By: Criselda Yabes

What made President Rodrigo Duterte’s first salvo of martial law in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao unusual was that it caught the military by surprise.  Time and again since he was elected a year ago, Duterte has spewed the dreaded words “martial law” as casually as he would chew gum. As the country’s commander-in-chief, he was quick to revive fears of the dictatorship that once gripped the nation – everywhere but in the Philippine Army, which wants little to do with the idea.

Martial law came rather conveniently when a radical Muslim rebel group called the Maute, hewing to the extremist Islamic State, sparked a gun battle in the Islamic city of Marawi after a failed army attempt to capture one of the leaders high on the wanted list. A botched operation of this kind is not unprecedented in parts of Mindanao that are under an autonomous Muslim region seeking wider self-rule in the south.

In the 10-odd days since the start of urban combat and massive evacuation, the contours of martial law have yet to take shape. President Duterte has threatened he would be “harsh,” but it took the armed forces headquarters about a week before it could come up with guidelines that trickled down to the divisions, brigades, battalions. Senior commanders have been too busy quelling the rampage to be able to put their minds together on what this new martial law means.

For a start checkpoints and curfews have been put in place as more troops were deployed to gain control of Marawi, about 800 kilometers south of the capital Manila. The military could arrest suspects without a warrant and hold them for three days before actual charges are filed in court.

President’s Powers Limited

But unlike before, when the military was given absolute control, shutting down the legislature and rounding up the opposition, the current constitution marks limitations from any possible foray into naked power that could make monsters of them.

For Mindanao, the president made a sudden and sweeping declaration when the Marawi crisis erupted. He was in Russia visiting Vladimir Putin and had to cut his trip short. His armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Eduardo Año, who was part of his entourage, was caught off guard. The defense secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, would later say candidly that martial law was not entirely warranted.

General Año was to have retired early to take over the department of interior, hand-in-hand with giving way to the president’s favored general, but the crisis backslid to the status quo – which could safeguard the armed forces, if that is any consolation. 

Once the dust settles, it might be that the president’s hand that could shift the scenario in unpredictable ways. However, the military doesn’t appear keen on taking the road to martial law in raw, unbridled form. Many in the officer corps have no experience of what it was like in the past when the strongman Ferdinand Marcos used martial law to mask massive corruption and repression, and those sensitive to history and prone to professionalism would rather not go back there.

“What do we know about running a government?” one general asked Asia Sentinel. “How are we supposed to do that?”

 Military Stabilized Since Bad Old Days

Thirty years since the return to democracy, the military has had purges of its own in coup attempts, corruption scandals, losses on the battlefield and elsewhere. It has managed to stabilize itself, though tenuous at times, under supervision on the rule of law and civilian supremacy.  

Among some officers on the ground, they’d like to see the situation in Marawi resolved as soon as possible and within the 60-day window for martial law provided in the Constitution. After that, they hope the scope would narrow down to the conflict-ridden provinces under Muslim Mindanao – places where the military has seen governance failing and where martial law could partly, just partly, help solve some of the systemic problems.

One unit in the south held workshops for battalions on the front line to ensure there would be no misunderstanding on martial law, that there would be no abuses or of crossing the line that would add to Mindanao’s volatility. In any case most of the conflict areas have already had huge deployment of troops, particularly in the fringes of the southern islands.

“This martial law is merely a stop-gap measure as we see it,” said one mid-level officer. “It’s not the overall solution.” There has to be a “coordination protocol” with the local government units, he said, one that would restore public safety especially in dangerous places. The military could recommend to the department of interior the suspension or dismissal of any local officials suspected of aiding the rebels.

Military Knows It’s Not Wanted

The irony about putting down the fire in Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur province, is that the military knew it was never wanted there. This was a place where a soldier could risk getting killed even in the market buying food for the camp’s provisions.

What happened on May 23 was somewhat a repeat of previous catastrophes in other places and it has revealed the dangerous nature of the Muslim conflict in many stages.

It has brought back to mind what happened in the largely Christian city of Zamboanga in late 2013, when rebels coming from the Sulu Island swooped down on coastal villages heavily populated by Muslims. The military had to send in forces from all over the country and took about three weeks for the crisis to be quelled, the villages razed to the ground.  

In Marawi, the entire city of about 200,000 people is at stake, with risks of skirmishes spilling over in this land-locked area. It could take time for the military to put it back in order. It wasn’t clear if the Maute group, named after a local clan, had designs of taking over the city, once an image of splendor around a mystical lake where a famous American general had begun his colonial campaign to win over the Muslims in the early 20th century.

Botched Attempt to Grab Abu Sayyaf Leader

The army’s elite units had come to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf terror group on Basilan island, who had reportedly gone there to form an alliance with the Maute in the name of IS. That partnership would have spelled a bigger threat for Mindanao, military intelligence says, because of its potential for violent extremism more worrisome than before, in addition to the threats of other rebel groups. Maute had been a loose family of criminals, also allegedly involved in drug trading, when an Indonesian jihadi, later arrested, had radicalized them a few years ago.

The Abu Sayyaf has operated mostly in the southern islands, building up a ghastly reputation for kidnappings and beheadings, and having been able to collect millions of pesos in ransom that most everyone suspects also go into the hands of local government officials. It is in the southern islands where a large military presence gives a semblance of martial law, a portion of Mindanao that is far removed from the mainland.  

The splinter group has been carried over the years, smaller though more radical, stemming from the outbreak of the Muslim rebellion in the 1970s when the powerful Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) called for a secession of the entire Mindanao island. It has been overshadowed by its breakaway group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), currently at the center stage negotiating for peace that would transition for more power in the Muslim provinces.

But the MILF ran into a wall in early 2015 when 44 government forces were killed in a single operation that went horribly wrong to capture two terrorists (one Malaysian, the other Filipino) hiding in Maguindanao Province, putting the talks on hold until Duterte was elected president. He has said federalism would be the cure for Mindanao. And so now with his declaration of martial law, Mindanao has, quite unfortunately, become an experiment again for an uncertain future.

Military Knows it Can’t do it Alone

Marawi is but the latest revealing the complexities of the Muslim issue, which the military knows it cannot solve single-handedly. The previous incidents in Zamboanga and Maguindanao are in themselves depictions of ethnic differences among the Muslims, their fight for power in their own turf: Tausugs in the south, Maranaos in the southwest sharing the border with the Maguindanaoans.

These provinces had fallen into feudal poverty, the long-term consequences of Marcos’s brand of martial law when he imposed a scorched earth policy in Mindanao. It has warped since then, pummeled by a history of neglect from the central government and the failure of their own leaders to unshackle them from a misplaced culture.

What Duterte has in mind for Mindanao isn’t clear, his advisers merely kowtowing to his impulsive streak.  But this then is a major test for the military, on how well they will be able to tread a thin line. If it has understood lessons from years past, it is likely that they might have to put the president in check if things go out of bounds.