SOUTHEAST ASIA • Marawi: A city liberated or devastated?

The city of Marawi, located in the southern Mindanao region of the Philippines, has been plagued by war since May of this year when terrorists claiming allegiance to ISIS declared the city an Islamic caliphate. After 153 days of fighting, the city was finally declared terrorist-free  on October 23.

Nevertheless, the city’s problems have not gone away. As a result of the conflict, the city now lies in ruins, its people displaced in temporary shelters and evacuation centers, its children left without schools to attend, and the possessions of its inhabitants looted or destroyed.[1] Video footage from inside the city since the end of the fighting shows complete destruction, comparable to the fate of cities such as Aleppo and Mosul. [2]

A challenging conflict

The battle against Islamist groups turned out to be much more challenging than the military had initially predicted. The conflict in Marawi ended up being the longest, biggest, and bloodiest operation of the Philippine military since WWII. According to Amnesty International, “a large number of civilians” were used as hostages, human shields, and subjected to forced labor during the fighting.[3] Many of these civilians were abused and executed.  Those who survived soon discovered their nightmare was far from over.

As of October 14, the UNHCR reported that 359,680 persons were displaced in the Philippines due to the fighting in Marawi [4]. Those civilians whose residences are located within the main battle area are not allowed to return and reconstruction of damaged infrastructure is also not yet possible. Clearing operations are still underway for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and unexploded ordnances (UXOs) thus making it unsafe for civilians to be there. [4]

The UNHCR also documented that humanitarian assistance was being delivered unequally to civilians, with those in evacuation centers receiving more aid than home-based Internally Displaced People (IDPs). [4] Lack of water supply, difficulty accessing water, lack of sanitation facilities, lack of health services, and improper waste management further add to the ever-growing list of concerns. [4] What used to be a bustling city, full of life, has now become a ghost town with its people left wondering what happened to their loved ones, how long they will be living in temporary shelters, when reconstruction of the city will begin, and when they will finally be able to go back home.

An extension of the martial law

It is unlikely that the people of Marawi will see their city go back to normal any time soon. To make matters worse, President Rodrigo Duterte announced on December 13 that Congress had approved his request to extend martial law in Mindanao until December 31, 2018.[5] Many civilians are calling this recent move a ‘witch hunt’ saying innocent civilians will become the victims of unlawful detentions and persecution and fear that it will become harder to document cases of abuse against them.[6] Civilians have good reason to criticize this move, as multiple human rights organizations have documented an increase in cases of sexual abuse, torture, ill treatment [7], and enforced disappearances [8] since martial law was first imposed in May. Amnesty reacted to the martial law extension by calling it “an ominous move that almost certainly signals further abuses in the months ahead.” [9]

Following such a decision, the current administration is increasingly resembling the Marcos regime, which was marked by extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and harassment. [10] Hundreds of thousands of civilians are already living under inadequate living conditions, struggling both physically and emotionally, and this extension of martial law can be likened to an extension of these struggles. The government’s recent decision is not the proper way to address the issue of Islamist radicalization in the Philippines. An ideology cannot be defeated by force alone, and the current administration does not seem to quite understand this.

A problem for many decades: fending off radical Islamist groups

The Philippines has been struggling to fend off radical Islamist groups for decades,  but, evidently, they still have not overcome this problem. Another event such as Marawi is possible in other Filipino cities and an extension of martial law in Mindanao is likely to invigorate other radical groups to take action. Poverty, poor living conditions, lack of opportunities, feelings of disconnectedness with and marginalization by the government, and the presence of Islamist recruiters, all make cities like Marawi ripe for increased violence linked to Islamist extremism.

More efforts must be put into humanitarian programs, education, promoting inclusivity, and the reintegration of those who have been formerly radicalized. More temporary housing facilities are being built for the displaced but a long-term solution to the Philippine’s Islamist radicalization problem is lacking. The current government is heavily focusing on tackling this problem through forceful means instead of shifting their attention to alternative methods of action involving humanitarian and development strategies.

There is no one magic solution to this problem but it is unlikely that military force alone will solve this decades-long problem. Until the government understands this, martial law will likely have a negligible impact on deterring terrorism and a much larger, negative effect on the lives of ordinary citizens.

Article written by Gabriela Bernal


[1]Rauhala, E. (2017). Liberated and Angry. Retrieved from  

[2]John15 Rocks. (2017). Marawi Ground Zero – Raw footage inside the CBD of Bangolo. Retrieved from

Footage showing destruction of the city

[3] Amnesty International. (2017). Philippines: ‘Battle of Marawi’ leaves trail of death and destruction. Retrieved from

[4] UNHCR. (2017). IDP Protection Assessment Report. Issue no. 5 dated October 23, 2017. Retrieved from

[5] Viray, P. L. (2017).  Congress approves one-year martial law extension in Mindanao. Retrieved from

[6] Rappler. (2017). Marawi residents crying for justice fear extended martial law. Retrieved from

[7] Amnesty International. (2017). ‘The Battle of Marawi’: Death and Destruction in the Philippines. Retrieved from

[8] Ayroso, D. (2017). ‘No justice under Duterte’ – kin of desaparecidos. Retrieved from

[9] Morallo, A. (2017). Amnesty: Martial law extension signals more rights abuses in Mindanao. Retrieved from
[10] Quintos, P. (2017). Lagman claims ‘unprecedented’ human rights violations in Marawi. Retrieved from


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