MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews / 30 Dec) — Except for the occasional stories about colorful facets of everyday life, the Philippines’ lone Islamic City has rarely landed on the news. Like most areas of Mindanao, it would only get front page attention whenever calamity or violence strikes.
The Marawi Crisis that erupted on 23 May was no exception but this time it was more than the usual conflict story – it has led the administration to betray its authoritarian bent, challenged the Philippine military’s prevailing doctrine, and added to the confused direction – or absence of direction – of the Bangsamoro peace process.
In addition, the displacement of 378,000 residents of Marawi and neighboring towns has triggered a humanitarian crisis that may, in the months to come, change the socio-demographic face of Mindanao. This is based on the assumption of a haphazard rehabilitation program that will discourage many residents from returning to their homes and force them instead to start anew elsewhere.
A few hours after Islamic State-inspired militants laid siege to Marawi, President Rodrigo Duterte, then in Russia for a state visit, issued Proclamation No. 216 declaring martial law in Mindanao. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana admitted later that Duterte did not consult him (and presumably top-ranking military officials, too) about the decision. Given the short time from the start of the siege to the issuance of the declaration, it is clear that the President made a spur of the moment decision.
While the obvious intent is to prevent a possible spillover of the conflict, the President’s kneejerk response cannot just be interpreted in isolation. It reflects his preferred policy track. He has never made secret his liking for short cuts and disdain for what he considers the cumbersome ways of a democracy. In fact, after the militants were defeated in Marawi, he again extended martial law in Mindanao, this time up to December 31, 2018, and even threatened to impose it in the whole country.
This time, the President invoked the ongoing communist insurgency as justification [for another extension]. Does this explain why he has declared the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army a terrorist group, to sustain the siege mentality after the IS-inspired gunmen in Marawi had been exterminated?
Some lawyers have questioned before the Supreme Court what Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman described as “a martial law in perpetuity.”
To recall, Proclamation No. 216 was premised on the Marawi conflict not on the armed struggle being waged by the CPP-NPA. In other words, the new justification serves as substitute for an element [in the proclamation] that no longer exists. Will the Court allow such subterfuge and in effect encourage Duterte’s predilection for authoritarianism?
Those who oppose martial law can only pray that the Court, some of whose members have testified against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in the impeachment complaint in hearings at the House committee on justice, would not favor the extension in exchange for Sereno’s head.
A military challenge
The Marawi siege has posed a huge challenge to the capability of the country’s security forces. Trained in jungle warfare which is suited to fighting classical insurgencies, police and soldiers – many of them belonging to elite units – found themselves fighting a different enemy in an unfamiliar terrain. Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, Western Mindanao Command chief, conceded that “the terrain is theirs.”
The militants made up for their inferior number and armaments by exploiting their relative familiarity of Marawi’s innards. As a source interviewed by MindaNews said, the militants made use of underground tunnels to evade bombs and artillery, a fact government soldiers themselves confirmed after the city was “liberated.”
Moreover, government troops faced a dilemma – they could not resort to leveling the whole city without risking the lives of hostages, including Catholic priest Fr. Teresito “Chito” Soganub. For his part, Duterte himself acknowledged that such measure would exact a heavy political cost, that is, the possibility of driving more locals to support or sympathize with the militants.
Such conditions enabled the militants to stretch their resistance to five months despite the military’s use of artillery and aerial bombardment. The relative difficulties faced by government forces, not to mention the amount of public resources poured into the conflict, has led to the realization that the Philippine security sector needs to rethink its doctrine and take a serious look at urban warfare, mainly against terror groups, as a major strategic consideration.
So long, Bangsamoro?
Driving out or exterminating the ISIS-inspired Maute Group through military action is only half of the solution to the Marawi crisis, and a short-term one that may even have alienated the government, as the residents feel being left out of the city’s rehabilitation plan. If the administration cares to delve into how a small band of self-styled religious vanguards has managed to take a foothold of the lakeside city, it will realize that its defective handling of the Bangsamoro peace process forms part of the problem.
It may be argued that the bigger reason can be traced to the social and political conditions in Lanao del Sur that have enabled the militants to draw followers to their fold. Nonetheless, decisiveness in pushing for the enactment of the Bangsamoro Basic Law would have dampened the spread of radicalism.
This has not happened. Instead, Duterte made things more complicated than they already were by insisting that federalism, one of his campaign slogans, must come before the BBL. He dilly-dallied on naming the new members to the Bangsamoro Transition Commission one of whose tasks is to craft the law. To top it all, the BBL was not included in the priority bills endorsed by Malacanang to Congress this year.
Then the Marawi crisis happened, and further discourse on the BBL was silenced by the sound and fury of the shooting war. Except for a whimper every now and then, even civil society groups and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front have abstained from efforts to put the BBL back in the sphere of public debate.
Everybody just stood silent as the flaming arrow landed on the funeral pyre carrying the BBL toward its Avalon. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)