Government News Analysis

Deadly political games

martial law in mindanao

Earlier this month, a joint session of Congress voted overwhelmingly to extend martial law in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao for a further year. Members were responding to a request from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who’s vowed to eradicate Islamic extremism from the region. Now, the ‘Magnificent Seven’ – the anti-Duterte bloc in Congress – is petitioning the Supreme Court to have that decision halted. As it stands now, the new extension starts on New Year’s Day.

But hold on. This wasn’t a unilateral declaration of martial law by President Rodrigo Duterte; this was promulgated by both chambers of Congress following a request from the president. And the ‘Magnificent Seven’ were party to that decision. They voted on this issue. They didn’t abstain on the grounds that the vote was premised on an issue that was unconstitutional. They took part; thus authenticating the vote’s legitimacy.

Had Albay Representative, Edcel Lagman, and his government-opposition group, abstained they might have had some grounds to attempt later to delegitimise the decision reached – though the arguments they’ve produced so far are anything but impressive.

Having lost that vote, and living up to their name – losing ‘magnificently’ by a margin of 213 votes – Lagman & Co want to have another shot at halting the extension of martial law in Mindanao. What is this, best of three? And if that fails, best of five? This isn’t the schoolyard where grown men in short pants can take away the ball because they don’t like the way the game’s going.

This is Congress; a body sworn to uphold the Constitution – a constitution which provides for such decisions to be made by the elected legislators. What are Lagman & Co suggesting – that out of 267 lawmakers only the Magnificent Seven and a score of others understand the Constitution; or worse, that only they are faithful to it?

Here’s what the 1987 Constitution says: “The Congress, voting jointly, by a vote of at least a majority of all its Members in regular or special session, may revoke such proclamation or suspension, which revocation shall not be set aside by the President. Upon the initiative of the President, the Congress may, in the same manner, extend such proclamation or suspension for a period to be determined by the Congress, if the invasion or rebellion shall persist and public safety requires it”.

Thus, the vast majority within the legislature were convinced that the situation on the ground in Mindanao remained in a sufficiently perilous state as to warrant martial law being extended – that “public safety requires it”. The vote was correctly conducted and that was the judgement.

Tails don’t wag dogs in democracies. And a display of sour grapes by legislators who don’t get their own way is not a quality that’s likely to enrich the institution of Congress – an institution that’s long suffered from a trust crisis as far as the public is concerned.

What Lagman is calling for from the Supreme Court is a temporary restraining order – a well-utilised stalling device to stymie decisions that rub certain political agendas the wrong way. They’re the lawyer’s way of throwing a spanner into the works. And Lagman is a lawyer.

Presumably, too, if the Supreme Court doesn’t acquiesce to this request, that institution, too – in the eyes of the Magnificent Seven – will also have been derelict in its duty.

Among others, Lagman was supported by fellow Liberal Party members Teddy Baguilat Jr; Emmanuel Billones and Edgar Erice, as well as Gary Alejano of the Magdalo party-list, and Tomasito Villarin of the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party.

What those six lawmakers all have in common is that they share an unreserved contempt for the president and will seize any opportunity to thwart him. This, then, looks like more of the same – a purely partisan vote that puts the interest of a minority bloc of politicians ahead of what’s in the best interests of the vast majority of people in the south island region of Mindanao.

There are no region-wide anti-martial-law demonstrations going on down there. Apart from opposition proxies making a bit of noise here and there, the people themselves seem very much in favour of keeping the measures in place.

Although it wasn’t always Liberal Party policy in the past, surely Mindanaoans have a right to be heard. After all, they’re living there. The threat is on their doorstep. It’s not around the government quarter of Quezon City where the likes of Lagman and Alejano hold court.

And what are these fears that Duterte puts so much store by? They’re this: than Mindanao is a tinder box that could burst into flames at any moment. That there’s more than enough evidence that extremist factions allied to the Islamic State (IS) – and which share its violent jihadist ideology – are gathering and positioning themselves to launch a bloody insurrection in the south.

The fact that Marawi City in Lanao del Sur – overrun by the Maute Group in May – has been liberated by the armed forces, means nothing in the overall bigger picture. That those assailants have been routed and vanquished, is little more than a chapter in the book.

What the rebels learned from Marawi is that they can take over a city and hold it for five months. What does Alejano think – that Marawi was just a one-time thing? Is that what he learned from his lessons at army school? It’s time to wake up and smell the decaying roses. Marawi was a dry run; and there are more coming down that trail unless they can be prevented.

