Anti-China sentiment rises from the ashes of Marawi

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Debris and smoke are seen after an OV-10 Bronco aircraft released a bomb, during an airstrike, as government troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group, who have taken over parts of Marawi city, Philippines.Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

Tempers are boiling in the war-torn Philippine city of Marawi as locals fume over the potential a Chinese-led consortium will rebuild their terrorism-wrecked neighborhoods without their consultation or agreement. The final decision will be made next month, though many locals believe the fix is in for the Chinese bid.

On April 1, displaced residents of the city’s main central battle ground were allowed by the military to visit their houses. Many were shocked by the devastation caused by the five-month battle between Filipino security forces and Islamic State-aligned fighters.

More than five months after the military declared victory in Marawi, the city’s 250 hectare “ground zero”, straddling 24 villages with an estimated population of 11,000 families, is turning into a new cauldron of discontent. First targeted by international terrorists, locals’ resentment is now shifting toward China.

Days before ground zero residents were allowed to visit their houses, thousands of displaced residents staged a prayer and protest rally in the embattled city castigating the China-led rehabilitation plan believed to be backed by the government.

Retired military general Eduardo del Rosario, the government’s housing czar and chairperson of the inter-government agency Task Force Bangon (Rise) Marawi, earlier said it had chosen the Bagong Marawi Consortium to rebuild the ruined city on the southern island of Mindanao.

The government has estimated the rebuild will cost over 51 billion pesos (US$1 billion).

Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony in Beijing on October 20, 2016. Photo: AFP/Pool

Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte (L) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony in Beijing on October 20, 2016.
Photo: AFP/Pool

Five Chinese firms, led by China State Construction Engineering Corp Ltd, Anhui Huali Construction Group Company, China Geo-Engineering Corp, TBEA Company and Shandong Jinyuan Homes Industry Development Co Ltd, make up the consortium.

Their Filipino partners are Future Homes Philippines Inc, A Brown Company Inc, H S Pow Construction and Development, and SDW Realty & Development Inc.

China State Construction Engineering is among Forbes’ top regarded global companies, with a market capitalization of US$43.2 billion as of May last year. President Rodrigo Duterte said that his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping gave him a US$79.5 million grant to help rebuild Marawi after a meeting earlier this month in Beijing.

Del Rosario has maintained that his task force held public consultations through a local Marawi government unit on its rehabilitation plans. The devastated area will see reconstruction of a lakeside promenade, economic zone, cultural and convention centers, resorts and hotels, among other structures.

In February, Duterte issued a directive suspending bidding on the rehabilitation contracts after designating a so-called “Swiss Challenge”, a scheme where private groups submit unsolicited proposals to the government, which after picking the best bids will invite other parties to match or offer better proposals.

A soldier rides a bicycle past bombed-out buildings in what was the main battle area in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on October 25, 2017, days after the military declared the fighting against IS-inspired Muslim militants over. Philippine troops of a southern Philippine city where Islamic State supporters waged a brutal five-month battle began leaving Marawi on October 25, as a group of journalists were given the first ever press tour of the devastated city. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE

Bombed-out buildings in what was the main battle area in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on October 25, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe PHOTO 

But “ground zero” residents have already lambasted the government’s provisional rehabilitation blueprint. In a strongly-worded manifesto, the Ranaw Multi-Sectoral Movement appealed to Duterte to reject the rehabilitation blueprint drafted by the selected Chinese-led consortium and backed by del Rosario.

“Plans have been made without our participation. Plans that neither bear the stamp of our will nor reflect our culture,” the group’s statement said. “The will and vision of those who live far from us [Chinese companies… are being imposed upon us. This is an invasion of a different kind. This one threatens to rob our soul.”

The group also opposed the construction of a new military camp in Marawi that Duterte launched last January to beef-up security in the city and prevent a repeat of the months-long siege that killed 1,100 individuals, mostly Islamic militants.

The Marawi siege, which prompted Duterte to place the entire Mindanao island under martial law that has since been extended to the end of this year, displaced over 350,000 civilians, about half of whom continue to languish in evacuation centers or are staying with their relatives in neighboring areas of Marawi.

Del Rosario gave assurances his task force will conduct more ground consultations before the rehabilitation plan for ground zero is finalized next month.

FILE PHOTO: People reach to get ice cream at an evacuation center outside the city as army troops continue their assault against insurgents from the Maute group in Marawi city, Philippines, July 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

Filipinos reach to get ice cream at an evacuation center outside Marawi city, July 5, 2017. REUTERS/Jorge Silva/File Photo

Drieza Lininding, chair of Moro Consensus Group, a Marawi-based civil society organization, has warned the Chinese-led consortium that there could face trouble if they rehabilitate and rebuild the city without the consent of locals.

He said his group is ready to file legal suits against the consortium if they disregard local inputs and sentiments. Lininding did not rule out the possibility that residents could even take up arms and sacrifice their lives if they are left out of the rehabilitation process.

“We are not against the rehabilitation of Marawi’s ground zero as long as they respect our cultural and religious sensitivities,” Lininding told Asia Times, raising widespread concerns that the rehabilitation works will infringe on many private properties.

The government recognizes 6,000 hectares of Marawi as a military reservation, including parts of ground zero.

China had signaled well in advance it’s desire to play a leading role in reconstructing the war-torn urban area, the country’s only Muslim majority city. Malaysian firms also signified an interest.

At the height of last year’s siege, China donated high-powered firearms and ammunition worth 370 million pesos (US$7.1 million) to help Philippine forces to defeat the Islamic State-aligned militants.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte inspects an automatic rifle at Clark Air Base, near Angeles City, on June 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte inspects an automatic rifle donated by China at Clark Air Base, near Angeles City, June 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Romeo Ranoco

Duterte personally received the firearms, underscoring improved relations between Manila and Beijing under his rule.

In October, soon after the government ended its military operations in Marawi, China donated 47 heavy equipment units worth 155 million pesos (US$3 million) for the construction of temporary shelters for displaced families.

Still, Lininding complains that Marawi’s local government unit was a mere observer in the apparent selection of the Chinese consortium’s plan. An executive order by Duterte gave voting powers to representatives of seven national government line agencies instead of local government agencies.

Abdul Hamidullah Atar, the Sultan of Marawi, has called on the government and future developers to be transparent, sensitive and inclusive in their efforts to reconstruct Marawi.

“The (IDPs) internally displaced persons in Marawi are open for development as long as our basic rights and religious and cultural sensitivities are respected. We felt that the assertion of most IDPs is ignored,” he told Asia Times.

Damaged houses and buildings are seen as the government troops continue their assault against the pro-Islamic State militant group during a clearing operation in Marawi city, southern Philippines, October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Damaged houses and buildings in Marawi city, southern Philippines, October 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

At the same time, Atar warned that neglecting local traditions and sentiments could be exploited by Islamic militants believed to be lying in the wings. “It may further attract more young people in Marawi to extremism and radicalization,” he stressed.

The government should provide direct financial assistance to displaced individuals so they can rebuild their homes and resume living normal lives in the area, Atar said.

The Ranaw Multi-Sectoral Movement is more severe in its view of a Chinese-led consortium leading the rebuild: “We cannot accept that those who know so little of us would map out how to rebuild our city.”

“Let Marawi be rebuilt the way our ancestors did: one house at a time, one masjid (mosque) at a time (and) one village at a time…Please help us rebuild according to our will in pursuit of the will of Allah,” the group called on Duterte, noting he is the country’s first and only president to hail from Mindanao.

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