The conflict between Philippine government forces and Muslim militants in the south is an old one. These tensions, in a country that is mainly Roman Catholic (a legacy of Filipino Spanish colonialism), are not something new. In fact, battles have raged on for some time, alternating between combat and ceasefires. Marawi represents the latest wide-scale offensive carried out by extremists and radical individuals.
Martial law was declared in Mindanao in the Southern Philippines on May 24, 2017. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has publicly declared that he is taking a hardline stance in law enforcement after Islamic radicals torched building structures and took human hostages in the southern city of Marawi, putting the city effectively under siege. Some have noted that the violence happened after a ranking Abu Sayyaf commander’s residence was raided by Filipino law enforcement agencies. The extremist organization known as Maute (involved in the current Marawi situation) and another radical group, Abu Sayyaf, apparently have links and they are both prominent extremist groups active in the Southern Philippines.
The martial law announced by the Duterte administration is set to last 60 days. The power for martial law is provided for by the 1987 Filipino constitution but, in accordance with constitutional constraints, it must not last more than 2 months. The martial law apparently came after President Duterte's earlier request in March 2017 for assistance from the mayors of Muslim sections of the Philippines to prevent terrorism did not improve the situation.
The martial law declaration itself is controversial since it has brought back memories of the autocratic Marcos regime — an era where people and dissidents disappeared from the streets. The Philippines came under 14 years of martial law under the Marcos administration which was overthrown in 1986 under the people’s power movement that was largely peaceful and became an iconic symbol of democracy in the world and in the region of Southeast Asia. Therefore, what Filipinos are worried about is the spectre of extra-judicial killings. Memories of the Marcos administration are fading from the consciousness of young Filipinos.
But, then again, based on current information, the martial law application is localized to Mindanao and limited to 60 days, although some media reports present unconfirmed speculation that it may expand in both duration and geographical coverage. There will be attempts to flush out the Islamic radicals involved with the brazen attack on Marawi City. The radicals are affiliated with the Islamic State. Arson and public property destruction appear to be some of the activities of the extremists in Marawi. Media reports have also indicated that the black-colored IS flag is flying at the city’s medical facility. Marawi is a small city with about 200,000 population.
The Filipino national military is now deployed to fight the Muslim radicals. Marawi residents were told to hole up in their locked residences as the radicals (from Maute, also known as the Islamic State of Lanao) came out blazing on public streets armed with rifles. Some foreigners have also joined the group, including pan-radical IS and Muslim extremists and volunteer jihadist fighters joining from other ASEAN countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
Martial law in this sense is important to prevent the proliferation of violence from Marawi to the neighboring regions.
Maute is allegedly linked to other extremist groups in Southeast Asia and one of their objectives may be rebellion against the state. They are said to have over 200 members. It appears their latest goal may be to cut off Marawi from the rest of the nation-state and possibly to set up their own version of the Islamic State in that region. Marawi is not the only victim of extremism as Maute had previously also struck the President’s hometown of Davao.
Policemen and soldiers have been killed or wounded in Marawi. Unconfirmed beheadings were alleged to have been carried out in the zones of conflict within the city. Special law enforcement forces were also deployed. Emergency teams have been mobilized. Some church followers and a representative of that community have also been taken prisoners by the radicals. The Christian community may be targeted. Marawi residents are staying in their residences or evacuating the city. Others are trying to prevent panic arising from false news or rumors.
There are some suggestions that the violence has been contained from reaching those villages near Marawi which had contacted the authorities for reinforcements. However, this also suggests the potential for the violence to spread beyond Marawi. Martial law in this sense is important to prevent the proliferation of violence from Marawi to the neighboring regions.
The Duterte administration argues that Maute is trying to take over Mindanao.
Duterte has requested additional support in supplies of Russian weapons to help his forces fight the insurgents. This request came on the heels of Duterte’s Russian visit and his dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin was cut short by the outbreak of violence in Marawi. Even though Duterte cut short his visit, the Russian government was understanding of the urgent needs of the Philippines’ elite leadership to re-introduce stability to their country. This view was also held by the Duterte administration. The Filipino Foreign Secretary remained behind in Russia to conclude and finish up the rest of the planned agenda as Duterte headed home to battle Maute.
The Duterte administration has suggested the
existence of long-term plans by Filipino Islamic State (IS) members to set up a
Caliphate (a unified Muslim authority overseeing a wide expanse of land) in the
Philippines. During this encounter which forced him to cut short his trip to Russia
to return and deal with the insurgency situation, traces and hints of the tough
Davaoite Rodrigo Duterte could once again be seen as he used politically
incorrect language to express his determination to crush the radicals.
His tough talking style and his man-in-the-street persona was once again on full display. Such displays of toughness have previously earned him the nickname “The Punisher.” There is also a Marvel comic book character by the same name who is also very tough on crime in a vigilante manner. It is not known if the two personas are related. Tough-talking also remains part of the reason behind his enduring popularity amongst the common folks on the street.