Blasts in Davao: Is Duterte already losing control?

Photo: Presidential Communications Operations Office

By Dung Phan

After making a series of announcements about the recent deadly blast in his home city of Davao, Philippine President Duterte finally declared a “state of national emergency on account of lawless violence” on Mindanao island before boarding his plane to Laos.

Duterte was still “fuming as expected” two days after the explosion at a popular night market, said the Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa. The blast hit Duterte where it hurts – Davao, the place where he earned popularity and respect as a great mayor for 22 years. And to add political to public injury, he was in the city at the time of the attack.

A state of unrest

People were running and shouting while police and ambulance cars were rushing towards the area of the explosion, say reports from the night. The city was in a panic and so was Duterte. He was quick to proclaim “a state of lawlessness” in an interview at the blast site, even before a formal statement was made. This swift response left his communication staff in confusion as they issued conflicting announcements.

Initial reports cited information from Presidential Assistant Christopher Bong Go who said there was a “declaration of a state of lawlessness in Mindanao only.” The same announcement also came from Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella. However, minutes later, Presidential Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo issued a statement saying the state of lawlessness would cover the entire country.

Around the same time, the Presidential Communications Office posted on its official Twitter account (@PresidentialCom), that the state only included Mindanao, but then deleted the tweet. Abella later issued a statement saying “Due to heightened security issues, the coverage of the state of lawlessness will include both Mindanao and the rest of the nation.”

Communications Secretary Martin Andanar also announced that the coverage of the declaration was nationwide. However, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that the statement was only limited to Mindanao. Panelo then reiterated that the state of lawlessness covers the whole country, saying there was a miscommunication with the defence chief.

In the end, Duterte himself made the call. No state of lawlessness. Not nationwide.

A state of stability

The Abu Sayyaf first claimed responsibility for the blast which took at least 14 lives and wounded more than 70 people. And even though they later denied their involvement the militants group, which has recently been the target of intensified military operations, are still prime suspects

But are they capable of an attack on this level? Compared to the Moro Islamic Liberation (MILF), the Abu Sayyaf doesn’t have enormous territories or armed campsites. They do not own the bases in Sulu and Basilan  that the MILF has in Maguindanao.

To sustain their campaign, “the group has an unknown number of active civilian supporters alleged to engage in recruiting, training and other non-combat activities, as well as an unascertained number of local-regional sympathisers,” regional expert Mark Turner wrote. For now, the group is believed to have thousands of local sympathisers who will help them elude authorities.

Worse, there are many allegations that Abu Sayyaf has links within the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Takking advantage of this, the group has allegedly been using ransoms to bribe police and military offices to assist them in escaping. “Historically, Abu Sayyaf group and their acts have always been supported by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the US government, both had a hand in the creation of the said group,” said Cristina Palabay, an internationally renowned human rights activist in the Philippines.

Endless war

In a country where more than 1,000 left-wing politicians, activists, journalists and human rights advocates died because of state-sanctioned extra judicial killings since the early 2000s, violence comes as no surprise. But the “lawless violence” of the last few months is seen through the lens of piles of suspected drug users killed in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. But at the end of the day, is there any difference between innocent deaths in the drug war and the deadly blast? When is large-scale murder ever justified?

The choice of Davao as the area of the latest bombing is no accident. And it should be a reminder that there will be no “happy place” for Filipinos. (which Duterte has considered Davao) as long as these types of aggressive  campaigns continue. While the new president has been busy suppressing his people; has he left the government nowhere near prepared go fight the enemy within?