COMMENTARY: Scared Like You: Thoughts on Terrorism, Rebellion and Martial Law In Mindanao  

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 11 June) — People are divided in their reactions to the recent declaration of martial law in Mindanao. I daresay that fear, although unacknowledged, underpins the reactions, which are of varying kinds.  

Terrorism as Rebellion 

Fear of the terroristic ways of the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf is one of the strong drivers for those who endorse martial law on grounds of public safety. These two groups who allegedly are in a coalition have rapidly gone from being “inspired” by the Islamic State of Iran and Syria (ISIS) to being more recently, according to Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, “…Maute ISIS because they are the same.”

That these groups have and can cause harm to people and property had been demonstrated in the string of kidnappings attributed to the different bands loosely called Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), and the violent intolerance displayed by the Maute’s beheading of two workers in Butig in 2016, as well as disregard for civilian lives in their alleged bombing of Davao also last year.  Thus, the threats these groups pose cannot be taken lightly, and government forces should go after them with the full force of the law. 

The Philippines has anti-terrorism laws, foremost of which is the Human Security Act of 2007 (Republic Act or RA 9372 or the HSA) and associated legislation like RA 10168 (The Terrorism Financing Prevention and Suppression Act of 2012).

Section 3 of the HSA defines terrorism as “any person who commits an act punishable under any of the following provisions of the Revised Penal Code (…) thereby sowing and creating a condition of widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace, in order to coerce the government to give in to an unlawful demand shall be guilty of the crime of terrorism.” 

Among the punishable acts considered terrorism by the HSA are Articles 122 (Piracy in General and Mutiny in the High Seas or in Philippine Waters);  134 (Rebellion or Insurrection); 134-A (Coup d’état), including acts committed by private persons; 
 248 (Murder); 
 267 (Kidnapping and Serious Illegal Detention); 
and 324 (Crimes Involving Destruction), all under the Revised Penal Code (RA 3815). Similarly included are criminal acts under Presidential Decree or PD 1613 (The Law on Arson); RA 6969 (Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Waste Control Act of 1990); RA 5207 (Atomic Energy Regulatory and Liability Act of 1968); RA 6235 (Anti-Hijacking Law); PD 532 (Anti-Piracy and Anti-Highway Robbery Law of 1974); PD 1866 as amended (Decree Codifying the Laws on Illegal and Unlawful Possession, Manufacture, Dealing in, Acquisition or Disposition of Firearms, Ammunitions or Explosives)

The HSA was heavily criticized and even challenged in the Supreme Court, for among others, being unconstitutional, vague in its scope and therefore prone to abuse, and mainly supportive of the administration of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, and her bid to secure support of United States by affirming its anti-terrorism agenda, particularly the USA PATRIOT Act.

Nevertheless,  RA 9372  stands as a law of the Philippines and one wonders why, despite its broad scope, it was not used to deal with the situation in Marawi. One also wonders how the HSA was implemented from the time of President Arroyo until the time of President Noynoy Aquino because it obviously did not do enough to erode the ASG and prevent the rise of Maute.

The mandate for implementing the HSA and the responsibility for the proper and effective implementation of the anti-terrorism policy of the country belongs to the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC), with the support of its Secretariat, the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency or NICA.

However, that the Maute in alliance with ASG leader  Isnilon Hapilon, is rising up in an actual rebellion across Mindanao remains debatable.

The group, which became known to the public eye about three years ago, was initially profiled by the Philippine National Police (PNP) according to VERA Files as having only a force of 267, most of whom were blood relatives, and 117 high-powered weapons. These numbers have supposedly gone down because of attacks on the Maute by the security sector. It was reported that the Maute managed to tap into the complex web of relationships among bandits, private armed groups, and illegal drug  syndicates and thus was able to increase its capacity.

That being said, Constitutionalist Christian Monsod pointed out in a recent forum on civil liberties that the Constitution specifies actual rebellion or invasion as bases for the declaration of martial law, and not imminent threat. 

