Increasingly, martial law is becoming a real prospect in the Philippines and President Rodrigo Duterte’s trip to junta-governed Thailand earlier this week might well have increased his appetite for it. A visit to Myanmar, a day or two earlier, where the military rules in all but name, won’t have hurt either.
The martial-law option has never been off the cards as far as the Philippine president is concerned, but with an heightened terrorist threat and the need to deliver a decisive blow to the illegal narcotics trade, it’s looking more and more likely that it’s a card Duterte is willing and ready to play. Even quite soon.
Thailand has been run by the country’s military since May 2014 and in that time civil unrest which had raged prior to the army taking control has been virtually eradicated. The National Council for Peace and Order, headed by the former commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army, has managed to deliver calm to a country that was increasingly being torn apart by sectarian violence.
In some ways, though, the Philippines has bigger problems than Thailand had from the street wars of clashing political factions. And chief among these is growing tension in the Muslim-dominant south of the country where Islamist terror is ratcheting up the heat.
What’s feared here is something which the past two administrations denied was even a possibility – that the influence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was getting more deeply entrenched among the terrorist groups in Mindanao, the country’s southermost island region. And the realisation is that the more ground ISIS loses in the Middle East under the ongoing Iraqi Army-led offensive against them there, the greater will be ISIS’s physical pivot to Mindanao. Few, surely, can be in any doubt of that now.
A couple of weeks ago, Duterte told a group of Muslim mayors that he reserved the right to impose martial law on their provinces if they didn’t put their weight behind ending the Islamist insurgency across their territories. That was a big clue for anyone who’s watching these developments. But no doubt, if martial law is imposed it will still come as a shock to many.
The writing is clearly on the wall and we believe it’s now only a matter of time. That said, we don’t believe – at least initially – that martial measures will be imposed right across the country as it was by former president Ferdinand Marcos from 1972 to 1981. We believe it’ll be deployed in stages, phased in, and only spread to areas where it’s deemed necessary – to certain cities, for example, as and if it’s felt there’s a need. In other words, it will be applied in a localised fashion.
This wouldn’t be the first time something like this has been tried. In the US, for instance, there have been a number of cases where individual states declared martial law within their borders. In 1931, a Texas governor imposed it in the area of the oil fields in the east of his state. In 1941 it was imposed by the Hawaiian Islands one day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The following year it was extended to the states of California, Oregon, Washington and part of Arizona. In 1954, an Alabama governor put the state’s National Guard in charge of Phenix City.
In the Philippine, we believe Mindanao is where it will start. But not across the whole of that vast island; just in the Muslim-dominant provinces of the south and west of the region; provinces that are a part of or fringe the Sulu Archipelago – the hotbed of Islamic extremism in the country. These are Basilan, Lanao del Sur, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi which comprise the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, and North and South Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and the Zamboanga Peninsula.
The drugs war too, not helped by corruption within the police establishment, the main force charged with combating the drug lords and their trade networks, has been showing signs of faltering; and it too could be given a military boost. In January, Duterte said that a military option is available to him with the Armed Forces of the Philippines taking a leading role in his anti-narcotics campaign. That’s clue number two.
Also in January, Duterte told a chamber of commerce function in his home town of Davao City: “If I have to declare martial law, I will declare it … I will declare martial law to preserve my nation, period”. There was clue number three.
The question is, what’s the appetite among the Filipino population for some form of martial law? That we believe is a question the administration will have already been batting around for a few months. Despite his often spicy rhetoric, Duterte’s not the dictatorial figure the Liberal Left and the Western media would have us believe he is. The Philippine president believes in operating with a clear mandate from the people. He’s not in the habit of pursuing some personal whim; his policies and actions if you look at them soberly are people-centric. He has always sought a popular mandate.
As far as militarily locking down the troubled south and west edges of Mindanao are concerned, Duterte will have overwhelming popular support across the rest of the country. That’s clear; it’s not even debatable. Taking it nationwide, however, will meet greater resistance. But we don’t think that’s what he has in mind.
More likely in other areas he’ll impose localised measures where the military would be drafted in to deal with a specific threat – to break the back of criminal gangs; to dismantle illegal-drugs facilities; to search for and destroy smuggling networks; even to replace the police in places where they continue to profit from corruption. Such a situation might be designated as a “state of lawlessness”, a “state of chaos” or a particular situation requiring the use of “emergency powers”.
If we’re right about that, you can guarantee we’re going to be right about this – that the Western media and the Liberal progressive Left will have a field day in denouncing Duterte as the reincarnation of Attila the Hun if he imposes any form of martial law. And all coverage – as usual – will be from the Left perspective.
They’ll publish op-eds from the usual suspects – politically progressive poster children, Vice President Leni Robredo and her moneyed Fil-Am sponsor, Loida Nicolas-Lewis, and alleged drugs queen, the custodially remanded Senator Leila De Lima – the Liberal Party sisterhood that conjure up images of the Three Witches of MacBeth with their prophesies of evil, chaos and darkness; a sisterhood that’s also bereft of solutions for problems on this scale.
Despite the vast amounts of air time and newsprint that’s been devoted to this triumvirate, however, they’re not prospering, and any vilification of Duterte over introducing military solutions do deal with the country’s social ills, will have a similar lack of traction with the masses. They know better than anyone sitting on an editorial board in Washington or New York what’s really at stake in the battles to defeat terrorism and drug-fueled crime in the Philippines.
The people – the ordinary, everyday people; the one’s that don’t read The New York Times, the Guardian and the Huffington Post – lost faith and confidence in the Liberal Party long before the last election which drove them from power. For the people, the ordinary everyday people, public and personal safety comes well ahead of civil liberties such as the freedom to drink beer in the street.
Certainly, Thai citizens have lost some personal liberties over the past two years, but by the same consideration the violent demonstrations that took place regularly on the streets of the capital, Bangkok, have ceased. A calm – a begrudging one at times – has replaced the running street battles and barricading that existed under the previous two civilian leaderships. Life there is back to normal.
And so, given the landscape, given the mood, given the paucity of options, the day of the generals would seem to be fast approaching for the Philippines. The drugs scourge and ideologically driven terrorism are not trifling matters. The men behind these are not enemies you sit down with, to reason out and discuss. Soft-spoken government negotiators can’t produce solutions here
Increasingly, we believe, that fact has become more and more apparent bringing the military card closer into play. But while the public by and large will be supportive of giving the army an extended role in establishing law and order, they’ll need assurances that it won’t be abused and that it will have a finite term – one year, 18 months, whatever it is.
And they’ll want to see results. The Filipino people are tired of hearing from successive governments what they’re “going to” achieve while the threats from terrorism and drug abuse spread. They want to see the achievements. They want their country to be made whole – and if the price for that is a period of targeted martial measures, we’re fairly confident that the majority will take that deal.