Conflict in Cities and the Contested Philippine State: Notes After Marawi

Originally a FB post but migrated here because the maps and photos wouldn’t show.

Dahil ako’y taga Maynila lamang, hanggang mabilisang sulat lang ako. Para sa minamahal na mga kaibigan at katrabahong Meranaw, kung mamarapatin.

It has been over a week since the May 23 Maute Group attack on the Islamic City of Marawi, and President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao. Skirmishes to clear and control the city are still ongoing. The majority of its 201,785 recorded citizens have since fled on foot, leaving behind combatants, journalists, and the occasional terrified resident trapped in the crossfire or attempting to protect their homes and businesses from looting.

Many questions remain. Was it truly a botched military operation against Abu Sayyaf Group leader Isnilon Hapilon, who had purportedly ventured out of Basilan to operate in the mainland, unifying the disaffected under the black flag? Or was it well planned in advance, this scene of least fifty young fighters emerging from Lake Lanao, occupying and damaging key installations—hospitals, churches, university buildings, city hall, the local jail? Was the Chief of Police truly beheaded (despite photos emerging of him appearing alive and with head intact)? Can we call them ISIS or IS-Ranao? Why is Marawi City being shelled? How will the airstrikes affect power dynamics on the ground? Will the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao set the stage for nationwide policy?

What is established is that as of May 31, at least 22 civilians, 30 security personnel and sixty-odd Maute and ASG fighters have been killed. Over 44,000 families have been recorded as displaced across Northern Mindanao, taking uncertain shelter during the Holy Month of Ramadan in evacuation centres and the homes of friends and relatives. Only twenty percent of the metropolitan area has power restored; food in surrounding communities is scarce. Tensions have spilt over to neighbouring towns. It will take weeks before comprehensive damage assessments can be conducted but one wonders if Marawi, with its rich 400-year-old history and its role as the economic, political, and cultural heart of Lanao del Sur, can fully recover.

Mainstream approaches to Mindanao’s peace and conflict situation is through its security or political dimensions, and for the immediate phase, the humanitarian response for the likas (“those who left”, a more culturally-appropriate alternative to bakwit), or internally displaced persons. However, Marawi, and to some extent its predecessor Zamboanga, begs the question: how can we start thinking about peace in terms of how conflict dynamics play out in actual space and place, in the fabric of our communities and cities? Violent state-non state contestation in the Philippines has been largely rural, with a few sporadic exceptions. So does Marawi signal a contemporary turn to urban warfare, similar to many of our Western counterparts? Is urban conflict the next Philippine battleground?


Urban Conflict in the Philippines: Multiple Threads

Cities are conflictual by their very nature. However, the density of people, infrastructure, goods, and services that characterises urban life ensures that the scale of urban violence can easily eclipse that of open warfare, with high human and economic costs. While Philippine ideological formations largely favour rural and jungle-style guerrilla tactics, key ‘trigger points’ in history occurred in cities, particularly those in Mindanao.

Thread One: Bangsamoro

May 23 was not the first incident in the settlement formerly called Dansalan. Conflict historians will recall the October 1972 Marawi uprising, when so-called ‘Maoist Muslims’ raised a red—not black—flag over Camp Amai Pakpak (formerly Camp Keithley) and certain facilities of the Mindanao State University, barely one month after Ferdinand Marcos’s declaration of Martial Law. Two years later came the burning of Jolo, Sulu in February 1972, bringing a once-prosperous island capital to ashes after four days of fighting between government forces and the Moro National Liberation Front. Amina Rasul of the Philippine Centre for Islam and Democracy often points out that Sulu and Lanao del Sur ranked higher than much of Luzon and Visayas in 1970 in terms of access to water and electricity, but languishes at the bottom across all measures of development by 1990.*

One might argue that Zamboanga Sibugay has also never fully recovered from the so-called Ipil Massacre of April 1995, when at least 200 members of the so-called MILF-MNLF-Abu Sayaff ‘Lost Commands’ and private armed groups took 30 hostages, killed over 50 people, and stole at least a billion pesos from local banks.

A year after then-ARMM Regional Governor Nur Misuari was ousted as MNLF chair by his colleagues in 2000, citing incompetent performance and gross corruption, Misuari loyalists attacked an Army headquarters in Jolo, Sulu. This was purportedly to disrupt the incoming ARMM elections that would replace him with Parouk Hussin. The Jolo attack left 100 dead and many others wounded. A simultaneous attack on the Cabatagan government complex in Zamboanga City had 300 MNLF fighters take residents hostage, marching them around the city roped together.

