LAST year, when the Marawi siege broke out and the protracted attempt to recapture the city also brought down the declaration of martial law by the Philippine government under Duterte in Mindanao, no Maranao was spared from the heightened state surveillance against suspected terrorists. If you came from certain parts of the city of Iligan, seen to be wearing associated garb or speaking with a heavy southern accent, with or without proper identification, you would be accosted and interrogated in the many checkpoints that police and military set up in the entrances and exits to and from Iligan City.
The victims of the siege, whose properties and means of livelihood were all decimated and reduced to rubble, have also become suspected terrorists and social pariahs in the eyes of a paranoid government and the dominant Christian population whose shared knee-jerk reaction was to keep the perceived tide of terrorism at bay with excessive draconian measures.
The ploy also fuelled long dormant but latent social fissures between the dominant Christian populations in the big cities of Iligan and Cagayan de Oro to flare up. With the hundreds of thousands of Maranao evacuees descending into these urban centers, it did not take long for the consequences of large-scale human displacement pouring into these cities’ limited carrying capacities to surface in various incidents of ethnic conflict. There are reports that a deep-seated brand of Islamophobia is behind the brazen acts of local authorities to drive away hordes of Maranao families from Sendong housing areas, for instance. Traffic complaints and home-based evacuees spilling over neighborhoods and other public spaces are just some of the triggers for this social fissure.
There is a sense that a social powder keg is waiting to explode in this part of Mindanao, all slowly brought to a simmering boil by the calibrated display of state power in favor of the sense of security and well-being of the dominant Christian population. But somehow it never boils over. It may be the case that, in a manner of speaking, the constant heat also allows for many of these social pressures to let off steam and dissipate.
But beyond this effect, the victims of terror, erstwhile residents of Marawi City, are also de facto accused of being terrorists themselves. This sleight of hand, sly hat-trick, by government has the effect of immobilizing the terrorized population trying very hard to keep their bearings in order amidst the pressures of forced displacement; all these while enjoying the slow boil of surveillance and intense militarization of communities.
Tagging the victims of terror as terrorists seems to be also the ploy of the Duterte administration when it comes to dealing with other conflicts in Mindanao. When the peace talks collapsed and the government threatened to unsheath the sword of war against the communist rebels, part of the saber-rattling strategy was the proscription of the terror tag against members of the Communist Party of the Philippines and their allied organizations including its armed wing - the New People’s Army. Government lodged a list of 649 terrorists with the court including three Lumad leaders from Bukidnon.
Of particular personal interest is the inclusion of Talaandig traditional leader Datu Mandayhon in the terrorist list submitted by the DOJ to the courts. A couple of years ago, the frail but good-spirited Datu, who could not even speak Cebuano and needed an interpreter, had the chance to visit MSU-IIT where I teach to share the plight of his community in the evacuation center at provincial capitol in Malaybalay. Speaking in his native dialect, he explained that the community that he heads had to flee their homes and farms after the dela Mance paramilitary group sowed terror in their community with a series of killings and land grabbing incidents. His appeal to the crowd was for them to tell him what to do because he is at a loss about how to reign in the de la Mance paramilitary group who perpetrated all these abuses with the tacit approval of the police and the military in their area.
Datu Mandayhon was obviously a wise and respected old man in his community who for decades looked after the interest of his tribe until the monster that is the dela Mance paramilitary group stumped him and his traditional ways of leadership. When we invited him and his group for lunch later that afternoon, he had such wide-eyed appreciation for the colorful table cloth that he thought it would make a good warm blanket for their village in the higher sections of the cold Pantaron mountain range. I can only imagine how he is perplexed now by this terror tag by government when all he ever experienced was the terror of the state-backed paramilitary group in his community.
The plight of the displaced Maranao population is now shared by hundreds of activists and leaders of people’s organizations as well as indigenous groups such as Datu Mandayhon who are victims of state terror themselves and yet tagged by government as terrorists. Is this a sinister complex ploy or just an indication of a terrible lack of imagination by government where dissent is equated with terror?