Making MSU a zone of peace in Marawi City

Last of two parts

Is Marawi a crime-ridden city, or a misunderstood land where there’s growing peace and stability?

It depends on whom you ask.

For the top police official of Lanao del Sur province, where Marawi City is located, the common perception that the predominantly Muslim city on the banks of Lake Lanao is a violent, crime-ridden place is not borne out by the numbers.

“If you look at the figures, if you compare the year from July 2011 to July 2012… to [the numbers from] 2010 to 2011, the crime rate is lower by 40 percent,” said Senior Supt. Romeo Magsalos, Provincial Director of the Philippine National Police (PNP).

“I would rather say na crime is happening everywhere,” he said. “Sa Metro Manila mas maraming patayan, araw-araw pa.”

But for local residents like Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, the latest act of violence to draw national attention to Marawi – the killing of university professor Othello Cobal and his student in broad daylight last month inside the Mindanao State University (MSU) campus – is yet another manifestation of the violence that has become part of life in the city.

“We shouldn’t wait for another Othello [to happen]. We Muslims are concerned—mga Christian brothers namin ito,” said Gutoc, who serves as an Assemblywoman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Faceless groups

She sees the MSU attack as a case of “criminality, plain and simple” that should be seen in the context of what is happening to the city.

“There's something going on here that we need to question as a community,” she told GMA News Online.

However, she cautions, “Don’t let religion come into [the discussion.]”

Instead, she points to social factors such as Marawi’s growing population and urbanization, which has seen many newcomers to the city coming from Lanao del Sur’s 39 municipalities. The result: increasing congestion and unemployment in the under-developed and impoverished city.

Gutoc also expressed concern about a spate of crimes against videoke bars, which have become the target of still unidentified armed groups. “The facelessness has to come out. Let's end their impunity,” she said.

‘Relatively peaceful’

Magsalos confirms the theories, saying “We look at all possible angles—we look at the business, we look at yung reportedly videoke daw, kasi may prior incident sa Marawi nun, we’re checking everything.”

But he disagrees with unverified rumors that include talk of “Arab-looking” people as the alleged perpetrators of criminality in Marawi.

“Maraming disinformation campaign na ganyan,” he said. “It’s a perception na hindi naman totoo. People outside are painting Marawi as isang delikadong lugar, but relatively peaceful dito.”

However, it is an argument that has to stand in the face of a series of relatively high-profile crimes in the city in recent months, including the ambush of a detachment of soldiers from the Army’s 103rd Infantry Brigade in August. Some of the criticism about the city has come from Marawi residents and MSU alumni themselves, who have publicly expressed alarm over the seemingly rising violence. Last Oct. 29, the Mindanao State University Alumni Association called for an “investigation of the lawlessness in the campus” that allegedly included "many unsolved cases of banditry, kidnapping, rape, ambuscade, and arson." But Magsalos is unfazed, saying “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and their own perception, and whether tama ‘yung perception nila at mali ako, malalaman na lang natin.” MSU as a ‘zone of peace’

Over the weekend, Gutoc said several officials met at MSU including PNP Senior Supt. William Macavinta, head of the peacekeeping force on campus; MSU President Dr. Macapado A. Muslim; Col. Daniel Lucero from the PNP-AFP Joint Task Force Ranao; and local government representatives and community service officers.

Gutoc, who serves as a member of the MSU Board of Regents, said the meeting discussed the recent violence on campus and yielded the following decisions:

1. A resolution to support the formal declaration of MSU as a Zone of Peace; 2. A pledge for multisectoral cooperation and organization; and 3. An agreement to address security concerns such as the illegal settlements on the campus, the exit from and entry into MSU of people and transport, and the need for additional barangay patrols and a fire truck.

The “zone of peace” concept is a community-based initiative supported by UNICEF that promotes the safety and security of students in schools, Gutoc said.

She believes this will work at MSU, where the charter promotes integration, nonviolence and respect for cultures. “And everything that happened to Othello runs contrary to that,” Gutoc noted.

If the school is declared a zone of peace, paramilitary groups will not be allowed to display their arms openly on campus, and perhaps “the syndicates who did Othello wrong” would no longer be able to commit crimes inside the school, she added.

The 1,000-hectare campus includes the commercial center, although it is not under the university’s academic jurisdiction. Of the 150,000 residents inside, around one-fifth is composed of teachers or students while the rest are civilians, “and there’s no security for this community that’s mostly civilians,” Gutoc said.

Transportation in Marawi, including entry into the campus, is under the city government and the lack of security checks for vehicles such as tricycles could mean that they could be bringing people “with illegal intent” into the school grounds, she added.

Legal arrangements are needed to ensure to see that their decisions are carried through, Gutoc said, adding that MSU officials have promised to discuss the implementation of the resolutions later this month. – YA, GMA News See Part 1: Has MSU become a haven for criminals?