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May 25, 2017 | 14:34 GMT

6 mins read

The Philippine President Declares His Intentions in Mindanao

President Duterte said he was considering expanding martial law to the Visayas region and even Luzon, where the capital is, especially if terrorist groups spread their activities beyond Mindanao.
(TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has followed through with repeated threats to escalate the fight against Islamist militants in Mindanao. On May 23, Duterte declared martial law across the restive southern region after hundreds of militants from the Maute group and Abu Sayyaf, two local Islamic State affiliates, made an ambitious counter-assault on Philippine troops in Marawi City. Videos of the incident showed young, heavily armed men riding around the capital of Lanao del Sur province in trucks, brandishing weapons, emptying the local prison, and hoisting the Islamic State flag outside public buildings. Nearly 100 people are believed to have been kidnapped. The show of force drew comparisons to the Islamic State's sudden seizure of the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014 and compelled Duterte to cut short a state visit to Moscow.
 
A spokesman for the Philippine military announced May 24 that it had retaken control of most of Marawi City. But Duterte is laying the groundwork for a broader crackdown. Shortly after returning to Manila, the president said he was considering expanding martial law to the Visayas region and even Luzon, where the capital is, especially if terrorist groups spread their activities beyond Mindanao. In doing so, however, the president would be moving the fight against extremism into the uncertain realm of politics.

The Tricky Politics of Martial Law

Martial law is a contentious issue in the Philippines, where former strongman President Ferdinand Marcos imposed it nationwide from 1972 to 1981. The People Power Revolution that toppled Marcos in 1986 is still an integral part of Philippine political culture today, and the country's electorate is residually wary of the insidious logic of martial law. In fact, the measure has only been used once in the years since Marcos' ouster, albeit on a much more modest scale. In 2009, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo instated martial law for eight days in the region surrounding the Mindanao town of Ampatuan after a politically motivated massacre occurred there. But most presidents have steered well clear of it, even during periods of substantially worse violence than what is occurring today.
 
Duterte, on the other hand, has repeatedly floated the possibility of declaring martial law since taking office in 2016. The president has proposed the tactic as a way not only to deal with Islamist extremist and communist rebel groups in Mindanao, but also to support his controversial war on drugs and other crime issues. And on May 24, Duterte defended Marcos' use of martial law, pledging to match the late dictator's ruthlessness. Martial law in Mindanao, by Duterte's telling, will allow warrantless searches and arrests. He also said he suspended the writ of habeas corpus across the region and plans to implement a curfew.
 
If Duterte appears unconcerned with the political risks of taking an even heavier-handed approach to the Philippines' myriad security challenges, it's because his strongman image is the very core of his political legitimacy. He rose to power on the pervasive sentiment that in Marcos' wake, a generation of self-serving leaders incapable of moving the country forward had become entrenched in Manila. Failing to respond decisively to the jihadist threat would weaken Duterte's standing — especially if the militants target popular tourist destinations or the country's economic and political core in Luzon more frequently. Unchecked extremism in Mindanao, moreover, would undermine the president's efforts to make peace with the region's moderate ethnic Moro separatist groups and with communist rebels across the country — initiatives on which he's spent quite a bit of political capital. It would also interfere with his biggest policy goal: to move the Philippines to a federal system.
 
That's not to say Duterte has free rein to impose martial law across the country in the event that terrorist attacks start to spread, however. For example, though publicly the president has shrugged off the criticisms from the international community and the local Catholic Church over his support for extrajudicial killings in the drug war, the pressure has forced him to try to curb the human rights abuses. His poll numbers and support in Congress — which has the constitutional authority to block martial law declarations — may both be sky-high, but they aren't much above the norm for Philippine presidents after a year in office. And since Marcos, presidencies have ended ignominiously as often as not.

No Peace on the Horizon

Whether Duterte pursues martial law on a wider scale depends for now largely on how the conflict in Mindanao evolves. The Philippine military has made some headway there in recent months, but the region is still far from stable. Troops have put the squeeze on Abu Sayyaf in the Sulu Archipelago, for example, but this has compelled the group to try to boost coordination with Moro extremists in central Mindanao. The local Islamic State affiliates also face pressure from the extremist group's core leadership in Syria to prove their mettle by conducting more spectacular attacks.
Troops have put the squeeze on Abu Sayyaf in the Sulu Archipelago, for example, but this has compelled the group to try to boost coordination with Moro extremists in central Mindanao.
Achieving lasting peace in Mindanao will require a political solution that empowers moderate Moro separatist groups, particularly the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and factions of the Moro Nationalist Liberation Front, to govern predominantly Muslim regions in Minandao. Devolving power to the less radical separatist camps would vindicate the decision by the MILF and the MNLF to take part in the peace process, fostering overdue economic development and helping take the wind out of the militants' sails. This was the goal of the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the legislative underpinning of a 2014 peace deal that would have created an administrative region under the MILF's control spanning southwest Mindanao and nearby islands. (The bill stalled in Congress after a major clash between MILF fighters and Philippine forces in 2015.)
 
It's too early to say how martial law and the intensifying military offensives in Mindanao will affect the peace process. Cracking down on the jihadist elements may help clear the way to a political solution, since the Islamic State-linked groups pose a considerable risk to their moderate Moro counterparts' aspirations for self-rule. At the same time, however, redoubled military operations and the greater risk of human rights abuses accompanying martial law would provide the jihadist groups more fodder for their recruitment campaigns. Furthermore, given the degree to which membership among the various Moro groups overlaps, skeptics of the peace process in Manila are liable to blame the moderate factions for attacks, stymieing progress toward realization of the Bangsamoro administrative region.
 
In the meantime, attacks may indeed spread. Abu Sayyaf militants clashed with security forces in the Visayas region, which has generally been insulated from the violence in Mindanao, in early April. Similarly, the Maute group — the same group involved in the May 23 confrontation in Marawi City — is believed to be behind a market bombing that occurred in the Leyte town of Hilongos in December 2016. It's difficult for Mindanao-based groups to conduct sustained operations outside their home territory, where they benefit from considerable local support and sources of revenue, especially now that Duterte has ordered the Philippine navy to blockade the waters between Mindanao and Visayas. Nonetheless, one-off attacks that strike at the Philippines' political and economic engines are well within the southern militants' capabilities. And they would give Duterte the pretext he's been looking for to expand martial law. 
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