OUR MARAWI:  Why I believe Marawi and the Maranaos will bounce back better

Downtown Marawi City one sunny afternoon circa 2004, before all the devastation due to the fires and the aerial bombings no thanks to the still ongoing skirmishes between government forces and the Maute Group that caused the evacuation of most of the city’s population. MindaNews photo by BOBBY TIMONERA

I am not a Maranao. But my close friends for the past 25 years are. Mine is an outsider’s perspective.

The main reason why I believe that Marawi and the Maranaos will bounce back better is that the wealth of the Maranao is not the structures that are now being bombed and decimated in Marawi. Their main asset is neither the structures that surround them nor their natural resource.

The wealth and advantage of the Maranao people is the wealth of capacity.

In contrast, the poverty of many from the islands is bewildering with their bountiful seas and jaw dropping white sands and turquoise waters. The poverty of many, among the Moro, is the poverty of capacity.

They say it took decades for their houses to be built four stories high. It took years for their homes to be comfortable – but many are now gone. However, upon closer look, these houses are just part of the golden eggs. If one would observe, the golden goose remains.

Of course, there are hundreds of thousands now affected and their future altered. At least for the next few months, their destiny can still stay their course, as long as the education of their young generation remains their focus.

Nowhere in the country will one find a road decorated by hundreds of streamers.

As I was heading to Marawi last week from Iligan, I was amazed with the literally hundreds of streamers decorating the road. These are latest streamers showing the newly passed lawyers from the residents. Not just one, but some congratulated six or eight, all lawyers. Imagine hundreds of tarpaulins on the roadside congratulating around 80 new Maranao lawyers who passed the bar this 2017.

The destruction of the portion of Marawi now occupied by the local terrorist group will not dampen the determination of the newly passed lawyers from Lanao from being the best in their field.

Wealth of capacity, drive for excellence

It is not an accident. For 25 years I have seen the ingrained, almost genetic programming in the bloodline of the people of the lake to excel in their development of their capacity, in the development of their minds.

Out of the 101 Moro lawyers who had passed the recent bar examination, around 80 percent are from the people of the lake.

Sometimes, I would wonder — in the aspiration of developing the same collective will for development of capacity in the people in the islands as well as perhaps the plains — how did this come to be?

Is it the ideal ambience of Lanao del Sur? But then that would mean that people in cold communities in general would have the same collective determination for excellence? But I am yet to research on the relationship between a cold climate community to academic excellence. Hence, for the past 25 years I have been asking this question: Why do the people of the elevated Lake Lanao have the collective, almost cultural natural tendency to prioritize education?

During the Philippine Institute of Civil Engineers (PICE) convention in SMX a fe days ago, at the height of the Marawi Crisis, the 12,000 attendees of the convention were amazed to realize that the topnotcher of the 2017 civil engineering board examination is a Maranao from Marawi. Is this an accident?

How about the summa cum laude valedictorian of the University of the Philippines who also is from the people of the lake and Marawi?

As a former UP Muslim Students Association president of UP Diliman, I remember noting that of the 25,000 total students of UP Diliman in a year, one could count on your fingers the number of Muslim student undergraduates. Say, 25 the most. Of that, 80 percent would be from Lanao, in general.

Moros are a super minority in UP. For example, in the UP Diliman College of Engineering, there were 4,000 students from all courses and year levels, there were only four Muslim undergraduate students.

So imagine, while I used to push for affirmative action on increasing the number of Muslims in UP Diliman from the meager 25 out of the 25,000 students or 0.1 percent of the student population, it is amazing and inspiring to note that someone comes from a super minority yet emerges as the Summa Cum Laude and speaker for the graduating batch. And in addition to the Maranao Civil Engineering topnotcher this 2017, a Maranao Summa Cum Laude leads and speaks for the graduating class of the “creme de la creme” that UP students are sometimes called by the UP administration during freshman orientation.

My vantage point had made me all the more curious the past more than two decades. My reason for wanting to unlock this mystery of the collective culture of development of capacity – is wanting to replicate that same yearning for improved capacity among my fellow islanders.

But one could say, this is just a coincidence? The emergence of the people of Lake Lanao leading the pack of graduates and examinees on a national scale is statistically consistent.

Greatest asset

I am confident Marawi will bounce back better because the greatest asset of Marawi is its people and its people have the capacity — in their almost genetic or collective natural inclination to pursue a vocation or education or a business. No amount of aerial bombs can take that away from them. Remove all their belongings, but retain their capacity. They will rebuild.

Who was it who said ‘do not give me a lot of soldiers but give me a general and I will build an army?’  The capacity that many people of the lake have makes them rise above their harsh environment.