The use of human shields in Zamboanga would be repeated again twelve years later, in another Misuari fit of pique. Sidelined yet again by the progress of the negotiations with Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the MNLF-Misuari group led by Uz. Habier Malik and Khaid Ajibon declared an independent Bangsamoro Republic and undertook what became the Zamboanga Siege in September 2013. Four coastal barangays were occupied by the MNLF: Rio Hondo, Sta. Barbara, Sta. Catalina, and parts of Talon-Talon. By the time the end of military operations were declared on September 28, at least 30-40 hectares of Zamboanga City were razed to rubble, with losses estimated at more than USD 73 million. 218 were declared dead, hundreds wounded. More than 100,000 were displaced. Baliwasan Grandstand was converted into an IDP camp. Several years later, at least 14,000 people still live in temporary shelters in transitory sites. 

zamboNote: Aerial photos comparing Barangay Sta. Catalina before and after the Siege. Baliwasan Grandstand. Displaced family at Transitional Shelter Site, Barangay Tulungabong, Zamboanga City.

Thread two: Coup plots and millenarian cults

That said, conflict in Philippine cities has not been limited to the Moro struggle in Mindanao. The ‘other’ major table with the various Communist and Socialist streams, as well as sundry coup-de-etat attempts, have used tactical urban actions to great effect.

Military adventurists and revolutionaries alike have been fond of ‘taking to the streets’. On May 21, 1967, Lapiang Malaya cult leader Valentin de los Santos led 380 people armed in bolos and protective amulets, blue uniforms and yellow capes in a march to overthrow the Marcos regime. They were summarily mowed down on Taft Avenue by the Philippine Constabulary. Legend says that de los Santos was promptly installed in a mental hospital, where he may or may not been assassinated.

One may argue that the EDSA Revolution, bloodless as it was, was a form of urban conflict. Similar actions were also taken by the so-called RAM Boys (Reform the Armed Forces Movement), who waged a series of kudetas in the 80’s and 90’s. The image below illustrates the 2003 and 2007 mutiny attempts of the Magdalo group led by then-Lt.Sgt, now-senator Antonio Trillanes IV. Despite occupying the Oakwood Premier (now Ascot Hotel) and the Manila Peninsula, they were not mowed down.


Thread three: urban death squads

The rise of Rodrigo Roa Duterte to the presidency has brought the Davao Death Squad to national attention—the then-mayor’s form of taming his city, at a time when the bustling Agdao district was a Sandinista-esque Communist haven dubbed Nicaragdao. The CPP/NPA/NDF’s urban guerrilla group, the Alex Boncayao Brigade (ABB) operated along a similar time period, believing that political assassinations, extortion and intimidation was the fastest and most visible way to overthrow the government. They did not win the revolution, but they did bomb the Department of Energy and the offices of Petron and Pilipinas Shell in protest of rising gas prises in the late 1990’s. No fatalities are recorded. In an eerily twisted foreshadowing of contemporary tokhang killings, the ABB were also known for executing purportedly erring police officers and leaving their corpses with a list of alleged transgressions around their necks. The ABB’s founder Popoy Lagman was later killed by his former comrades in an equally urban setting—the steps of the Bahay ng Alumni of the University in the Philippines in Diliman. 

Zamboanga and Marawi: Conflict in Cities in the 21st Century

Random bombings and incidents aside, Marawi in 2017 and its immediate predecessor, the 2013 Zamboanga Siege, mark a distinct category of conflict, where the gravity of damage becomes palpable due to the physical violence done to the very fabric of the place. Damage to Zamboanga covered only four out of 98 barangays. While a more accurate assessment of Marawi will need to be undertaken, ground reports say that out of 96 barangays, only the area around the Provincial Capitol remains semi-intact.

Faster and wider dissemination through mainstream media and the internet further heightens (and distorts) the impact of urban conflict. As seen in the photos of shelled-out homes below, the damage done to Marawi is at a visual scale that one does not readily associate with the Mindanao or Philippine armed conflicts, but with Raqqa or Aleppo.

marawiSource: Facebook post, Butch Guiling Guro , June 2, 2017

Urban conflict became established reality in Europe and the Middle East towards the end of the 20th Century, and is often attributed to two major shifts. First, a change in the nature of armed conflict, to what Mary Kaldor refers to as long term, sporadic and unexpected ‘new wars’; and secondly, a change in the nature of cities where in the extreme form shows ‘imperial capitals’ dwarfing fragile states in economic and political power. 

