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[PULITIKULTURA] Invisible Marawi

By Marian Pastor Roces

By whatever ethical compass anyone abides, Marawi’s abandonment by the national government is an epic wrong.

Epic, here, is not literary flourish. This wrong will intrude into the next decades and generations in visceral ways. And not just in Lanao, among the Maranao. The catastrophic scale is imperceptible except to them, of course. They know the number and value of homes destroyed, savings in cash looted, relatives who now have blood debts, businesses ran to the ground, life plans forfeited.

But counting loss will get nowhere near a precise picture of this still endless ruination.

In the four years after the Armed Forces began the bombardments that pulverized the core of this city, the former residents are still barred from return. Part of what is invisible to any accounting is the dispersal of the former residents, beyond bureaucratic means to track. Not that any agency is tracking them. Not at the start and certainly not now.

Of the 300,000 refugees who took off from Ground Zero, those who do not live in refugee camps are staying with relatives all over the Philippines. Whatever visibility they had immediately postwar—in the refugee camps where rich and poor, friends and enemies, allies and the rido-inflamed had to pack themselves together—evaporated when most of them disappeared into extended clan assistance networks.

Unseen but no less displaced, waiting for government to figure out answers to the unprecedented question of what to do about a city it destroyed to gain back, they eventually saw that the answer is either nothing or nothing yet. During the war, President Duterte took to blaming the Maranao for coddling ISIS terrorists.

Echoing himself a few years later, he would say he will do exactly that: nothing. Then he would walk it back.

The 50,000-some homes destroyed, many of which were lived in for most of the last century by Maranao families who are unable to produce their titles (because titles were not the norm), is rubble that the owners cannot even visit. But that is not the unkindest cut of all.

Aside from gestures of asking the counsel of some Maranao leaders, Marawi residents have not been consulted. Made invisible by the need to fend for themselves, they are further obscured by government indifference to their right to be heard.

President Duterte’s initial idea for Marawi was to keep the people out, hand over the property to Chinese developers or their proxies to create some fantasy Dubai or Singapore, and let a selection of the residents back to enjoy a theme park way of life.

This kitschy dream of progress and resurrection should be reminder enough that kitsch is the aesthetic Chinese fascism. (Think dolomite beach, Manila Bay.)

In the Philippines, it was preceded by the Boracay maneuver. It is the extraordinary opportunism of taking a crisis, emptying space of people, handing the prime land to favored developers; eventually letting people back in to find, not only spatial change but social re-ordering. This maneuver works on the invisibility of the people with the highest stakes.

The valid reasons for the delays—including the fact that a lot of that central Marawi land was Camp Keithley of the American Occupation, the need for legislative work to refine policy on the financial responsibilities of government after a war, the challenges of data-gathering—have nothing to do with the entirely different matter of treating an entire urban population as non-entities.

Two matters cultural are made visible by this enforced invisibility. First, President Duterte has always gambled on the awful parts of the Filipino collective personality to advance his interest. In this case, he thinks the general public rather likes his fantasy Dubai in Marawi, and then now, wearily turn a blind eye on his calculation that the slowness of Marawi rehabilitation will not be a game-changing political issue in the coming presidential election.

Secondly, therefore, President Duterte counts on the Filipino public to care nothing for Marawi. He is winning this gamble, because the Filipino majority, already indifferent to Muslim Filipinos, is wracked by the pandemic’s impact. And it is this Dutertean wager that shows up the Filipino blindness to Marawi and its displaced population.

More than a century after the Philippine Republic was born in a period when the Moro/Christian divide was institutionalized rather than bridged—and cultural and political infrastructure were to continue to emphasize difference over similarty—the nation displays a horrifying lack of empathy with Filipinos who endured war and are coping with its aftermath.

All the talk of Filipino compassion does not include a wide public outcry about a notion of rehabilitation that excludes the people most concerned; and about the niggardly results of the crazy idea.

Filipinos were among the pioneers of people-powered development, now enshrined in such global institutions as the World Bank. Hence it can be said that President Duterte dismisses the cultural wealth of the nation he leads. He only works with the twisted parts of the Filipino.

Meanwhile, there is talk about on-going radicalization because of bitterness and impatience. If things go awry again, it will not be confined to Marawi. Because, while the Marawi siege was not an existential threat to the republic—thanks to the the bravery of the Armed Forces and the Marawi residents—the bombardment of its social fabric can loosen the community counterpoints to radicalization.

This dynamic plays to the globalization of the conflict. Unlike Indonesia, the Philippine government does not have a sophisticated civil relations infrastructure to stanch this woundedness, and the clear possibilities of sepsis. It seems it may be up to BARMM to enhance frontline work on this.

But it is something the entire citizenry should be awake to. The question is really: is President Duterte right about the Filipino as indifferent?

Marian Pastor Roces works internationally as an independent curator, critic of institutions, and analyst of culture and politics. Through her corporation, TAOINC, she curates the establishment of museums. She is also a founding Partner of the think tank, Brain Trust, Inc.

She has long argued that governance, civil society action, and policy making in the Philippines are weakened by the absence of cultural analysis. Such analysis, in turn, needs to work with updated data. Hence Pulitikultura, Roces' platform for probing the intersection of culture and politics.

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