COMMENTARY: Actively Listening to Maranaw Voices

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 05 Aug) — These days it is important to actively listen to Maranaw voices, not only those from Marawi, but even those from the adjoining areas of Lanao del Sur and Norte. I emphasize active listening because of its proven effectiveness in conflict management and resolution.

Practitioners of active listening emphasize approaches to overcome barriers to effective understanding.  But active listening in the context of the ongoing crisis in Marawi means going beyond the technique of repeating back in the terms of the speaker what had been said.

Seeking Out Maranaw Voices

For starters, it entails seeking them out, or at least finding ways of hearing their voices. One would have thought that with the media and public attention on Marawi, this would not be difficult. But mainstream media coverage tends to focus on ‘news that sells,’ which often means highlighting events and prominent talking heads with little analysis. When citizens do get featured, they are often portrayed as pitiful victims, grateful recipients of aid, and endorsers of the dominant views, or those which the outfit intends to sell.

In four occasions after the crisis broke out on May 23, I have had the opportunity to be in the company of, and listen to women and men who had been affected by the attack of the Dawla Islamiya and the Isnilon Hapilon group of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), the subsequent military operations against them, and the declaration of Martial Law over Mindanao, and suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus through Proclamation 216. They were a range of voices from various backgrounds, experiences and persuasions: students, teachers, parents, peace and human rights advocates, development workers, and local government functionaries.

Marawi may be the site of the current conflict, but those who have been affected by the campaign against terrorism include not only those who are from other places and call Marawi home, but also residents of Butig and Piagapo where clashes with the Dawla took place in 2016 and early 2017.

Maranaws talked about being terrorized by the activities of the Dawla forces who, beginning May 23 overran facilities in Marawi, and engaged in arson to allegedly draw away military troops that attempted to serve a warrant against Hapilon.

But there were those who said that their Dawla-induced terror had been overshadowed by the longer period of military operations, particularly the airstrikes and the lockdown on the city under a Martial Law environment. There were stories of discrimination experienced in military checkpoints, alleged summary execution of suspects, accusations of looting in sites that supposedly are under the control of government forces, and arrests of those suspected of having provided services—knowingly or otherwise—to the Dawla, among others.

If one does not actively listen to a range of voices, it would be easy to conclude that no human rights violations had occurred in Marawi and other places because that is what the military said, that if there had been any, these would have been collateral damage in the war against terrorism, and that those who do complain are being obstructionists at the very least, or worse, pro-terrorists and anti-government.

But the paradox of the struggle against terrorism, which in the Philippines reportedly feeds on factors like experiences of oppression, injustice, isolation and destitution, is that while there needs to be a vigorous campaign against it, it cannot be just any kind of campaign.

Measures that temporarily arrest terroristic activities but which will only fuel the very sentiments that make terrorism attractive could end up unwittingly awarding a future franchise to terror-oriented groups.   In a parallel experience, a report attributed to the MI5, the domestic counter-intelligence and security agency of the United Kingdom, warned that “traditional law enforcement tactics could backfire if handled badly or used against people who are not seen as legitimate targets.“

Omielhaya Sharief, a Maranaw who delivered the State of the Bakwit Address (SOBA) on the same day as the second State of the Nation Address (SONA) of President Rodrigo Duterte, lamented the destruction of Marawi, and asked whether government would resort to the same means had it been other areas like Cebu that came under attack by groups referred to as ISIS. She reiterated the recommendation that their religious and traditional leaders be allowed to talk to the ISIS about leaving Marawi, given the clan-oriented and tightly-knit nature of Maranaw communities, and the respect accorded to these leaders.

Suspending Favored Mindsets 

Active listening requires the willingness to suspend one’s favored mindsets about the Marawi crisis and the Maranaws. 

That one of their Congressional representatives referred to them as “Maranawans” in his speech during the July 22 Special Joint Session on the extension of Proclamation 216 was perhaps less a slip, and more indicative of how misunderstood Maranaws must feel these days. 

Pres. Duterte blamed Maranaws for “letting in” terrorists. While the various institutions of Maranaw society should collectively take stock of their situation, and examine the various causes, factors, consequences, implications and complications of the crisis, it is neither productive nor helpful to call out the Maranaws without calling on other equally responsible institutions, particularly public ones. 

It is high time that the government and the security sector assess the different anti-terrorism policies and plans. Among these are the National Internal Security Plan formulated by the National Security Council to deal with such threats as the ASG, and its successor, the Development Support and Security Plan “Kapayapaan.”

Other measures include Memorandum Order No. 31 series of 2001 on the “Fourteen Pillars of Policy and Action Against Terrorism” and No. 37 that operationalizes government’s commitment to participate in the international anti-terrorism drive. The latest and most significant legislation is RA 9372: An Act to Secure the State and Protect Our People from Terrorism, or the Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007.

The Anti-Terrorism Council, chaired by the Executive Security and which has the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) for secretariat, is charged with the proper and effective implementation of HSA. Ought not the President also ask these bodies how terrorism was “let in“ in the Philippines?