One can imagine how this can apply to the Philippines.

Urbanisation and conflict

Global data estimates that 70% of the world’s population will be in cities by 2050. In the Philippines, that will reach 84% of the population, from the present 50%. At present, Philippine cities generate 70% of the GDP, of which 36% is generated in Metro Manila alone. The seven largest cities—National Capital Region, Metro Cebu, Davao, Bacolod, Cagayan de Oro, General Santos, and Zamboanga—host 54 percent of formal jobs.

One crucial difference is that in contrast to many existing Western studies on conflict in highly-urbanized cities, the cases of Marawi and Zamboanga manifest the strong relationship and spillovers between urban and rural elements. While the majority of likas are said to have taken shelter in Iligan City as a first option, effects can be felt in the nearby towns of Marantao and Ramain and the surrounds. From a security perspective, efforts to contain and address violence cannot limited to Marawi, but is clearly linked to earlier incidents in Butig and Piagapo.

While more rigorous research needs to be done, there is a link between informal settlements in Mindanao and the many waves of displacement that have occurred. In  Cotabato City, for example, an uncompleted assessment undertaken in 2008 estimates 7,000 internally displaced households living within so-called ‘squatter areas’—numbers that are likely to have swelled with successive outbreaks of violence over the last decade.

Extremism and urban violence

The second question on the shifting nature of armed contestation in the Philippines is a little less cut-and-dried.

For the longest time, the Philippine government has been engaged in peace negotiations with at least five major ideological armed groups, particularly the MILF, MNLF, and the CPP/NPA/NDF and its splinters. Terrorist groups such as the ASG and the Maute Group were dismissed as ‘police matters’ for the military to deal with. The stalling of the passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (largely due to the fallout of the [rural] Mamasapano incident) was noted as a major cause of dissatisfaction amongst Moro youth, who people feared might turn to violent extremism if negotiations failed to deliver on their promises. Even as early as 2014 and 2015, MSU Marawi was already seen as a hotbed of recruitment for the so-called ‘black flag’ groups, even before the terms Dawlah Islamiya or Maute ever reached public (Manila) consciousness.

Another growing trend is how horizontal (inter-communal) contestation has begun to outstrip vertical (traditional State vs non-state) dynamics. Data from the only public dataset on violence in Mindanao, Conflict Alert, show that for the period 2011-2015, conflict was highest in the urban centres of Cotabato City, Islamic City of Marawi, Parang and Malabang in the ARMM mainland, and in the cities of Tagum and Panabo in Davao del Norte.** In the ARMM, this is closely linked with the so-called ‘shadow economies’, particularly illegal weapons and illicit drugs. In the Davao Region, this means high levels of common crimes such as robberies, alcohol-related violence, and civilian- and community-level disputes over land and other resources. While ‘horizontal violence’ can cover anything from electoral assassinations to something as innocuous as a basketball game, the demise of someone’s pet duck, or stabbing over who gets to sing “My Way” at the sitio videoke night, the contemporary War on Drugs—and its current body count of over 7000, more than all the islands of the Philippine archipelago—is a factor whose impact people have barely begun to understand.

Regardless of classification, armed contestation ultimately boils down to one question: what makes people angry? Although some people and Mindanawons have expressed support for increased military activity to quell extremism, the overwhelming reaction from Marawi is increasing anger over airstrikes and reports of looting and other abuses from government forces. Whether or not the triggers are real or imagined, anger drives recruitment. This is a stylised fact. If these sources of anger and dissatisfaction remain unaddressed, it is highly possible that those who did not join the Maute group might take up arms against the government anyway. Not by ideology or force, but for revenge, as a matter of maratabat (honor).

Conflict Infrastructure in Marawi: Beyond Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Development

It remains to be seen if urban conflict will become the next Philippine battleground. One hopes that it will not be the case. However, Marawi points to the fact that longstanding armed contestations in the Philippine archipelago can no longer be framed merely in terms of abstract political relationships or security arrangements. It must be dealt with at human scale: in terms of peri-urban space and place. As the massive reconstruction of Marawi that is to come will show, cities are crucial sites of contestation and negotiation, where the tension between regional identities and the Philippine state are made manifest.

