Features | Security | Southeast Asia

Mindanao After Martial Law

After 31 months of martial law following the siege of Marawi, both the military and insurgents are still firmly in place.

Nick Aspinwall
Mindanao After Martial Law

Philippine troops march past the Marawi Memorial pylon during the 2nd anniversary commemoration for the soldiers killed in the siege of Marawi city, May 23, 2019 in suburban Taguig city, east of Manila, Philippines.

Credit: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

The new decade brought the southern Philippine island of Mindanao the promise of a new era. Martial law, in place since the Islamic State-inspired Maute militant group laid siege to Marawi city in May 2017, was not renewed and lapsed on January 1. The move was hailed by the business community and was seen as a projection of future stability on the restive island.

But Mindanao residents can be forgiven for asking what, if anything, has changed.

It took all of a few hours for the people of Marawi to wonder why checkpoints and curfews remained in place after martial law lapsed. Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte said the military would remain in Marawi for the foreseeable future and asked skeptical residents for their support. But the people of Marawi, most of whom remain displaced, are not alone in wondering whether military rule truly made Mindanao more secure.

When I returned to the island in February, I was greeted by the same backdrop I had experienced in the years prior. Scattered military checkpoints – some rigid and heavily manned, some haphazard and abandoned – remained. Tarpaulins displaying the faces of wanted terrorists still adorn public places; when the military retook Marawi, dozens of Maute fighters escaped the city and allegedly continue to recruit new members.

For the other targets of the military’s campaigns – the activists, journalists, and indigenous leaders caught up in the crossfire, branded without evidence as communist rebels despite never taking up arms or working in concert with the New People’s Army (NPA) or others labeled as terrorists – the fear and distrust of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has gone nowhere.

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A nationwide “state of emergency,” instituted in September 2016 after a deadly bombing in Davao, remains in place, allowing military and police to collaborate in security operations throughout the country. It’s been used as the pretext for military operations in Mindanao, along with regions including the central island of Negros, that have killed dozens of civilians, including farmers and local officials involved in local people’s organizations. In December, a Mindanao lawmaker said the AFP and Philippine National Police would maintain or increase their presence on the island.

Last month, the Senate also approved an anti-terrorism bill that would extend the time a suspected terrorist can be detained without an arrest warrant and allow for extended surveillance on suspects by obtaining call and message records from mobile providers. Opposition senators and rights activists slammed the bill over fears it will be used against government critics. It’s a particularly salient worry in Mindanao, where community leaders and indigenous activists in rural areas find themselves silenced by the threat – or the reality – of military retribution.

Should the bill pass the House of Representatives as expected, “critics of Duterte will be in greater danger [than] they already are,” said Antonio J. Montalvan II, a social anthropologist and public writer who writes extensively about Mindanao.

Experts also warn that Mindanao’s 31 months of martial law appear to have done little to quell the threat of IS-related extremism. During martial law, the AFP “repeatedly said remnants of the Daesh [another name for Islamic State] had regrouped in Maguindanao, under the very noses of the military,” Montalvan said, referring to the province just south of Marawi that has seen multiple recent clashes and attacks. “What was needed was focused military and police action, not martial law.”

The siege of Marawi “inspired and created [an] IS-centric threat landscape” in the Philippines, said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert and professor of security studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technology University. Mindanao has seen the emergence of new, ideologically driven groups willing to fight to the death to establish an Islamic state throughout the Philippines, in contrast to Abu Sayyaf and Moro jihadist groups who have long fought for the independence of the Bangasmoro region. (The Moro Islamic Liberation Front agreed to a peace deal with the Philippine government in 2014; a new Bangasmoro autonomous region was established last year.)

But the policy and legal framework to counter the new threat of IS-affiliated terrorism has “not yet been fully developed,” Gunaratna said. “Until that time, the threat will persist and the threat will grow.”

The Philippines has been eager to tout the lifting of martial law as a sign that Mindanao is open for tourism and investment. Last year, the Davao city council, backed by the influential Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Inc. group of business leaders, pushed for military rule to be lifted in the wake of sluggish economic growth on the island. In December, the chamber said it expects “Mindanao’s high growth and investor interest to continue growing” in the absence of martial law. Tanya Rabat-Tan, regional director of Davao’s tourism department, said in January the lifting of military rule would attract more visitors to Mindanao.

But Gunaratna said this is also a reason why the Philippines has been reluctant to publicly acknowledge the threat of IS-backed militant groups. “They want to keep tourism [and] investment intact,” he said. “They don’t want to create panic.”

Despite this, “martial law was of limited use,” he said. “When I look at the Philippines, the scenario has not improved.”

Philippine authorities have publicized the military’s counterinsurgency campaign against the NPA and perceived allies of the guerrilla unit. In 2018, Duterte signed an executive order creating the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, an interagency coalition tasked with stamping out the country’s five decade long communist rebellion.

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But the task force has received scathing reviews on multiple fronts. Counterinsurgency operations have led to the arrests of hundreds of civilians and the killing of dozens, mostly opponents of Duterte and of local government and business, in Mindanao and other regions. Government and military officials have freely accused prominent progressives and Duterte critics of being NPA-affiliated communists – a practice known locally as “red-tagging” which, in many cases, amounts to a license to kill.

Last month, Mindanao saw two incidents emblematic of the civil chaos often seen under martial law. In Cagayan de Oro, flyers of unknown origin were distributed “red-tagging” several local journalists along with the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines – hardly the first time reporters have been targeted in the city.

In the province of Surigao del Sur, a reported 95 indigenous families were forced to flee their homes after a grenade was allegedly thrown at one of their homes during clashes between the military and the NPA. A spokesperson for local advocacy group Karapatan Caraga told me the military had encamped in indigenous communities for seven months, making them “vulnerable to threats, harassment, intimidation, [and] food blockades.” Indigenous residents who resist military encampments in their communities are often threatened, accused of being NPA rebels, or arrested.

There is limited wisdom in ramping up military operations against the NPA and affiliated organizations, which remain amicable to peace talks, Gunaratna said. When Duterte became president in 2016, he initiated peace discussions that fell through one year later. Duterte has since toyed with the idea of restarting the talks – and exiled Communist Party of the Philippines leader Jose Maria Sison has expressed his willingness to negotiate – but the idea has faced sharp opposition from within the military.

Gunaratna worries the focus on fighting the NPA only serves to distract the military from stamping out more potent threats. “The government can’t fight on so many fronts,” he said. “[It] has to focus on the IS threat. It’s a good time to start a robust peace process [with NPA leaders] and work out an agreement to integrate them back into society.”

Mindanao’s complex web of unrest has long stymied Philippine leaders. Martial law came with a promise of restoring security to the island, but ended with little consensus over what had actually been achieved. For the persecuted people of Mindanao, which remains one of the world’s deadliest places for environmental defenders and journalists, the lifting of martial law was met with eye rolls and a sense that nothing much would change. The military’s harshly criticized role in protecting controversial industrial projects from local opposition, which preceded martial law, remains in place.

There has also been no motion to mediate with those who say they have been wronged by martial law – the victims of the myriad arrests and killings that remain unresolved. Montalvan said this leaves no question that military rule failed to bring peace and order to Mindanao: “The reports of killings that took place during the martial law period speak for themselves.”