By Ralph Jennings

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's recent announcement that he would, by the end of the year, lift martial law over the country's vast, often violent southern island of Mindanao after 31 months is seen as a sign authorities have an upper hand over armed rebel groups and want business to prosper in the impoverished region.

Martial law has been in place over Mindanao and surrounding seas since 2017. Foreign embassies still advise against travel on Mindanao, where foreign tourists are occasionally kidnapped and beheaded, but lifting martial law would follow a period of relative calm over the island and respond to calls to improve Mindanao’s reputation among investors and tourists, analysts say.

“After three years, the nature and extent of terrorist activities changed,” said Henelito Sevilla, assistant international relations professor at University of the Philippines in Metro Manila. “The peace and order situation in Mindanao is relatively restored due to the massive campaign of the government forces in the past three years."

Martial law lost political and economic appeal this year, particularly among local leaders who want more economic development, according to Sevilla.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

A policeman takes a picture of activists as they march to mark the second year of martial law in Mindanao, during a rally near the Malacanang palace in Manila, Philippines on Friday, May 24, 2019.

The mayor and city council in the city of Davao, which is seldom hit by rebels, voiced opposition earlier this year to martial law after several ambassadors said the law raises costs of doing business.

“It’s business that’s actually asking for it,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Metro Manila-based advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, said.

“For example, in Davao they see that as an incentive to have more investment, and also for tourists to come in," he added.

Poverty dominates much of Mindanao because of lack of investment in the key sectors of tourism, farming, and mining.

Lifting of martial law will make foreign and Filipino investors “feel secure” with little fear of damage from fighting, Sevilla said. It might also prompt foreign embassies to cancel travel advisories, and draw foreign tourists.

The government’s Board of Investments said registered investments in Mindanao totaled US$1.86 billion as of April, but mostly because of government-approved projects.

The government may keep a heavy troop presence in specific danger zones, multiple Philippine media outlets say, and police and military officials believe spots such as Sulu province will still “need a heavy presence of security forces” after martial law, domestic news website reported. Abu Sayyaf, a Philippine rebel group known for kidnapping tourists, has strongholds in the province's rural areas, although the group has been “degraded” under martial law, reported December 12.

Ambushes and bombings persist despite the broader calm. For example, a December 4 attack by Abu Sayyaf wounded 10 soldiers and three police officers.

“The military has assured us that they’re going to keep the checkpoints in place, so it’s not like they’re going to completely pull out,” Canoy said, describing her city. “So, maybe it’s just a matter of semantics. They’re just going say ‘there’s no more martial law,’ but the visibility will still be there.”

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The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Voice of America.

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