2017/29, 24 May 2017
On 23 May, while on a state visit to Russia, President Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao. The trigger for this was the temporary capture of much of the downtown area of Marawi City by Abu Sayyaf Group and Maute Group terrorists in response to an attempt by Philippine army and police forces to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, an Abu Sayyaf Group leader. The president determined that the terrorist threat in Mindanao qualifies as a rebellion and provides the Constitutional basis for the declaration of martial law.
Two preliminary judgements can be made. First, this is not a shock nor even a surprise. It is part of a natural progression under the Duterte administration. In September last year, after a terrorist bombing in Davao City linked with the Maute Group, President Duterte declared a nationwide state of emergency that is still in place. Duterte has frequently mused about needing to declare martial law to deal with the war on drugs, the communist insurgency and Moro Islamic terrorist groups. Last November, in reference to the Maute Group and the war on drugs, Duterte warned he may lift the writ of habeus corpus (as President Marcos did in 1971) but that he would not declare martial law. In a speech in Mindanao on 19 May, Duterte foreshadowed his martial law declaration (http://www.sunstar.com.ph/davao/local-news/2017/05/21/duterte-martial-law-possible-mindanao-543005).
Second, the declaration of martial law, for however long it lasts, is unlikely to significantly improve the security situation in Mindanao, Instead, it could well aggravate the terrorist threat in eastern Mindanao and the Communist insurgency centred in western Mindanao. The state of emergency declared last September has not noticeably reduced the activities and threat posed by the Maute and Abu Sayyaf Group in Mindanao. The very battle that closed down Marawi City and triggered the martial law declaration is proof positive of this. Both President Estrada and President Macapagal-Arroyo declared “all-out war” against Moro insurgent groups to no avail. It is not clear why this time will be any different.
Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
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