RECENT media reports on the fighting between the government security forces and a terrorist group in the Islamic City of Marawi in Mindanao remind me of my first trip to that part of the world in the 1980s.
The Islamic elements of the city were visible even then, because almost all of its residents (now said to be around 200,000) are Muslims.
To me then, the 400-year-old city looked like Parit Jawa in Muar or Tangkak in the late 1950s. From the video clips I saw recently of the city, it did not seem to have developed much over the years.
On May 23, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law throughout Mindanao, although the recent clashes between government troops and the Maute terrorist group only occurred in the Marawi area, thereby promp-ting the question: “Is this not an overkill?”
The Maute group had taken control of a government hospital and laid siege to many parts of the Marawi city. The city is the capital of the province of Lanao del Sur. It is now the home base of the Maute group, believed to have strong links with the Islamic State (IS) leadership in Iraq and Syria.
Government troops had been engaged for some time in their hunt for Isnilon Hapilon, one of the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf terror group, notorious for their kidnappings and killings since 1990. Continued operations by the government forces had weakened the Abu Sayyaf group, but Hapilon always managed to elude capture. Currently, as the de facto head of IS in the Philippines, he is under the protection of the Maute group.
On the day martial law (known as Proclamation No. 216) was announced, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana explained that the whole of Mindanao was placed under martial law because there were also problems in Zamboanga, Sulu, Tawi-tawi, and Central Mindanao in the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) area.
Manila is also having problems in Region 11 (around Davao City) because of the criminal activities of the New People’s Army. Martial law has to be extended to the entire island because two-thirds of the island region has long been “subjected to communist insurgency”.
Opponents of the martial law over the entire Mindanao region said that the country was now witnessing “a beta test for authoritarianism, or a creeping attack on democracy”.
According to Steven Rood of the Australian National University, the martial law proclamation was Duterte’s response to “the assertiveness of Muslim extremism”.
Antonio Floirendo (a member of the Congress from Mindanao) supported the martial law proclamation, because it was necessary to stop terrorists belonging to Abu Sayyaf and Maute group from establishing an IS base in Mindanao.
“As a Mindanaoan, I believe that President’s Duterte’s leadership is what is needed to bring peace and security in the region,” he said.
On May 26, Catholic bishops of Mindanao said that martial law in Mindanao “must be temporary”. Reiterating that martial law is a means of last resort, Cotabato Archbishop Orlando Cardinal Quevedo asked: “Will the positive effects of martial law outweigh the negative effects? Will there be probability of success? Will it bring about a culture of accountability and end a culture of impunity? Will martial law increase human rights violations? Will martial law be abused for evil purposes?”
Strong opposition came from the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP). On May 25, it said it opposed the declaration of martial law in Mindanao and its possible imposition on the entire country. It remembers the “horrors of martial law” under Ferdinand Marcos and expressed alarm over the deliberate attempts by the military “to directly associate the Maute and Abu Sayaf with the legitimate sectors of the Bangsamoro people, who are fighting for self-determination”.
It also believes that the martial law proclamation may erode “the legitimate gains of the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro people”.
The NCCP also stated that discrediting the Bangsamoro aspiration for self-determination “by creating an anti-Muslim hysteria” contradicted the country’s interest for peace and reconciliation.
On May 30, the CNN Philippines portal reported that 15 of 23 senators supported Duterte’s martial law proclamation, saying it was constitutional. Under Article VII of the 1987 Philippine Constitution: “A state of martial law does not suspend the operation of the Constitution, nor supplant the functioning of the civil courts, or legislative assemblies, nor authorise the conferment of jurisdiction on military courts and agencies over civilians where civil courts are able to function …”.
Indeed, it’s very sad that whilst the Philippine government can enter into peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), something similar is be done with the smaller and more extreme groups like Abu Sayyaf or the Maute group.
Manila believes that these extreme groups can never sit around a conference table and talk peace. Can martial law bring peace to Mindanao? People in Mindanao believe that the continuing conflict on the island is rooted in social injustice.
Poverty is highest and educational delivery is the worst in the country. Conflict is increasingly caused by ideology masquerading as religion. Muslim youth are attracted to this ideology because they are frustrated with peace negotiations that do not yield results, they are weary of their hunger and joblessness, and are fascinated by the idea of a world where ideology holds supreme. And, for all those who do not agree, they are taught to hate or kill.
I hope President Duterte’s move will work, but I have my doubts.
SALLEH BUANG formerly served the Attorney-General’s Chambers before he left for practice, the corporate sector and, then, the academia.