It will be a great opportunity to rebuild, but there are inherent dangers, particularly if development specialists without experience in Mindanao swoop in without duly acknowledging the complex cultural and political realities that gave rise to the incident in the first place. ‘Post-disaster’ is not the same as ‘post-conflict’—one may even argue that there is no such thing. The rule of thumb is that all efforts must be suited to the area’s conflict topography, or the local cultural and physical/ecological context of an area vulnerable to conflict. Another key principle is ‘conflict-sensitivity’, or the contextual understanding of the given area. This understanding must inform the design, funding and implementation of programs and project interventions. It is a term typically used in tandem with the principle of ‘do no harm’, meaning that the actions of actors providing assistance should not cause further damage to a community or a society that has been ravaged by conflict.

At the same time, the political cannot override the technical. As many local and international mis-steps show, it is clear that a political solution without a long-term, culturally-appropriate and conflict-sensitive urban vision cannot succeed. Focusing on so-called ‘low hanging fruit’ and ‘quick-fixes’, coupled with the inevitable delays of government and I/NGO bureaucracy will not be enough. What is needed is a unified and multi-tier effort that will unite resources, work streams and responsibilities at the urban, municipal, provincial, regional, national levels without getting stuck in political and sectoral silos of delivery. It must be grounded in a strong sense of what Marawi is—its long history, economic, functional and cultural value as the capital of the proud, highly creative, and entrepreneurial People of the Lake—and what it can be.

In that sense, area-appropriate place-making is peace-building made manifest. Thus, peacebuilding for spatial planners, particularly those who will be involved in Marawi’s immediate future, must “deal with the past”–things that make people hurt and angry—in tangible form, at the level of the city, in liveable space and place. It means no to ramshackle temporary shelters, it means forms of reparation for the homes that were destroyed by the airstrikes. It means sensitivity to cultural practices and avoiding resettlement and return policies that may be detrimental to marginalised and vulnerable residents. This is true particularly for those who may not own formal land titles or identification, before or after the incident. It means avoiding putting in place what is called in the literature as ‘conflict infrastructure’, or the security walls, buffer zones, checkpoints, and tenure and mobility regimes that divide city populations  and damage urban fabric so that “what should connect and benefit from contact does not.” It means the avoidance of politically-biased and short-sighted plans, and encouraging local participation and expertise.

It means avoiding the mistakes of Zamboanga.

conflict infra

Note: Selected forms of conflict infrastructure in Mindanao

But in a positive sense, planning and peace-building for Marawi means place-making, that is, using community abilities and assets to help build and renew healthy public spaces, enhancing and even improving the valuable intrinsic topography, view, history, or use that exists, in a manner that respects peoples’ right to self-determination. Long before Marawi became the city of tarpaulins and trash (or airstrikes that kill Maute members, civilians, and soldiers alike), it was a proud settlement that featured indigenous architectural, woodcarving and brass-casting styles used in the Torongan royal houses. It was home to the best State University on the island. It was beautiful.

To build Marawi from the rubble will require appropriate and participatory plans that link the city to broader planning and development for the rest of Ranao and Northern Mindanao. The concept of transitional justice and reconciliation, particularly the acknowledgment of history and memorialisation will necessarily come into play, in order to deal with multiple aspirations and grievances in the urban context. Concretely, this will entail addressing urban and rural land tenure and land use issues head-on, which has been a major cause of conflict in Mindanao even prior to May 23. With the threat of violent extremism still unresolved, community security arrangements will be key. In a sense, the call of Marawi is a call to rethink the role of urban design and regional spatial and economic planning in the Philippines as a whole.

None of this will come to pass unless the residents of Marawi itself fight for a better fate for its children, particularly those who felt disaffected enough to join the ‘black flag’ groups. Maratabat demands it.

**Note 1: In 1970, Sulu’s rank in terms of the number of households with piped water, was comparable to that of Bataan and Pampanga while Lanao del Sur ranked higher at 28. But in 1990, Sulu and Lanao del Sur plummeted to 52 and 53 respectively. In 1970, Sulu had more access to electricity than Camiguin and Ilocos Sur but was ranked at the bottom by 1990. See Rasul 2005.

**Note 2: Conflict Alert, formerly the Bangsamoro Conflict Monitoring System. The System tracks conflict incidence, typology, costs, and causes, using data from the Philippine National Police and credible media sources. See

3 thoughts on “Conflict in Cities and the Contested Philippine State: Notes After Marawi

  1. As a reporter you have to report every significant detail. During their raid against Isnilon Hapilon they killed 3 women in the process which prompted the Maute group to seek revenge for those women relatives

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