city against invaders. “They have asserted their right and defended their territory there,” he told Bulatlat.
“If government pushes through with an anti-people rehabilitation, they can expect resistance, through many forms,” Aba said.
The Meranaw evacuees insisted they will return home, and will not agree to relocation. “People will resist. we have been here since the time of our ancestors,” said Gote.