Other cities – maybe Cotabato, Zamboanga; maybe even Iligan – are likely already in their sights; either to take over or to disrupt. Marawi wasn’t the war; that appraisal is simplistic and naïve. It was a battle, a bloody one admittedly, but nothing more. The IS groups haven’t scampered for the hills. They’re biding their time while they recruit further to swell their ranks. Their goal remains the same.

It matters not that the Maute leadership are gone; that was just one patch in a Philippine quilt of terror groups that have become increasingly radicalised over the past two or three years. Moreover, according to a research paper from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict: “[Marawi] lifted the prestige of the Philippine fighters in the eyes of ISIS central [and] has inspired young extremists from around the region to want to join”. In other words, it’s become a recruitment poster – not a mark of ignominious defeat.

In short, the radicalised see Marawi as a victory; and an example to follow. But it’s even more than that – that five-month occupation of the Philippines’ only Muslim city was the first bloody stepping stone on a path to Ismalise Mindanao and build out across Southeast Asia; to create a caliphate by uniting every radical jihadist group in the region.

For the benefit of the Magnificent Seven, this isn’t some isolated local rumble; this is living, breathing rebellion that threatens the whole of the Philippines, Southeast Asia and, given the chance, the rest of the world.

The fact that they can’t see what’s bubbling beneath the surface, doesn’t mean that rebellion isn’t brewing. Certainly, all the intelligence suggests it is. And so to ignore that would be like ignoring a typhoon warning – and then having to deal with a human tragedy that could have been largely averted.

There are good reasons why the Americans, the Australians, the Japanese, the British, the Chinese, the Russians and all the Philippines’ closer neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have offered their assistance and support in defeating radical Islam in Mindanao. Unlike Messers Lagman, Alejano, Baguilat, Billones, Erice and Villarin, they’re aware of the stakes here. They might not all be fans of Duterte either, but they can’t afford to play politics with something as deadly as this.

The Magnificent Seven would have the world believe that the situation is very different to that. Based on what intelligence, we don’t know, but here is their take on the current situation in Mindanao. “It’s already a corpse, but you are trying to desperately revive it to spread fake horrors. The military rule is being spread to fight leftovers … Why not altogether obliterate these remnants or leftovers by regular military and police operations, instead of seeking the extension of martial law … No extension of martial law is needed to foreclose threats or quell lawless violence”.

In other words, they believe that there’s zero chance of a repeat of Marawi. That the people down there are safe enough without martial law. That rebellion and bombing campaigns couldn’t be further from the terrorists’ thoughts; that everything can be handled by “regular military and police operations”. We’d like to think they’re right; but unfortunately all the evidence points in the opposite direction. And the lives of the people in Mindanao mustn’t be gambled with – and certainly not to score a political point.

In September, four members of the outlawed Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) – the group to watch as the IS-inspired insurgency continues to unfold – were executed as traitors, sending a clear message to its fighters that they’re involved in a war with the government in Manila.

In November, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which supported government efforts to end the Marawi siege, warned that there’s been an increased IS presence in Mindanao following the Maute Group’s offensive.

In an interview with Channel News Asia, MILF chairman, Murad Ebrahim (photo) – a man with far more access to real intelligence concerning the situation in Mindanao than the Magnificent Seven combined – painted a very different picture of the region post-Marawi.

Here’s an extract of what he said: “We have information they [IS] want to strengthen their forces in southern Philippines … If the problem in the Philippines worsened, Malaysia [and] Indonesia will be affected”. And this: “After the Marawi attack, we really sense pro-IS are trying to launch attacks in other cities”.

So, is all that to be ignored? Is Murad spreading “fake horrors”? The answer to that is an unequivocal “No”. Murad wants peace not war; the IS groups are as much the MILF’s enemy as they are those of the government.

It’s quite simple really; the purpose of extending martial law is to close the stable door before the horse bolts. To prepare for that typhoon should it materialise. In other words, not leave Mindanao wide open and exposed allowing armed groups to wander about recruiting, freely surveying targets and killing at will.

Politics has to be buried on this issue; there are far more important things at stake here. Like people’s lives. And right now, the threat posed to Mindanao isn’t about ‘if’ it’s about ‘when’. And that’s why this extension is necessary.

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