Fighting Terror with Terror: Martial Law in the Philippines, Again

Fighting Terror with Terror: Martial Law in the Philippines, Again
Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像

What you need to know

Soon the entire country could be in for the worst kind of throwback.

Here we go again. On May 23, at 10:00 p.m., Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared Martial Law in Mindanao, the southernmost and second largest island of the archipelago.

The announcement came after Marawi, a largely Islamic-populated area in Mindanao, was infiltrated and taken over by armed members of the Maute Group — a relatively new band of terrorists with alleged ties to ISIS.

Jihadists from the Maute group got into a shoot-out with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on May 23, and the fighting spilled over into Marawi. A few dozen members from Maute took over sections of the city and proceeded to set fire to a hospital, a local college and a penitentiary where many inmates escaped.

It is important to understand the conflict-ridden Mindanao Island; aside from being perceived as a hotbed for the communist guerillas of the New People’s Army, it is also home to the majority of Bangsa Moro or Moro population — a people with a distinctly Islamized ethnolinguistic background.

While there are no clear goals set by the Maute group in its siege of Marawi, it’s assumed that they want to establish a stronghold in the area.

The regime’s answer to this: Martial Law — complete military rule, suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and disregard for people’s civil and political rights in Mindanao, despite the events only affecting Marawi. The city only has 200,000 residents yet the whole of Mindanao’s 22 million people have been put under the absolute control of the state.

The last president to declare Martial Law was Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. It lasted 14 years, covered the whole country and resulted in countless unspeakable acts of torture, killings and oppression.

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Duterte, instead of assuring the public, confirmed a deep-seeded fear still held by most who went through the last dictatorship.

“It would not be any different from what President Marcos did. I'll be harsh," the firebrand president said, less than 24 hours after the imposition.

The government is displaying a supreme confidence in its decision making when instead of attempting to quell the panic, they are testing the public’s limits. This effort is typified in a subsequent announcement on May 24 that Martial Law may be expanded to the entire country and extended beyond its 60-day cap to resolve the situation in Mindanao.

All the apprehensions and anxieties of the country’s last period of dictatorial rule have come rushing back. The trouble is now being aggravated in Mindanao and the crackdown could soon spread to the rest of the country.

How did we get here?

This all happened in the same month Duterte made history by being the first president to directly visit a protest of farmers, address their concerns and encourage them to carry on fighting against the injustices they were dealt by landlords in Mindanao; the same month in which the president was taken aback by the 100,000-strong Labor Day demonstration for jobs and higher wages; the same month there was upbeat talk about continuing negotiations between the Communist Party and the NPA.

It begs the question: what initiated the 180-degree turn? Is the entire armed forces really necessary to take care of a few dozen targets? Marawi faces a crisis of terror, but there are other motives at work.

It’s no secret that many of the military’s top brass will not allow a morsel of political concession to the revolutionaries in peace negotiations. Newly appointed Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana admitted early on that suppressing the NPA is also an additional objective in the securing Mindanao.

AFP Chief Eduardo “the rebel hunter” Ano was announced to take over the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG). However this was put on hold as he was granted a much more seductive position as Martial Law administrator.

An opponent of destructive mining, Secretary Gina Lopez was taken out of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and replaced by former AFP Chief Roy Cimatu. Upon being appointed, Cimatu shared a story of how he once planted trees in the 1970s. A true demonstration of his commitment to the environment.

Another former AFP Chief Hermogenes Esperon has been appointed as the new national security adviser. He was at the helm during the Arroyo administration’s brutality which warranted strong recommendations from the U.N. rapporteur on Human Rights to halt their counterinsurgency efforts. Under Esperon, two student activists from the University of the Philippines were abducted and never seen again. The chief has constantly contradicted eyewitness accounts of the army being behind the abductions.

Five other generals have also been appointed to various cabinet seats in the last few months.

I don’t mean to imply that all this is a product of the warmongering minds in the government alone. The president made deliberate moves to surround himself with right-wing decision makers to consolidate military power. In doing so, he has invoked the inherent militaristic agenda of the AFP. Martial Law then becomes the concrete expression of this on the ground. Duterte put the pieces in place and they are now toying with the full extent of their capabilities.

Amidst all of this, Martial Law also gained international recognition as far as chauvinist and interventionist noteworthiness goes — Washington gave its stamp of approval in the Philippine government’s recent activities.

This is a very different and much scarier place than the start of May.

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Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像

Where are we now?

As expected, the crisis has extended beyond Marawi. Mainly poor and ordinary Filipinos have been at the receiving end of state repression.

According to Suara Bangsa Moro, a progressive organization of the Moro people, there has been a surge of military atrocities committed in peasant communities since the declaration.

Despite locals pleading the government to refrain from offensives that might affect civilians, indiscriminate firing, shelling and aerial bombings have affected nine towns across two provinces outside of the province of Lanao Del Sur, which is home to Marawi. In nearby north Cotabato, army troops went on a firing spree attacking the homes of residents with .50 caliber machine guns.

A definitive report on the casualties from these operations has yet to be released at the time of writing.

As a result, the situation has forced people to evacuate their communities with no help from the authorities. Islamic grassroots organization Suara Bangsa Moro says that already more than 1,600 have been forcibly displaced, apart from those from Marawi.

In Davao City, Mindanao, where the president’s daughter Sara Duterte is mayor, around 250 people were arrested simply for not carrying any form of identification. Many of them are urban poor Filipinos — sidewalk vendors, jeepney and tricycle drivers among others — in which case it should be understandable that many don’t have certain legal documents that the police are looking for, nor did they know they were supposed to carry one at all times since nobody told them to.

The officer who ordered the arrests? Newly promoted Superintendent Alexander Tagum. The commanding officer during last year’s Kidapawan Massacre where the police opened fire on a protest of starving farmers demanding rice.

Who’s next? The AFP have announced that they are working on censorship guidelines for media and social media regarding the situation in Mindanao. Protests are reportedly being considered to be banned as well.

On the other hand, at press events, Duterte has blatantly encouraged the military to conduct warrantless arrests and searches, saying that he would take care of them despite any abuses that may be committed, even rape. “Just do your job. I will take care of you. I will go to jail for you. If you happen to rape three, I will own up to it. If you marry four, you will get beaten."

In just a week, we have arrived at a point where human rights violators have got their way and have been rewarded; military personnel are given a presidential license to various forms of fascist abuses; the peace talks are being reconsidered; the arrests of revolutionary leaders have been ordered; people are being rounded up arbitrarily and tagged as guilty until proven innocent while everyone supportive and complacent of Martial Law are set to have a field day with social media and media.

The Maute group must be stopped immediately. Sloppy intelligence work on the group caused their lenient entry and activity into Marawi, but Martial Law, putting roughly a third of the country (possibly all of it in time) in the ruthless hands of the state is not the solution. The regime has enough power and resources to deal with the Maute without putting more civilians and innocent lives at risk.

But again we must ask: how did we get here? I believe that Duterte’s rise to power capitalized on the collective yearning of people so desperate for change and drastic action. He did deliver with some pronouncements favoring basic demands of people for land and housing, however Martial Law exemplifies a summation in a largely fascist agenda.

Many of those who voted Duterte have been dragged along by fanatics of the new administration — uncritical and fully devoted to any move made by the government, even ultra-right wing militaristic ones.

Fascism in the country should not be given the courtesy of taking over a people divided. The people should all be standing in solidarity with Mindanao and against any form of exploitation that may be dished out under Martial Law.

Editor: Olivia Yang