HONG KONG – Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao is yet another indication that he seeks to follow in the footsteps of his mentor, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos — in whose Cabinet Duterte’s father served. The declaration followed the takeover of Marawi city by rebels claiming to be Islamic State group fighters.
There might be some justification for martial law there and in some other Muslim majority parts of the Mindanao and the adjacent Sulu archipelago. There have been many flare-ups recently in the region, although those conflicts have been going on for 50 years. Marawi has long been at the center of a particular trouble spot, the Lanao del Sur province (of which it is the capital).
However, there is a strong suspicion that Duterte is using Marawi as the thin end of a wedge for the broader application of martial law.
In 1971, Marcos used the Plaza Miranda bombing, aimed at a rally of his Liberal party opponents, to suspend habeas corpus, thereby enabling detention without access to judge or court. This became the prelude to martial law in 1972 and the canceling of the 1973 presidential election.
What fits into this pattern is that there are already hints from Duterte of extending martial law to the Visayas region, where there is no Muslim insurgency and little New People’s Army (NPA) activity.
There is no doubt that many Filipinos yearn for strong government, which martial law may seem to represent, as a way forward. But most Filipinos are now too young to remember that Marcos’ 1972 martial law declaration was followed not just by the abolition of democracy and free media, but by the centralization of corruption.
After a brief spurt of economic growth, the Philippines descended into an era of foreign debt accumulation and milking of the state by Marcos cronies.
What followed martial law too was an upsurge in insurgency, including a 1974 battle for Jolo, the main town of the Sulu archipelago, which left it in ruins. By 1980, Muslim rebels controlled most of the countryside in western Mindanao and Sulu. NPA activity in the central Luzon heartland to the north of Manila also increased steadily. Only with the fall of Marcos and the return of democracy did the situation begin to reverse.
Mindanao and the adjacent Sulu archipelago represent about one-third of the land area of the Philippines and 22 percent of the population of 100 million. Yet, the impression given by Duterte himself (and by most foreign media) is that this whole region is in a state of disorder justifying martial law.
That is indeed ironic given that Duterte long boasted that the island’s major city, Davao, was the most orderly and progressive in the nation. That is the very city where Duterte was mayor for many years — and where he was succeeded by his daughter.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, as now, much of Mindanao was never affected by the insurgencies. Cities on the north coast, Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, were and are peaceful and moderately prosperous. Mindanao also continues to attract (Christian) migrants from other regions of the Philippines, notably the Visayas.
Duterte’s original promise was to negotiate peace with Muslims and leftists. Those efforts have gone nowhere. However, the ongoing low levels of insurgency in non-Muslim areas of the country are now proving the excuse for what could well be the precursor to nationwide martial law, as Duterte has hinted.
Rebel groups are splintered. There are genuine Islamic State zealots in the Philippines, but there are also others, operating under IS and Abu Sayyaf banners, whose main aim is kidnap for ransom. Extreme radical groups under the IS banner have increased in size at the expense of the main Muslim representative group the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Its decline appears linked to the stalling of the peace process which had advanced under President Corazon Aquino.
Aquino’s effort had centered on passing the Bangsa Moro Basic Law. It would enable the establishment of a genuinely autonomous Muslim region with well-defined powers.
Pursuing such an approach is painstaking, unspectacular work that takes time and requires great attention to detail and implementation. In a clear step back, Duterte has become more focused on a military solution. At the same time, he talks vaguely about giving all (predominantly non-Muslim) Mindanao more autonomy from Manila, a proposal which would likely dilute the autonomy of the Muslim zone.
While the Philippines’ military needs to fight off the IS-related gangs, the imposition of martial law throughout Mindanao goes nowhere to ending decades of conflict. The unfortunate prospect of Duterte planning to extend it will surely set back hopes of ending insurgencies elsewhere in the Philippines.
While this may no longer raise further doubts in the U.S. of President Donald Trump, it will very much do so at least in the European Union, a main source of Philippines export and remittance revenues.
Having a president who is already tarnished by thousands of extra-judicial killings and now plans to extend his rule is not what the Philippines needs to safeguard its future.
Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao is a personal power grab that won’t make the Philippines safer.
Philip Bowring is a journalist who has been based in Asia since 1973.
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