CRUCIBLE: Duterte’s Dilemma on Sulu (1)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews) – With the rituals of post-terrorism mission on Jolo twin bombings last August 24 already accomplished – from clearing to reporting, to continuing intel works and beefing up security forces – there is one rite that is noticeably missing: the visit of President Rodrigo Duterte to the bombing sites or to Camp Teodulfo Bautista Station Hospital in Patikul, Sulu.

In previous bombing incidents, whenever there were fallen soldiers and wounded in action, President Duterte would immediately fly to Jolo to condole with families of the victims, salute the wounded soldiers, pin awards and hand them cash and other benefits. Then, he would speak to them formally or casually and crack joke with them. It is his way in inspiring his soldiers with their fight against the Abu Sayyaf. The more than 10 visits of PRRD to Jolo were mostly a rehearse of such rites. No presidents have been as religious in giving honor to his soldiers.

Martial Law in Sulu: How New & For Whom?

If President Duterte were to visit Jolo in the aftermath of the twin bombings what would possibly be his take on Philippine Army Chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana’s suggestion to declare martial law in the Province of Sulu?

Earlier, Sobejana was quoted to have said: “The situation dictates calls for martial law. With that recent incident, with so many casualties. To better control the population, I think it is wise to declare it again.”

Pending the President’s response, other high-ranking military officials from Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, to AFP Chief Staff Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay and WestMinCom Commander Lt. Gen. Corleto Vinluan Jr. already expressed their opposition to imposing martial law in Sulu. They were seconded by a few senators, including Sulu Governor Abdulsakur Tan, arguing, among others, that Proclamation No. 55 and the recently passed Anti-Terrorism Act are already enough to address the threat of terrorism in the province.

Proclamation No. 55 is President Duterte’s “declaration of national emergency on account of lawless violence in Mindanao” in September 2016 following the Davao bombing and the death of 15 soldiers in a fierce encounter with the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu a month prior.

The response of President Duterte, if ever, to call for martial law from one of his highly decorated generals would be crucial; but whether the President’s decision creates substantial impact enough to dissipate his dilemma on what to do with the Province of Sulu is a question. Martial law is just an “option” as pointed out by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gapay. Thus, it is simply an upgrading on the mode of State control amid a range of already existing political, legal, and military apparatuses and over-all State power structure in the area.

Yet, it is precisely said “structure of control” that is persistently challenged in various spectrum of Tausug society from voiceless but restless civilians to passive and active dissenters to independent Bangsa Sug leaders, and from MNLF rebels to extremist Abu Sayyaf Group. How much power would be accorded to martial law in Sulu, if ever, in addressing these sources of dissent, rebellion, and extremism and how far it would go to engage them is even more a fundamental question.

Dilemma and Nexus of Powers

The question with what to do with the Province of Sulu surfaces yet again in the long-time, difficult dilemma of President Rodrigo Duterte like other Filipino presidents before him.

The main difference is, whereas other presidents simply resorted to having a firmed grip on local government units and other line agencies and their officials by ascertaining their obeisance into the rules of governance and bureaucracy along State’s unitary structure of power and control with guardship of military and police, President Duterte, with his promise of federalism coupled with his no-nonsense political will, has opened a vista of hope among Tausug that, at last, there is a president who is capable of disentangling an age-old dilemma that is entrenched in the classic interest of “Imperial Manila” that many thinking Tausug believe is responsible in Sulu’s state of suspended animation. It is a “state” that had long barred and successively checked their struggle to freely chart their own destiny as dictated by their history and past glory. Triggered by the Jabidah Massacre in 1968 where mostly Tausug youth were the victims, the Sulus and their struggle resonated and gained following in other provinces even when senior Moro leaders that time prevaricated and eventually showed their colors.

It is a dilemma that is fundamentally defined by two intersecting nexus of power relations between Filipino-dominated National State and historically proud but restive Muslim Community (e.g., Bangsa Sug) where the former’s system of control and other tools of pacification and appeasement to keep the latter part of the Republic has long been viewed as structurally oppressive and perpetually colonial – a fundamental reason why it has been continuously resisted primarily by armed groups while “played” over by ever-changing batch of interlopers and politicos, their sycophants, and supporters.

The continuing restiveness partly explains why Sulu turned down the Bangsamoro Organic Law two years ago. Many Tausug believed that merely renaming the ARMM and rehashing it if only to accommodate another group already tired in fighting (although MILF ideologues consider it as mere shift in tactics) it is to perpetuate an old order as they considered federalism more meaningful and closer to their idea of self-determination. If Duterte would, by intent or default, run short with his promise on federalism, many Tausug would be crestfallen and frustrated not only on him but on the next administrations as well who they believe could not dare and be brave enough to disentangle the dilemma and restructure the power nexus.

It is a dilemma that is fraught in a gradually deteriorating balance (vertical relation) between State’s desire to extend practically optimum political space and economic development within allowable limit of Philippine laws and political system vis-à-vis the continuously deteriorating socio-political and economic order in the restive province amid call for meaningful structural change and political reform from armed groups and progressive groups.

More specifically, it is a dilemma where national and local state’s approach had long resorted to calibrated, at times, unscrupulous “power play” on local power structures (horizontal relation) primarily among private armies, MNLF forces, and Abu Sayyaf groups. While feigning ignorance, State authorities know fully well that their common denominator is arms and their system of exchange providers, networks of suppliers and arm peddlers with their alleged ties to military and police. The “Oakwood mutiny” against former President Gloria Arroyo revealed the extent of military conspiracy on arms with rebels and terrorists and other local groups. It is a question if this “ill” had been substantially addressed since then.

More Crucial Questions

Such ties were shown openly in March 2018 when the AFP launched a disarmament project without much hitch and opposition from warlords and politicians with private armies in Sulu municipalities and other Muslim provinces. Apart from no one was charged in court after confiscating hundreds of high-powered firearms, the AFP program of disarmament on private armies was also abruptly stopped for unknown reason. Many asked how much firearms were still with those private armies compared to those that were actually surrendered.

Equally legitimate questions are: Is martial law proposed by General Sobejana or “immediate action” by General Gapay a repeat of, or to continue, AFP’s past program on disarming private armies? If so, isn’t it simply a re-cleansing of mess that alleged scalawags in the military have created in the first place as they are the perceived sources of those arms and bullets? So, why zero-in on private armies? Why not fix or close the faucets of firearms and bullets let alone address the leaks in Philippine arms supply line and industry with much urgency?

If the proposed martial law is intended against the Abu Sayyaf, isn’t the AFP already fighting the group for the past 40 years? Why hasn’t it been defeated? Why does its terrorism become even more virulent in recent years, including the recent Jolo twin bombings? Where are the reports on findings on firearms and bomb or other explosive materials used by the group since day one of their war, kidnapping, and terrorism? Unless these crucial questions are answered objectively what guarantee that the proposed martial law or “immediate action” would not become just another “fad” or another cleansing-the-mess thing in the AFP’s war against terrorism?

How about the MNLF? How would the envisioned martial law, if ever, deal with the said front? How does such vision square with President Duterte’s relation with Chairman Nur Misuari?

Finally, would martial law as proposed resolve or entangle even more President Duterte’s dilemma on Sulu? (To be continued: Part 2)

[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].

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