Why Duterte is right to apply martial law

Gunfights continue on the streets of Marawi as Philippine forces struggle to contain a terrorist insurgency led by IS-loyalists. Duterte has proclaimed martial law but his opponents fear a return to the dark days of the Marcos administration.

by Tan Zhi Xin, edited by Francesca Ross

The Philippines’ President, Rodrigo Duterte, wants all terrorists dead. There is no room for negotiation.

“I am telling you now, you can kill all those you are holding now, but I will not talk to you. My order really is to shoot you and to shoot you dead,” said the strongman Duterte.

This tough approach came after gunmen from the Maute armed group laid siege to Marawi City in the name of the Islamic State (IS). Up to 500 people remain trapped in the city, says the United Nations humanitarian office. More than 200,000 people have been displaced by the fighting.

Duterte has imposed martial law for 60-days across the entire island of Mindanao. This could be extended for up to a year.

Duterte’s declaration of martial law was unconstitutional, say opposition lawmakers

The House of Representatives showed overwhelming support to Duterte in taking executive control but opposition lawmakers petitioned the Supreme Court to rescind the martial law decision.

The “Magnificent Seven” of Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman; Ifugao Rep. Teddy Baguilat; Caloocan City Rep. Edgar Erice; Northern Samar Rep. Raul Daza; Akbayan Rep. Tom Villarin; Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano; and Capiz Rep. Emmanuel Billones claimed that Duterte’s hardline approach was unconstitutional and based on “patent falsities”.

“The President’s proclamation of martial law in Mindanao has no sufficient factual basis as it is feebly based on mostly contrived and/or inaccurate facts, self-serving speculations, enumeration of distant occurrences and mere conclusions of fact and law,” read a portion of the 28-page petition.

Memories of Marcos surround Duterte’s call for martial law

The group argued that the violence perpetuated by the local terrorists in Marawi does not constitute a crime of rebellion under the Revised Penal Code. This would mean it did not fulfill the core requirement for the proclamation of martial law – the presence of rebellion or invasion.

The opposition to military rule is driven by memories of nine years of Marconian authoritarianism under martial law. Marcos’ administration was marked by widespread abuses, disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killing. Duterte’s strong personality and his disregard for human rights means critics are quick to point to parallels between the two.

The Philippines is particularly vulnerable to exploitation by Jihadists

Islamic terrorism is nothing new to Southeast Asia, and the Philippines has been trying to quell the Islamic rebels in southern Philippines since the 1970s. Many analysts believe it is only a matter of time before IS declares a wilayah (state) of the caliphate in the region. The Philippines ticks all the boxes for waves of radicalism – people are often poor and short on opportunities.

More than 60 groups have pledged allegiance to the IS caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the last three years. As many as 16 of these are based in the Philippines. A video recently circulating online showed a Malaysian fighter urging viewers who cannot travel to the Middle East to go to the Philippines instead. A prospective jihadist can travel from Malaysia to the Philippines and given a complimentary weapon with just 500 Malaysian Ringgit (US$117), he said.

“What is happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens,” said Jose Calida, the solicitor general of the Philippines. “It has transmogrified into an invasion by foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of the ISIS to go to the Philippines if they find difficulty in going to Iraq or Syria.”

Duterte’s own policies have made the situation more volatile

Jihadists looking for a safe haven in Southeast Asia would not choose Indonesia or Malaysia as these countries have well-equipped and highly-trained armed forces. They also have high-quality intelligence about extremist operations. The security capabilities of the Philippines are much less formidable.

There are also inherent weaknesses from within the Philippines that encourage the growth of terrorism. The Philippines has attracted significant media attention since Duterte entered office. IS enjoys the global spotlight.

Duterte’s prioritization of his drugs war over peace negotiations with the rebels also gives terrorists and their prospective counterparts hopes for expansion. The Philippine Congress refused to pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) –  the first step towards peace in the region.

This means that IS have space to gain ground while the three-decades old civil war lingers on explained Felix Heiduk, a Southeast Asia expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

The siege of Marawi City is more than propaganda

Marawi is a game changer, says Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. For a long time, both the Philippines and Southeast Asia have underestimated the threat of terrorism and IS.

“It (siege of Marawi) demonstrated to all the countries in the region what (IS) can do. They thought this business of running cities is something in the Middle East – they never thought it could happen in Asia,” added Gunaratna.

Philippine troops have struggled to defeat the terrorists in the streets of Marawi, despite supplies of hundreds of machine guns, pistols and grenade launchers coming from the US. American special operation forces are also assisting on the ground.

Duterte has won the first stage of the battle by overcoming tension to martial law in the legislature. He has a much longer fight on his hands if he is to win the war. His approach might not be the one his critics want but, up against the threat of rising Islamic insurgency, it is the one his country needs.