By Bong S. Sarmiento
First of two parts
AS the afternoon sun flared up to its scorching glory, internally displaced persons (IDPs) — mostly women since the men were away eking out a living — huddled under the shade of trees in the filthy “tent city” evacuation site in the village of Bito Buadi Itowa.
Like the city’s Ground Zero that is bereft of residents save for some stray dogs and cats, the tents, many of them tattered due to their exposure to the elements for almost two years now, are empty of people who sought comfort in a tree-shaded tent nearby.
“When it rains here, it leaks. When the sun is high, it is very hot inside. The heat is intolerable,” Norphia Dipatuan, mother of six lamented. The Dipatuans lived in Barangay Dagubduban until they were forced to flee in May 2017 – 22 months ago.
On Oct. 17, 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte declared military victory against the Islamic State-aligned Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups which laid siege on the country’s lone Islamic City on May 23, 2017, after government’s failed attempt to arrest Abu Sayyaf Group leader Isnilon Hapilon, the Emir of the IS in Southeast Asia.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence that marks the beginning of rehabilitation for the people,” the country’s first and only president from Mindanao, who claims to have a Meranaw bloodline, said.
However, it took over a year and several postponements later, for the Task Force Bangon Marawi (TBFM) to finally hold on October 30, 2018 its groundbreaking rites for the rehabilitation of Ground Zero.
As of end of March 2019, however, some 12,700 families or around 70,000 individuals out of 360,000 who were forced to flee Marawi in May 2017, continue to suffer in squalid evacuation sites like the Dipatuans, in transitional shelters, in relatives’ houses.
Still piled up in ruins nearly18 months after “liberation,” the 250-hectare Ground Zero, the former main battle area — now referred to as MAA or Most Affected Area – remains a horrific sight and the horizon offers little hope for the devastated city to rise quickly from the ashes of war.
As of posting time, the MAA continues to be a restricted area for its 27,000 residents across 24 villages , including the “renters and sharers” of commercial and residential properties.
To recall, the TFBM had negotiated with two different consortiums led by state-owned Chinese companies, to become the single developer for Marawi’s rehabilitation using the Swiss Challenge, a method where an unsolicited proposal for a public project is chosen and offered for matching by other proponents.
The negotiations did not succeed.
Drieza Lininding, chair of the Marawi-based civic organization Moro Consensus Group, blamed the negotiations with the Chinese firms partly for the delay in efforts to bring back the lost glory of the lakeside city.
“Months after the liberation of Marawi, no groundbreaking happened because they (TFBM) were busy talking with the Chinese-led consortium to rehabilitate the city through a joint venture agreement… It consumed a lot of time (that delayed the start of rehabilitation at Ground Zero),” Liningding said in an interview on March 20, at the sidelines of the first ever Congressional inquiry by the Lower House Committee on Disaster Management, Sub-Committee on Marawi Rehabilitation.
The first proponent, Bagong Marawi Consortium (BMC), was selected in March 2018 and three months later in June, the TFBM terminated negotiations with the group due to its “inability to submit legal, technical, and financial documents in proper form, to prove the Consortium’s Legal Capacity, Technical Capacity, and Financial Capacity — all requisites to participate in the Joint Venture Activity as prescribed in the JV Guidelines.”
Led by China State Construction Engineering Corp. Ltd. (CSCEC), which is owned by the Chinese government, BMC is also composed of China Geo Engineering Corp. (CGC), Anhui Huali Construction Group Co. Ltd., TBEA Co. Ltd., and Shandong Jinyuan Homes Industry Development Co. Ltd.
In 2009, the World Bank disclosed it had blacklisted CSCEC and CGC for allegedly conspiring with Philippines companies in rigging the bidding of road projects in the country partly financed by the international lender..
Local firms in the consortium were Future Homes Philippines Inc., A Brown Company Inc., H.S. Pow Construction and Development, and SDW Realty & Development Inc.
BMC filed a motion for reconsideration but the Bangon Marawi Selection Committee, the bids and awards body of TFBM, did not issue a final ruling, TFBM Field Office Manager Felix Castro, Jr., also an assistant secretary at the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, told MindaNews in a text message on March 27.
“The motion of BMC is moot and academic with the shift of procurement (to public bidding). (We will) no longer (entertain a) single developer. But they could compete in the regular bidding process,” he added.
After BMC was disqualified, TFBM started negotiations with a consortium led by Power Construction Corporation of China Ltd. (PowerChina), another Chinese government owned company. The task force, officials said, terminated talks with PowerChina as the sole developer to avoid legal problems in pursuing the entire rehabilitation of Marawi by way of a joint venture agreement.
Even if the two Chinese-led consortiums are now out of the equation as a single developer for Marawi’s delayed rehabilitation, sentiments against China’s involvement to rebuild the city continue to drift in the air.
“No way. We don’t want Chinese involvement, especially state-owned Chinese corporations,” said civil society’s Lininding, when asked if they will still welcome Chinese contractors in the rehabilitation of their war-torn city.
Lininding lamented the long wait to return to their houses in MAA, and lashed out at the snail-paced efforts to reconstruct Ground Zero. The debris management of Sector 1 — out of the nine sectors in the MAA — was awarded to Finmat International Resources, Inc, a Filipino firm, which was suspended last December after it allegedly demolished houses without the consent of the owners.
To be sure, China had responded to calls to help Marawi recover from the scars of war, donating heavy equipment worth $3 million that have been deployed in the construction of transitional shelters outside Ground Zero. Beijing also committed a grant of P1.1 billion ($20.84 million) during the pledging session for the Bangon Marawi Comprehensive Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Program (BMCRRP) in Davao City last November.
In June 2017, China also donated firearms and ammunition worth around P370 million ($7 million) to help Filipino troops fight the Islamic militants in Marawi, besides the P15 million ($284,546) donation for relief assistance to the victims of the siege.
Lininding thanked Beijing for her “heartily given assistance” to Marawi, which administration officials attributed to be one of the results of the warming up of relations between China and the Philippines after Duterte’s pivot to the former as part of his pursuit of an “independent foreign policy” during his first year in office.
Further stressing opposition to Chinese involvement in the rehabilitation of Marawi, Lininding cited that China has built a “notorious reputation” in terms of investing in other countries, referring to Sri Lanka, which was struggling to pay over $8 billion it owed to state-owned Chinese firms. It was touted as a “debt trap.” In December 2017, Sri Lanka handed over the strategic Hambantota port to a Chinese firm on a 99-year debt-for-equity settlement. The deal was valued at $1.1 billion.
“We are afraid, especially we have Lake Lanao as a resource. We don’t want to see Chinese firms taking control of (the lake) if we can’t repay the cost they will incur in rebuilding our city,” Lininding said. (Bong S. Sarmiento of Mindanews)