In a move that to critics called up the bad old days of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, Philippine President Rodrigo has placed the southern island of Mindanao under martial law, which allows the president to call out the armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion.
Duterte made the decision on May 23 after fighting broke out in Marawi City, the capital of Lanao del Sur province 800 km. from Manila, between government troops and the Maute group, who claim allegiance to the Islamic State, and elements of the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group, which many regard as nothing more than a criminal gang specializing in taking hostages for ransom. As the sign says over the entry highway, Marawi is called the only Islamic city. People living there probably know relatives of the rebels. Maute itself is the name of a local family. It is one of the poorest places of Muslim Mindanao.
The martial law measure is expected to be in effect across Mindanao, with a population of 22 million people, for 60 days and includes suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the imposition of curfews and establishment of checkpoints.
The Philippine Army and police have repeatedly shown themselves almost incapable of handling the threat, with repeated forays into Mindanao to attempt to corner Islamists, particularly Abu Sayyaf, only to have them slip away. Often they have been betrayed by members of their own forces for money.
Both the army and law enforcement have repeatedly been ambushed, with the worst one in recent memory in 2015 when 44 members of the Special Action Force of the Philippine National Police seeking to capture a Malaysian bomb-maker named Zulkifl Abdir, were massacred by elements of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Indeed, apparently the fighting broke out in Marawi City as the army and police were trying to capture Isnilon Hapilon, 51, an Abu Sayyaf leader, when they were met with gunfire.
Human rights organizations immediately jumped on the martial law proclamation, pointing out that worse abuses have taken place in the past, including a 2013 incident in Zamboanga City in which Muslims laid siege to the city, killing more than 200 people. Then-President Benigno S. Aquino, however, refused to declare martial law, saying military rule could alienate the local population even more.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson said the lawlessness of Duterte’s war on drugs, which is believed to have taken the lives of 8,000 people, almost all of them poor and powerless, “heightens grave concerns that his declaration of martial law in Mindanao will bring further rampant abuses.”
Robertson cited the Philippine constitution, which “contains guarantees for the protection of human rights and civil liberties during martial rule. We call upon the administration — as well as the Congress and the courts – to ensure that these important protections remain in force.”
The Philippines is particularly sensitive to martial law proclamations. On Sept. 23, 1972, Ferdinand Marcos, allegedly after a bombing campaign trumped up by then Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, declared martial law, revamped the constitution, throttled the press and began jailing and torturing opponents while engaging in massive corruption, stealing billions of dollars for his family which has never been recovered despite the fact that he was finally driven from office in 1986.
From the time he was elected last July, Duterte has been generating concerns about his own slippery grasp of democracy, threatening repeatedly to impose martial law in his quixotic drug war. He has defied critics all the way up to the United Nations on his murderous campaign, cursed critics and repeatedly threatened to impose martial law to silence his critics, prompting concerns he plans to create a dictatorship. After offering an olive branch to Islamists in his inaugural address, he declared a “state of lawlessness” after a bombing in his home town of Davao City last September.
“This didn’t really warrant a declaration of martial law in the entire island of Mindanao, but Duterte has been talking about this since his campaign,” said a longtime observer of Mindanao’s politics. “This basically gave him the opportunity. He had toyed with doing this in Sulu because of the kidnappings there but now this. It is unlikely however that the military will carry it out reminiscent of Marcos’s rule. Former President Gloria Arroyo declared martial law in Maguindanao after the killings of media workers there. The military used its power to quell the private army of the warlord Ampatuan and other armed groups. People called it a ‘smiling’ martial law.But in light of Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao, it remains unclear for now how far he would be willing to take this.
Duterte was in Moscow on a state visit, meeting with President Vladimir Putin to seek Russian arms when nearly 50 gunmen stormed Marawi City, a town of about 200,000 people, burning houses and other buildings and killing at least two soldiers and one policeman. Eight soldiers were also reported wounded. Duterte immediately left Moscow for Manila.
One group of fighters took up positions near a hospital, where they raised a black Islamic State-style flag, while others clashed with government troops near the provincial jail. There were also unconfirmed reports that some students were trapped in the Mindanao State University campus according to the PSA’s report. As military reinforcements were rushed to the area, authorities said a protracted siege is likely before the militants are driven out.
“While the conflict will probably be largely confined to the area in and around Marawi City, militant and insurgent groups elsewhere in the region may potentially seek to take advantage of the situation while security forces are focused on Marawi,” according to the PSA report.
A big concern is that a growing number of local groups have declared allegiance to the Islamic State including at least one faction of Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Ansar Al-Khilafah Philippines and elements of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
According to PSA’s report, Hapilon left his native Basilan earlier this year and made his way to Central Mindanao, where he reportedly joined up with members of the Maute group and other pro-Islamic State elements. Hapilon was reportedly wounded in an airstrike near Butig, Lanao del Sur in January. At the time there was speculation that Hapilon had been killed. As is often the case, the insurgent leaders turn up elsewhere, very much alive.
Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella told reporters that the martial law declaration was necessary “in order to suppress lawless violence and rebellion and for public safety,” He said the government was “in full control of the situation,” but also noted that groups such as Maute and similar groups “have the capability, though limited, to disturb the peace.”
At this time, it is unclear why martial law was declared throughout Mindanao as opposed to specific areas impacted by this latest outbreak of violence,” Human Rights Watch said. “It is also unclear if the declaration was an impulsive decision by Mr. Duterte or was one considered by the broader national security apparatus.”