Aside from the high statistical evidence showing above average academic excellence and pursuit, one could also see the natural inclination of the Maranao towards business.

Last month,  I watched on TV how an evacuee, who lost everything and had no more money but still had the spark of entrepreneurship. She said President Duterte gave them relief goods plus a thousand pesos. The lady, in her 30s with a few children on her lap said she used it to buy some goods and started to sell candies, fast moving small goods inside the evacuation center itself. In the middle actually – showing high aptitude to business principles of ‘location is key.’

Sometimes, a voice in me tells me not to write my thoughts as it may actually hurt or be misunderstood by some. But I can’t help but write, hoping, that one day, somebody can also try to answer the question and together we can apply this collective thrust of rebuilding capacity to marginalized groups.

A few days ago, the ancestral home of the Alontos was destroyed by an aerial bomb. I saw the before and after photos of the home of Senator Alonto. But I think his legacy remains — perhaps the greatest legacy that built the people of the lake, that blended perfectly with the dreamy and romantic climate of Marawi — the establishment of the Mindanao State University in Marawi as a center for academic excellence.

It had brought in opportunities for academic development, higher learning and international education to two key generations.

Poverty of capacity

While Jolo was burned to the ground in the 1970s, it had not recovered. People of Jolo had to find another place to live and do business in, mostly in Zamboanga City, while those from the other municipalities in Sulu crowded themselves in Jolo.

While Jolo burned, there was really no rebuilding. The damage done to Jolo, however, was not that the buildings were destroyed but a more devastating effect happened in the next several decades: the destruction of the educational system for several generations. Up to now, the damage is still being rebuilt.

The burning of Jolo and the militarization of communities had left a vacuum of educators and a place not conducive for the honing of the mind. Aside from the fact that the islands can be hot and children preferred joining their parents fishing, a poverty much worse than the ancestral homes of Jolo was introduced: the poverty of capacity, brought about by three generations of displacement – the old, the middle aged and the youth of today.

Ten years ago, a US AID study showed that teachers had an English comprehension of a Grade Four pupil in Manila. This is the effect of the destruction and the burning of Jolo. Buildings were easily built in a year. But the devastation to an entire generation in terms of capacity had changed the course of a people and brought them miles backward.

In truth, the islands, like Jolo, were a place of academic excellence before the 1970s conflict. UP lawyers Atty Macapanton Abas, a Maranao, spent some of his childhood education in Jolo prior to the 1974 burning. The father of the Chief Justice was from Siasi. So many highly esteemed scholars were from the islands.

How did the educational system get advanced? The US had sent teachers to Sulu then.

But that is now in history and I am trying to answer the question of how to rebuild Jolo after the burning of Jolo? Imagine the effect of what happened 43 years ago, was not the devastation to buildings, it was the devastation to institutions and people’s capacity.

Why is it hard to rebuild capacity? Because, just as the damage was done over a span of more than a decade, to rebuild institutions and capacity again, will take the same: decades.

Prosper anywhere, everywhere

But why do the effects of the burning of Jolo 43 years ago still haunt us and why do I think Marawi will rebound stronger? Because the Mindanao State University remains. Because, even before the war in Marawi, the people of the lake had already conquered the most hostile and most distant of places.

How did they do that? Again, in my personal reflection, three strong characters emerge. The tripods that became the foundation that allows the people of the lake to prosper and be stable no matter how far, no matter how they are minority in a community.

These three traits are not just peculiar to some but, again, almost collective and genetic or cultural maybe.

The first trait is the practice of Islam. Among the tribal groups, it is highly common that when you are talking to a Maranao, in the middle of the conversation or meeting he will excuse himself for he will do the mandatory prayers. More than two decades ago, my majority Maranao friends in UP were the same. “Waktu na,” and they would excuse themselves for prayer. This I think provides that foundation for the collective patience and fortitude of the people of the lake.

Marawi has the most number of Mosques per square kilometer in the country. In a community, the first thing they collectively build is the mosque, and build them well.

Thereafter, I think, the people of the lake had infused the genetic strength of the Chinese. With prayer that builds patience, contentment and the steering away from vices, I am amazed by how the people of the lake are able to prosper anywhere – everywhere.

Inclination to excel

Years ago, I visited the hometown of Regional Governor Mujiv Hataman in Buli-Buli, Sumisip. We were going for a swim in the turquoise waters of an enchanting island in Sumisip. But I didn’t get to bring an extra shirt. Thankfully, in the middle, most strategically located in the hometown of regional governor Mujiv, was a shirt store owned and personally managed by a Maranao. I got my shirt for swimming and again the question reverberates in me. How do they do that? Gov Mujiv said the owner had been there for decades and is a close friend of the community.