Martial Law and the Threat of State Terrorism

There are those who fear another kind of terrorism different from the one espoused by the Maute and ASG. State terrorism in the forms of martial law and militarization has caused cycles of displacements in Mindanao. The state’s proclivity for using threats and outright violence to sow fear or confusion among citizens, has been demonstrated and sanctioned by Marcos and even those who came after him.

In a country where security sector reform remains unfinished, and strong leadership is associated with the use of force, the risk of state coercive violence—whether sponsored, sanctioned, or supported—rearing its ferocious head once more cannot be understated.   

I respect those who profess to feeling that they are safe and secure under Martial Law. After all, no one deserves to live under conditions of fear and mistrust. It needs to be pointed out though that the Philippine Constitution makes it the prime duty of Government to “serve and protect the people” and martial rule is not a precondition for the exercise of that duty. I also ask that we not assume that under Proclamation 216 one’s own experience of safety and security is automatically extended to everyone, and thus we need to make an effort to ensure that others are also not under threat.   

To those who think that the guidelines for the conduct of inspections in checkpoints are sufficient to prevent abuse under Proclamation 216, I ask that they also be concerned with those who live in the countryside and urban poor communities, and are vulnerable to abusive behavior of state forces.

Already, we are hearing of accounts of farmers in remote areas being roughed up, and men in urban poor communities questioned by the military because they could not produce identification cards. But who brings an ID card when you’re taking the carabao to pasture? Or when one steps out only to buy bread at the corner store?

Rebellion, Martial Law, and the Peace Processes

When we are afraid, the tendency is to fixate on our fear to the exclusion of everything else. In situations of crisis, that kind of focus matters for our survival. But at other times it can make us narrow-minded, and unable to see the connectedness of our situations.   

The one thing that I hope will not happen is that those of us who are privileged to be in places like Davao or Cagayan de Oro do not invoke the need to secure our own safety by completely disregarding those of others.   

Eleven days after issuing Proclamation 216, President Duterte said that the government is facing “pockets of rebellion everywhere” but not a “large scale” challenge by any armed group.  This is reminiscent of an earlier pronouncement by designated Martial Law administrator Secretary Delfin Lorenzana who said, “Martial Law aims to put an end to the long-running rebellion in various provinces in the south…”

One cannot apply the notions of “everywhere” and “long-running rebellion” and simply say that these refer only to the Maute and ASG, without putting at risk the peace processes with legitimate groups like the MILF, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

Charges of rebellion and more so invasion could give spoilers the traction they need to endanger the legislation of the Bangsamoro Basic Law bill crafted by the expanded Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), or effectively derail the peace talks with the NDFP.  

In some cases, it is not so much being harmed that we are afraid of, but changes to the arrangements to which we have grown accustomed.  Perhaps this is so for those who could not imagine another Mindanao where the Bangsamoro are able to practice their system of life and meet international standards of governance, as articulated in the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro; or those who cannot abide by a Mindanao where, peace having been negotiated and changes set in place, the Lumad will no longer be the fighting force of the AFP and the New People’s Army (NPA), nor host more years of armed conflicts in their ancestral domains.

Some would say that making distinctions on motives for, and implications of waving a flag is superfluous in situations of threat. But it is not, if the misreading of motives and implications could actually unwittingly lend credence to the claims of rogues, and lead to the escalation of threats.

Among the reasons for declaring the crisis in Marawi a rebellion was that the Maute had allied with Hapilon and pledged loyalty to ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi to establish a caliphate in Mindanao. Sightings of black ISIS flags and ISIS-themed graffiti were cited as evidence.   

But if a pledge of allegiance to another leader, and the use of flags other than that of the Philippine national flag in Marawi are proof, what would we make of the reported 2012 declaration  of MNLF founder Nur Misuari of the Bangsamoro Republik  in Valencia, Bukidnon, and the 2013 announcement in Talipao Sulu Province of independence, the designation of Davao as the Republik’s capital, and the subsequent display of its flag, streamers, and posters in  Zamboanga? 

