TAIPEI, TAIWAN - The Philippine government imposed martial law on its giant southern island of Mindanao in early 2017 to help fight a war against Muslim rebels who had seized the center of the lakeside university town Marawi. Two years after the war ended, martial law remains and officials are talking about an extension into 2020.
Martial law is not new to the Philippines. Former President Ferdinand Marcos ruled as dictator under martial law from 1972 until 1986.
But this time some people in Mindanao are pushing back. Martial law, they argue, keeps the island safer. But it may also keep business away.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in July he would consider extending martial law into 2020 if local officials want it, domestic media outlet Philstar.com reported. He said the island and outlying seas were still at risk.
“Ideally, it is obviously good to see Mindanao freed from security challenges by the end of 2019 and therefore martial law may not be expected to be implemented anymore,” said Henelito Sevilla, assistant international relations professor at University of the Philippines.
“However, Mindanao is Mindanao, and the region should not be compared to other parts of the Philippines where security challenges are less diverse in terms of nature, area and extent as compared to Mindanao islands,” Sevilla said. “The islands of Mindanao are very diverse in terms of tribal affinity, political cleavages and even armed groupings.”
National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. had said in mid-2019 via Philippine media that he would propose another year of martial law.
Violent elements remain
Troops declared victory against the Muslim rebels in Marawi in October 2017 after fighting killed more than 1,100. In early 2019, Marawi and surrounding areas formally became the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. It was to be administered at least in part by a rebel group that had signed a peace deal with the government in 2014.
However, an armed splinter of that group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, occasionally stages deadly ambushes including an August attack that killed three military informants. Abu Sayyaf, a separate rebel group known for kidnapping and slaying foreign tourists, remains intact on islands off Mindanao’s west coast. The armed communist New People’s Army has its own camps in Mindanao.
Muslim rebels believe the Philippine Catholic majority controls an unfair share of resources in Mindanao despite five centuries of Muslim settlement. Violence there has killed about 120,000 people in Mindanao and adjacent Sulu Sea since the 1960s.
Martial law lets troops and police work together without normal legal checks and balances. Authorities can also enforce curfews and randomly search vehicles.
But in much of Mindanao, martial law is hardly noticeable. Around the port city Cagayan de Oro, for example, cars stop only between the domestic airport and downtown for routine checks. Police do not enforce curfews in the downtown mega-malls, upscale restaurants and major high-rise hotel.
Road checkpoints turn up more often on highways around the Bangsamoro region, home to some 3.8 million mostly Muslim Filipinos.
In Davao, the Philippine archipelago’s second largest city after Manila, people broadly support the extension of martial law, said a scholar who just visited. Davao is on Mindanao’s east coast, removed from most rebel attacks.
“I asked people, they like the army because they feel considerably safe, and it’s actually not hindering the daily life of the people,” said the visitor Enrico Cau, Southeast Asia-specialized associate researcher at the Taiwan Strategy Research Association.
“Just the idea that martial law hinders investment, deters people from going, stops tourists -- even not so much,” he said. “Because when I got to Davao on August 17 and when I left in September, for example, hotels didn’t have one single room.”
Is Mindanao safe enough already?
Davao’s mayor and city council expressed formal opposition to continued martial law after ambassadors visited the city in mid-2019 and said the law raises costs of doing business, domestic media say. Much of Mindanao’s 25 million population lives in poverty, largely for lack of investment.
Protest from the mayor may roll back martial law next year to cover only parts of Mindanao where rebels are likely to strike, Cau said. The mayor is also Duterte’s daughter.
Renato Reyes, secretary general of the Manila-based Bagong Alyansang Makabaya alliance of leftist causes, said
Philippine officials should drop martial law to focus instead on a peace process that address poverty and inequality in Mindanao.
The government should use martial law to “expedite the development of new growth centers” in Mindanao to meet economic needs, said Aaron Rabena, a research fellow at Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, a Manila research organization.
“We cannot live in a world where martial law is the norm,” Reyes said. “It should always be the last resort for government. When all civilian agencies or institutions are unable to discharge their functions, that’s when the military will come in.”