It has been close to three weeks since a botched police operation against Abu Sayaff leader Isnilon Hapilon evolved into a shooting war with his supporters in Marawi City, the Maute Group, and the subsequent declaration of martial law in the entire Mindanao. The historical Islamic City of Marawi is being reduced to rubble by aerial bombardments and is a virtual no man’s land.
Majority of its 200,000 inhabitants have evacuated for fear of being caught in the crossfire leaving behind all their worldly possessions. Some two thousand individuals are feared still trapped in their homes unable to get out, starving, and gripped in terror. The military says there are still several hundreds of the Maute Group fiercely fighting government forces.
The government claims to be in control of 90% of the city but are unable to decisively take down the remaining holdouts of the Maute Group. US Special Action Forces (US SF) have been sent into the fray upon the request of the Duterte government, their involvement allegedly limited to giving “technical support” to combat operations.
Are these not the same US forces “invited temporarily” by the Arroyo government in 2002 to help the AFP crush the alleged al Qaeda-affiliated Abu Sayaff Group then reputed to be only 100-strong? Fifteen years hence the ASG are still thriving and nobody remembers US President Bush declaring the Philippines as the second front in the “war on terror.” The Special Forces never left the Philippines but rather got enmeshed in the botched Mamasapano operation where they trained and provided “technical assistance” to the massacred PNP SAF. With that record behind them, it appears that the US SF as well as the Maute Group are here to stay.
Considering President Rodrigo Duterte’s public excoriation of the US in the past over its brutal suppression of the Moro people when it colonized the Philippines and its bloody record of armed intervention in the Middle East, this development indicates the level of desperation of his government in dealing with the situation. Or perhaps it reflects the long-time dependence of the Philippine military on “assistance” by the US Armed Forces for its counterinsurgency/counterterrorism operations.
Since returning from Russia, Duterte has been making the rounds mainly of military camps trying to boost the morale of soldiers by assuring them that he has their back (in case they are accused of criminal abuse such as rape and other human rights violations) and of generous financial aid should they get killed or wounded in action.
Human rights group Karapatan has reported on the worsening human rights situation in Mindanao as a result of Duterte’s martial law declaration and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. The military and police have been given the green light to carry out counterinsurgency operations with renewed gusto under the cover of martial law and sans legal niceties such as the bill of rights getting in their way.
In rural areas, extrajudicial killings, illegal arrests and detention, aerial bombardment, displacement of communities, military and paramilitary encampment in schools and other civilian centers — all of which had been taking place even before martial law due to the Duterte government’s declaration of all-out war against the communist-led New People’s Army — have escalated and hapless lumad and peasant folk are bracing for the worst.
In urban centers of Mindanao, added to the unrelenting extrajudicial killings in the government’s “war on drugs” mainly targeting the urban poor, are the arbitrary check points, arrests of ordinary folk who cannot produce identification cards, the police profiling of Muslims, violent dispersals of workers’ strikes and the banning of protest actions. Duterte has warned — or is it threatened — to expand the coverage of martial law to the rest of the country should the problem of “terrorism” spill over from Mindanao.
What is truly worrisome is that the military’s version about what is happening in Marawi City in terms of the “terrorist” threat has grown by leaps and bounds. It is worrisome because the ISIS connection seems to be gaining credence, at least in the public mind if not in actuality, ergo providing the necessary conditioning for the extension of the duration of martial law or even its expansion outside Mindanao.
From earlier official statements minimizing the capabilities and denying the links of the Maute Group/Abu Sayyaf to the dreaded ISIS, the military is now say that there are “foreign fighters” among them and that they are well-funded from foreign sources.
A video has been released by the military purportedly showing Hapilon, the Maute brothers and several others plotting the take over of Marawi City that they would then supposedly declare as part of the ISIS caliphate-in-the-making. Assuming this video is bona fide, it bolsters the government’s claim that the ensuing firefight in Marawi, when security forces attempted to capture Hapilon, was part of a rebellion hatched by the unified enemies of the state in that part of Mindanao.
Adding to the ISIS scare are newspaper reports that Indonesia warned the Philippine government that a thousand “Islamist extremists” have entered the country. Subsequently news reports on the ongoing crisis in Marawi have repeated the speculation that ISIS has decided to shift its base of operations from the Middle East to South East Asia because of their alleged setbacks in Syria and Iraq.
Another video supposedly downloaded from the ISIS Web site no less, shows armed men trashing a church that the CBCP has confirmed is a Catholic church in Marawi City whose parish priest the Mautes have taken hostage. Add to this earlier reports that Christians in Marawi were being mercilessly killed by the group for merely having a different religion.
The discovery of tens of millions of cash and bank checks in an abandoned house in Marawi City seems to be a fit to the big puzzle the military is trying to piece together. Duterte himself provides the clincher by his emphatic assertion that the Maute Group is allied with drug lords who in turn are being coddled by or are in fact powerful local politicians. “War vs. terrorism” meets “war on drugs.” Perfect.
Several petitions have been filed with the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the imposition of martial law in Mindanao. Most notable are the two that raise doubts on the factual basis of Proclamation 216. They emphasize that the current fighting in Marawi City was government-initiated, in a failed bid to capture or neutralize Hapilon, and the armed clashes resulted from his followers resisting such attempt. To them, this does not constitute an actual rebellion of such magnitude that it endangers public safety, most especially in the entirety of Mindanao.
The President’s Report to Congress justifying martial law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus has subsequently turned out to be inaccurate, false, or overstated. Nonetheless the ferocity of the ongoing armed conflict in Marawi City, the resulting humanitarian crisis for the civilian population, and the threat of an ISIS foothold in Mindanao fanned by government and “terror experts” are muting opposition to martial law.
It is only recently that grave abuses perpetrated by military and police forces in the course of their supposed mopping up operations are being brought to light.
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines Lanao del Sur in an open letter to President Duterte condemned “illegal searches and seizures in Marawi City by military men, police and other law enforcement agencies which results in rampant loss and deprivation of properties and possessions of innocent civilians.”
Coupled with the aerial bombings of Marawi City, it now appears that the “cure” provided by the Duterte regime has become worse than the “disease” of the ISIS-inspired terrorist acts by the Maute Group/ASG. What else can anyone expect from a commander-in-chief whose values could make him candidly declare that “Marcos’s martial law was good?”
Carol Pagaduan-Araullo is a medical doctor by training, social activist by choice, columnist by accident, happy partner to a liberated spouse and proud mother of two.
Published in Business World
June 12, 2017