The 2013 Talipao declaration of independence was followed by the siege of Zamboanga, which did not lead to the proclamation of martial law. Then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was even quoted as  having said during the 2013 siege that the MNLF was “free to raise their MNLF flag” in Davao City “as long as it is not higher than the Philippine flag.”

Interestingly, Misuari, who was referred to as President Misuari by followers after the 2012 and 2013 declarations, was accorded the privilege of using the podium of the President of the Republic in a 21-minute speech in Malacañang in November 2016 upon gaining temporary liberty. 

Sadly the peace process with the NDFP has become a casualty of martial law. The President did not take kindly to the Communist Party’s call for intensified offensives in the wake of Proclamation 216, among other grounds, and directed the non-participation of the government panel in the supposed fifth round of talks.  

Whether the President would be placated by the NDFP’s call for a resumption of the talks, and its stance that government and NDFP “must stand together to oppose and fight terrorism, terrorist groups and acts of terrorism” remains to be seen.

The New Normal in Davao?

That many Dabaweños now think it would take no less than the declaration of martial law, the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, and conspicuous signs of military presence in the forms of tanks to feel safe are surprising.

Notwithstanding that terrorism has always figured in the top three threats to Davao or worries of Davao residents as reported in the semestral City-Wide Social Survey series undertaken by Ateneo de Davao University, it has always been a point of pride that Davao is regarded as among the safest cities in the world.

There were times when that sense of order and security got breached—most notable being the 2002 explosion at a hotel room where an alleged American intelligence operative was staying, the bombings of the airport and seaport in 2003, and the 2016 Roxas Night Market bombing.  

Both local and national governments and security forces were quick to take action in the wake of those disruptions, and to assure the public that adequate measures were being taken to keep the city safe. There was confidence that security arrangements would hold, even when it was alleged that the formidably-sized MILF was behind the bombings.  

Have the sources and levels of the threats truly gotten out of hand, or have we let fear get the better of us, making us more malleable to suit the designs of those who would benefit from keeping us paralyzed or compliant? 

Being Courageous in Mindanao

It has been said that courage is acting not because one is unafraid but despite it.  Mindanao under Martial Law in the time of terrorism and rebellion calls for courage in the face of our fears.

And I do not refer to the argument that challenges people who disagree with Proclamation 216 to go to Marawi themselves and fight the Maute. It smacks of a binary-oriented mindset, and is meant to bait people into pointless argumentation. But it also muzzles earnest discussion, and constrains the dialogues that badly need to happen to defuse situations of unrest and fear.

Being courageous in a Mindanao under Martial Law, rebellion, and terrorism can take on different manifestations.  Going about one’s daily business despite texts and posts advising of sightings of suspected bombers in one mall or hotel is a form of courage. Refusing to endorse any form of Islamophobia despite commentaries that the main threats to the civilians of Davao have consistently involved alleged Muslims is courageous, and also one can argue, commonsensical. Being discerning and refusing to fan panic amid efforts to conflate terrorism with rebellion, invasion, and illegal drugs is also valorous.  

Choosing  to support more peace-oriented and effective solutions to the myriad problems of Mindanao without resorting to martial law can also be a bold although currently unpopular choice.

As the days pass, the end to the crisis in Marawi remains elusive, and the uneasy mantle that is Martial Law continues to drape over the land, it is easy to slip into apathy. 

But we in Mindanao have the capacity to choose. For one, we can opt to accept  today as the new normal of Mindanao and brace ourselves for what lies ahead, or we can strive to move away from this situation towards a Mindanao that regards diversity as strength, is more inclusive, and capable of preventing, managing, and transforming conflicts. 

As Nelson Mandela put it,  “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”  (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mags Z. Maglana is a Mindanawon who has worked in various capacities over the past 30 years for peace, good governance, sustainable development, and the promotion of human rights. Please email feedback to [email protected])