Written by Pauleen Gorospe.

It came as no surprise when, on 13 December, the Philippine Senate and House of Representatives voted favourably for the extension of martial law in Mindanao in a joint session convened at the request of President Rodrigo Duterte. Martial law has been in effect in Mindanao since 23 May to assist military operations against the Maute and Abu Sayyaf Groups (ASG), both sympathisers of the Islamic State (IS), in the city of Marawi in Lanao del Sur. The operation ended in military victory for the government when militant leaders Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute were killed on 16 October. The request to renew martial law in Mindanao came on the heels of this victory, as President Duterte warned in his letter to Congress that terrorism-related threats remain in other areas of Mindanao, including those perpetrated by Communist insurgents. Only a few days ago the government officially declared the Communist Party of the Philippines and its militant wing – the New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) – to be terrorist groups. With many agreeing with the rationale of the president, the special Congressional session approved the extension of martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus until the end of 2018.

Indefinite military action is unsustainable.  In circumstances where it is unavoidable, it must be adopted within the broader political and social rehabilitation that only peacebuilding can deliver.

Though Congressional acquiescence was expected, of note is that almost all Mindanao lawmakers supported the proclamation. Concerns about insecurity and instability formed many of the interpolations they delivered. Not all supported the proposal however. Those who voted against it reminded the body of what the country suffered under President Marcos’ martial law regime in the 1970s, especially the weakening of state institutions and the widespread violation of human rights. Much of the debate revolved around fears of the abuse of power, but it also highlights the Philippines governments’ historical struggle with deciding whether force or peaceful dialogue can solve the conflict in Mindanao? President Duterte clearly picked the method he knows best: enforcement.

Military Action and the Peace Process

Martial law affects the Mindanao peace process on two levels. Politically, drawing greater attention to terrorist threats detracts attention from the wider problems of marginalisation and underdevelopment that have fuelled Moro insurgencies for decades. The Muslim Independence Movement in the 1960s, which eventually gave rise to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and other Moro insurgency groups, saw its strength increase due to a perceived anti-Muslim bias that can be traced back to colonial times and was even more evident during President Marcos’ administration. The youth recruits of more radical groups such as the ASG were motivated to join out of disillusionment and their lack of opportunities.  To be successful, counter-terrorism programmes must extend beyond military action and include longer processes of deradicalisation and resocialisation into a peaceful, law-abiding life. If the anti-drug war is any indication, the enforcement stage of this counter-terrorism campaign is significantly more developed than the social policies that are required to make radical ideologies unattractive to vulnerable persons. Another danger is what Joseph Franco of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) calls threat inflation, which may paint the terrorism problem in the south as more pervasive than it actually is and ends up legitimising radical ideologies.

On technical and operational grounds, a year-long military campaign is resource-intensive and can be devastating for affected communities. During the joint Congressional hearing on the extension of martial law in Mindanao, National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stated that the seven-month campaign against the Maute Group cost the Armed Forces of the Philippines Php 4 billion. This does not include the expenditures of other government agencies such as those involved in providing aid and social welfare, nor the cost of rehabilitation in Marawi which is currently pegged at Php 90 billion. Historically, forceful measures tend to increase militancy in the Philippines. Whether or not this happens should be monitored closely. Should it occur, it may necessitate another martial law extension in 2019, or even indefinitely. Such a scenario would incur high costs for the people and will undermine the long-term development prospects of Mindanao.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement as a Permanent Solution

While the negative effects of martial law on the peace process and Mindanao need to be monitored closely, the extension of martial law clearly defines the claims which the state considers legitimate, even though the president himself may only be concerned with maintaining peace and order. After tagging the CPP and NPA as terrorist groups, President Duterte suggested that peace talks may be revived only if the groups cease their criminal activities and attacks, which increased after peace talks collapsed earlier this year. But while the groups are tagged as terrorists, the government can only deal with them through military action. On the other hand, the martial law proclamation effectively labels the MILF and the MNLF as standard bearers of the Bangsamoro cause. President Duterte made this clear during the recent Bangsamoro Assembly in Sultan Kudarat, which brought together representatives from the MILF, the MNLF and members of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), the committee tasked to draft the Bangsamoro Basic Law, which will implement the 2014 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government and the MILF. The MILF itself has not explicitly supported or opposed martial law, understandably to distance its own armed struggle from the activities of extremist groups. In a statement, the MILF condemned the violence perpetrated by the Maute Group and the ASG in Marawi and emphasised the importance of supporting the peace process. The MILF is in fact fighting alongside the military against other Muslim insurgents, such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), in key areas.

This brings us to what this administration can do for Mindanao. In the past, no one would have imagined that martial law would be almost unanimously passed in Congress. It is possible now precisely because Mr. Duterte is the president. Most Mindanao lawmakers and stakeholders trust him fully to represent the interests of the region. This also means that, if the Executive wills it, passing the Bangsamoro Basic Law and implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement is well within the capability of his office. There is some indication that the president is considering implementing federalism. However, creating workable federal structures will be a lengthy and complicated process that first requires amendments to the Constitution, which in itself is a hurdle. Implementing the peace agreement is more achievable and can be completed within a few years. Indefinite military action is unsustainable.  In circumstances where it is unavoidable, it must be adopted within the broader political and social rehabilitation that only peacebuilding can deliver.

Pauleen Gorospe is a PhD Candidate at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. Her research focuses on peacebuilding and security sector reform in post-conflict situations. She is also a member of the Women in National Development and Security (WINDS), a non-profit organisation seeking the broader participation of women in the security sector. She tweets @gardenofnight. Image Credit: by Republic of Philippines/Presidential Communications Office. 

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