Putting Ourselves in Their Shoes

On any given day, I hear and read far more often and with voices more insistent, those who are not from the area but are convinced that the kind and level of military operations in Marawi, and the declaration and later extension of Martial Law are warranted.

The sentiments of those who want to go back to Marawi have been derided as being sentimental and unreasonable; and the matter reduced to one that is up to the military.

But perhaps those who espouse this view would not be as dismissive were they more informed that there are areas already declared by the military as safe, and not just cleared; and that many of those who talk about returning do so within the context of being able to salvage what they could of their assets. 

Still, there are those who expect Maranaws to be grateful and remain untroubled while their homes are being hit by government bombs. But there must be more to the situation when provincial government officials, desperate to visit their homes in Marawi, offer to sign waivers releasing the military of all accountability.

Evacuees from urban places like Marawi have assets that are different from those displaced who come from rural areas. Many residents of Marawi had locked and left their homes with the hope that the conflict would not be drawn-out, and have not been back in more than two months.  In contrast, those who fled wars in the countryside and mountainous areas where combatants engage and then withdraw have been able to occasionally visit their homes and farms in the daytime, albeit at great risk.

If we gave consideration to these and put ourselves in the shoes of the evacuees from Marawi, there might be more support for the call to dialogue about practical options for addressing the concerns of both evacuees and military. But that would require recognizing that both agenda are important, instead of the former being subservient to the latter. 

Perhaps this militarist mindset is to be anticipated. Official pronouncements, limited access to information on what was actually happening on the ground, and responses conditioned by what one knew and thought to understand about terrorism could easily come together to paint a scenario where it would seem only a scorched-earth approach would resolve Marawi’s problems. 

This would also explain why many citizens, who stood against State repression in another time, summarily countenance the way things are now.

It is disturbing that Martial Law has been equated as any military action against threat groups. This messaging propagates the view that Proclamation 216 is the solution not only to terrorism, but to all kinds of criminality in Mindanao, including the ones that ought to be readily handled by the police. This underpins the position of those who say they welcome Martial Law because they feel safe.

Seemingly forgotten is the principle that it is government’s and the security sector’s responsibility to see to the safety and security of citizens from internal and external threats—and that the declaration of martial law is not a pre-requisite to accomplish this.

Martial law is an extraordinary power of the chief executive of the country and is applicable only to the specific situations of rebellion and invasion, as required by public safety. When in place, martial law actually indicates that the situation is so bad that the police power of government can only be exercised with the aid of the military.  This is not a situation that inspires visitors and motivates investors. In the Philippines, martial law cannot be discussed as if in a vacuum, because it has a history, one that is awash in blood.

There is a restaurant in Davao City that named a food item “Martial Roll” after Martial Law so that diners would experience, in the words of its promoters “the safetiness (sic), peace, solidarity and the unity here in Davao and also in Mindanao.” The restaurant reportedly donated 20% of proceeds presumably from sales of the dish to Marawi.   

I wonder if the recipients were made aware of the conditions under which the contributions were generated; and if they had, how did they react? Could not the restaurant have pursued fundraising for Marawi without resorting to such kind of promotional gimmick? Or am I asking too much of the establishment that also proudly claims to be the originator of the Du30 Roll?

Rationalize it as marketing, or even corporate social responsibility (CSR), but there is a risk to naming a food item after a situation that speaks of emergency powers and lawlessness. The risk is contributing to the trivialization of martial law, and furthering the miseducation of our peoples. CSR is so much more than just raising funds.

Checking Ourselves and Our Biases

Political alignments and interests play a role in defining how one stands in a dialogue. The question is whether we have sufficient self-reflexivity to detect and acknowledge this tendency, and take steps to address it so that biases do not stand in the way of effective listening and dialogue. 

For instance, I wonder how many Mindanawons would have endorsed the ongoing approach to the Marawi problem and Martial Law in Mindanao had a non-Mindanawon leader, or more to the point, somebody other than Pres. Duterte, declared it?  And how many are self-aware enough to recognize that this was a consideration, if not the main one, in how they formulated and articulated their public positions? 

Another Take on the ‘Active’ in Active Listening 

The active aspect in active listening does not always guarantee that one can act on and resolve the causes of the conflict or problem.  Sometimes the only recourse is to listen, witness, and stand in solidarity, or respond in ways that only address effects.

But in the case of the Maranaws and the problems in the Lanao provinces, we can do more than give emergency assistance.

We can listen to, and amplify voices that are calling for a planned and calibrated return to Marawi as part of the efforts of recovery.

We can also heed and endorse the call of Maranaws to avoid measures that would only fuel terrorism in the future, and instead look for comprehensive solutions that build peace.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mags Z. Maglana is a Mindanawon who has worked in various capacities over the past 30 years for peace, good governance, sustainable development, and the promotion of human rights. Please email feedback to