In the entire Metro Manila, from Greenhills to Harrison Plaza to almost all the malls, the people of the Lanao lake have successfully flourished. Almost out-competing the Chinese in terms of business acumen, they can build everywhere. From Tagaytay to Baguio to Boracay – as long as there is a need for gadgets, jewelry, clothes and anything that the Chinese could also have sold – they can. Not all can do that. It takes the positive character traits of the Chinese, the frugality, the business acumen, the humility, the patience and grit.

The third one is the natural inclination to excel. Again, most of my close friends in UP were from the people of the lake. And even my great old friends from Metro Manila, who remain very close to me up to now are from the people of the lake. Their ability to be naturally critical thinkers, systems analysts, collective actors and passionate in learning is astounding. It occurs at such a high percentage. Of course not all. But too often.

Just like the 76 lawyers from Lanao of the 101 Muslim lawyers, the statistics of highly motivated achievers from the lake is also astoundingly high.

I was lucky to have close friends who were my housemates in college. I cite one of them here. I saw him through his hardship as a student living with exact allowance in college. With very little allowance, I would see him siting down at 7 a.m. as I head to UP and still sitting down as I return to the house at 7 p.m. and still sitting down hovering over the volumes of books when I get hungry at midnight.

But as we graduated, I learned the value of capacity. It didn’t matter that I had more allowance and he was staying in our house. What mattered was capacity. While I got a first job with a reasonable salary, his salary in his first job was three times higher than mine.

Wealth of capacity

In the same vein, the hundreds of thousands of highly competent and empowered with capacity new generation of the people of Marawi cannot be under estimated.

No amount of bombs can diminish their value. On the other hand, I think like an arrow that has to be pulled backwards for them to be able to be propelled further – they will recompensate by working and rebuilding better.

What is sad is a businessman whose capital is all on his stocks and goods. What happens if his stocks and goods get burned or stolen? He will find it hard to recover. But how about someone whose actual capital is his capacity – be it in the mind, the ability or discipline – to be able to earn from adding value to something or bringing products closer to the market. If they lose their stocks, they could always jump back stronger.

It is on this light that I believe that the people of Marawi will build back stronger and better.

The 99 percent of the people of the lake have an advantage of diverse capacity. From the level of business to the level of competence to the level of networks – well the President is a descendant from the people of the lake.

Ten years ago, as Sulu Provincial Administrator, we experienced the Panamao clash between the MNLF and the Government. And many other all out wars and clashes.

Marawi and the people of the lake had been spared. Although if you look at history, the gallant wars were fought by the people of the lake from Malabang to Bayang to Marawi during the period of the Spaniards to the Americans.

But in the month-long conflict in Marawi, another new generation of heroes emerged that reinforced my perception of the wealth of capacity.

Bold opposition

In the dozens of major all out wars in Basilan and Sulu as well as in Maguindanao, there had been a lot of calls for peace or social interventions for peace. But none like this.

The past weeks I saw my good friends from Lanao jump to organize, under the instruction of Regional Governor Hataman, to have a crisis management center response unit.

The sheer optimization of technology, systems, mechanisms and commitment and monitoring as well as the rescue systems were extraordinary. Way above those I have seen during the Zambo siege or conflicts in Maguindanao and Sulu.

I am blessed to have many good old friends from the people of the lake. So while I have good friends who are very busy in crisis management response systems, I have also friends who are strongly and directly calling for end to bombing in Marawi. One resigned a government post for her conviction. Another dared to strongly call for end to bombing. And then again, in a show of independent conviction, the Lanao Integrated Bar of the Philippines dared to boldly oppose the aerial bombing in Marawi with powerful legalese that strongly reverberated across sectors. Some lawyers of Lanao as well expressed intention to go up to the Supreme Court.

They are a few, unlike the thousands of highly trained combatants and fighters of Sulu, Basilan or Maguindanao – but their voices pierce through the metal armor of the powers that be – enough to make even the President apologize three times – sorry, sorry..sorry.

This kind of bold opposition was not present in Sulu, Basilan and even in Maguindanao all out wars.

But then of course, we still don’t know up to when the bombing will end.

I empathize with my fellow Moro in Lanao on the destruction in Marawi. My colleague cried as we visited the evacuation site in Saguiaran. And she cried again after we left. No amount of comforting or sugar coating can shield the impact and effects of the burning down of homes in Marawi – the lifelong dreams shattered in a few days.

Some say religious conviction is a strength of the people in Marawi. In fact Regional Governor Hataman was sent to Marawi when he was young to learn Islamic education. However, in this era of international clash of ideas and civilizations – even amongst Muslims – the strength may have had been taken advantage of by complicated interest groups. There are so many geopolitical forces clashing and at play worldwide. Even the Middle East is in turmoil. We don’t know if there are external forces at play and Marawi is a beautiful city that became a collateral damage to a larger chess game of the giants.


