We’ve been expecting this announcement. Now it’s been made. Mindanao is under martial law – and it’ll stay like that for the next two months at least. President Rodrigo Duterte is following through on his promise to free this large southern Philippines island of Islamic extremist groups once and for all. Hopefully, his comprehensive and determined campaign is now edging towards the final battle and the liberation of this region.
The news broke while President Rodrigo Duterte was in Moscow for a historic meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That meeting – at which it’s likely Putin would have made offers of military assistance – was brought forward to last night allowing Duterte to cut short his trip and return home today to be briefed by his military commanders. Foreign Affairs Secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano, is remaining behind to sign a number of agreements that have been reached by the two sides.
Cayetano, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea and Special Assistant Christopher Go, were among those Duterte consulted before making the martial-law decision.
What finally triggered it was a gun battle yesterday between members of the outlawed Islamic State (IS)-affiliated Maute Group and units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Marawi City, the capital of Lanao del Sur province – the Maute Group’s home base.
AFP troops were engaged in a hunt for Isnilon Hapilon, one of the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf terror group which has been kidnapping and killing its way to international notoriety since 1990. Recent actions by the AFP have severely weakened Abu Sayyaf, but Hapilon has always managed to elude capture. He is now the de facto head of Islamic State in the Philippines – and in that sense is effectively commander-in-chief of IS operations in the region. Hence his protection by the smaller Maute Group.
Given the high stakes of what’s involved, we believe Duterte’s pronouncement was inevitable – and said as much on 11 March, Rescuing Mindanao and on 25 March, Day of the generals? There was plenty of evidence to show this was always on the cards.
Back in January while addressing a group of newly appointed government officials in Malacañang Palace, Duterte – referring specifically to IS – said this: “Be aware that you know things might overrun or events might overrun us. If we don’t try and solve the Mindanao issue it will be the biggest problem of our land and of our children”.
That same month he 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”.
And addressing a group of local Muslim mayors in Davao City in March, he became even more specific, saying: “I plead before you because I do not want the trouble in Mindanao to spin out of control … I will be forced, I will be compelled, to exercise the extra-ordinary powers. Help me. If not, you know, martial law, then I have to authorise the military just to arrest them, detain you”.
The plain fact is that while the Philippine Government can enter into peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and work for peace with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – and has done successfully – there is no such option with the smaller, more-extreme groups like Maute, Abu Sayyaf, the Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters and Ansar al-Khilafah in the Philippines; all of which are now allied to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Such groups will never sit around a table to broker peace. They speak with ransom demands for their kidnap victims and when they fail they speak with the bolo knife. Increasingly too – and this sets them apart from the MILF and the MNLF whose aim is a homeland for the Moro (Muslim) people – these groups have become increasingly ideological. The reason for this is largely to gain IS acceptance and thereby gain access to IS financing.
All now carry the IS flag into battle and fly it over their billets and headquarters. Maute refers to itself as Islamic State of Lanao del Sur. They dress their victims for beheading in orange IS jump suits. Once rabble bands of thieves and killers, they’ve become more cohesive, more radicalised and more IS-centric. And as IS suffers increased territorial losses in Iraq and Syria, the southern Philippines has become a top relocation option for part of its forces.
Even without the IS element, Duterte was determined to cleanse Mindanao of a parasite that’s drained the blood of this region, while keeping its people in poverty for decades. That determination is to be commended. No other president has taken on these groups with the stoic resolve that he’s shown.
There have been five presidents in charge of the country since Abu Sayyaf first emerged – from the lacklustre Corazon Aquino to her son, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino – and not one of them was prepared to put the resources into the field to confront them. In fact, with each presidency the terrorists became increasingly emboldened. Consequently – as with the appalling scale of illegal drugs that wash across the archipelago – this scourge has also been handed on to Duterte.
Now; he could have left it alone like his predecessors, so that by the time the next president took his seat in Malacañang, IS would be fully established – not just in Mindanao, but right across the Philippines. Make no mistake, that organisation isn’t interested in some parochial presence on the edge of the country; not with the rich targets of banks, churches, Catholic schools, US Army personnel, homosexuals, young Westernised Filipino women and foreign visitors on offer. They’re not going to pass up all that.
Hopefully though, this time around the media will support the president in his efforts. Hopefully this time they’ll get it and resist the temptation of grandstanding as self-appointed guardians of civil liberties. Hopefully for once they’ll see the big picture – the one that goes beyond the dampener this might put on tourism numbers.
We can expect the usual criticisms and attacks from the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as they invoke the spectre of the martial-law years of former president Ferdinand Marcos – another corruption of history to quite some degree. We can expect to read ignorant commentaries in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Time magazine et al written by people who couldn’t find Lanao del Sur on a map. We can expect to see the bobbing heads of “experts” on CNN and BBC and MSNBC pontificating about police states and the death of democracy.
But hopefully we won’t be reading or hearing any of that from the domestic media. For if this campaign to rid Mindanao of Islamist extremism is not seen through to the end, the Philippines – not just its economy but its people – could eventually be living in the new Dark Ages. And so much for civil liberties and the freedom of the press then.
Play time needs to be over for the press. They need to get behind the president and his generals and, for once, reflect the views of the Filipino people – the overwhelming millions who brought Duterte to power to do exactly what he’s doing. They get it; they always have. Time for the media to catch up with them.