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Marawi recovering but rights abuses lamented

MANILA (UCAN): The physical rehabilitation of Marawi, in Lanao del Sur, Mindanao, the Philippines, has yet to take off two years after the end of a five-month siege in which extremist gunmen, claiming allegiance with the Islamic State, were ousted by government forces. 
Marawi was attacked on 23 May 2017. The ensuing battle hammered the city until 23 October 2017 and displaced about half a million people.
However, officials said the people are on their way to being well.
“We are finally learning what peace is all about,” Majul Gandamra, the city’s mayor, said. 
In a speech at the end of the recent May 17 to 23 Week of Peace observance, Gandamra stressed what he described as “social healing” that can result in “genuine peace.”
Standing on the grounds of city hall where two years ago he tried to shoot it out with the attackers, he said, “Peace starts with us. Peace must be realized.” 
Despite Gandamra’s optimism, rights groups said rights abuses have still to be addressed in relation to the declaration of martial law in Mindanao following the attack. After the military declared victory in Marawi, the government refused to lift martial law and has extended it twice. It will remain in effect until December 2019.
Father Rolando Abejo of the Philippine Independent Church said martial law “was being clearly used as a weapon by the government … against its perceived enemies.”
“It is used as a weapon to justify attacks against the Moro people and progressive groups,” said the spokesperson for the Movement Against Tyranny in northern Mindanao region.
Father Abejo said keeping military rule across the island of Mindanao until end of this year has “emboldened state forces to commit ‘terrorist acts’ in peasant and tribal communities.”
He said martial law has allowed “state forces to continue threatening, harassing, and inflicting violence against communities and people’s organisations.”
Human rights group, Karapatan, claimed to have documented 93 killings, 136 attempted murders, 35 cases of torture, and 1,450 illegal arrests allegedly committed by security forces.
There were also 28,813 reports of alleged threats, harassments and intimidation, and 423,538 victims of forced evacuation across the region.
“Various incidents under martial law are either swept under the carpet or blatantly whitewashed,” said Karapatan leader, Cristina Palabay.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also noted that the displacement of people from Marawi and surrounding areas persists.
“Despite numerous aid efforts that have truly helped those in need … the people of Marawi have grown tired and frustrated,” Martin Thalmann, head of the ICRC delegation in the country, said.
He said the conflict has left more vulnerable groups, such as families of missing people and victims of violence, with “invisible scars.”
But retired general, Carlito Galvez Jr., a peace adviser for the government, said the “healing process” could now begin.
He said the people of Marawi showed their best quality by being “resilient” at the height of the conflict.
“It is you, the people of Marawi, who have inspired and strengthened my resolve to work for genuine and enduring peace,” he said during the Week of Peace observance.
“You now have the opportunity to play a key role in charting the course of Marawi’s future,” Galvez said.
Eduardo del Rosario, head of the government task force set up to rehabilitate the city, expressed optimism that all displaced families will soon be rehoused.
Of 57 evacuation centres that existed after the siege only two remain occupied by displaced individuals, he said.
“By July, all these families will be accommodated in temporary shelters, nobody will be in evacuation centres,” Del Rosario said, adding that Marawi is “gradually bouncing back.”
However, critics warned the government against depending on private corporate efforts to rebuild the city.
“Marawi is part of our identity and any and all rehabilitation efforts should take into account and be respectful of our social, economic, political, and cultural rights,” Dalomabi Bula, who heads the Reclaiming Marawi Movement, said.
The people of the city “merit a safe and dignified return and demand that the government rebuilds what it had destroyed,” she said

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