I admit I have not yet arrived at a very logical answer to my decades old question. The 80/20 statistics that I get to notice subliminally the past years.

If there are 100 new Moro lawyers, chances are there are 80 new Maranao lawyers and the 20 is shared among the Maguindanao, Tausug, Yakan and Sama.

If there are 100 Moro Career Executive Service Officers in the country, chances are there are 80 Maranao CESOs and the 20 is shared amongst the rest of the tribes.

If there are 100 Moro scholars abroad for Masters degrees in the past few years, chances are 80 percent are from the people of the lake.

If there are 100 Moro UP graduates, 80 are from Lanao.

If there are 100 Moro high ranking officials in the country composed of National Secretaries, undersecretaries, regional directors, Ambassadors, career appointees, chances are 80 percent are from the lake.

If there are 100 prosperous Moro businessmen in Metro Manila, chances are 80 percent are from the lake.

If there are 100 people of the lake, chances are 80 percent have a certain kind of capacity either for academic excellence, or business or politics.

Statistically, if there are 100 islanders, only 20 percent are at an advantage while the 80 percent are in a marginalized state of capacity.

Deconstructing the secret of the People of the Lake

I am not analyzing this to compete. I am thinking of it like a pizza pie. That all can have eight slices of pizza each. It is just important to deconstruct the secret of the people of the lake and find a way to infuse it to the islands and the plains – at least that yearning for improved capacity, that natural inclination to optimize network, that inherent tendency for strategic thinking and the deep foundation in faith as a general rule.

Because I believe the greatest poverty that keeps the Moro poor is not the absence of houses or cars or malls – but the absence of capacity – in the sense that the total potential to be the best that they can be is not optimized.

But then, the people of the lake have shown us. That a people isolated by the high altitude of the lake can prosper in any community all over the country – by the sheer trinity of faith, capacity and acumen.

If you look at it, possibly a small percentage of the people of Lanao are in Marawi. The overwhelming majority have conquered the country’s central business districts, the nation’s summer capitals, the country’s prime tourism destinations, the country’s prime malls and the most numerous and distant communities in the heart of many of the country’s cities and provinces.

The majority, who are now business moguls, career professionals, influential politicians and power broker networks, will not allow their hometown to remain ravaged. They will use their advantage of capacity – to rebuild Marawi to a better state than before.

Allah has reasons wherein no mortal can question his infinite wisdom. In the first night of the siege, my cousin and childhood friend  was one of the seven who died with their team of nine Army soldiers as they secured the home of the Marawi Mayor. They were overrun and surrounded. I went to my uncle to console him for the loss of his son whose body could not be retrieved in the middle of the war zone for three days.

He said, “this is Qadar. It is Allah’s will. We cannot question the will of Allah.”

Maybe something better awaits Marawi after this very sad event. Insha Allah.

The long lasting effect of the Marawi siege will remain in the minds and hearts of the Filipino people, especially the people of Marawi.

As of now, we can only forecast and guess. But my guess is that Marawi will bounce back stronger.

The 80% highly capable people of the lake, all over the country and the world, will ensure that Marawi will be built back better – Now. Insha Allah.

(Engr Don Mustapha A. Loong, a Tausug native of Sulu is currently the Regional Secretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. He was former Provincial Administrator of Sulu and one of the first Moro Civil Engineers of UP Diliman. He was recently conferred a National Achievement Award by the University of the Philippines College of Engineering where he graduated.

As a student, Loong was a former president of the UP Muslim Students Association in UP Diliman that helped pave the way for the election a few years later of two Muslim Presidents of the UP Supreme Student Council. In the early 1990s, Loong was part of the Muslim Youth and Student Alliance, a multi-awarded multi=tribal Moro student and youth organization in Metro Manila.

As a professional, Loong was a founding convenor and drafter of the constitution of the Young Moro Professionals Network (YMPN) established in 2000. YMPN today remains one of the most active multi Moro tribal professionals network exerting national influence and developing youth leadership and grassroots volunteerism and idealism.

Loong was a recipient of various fellowships: a Chevening Fellow in the United Kingdom for Public Sector Reform, and a fellow at the United States International Visitor Leadership Progam. He was among the first cohorts of the Asian Institute of Management’s Bridging Leadership program and was a recipient of  Outwardbound Global Leadership Fellow to Kilimanjaro peak, Africa. He also has a bachelor of laws degree and a diploma in project management. Being a Career Executive Eligible, he is also one of the founding directors of the Bangsamoro Executives and Leaders League or BELL).