Government News Analysis

Martial plan’s public enemies

Martial Law in Mindanao and Maute Group
Martial Law in Mindanao and Maute Group

“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 on the purported existence of ‘rebellion or invasion’”. So said a group of opposition lawmakers as they petitioned the Supreme Court to void Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s imposition of martial law in the southern region of the country.

To recap briefly, Duterte set the measure in place on 23 May, hours after fighters of the terrorist Maute Group – an Islamist-terror formation aligned to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – had swept into the city of Marawi in Lanao del Sur province, killing citizens, firing on government troops, burning buildings and taking hostages.

For the lawmakers, apparently, that doesn’t constitute rebellion. We don’t know what dictionary they’re using but ours has two simple definitions: (1) an act of armed resistance to an established government or leader, and (2) the action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention. And by those, what the Maute Group was doing in Marawi was clearly a rebellion.

Similarly, for the lawmakers – desperately seeking attention, feeling their ‘enormously wise’ input had been shunned following the Senate’s rejection for a joint session  of Congress to debate Duterte’s proclamation  – what the Maute Group had done didn’t constitute invasion either. Again we’d like access to their dictionary. Ours gives three explanations of the term: (1) an instance of invading a country or region with an armed force; (2) an incursion by a large number of people or things into a place or sphere of activity; (3) an unwelcome intrusion into another’s domain. Thus, the occupation of Marawi by an outside armed force seems to fulfill the criteria more than adequately also.

If these legislators can’t evaluate what an invasion or a rebellion is, how on Earth can they be sufficiently intellectually equipped to be making the country’s laws? But we believe they do have an enough brain matter to work that out – the problem they have is far more debilitating. They’re prejudiced against Duterte to such a degree that even serious national-security issues are waived if it affords them an opportunity to attack the president. In other words, anti-Duterte game-playing first; public safety and the country’s protection second.

But what are they worried about? That the army might capture some of the rebels (as in rebellion) and detain them without the niceties of a habeas-corpus writ? That Maute fighters who’ve spent the past two weeks causing death and destruction across Marawi City might have their civil liberties infringed?

These are dedicated killers who didn’t just ‘invade’ this once serene city; they planned to capture it, take it over and make it their main base; the capital of the Islamic State of the Philippines – as ISIS, which they’ve sworn to follow, had done in Raqqa in northern Syria in 2014. The citizens would then have been subjected to their brutal rule; many would have been executed for failing to comply with the strict Salafist regulations that would have been imposed; no writ of habeas corpus for them.

ISIS made no secret about what was going on in Marawi; its de facto news agency, Amaq, ran a video of the desecration and arson of the city’s Roman Catholic St Mary’s Cathedral (the Cathedral of Maria Auxiliadora) by Maute fighters; posting it online. It showed them smashing statues of Jesus and the Blessed Mother, trampling on a poster of Pope Francis and setting fires.

So what precisely do these opposition lawmakers think? That this was some sort of local incident created by a gang of peasants with pitchforks and tar torches? This was a heavily armed, drilled group; among its ranks were Yemenis, Chechens, Saudis, Malaysians and Indonesians. And it was supported and has been applauded by ISIS which is seeking a base in Southeast Asia – specifically a base in Mindanao. ISIS has repeatedly called for jihadists to go to Mindanao and join their “brothers” – especially any who can’t get to Iraq and Syria.

This was a foreign-supported force that’s attempting to build a bridgehead in Mindanao to which many more foreign fighters will come. There’s an estimated 1,100-plus of them already in the region – though with the porous borders along the island’s thousands of kilometres of coastline it’s hard to say how many are really there. We don’t have much faith in estimates put out by the army on this. The fact is there’s never been any check.

Furthermore, the Marawi invaders weren’t flying the flag of the Sulu Sultanate or some symbolic standard of a Muslim homeland for the indigenous Moro people; their banner was the flag of Islamic State which they unfurled and flew above buildings they’d seized – thus claiming them in the name of a foreign ‘power’. And if that’s not invasion, it’ll certainly do until the lawmakers’ odd idea of invasion comes along.

So who are these apologists and appeasers? Well, naturally, they’re all from the progressive wing of politics; all members of the House of Representatives; all opponents of Duterte – whatever the issue is.

The group is composed of human-rights lawyer, Edcel Lagman (Albay Rep.); failed-coup plotter, Gary Alejano (Magdalo); human-rights advocate and activist, Tomasito Villarin (Akbayan); willing attack dog for the Liberal administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, Edgar Erice (Caloocan); career civil servant, eco and student-rights advocate, Teddy Baguilat (Ifugao) who in 2015 was cleared of charges of grave misconduct and gross neglect of duty while he was governor of Ifugao, and Emmanuel Billones (Capiz), close-in chief of staff to failed Liberal Party presidential contender, Mar Roxas.

In fact, all but two are former members of the Liberal Party and use every opportunity they get to deride the president – as Villarin did in January when he wrote in the vehemently anti-Duterte New York Times: “President Rodrigo Duterte is taking his brutal campaign against drugs from the streets to the halls of Congress”.

Between them they’ve opposed the administration’s proposed legislation on the death penalty, sought Supreme Court intervention to rescind the approval of Duterte to allow former president Ferdinand Marcos to be buried in the Hero’s Cemetery in Manila, and in March, Alejano filed effectively two impeachment complaints against Duterte. Now they want Duterte’s martial law proclamation nullified.

Their fight then isn’t about policy, it’s about personality. And when this ‘protest’ goes away – as inevitably it will – it’ll be replaced by another anti-Duterte motion.

Meanwhile, Marawi City is burning, several thousand of its residents remain trapped – short of water, short of food, short of medicine. Others are living a daily nightmare, hostages of the barbaric cult that seized them; for all they know today could be their last. And as that Hell persists and as young soldiers take bullets from snipers; as wives are turned into widows and children become fatherless, the question on the minds of this ‘heroic’ bunch of pompous lawmakers is: how can they destabilise Duterte? And right now, as Marawi City smoulders, that’s their priority.

Marawi wasn’t chosen by accident – certainly, the incident that sparked the present conflict there was the army’s pursuit of the Islamic State’s point man, Abu Sayaff terrorist group leader Isnilon Hapilon, aka Abu Abdullah al-Filipini, the Emir of Islamic State forces in the Philippines. But Marawi has long held great appeal for the Maute Group.

It’s the Philippines’ only Islamic City and is designated as such. Around 90% of its citizens are Muslims; many of them speak and write Arabic. There are many mosques there, the biggest of which is the King Faisal Mosque (photo), named after its benefactor, the late King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. For the Maute Group – aka Islamic State of Lanao – many of whose rank have kin in the city, it’s the most prestigious piece of real estate they could grab.

What Duterte’s martial law is there for is to grab it back; eliminate this group, frustrate ISIS plans for a full invasion of Mindanao and protect the sovereignty of the Philippines. They may not be worthy causes for that bunch of lawmakers – not even at a time that calls for solidarity; for the country to stand together against this threat. However, we’re pretty sure they’ll do for most of the rest of the Filipino population.

We wonder though, if a marauding armed ISIS group was at the gates of Manila – rather than in a place 150 kilometres away – would this elite group of lawmakers still be protesting Duterte’s efforts to use all the means he has to defeat them? Would their presence there suddenly qualify as a rebellion or an invasion? Or would they hinder his efforts as they’re attempting to do now?

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