Should martial law be extended on the southern island of Mindanao, where Philippine troops and Islamic State (IS)-backed militants have fought for control of the besieged city of Marawi for nearly two months?
If you ask President Rodrigo Duterte, the short answer is “yes”, in the name of fighting terrorism and routing the remaining militants who staged the debilitating siege and made the Philippines a hot house for global jihadis.
His critics note the Marawi crisis has wound down from its chaotic height and contend the tough-talking leader is playing on popular fears to cynically consolidate his authoritarian grip by prioritizing security over liberties.
Duterte made his case to Congress to extend the executive order on July 18, an impassioned request in which he recommended that the rights-curbing measure remain in place for the volatile southern island until the end of the year.
He claimed martial law is needed to crush the combined forces of the IS-inspired Abu Sayaff and Maute Group, remnants of which are still entrenched in Marawi. Security forces have failed to completely uproot the militants, despite making frequent claims the fight was nearly over.
On July 22, Duterte’s request was overwhelmingly approved by Congress.
Duterte first issued Proclamation 216 in late May to impose martial law over the entire island of Mindanao after fierce fighting broke out. Certain of his political allies have argued for extending the order over the entire archipelagic country.
The siege, which has been backed by an unknown number of foreign fighters, including from the Middle East and neighboring countries, caught Duterte unaware despite warnings made by Australia in the run-up to the siege that IS intended to create a “caliphate” in the southern Philippines.
Philippine soldiers had aimed to capture Abu Sayaff leader Isnilon Hapilon when they stumbled into the wider band of militants, forcing the rebels to fast-track their erstwhile plan to wreak havoc in Marawi.
This encounter soon sparked the biggest urban battle between government and rebel forces ever seen in a country that has been perpetually plagued by insurgents of various stripes. More than 500 people have been killed after nearly two months of urban warfare fighting in Marawi.
An estimated 405 militants, 97 soldiers and policemen and 45 civilians are among the casualties. It is also estimated that more than 400,000 city residents have fled, many of whom are now sheltering in government-run evacuation centers.
With these grueling facts and figures, and growing fears that the crisis could spread, many sectors of Philippine society are in favor of extending martial law. National Police Chief General Ronaldo dela Rosa recently told local media that he had submitted a position paper to the presidential palace requesting an extension of the order.
Local officials in Basilan province, home province of the Abu Sayaff, a terror group involved in kidnapping-for-ransom and piracy, also stated his support for an extension, noting that the military’s stronger presence in his region had reduced crime rates to nearly zero.
When Duterte talked with Congressional leaders asking them for their support in extending his martial order, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, perhaps Duterte’s staunchest ally in Congress, unsurprisingly pledged lawmakers’ support for the President’s request.
That position appears to reflect the popular will. A June 23-26 poll conducted by Social Weather Stations, a local pollster, showed that 57% of respondents favored Duterte’s declaration.
Public opinion has no doubt been influenced by daily reports from the battlefield showing the ferocity and destructiveness of the rebels as they engaged in lethal house-to-house fighting against elite army and Marine troops.
Those reports featured cases of civilians who were taken hostage and forced to serve the militants, including in instances as human shields. Media reports have also indicated those held by militants have been tortured, raped or killed.
Fears have also been stoked by revelations that local politicians and known warlords in Marawi and neighboring areas are sympathetic and supportive of the Maute Group, a local eponymous clan that has pledged allegiance to IS.
Still it is ironic that Duterte would point to the significantly diminished fighting in Marawi, rather than the risk IS-linked militants could launch a terror assault elsewhere in the country, as his main reason for the need to extend martial law.
Survey results aside, not everyone agrees with Duterte’s tough tactics. Refugees from Marawi believe an extension of martial law will prolong their stay in crowded shelters. “It’s cold here in the evacuation center. Please Mr. President, don’t extend martial law anymore, we want to go home,” a mother of seven told one local newspaper reporter.
In Duterte’s hometown of Davao City, situated in Mindanao, the chamber of commerce issued a statement saying that martial law has been bad for business. “Lift martial law in our city,” the statement said.
Former President Fidel Ramos, who has said he was among those who first convinced Duterte to run for president, told local media on July 18 that extending martial law would be bad for foreign investment. “[Investors] may bypass the Philippines because of martial law,” he told a local TV station.
Duterte’s flexing of his executive power has also sent jitters through the political opposition. In early July, with the Supreme Court poised to announce its position regarding the declaration of martial law, Duterte lashed out at critics by threatening to jail them.
“[The declaration of martial law is] not dependent on the whim of the Supreme Court. Should I believe them? When I see the situation is still chaotic and you ask me to lift it? I will arrest you and put you behind bars,” Duterte said with characteristic bravado.
In another instance, Duterte called on the national police to reinstate to official duty Supt. Marvin Marcos and fellow officers who had been accused of the killing of Rolando Espinosa, a former town mayor in Leyte province.
Espinosa had earlier been arrested on drug-related charges as part of Duterte’s drug war, an arrest some saw as emblematic of how the campaign has lent itself to political abuses.
Initially charged with murder, Marcos and his cohorts’ cases were downgraded to homicide, which under Philippine law allows them to post bail. Soon thereafter Duterte personally called for their reinstatement. Marcos has since been reassigned as chief of the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group for Region 8 in Mindanao.
The intervention provoked criticism from both the opposition and Duterte’s known political allies. Senator Francis Pangilinan described the move as “disturbing” while Duterte ally Senator Panfilo Lacson pledged a Senate inquiry into the matter.
A group of former government officials said in a statement that Duterte was crossing a line, adding that “We do not elect kings or dictators.”
That type of criticism, now reported freely in the local media, could die down in the months ahead. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, one of the country’s leading independent newspapers, will soon have a new owner who is known to have contributed richly to Duterte’s election campaign.
Tycoon Ramon Ang, whose San Miguel Corp is the Philippines’ biggest conglomerate spanning food and beverage, energy and infrastructure, will acquire the Prieto family’s 85% controlling stake in the respected broadsheet. Duterte had singled out the Prieto family for being overly critical of his administration, including over their paper’s coverage of his lethal drug war.
Both a Prieto family representative and San Miguel Corp have characterized the transaction as a “strategic business decision.”