Martial Law in Mindanao: Creeping authoritarianism or defense mechanism? (updated)

In a week of terror attacks, Filipinos rail against the re-imposition of Martial Law in the south, even as Western democracies put more draconian measures in place.

The week that was could be summarised by a series of hashtags proliferating in social media.

It’s a sad reminder of the world we live in. The rise of global terror inspired by Islamic State pays no respect to borders, race, or religion. From Europe to Southeast Asia and the Middle East, bombs were exploding, bullets were flying, civilians were fleeing and governments were scrambling to deal with the situation.

The Philippine incident was different, in that it was not just an act of terror, but invasion. The Australian government through its Foreign Minister earlier this year warned that IS was looking to declare a caliphate in the southern island of Mindanao.

The spread of Islamist ideology is one of the biggest challenges facing Duterte. Despite the BBC recording 9 attacks resulting in 50 casualties attributable to ISIS in the Philippines as of 2014, Armed Forces officials maintained that there was no ISIS presence in the country. CNN reported that since 2014, there had been 7 separate ISIS inspired incidents, but this was contested as well.

Then came the siege in Marawi City (population 200,000). Military commanders on the ground continued to issue statements claiming that the situation was “under control”, not wanting to give the ISIS militants a psychological victory. But at 11 pm, the president who was in Russia on an official visit declared Martial Law in the island of Mindanao.

A case of mission creep?

In an interview, he said that if the conflict spreads elsewhere in the country, he would expand the scope of his proclamation, accordingly. The Philippine constitution of 1987 allows the president to declare martial law in case of rebellion or invasion, for a period of 60 days, the extension of which can only be approved by congress.

That’s when dissension started happening with memes and hashtags criticising Duterte for using the conflict in the south as an excuse for introducing military rule by stealth. Human Rights Watch came out with a statement to that effect.

Former president Fidel Ramos and the vice president Leni Robredo also stated their opposition to the expansion of Martial Law to the rest of the country. Jose Maria Sison the leader of the communist party in exile declared that leftist parliamentarians could split with the ruling coalition over the issue. On Friday, lightning rallies were organised to protest the re-imposition of Martial Law.

Unable to suspend judgement

Within the constitutionally mandated 48 hour period, Pres. Duterte sent a written report to congress on the justification for proclaiming Martial Law. And, for the first time, government formally acknowledged the presence of ISIS in the Philippines.

ISIS militants were apparently seeking to declare a separate Islamic State province in Mindanao.  The presence of foreign nationals engaged in the conflict, not just in training local fighters, not just hiding out in the jungle meant that the Marawi incident was not just an act of rebellion, but could already be considered an invasion.

That should have sent shivers down the spine of anyone who believes in preserving freedom, but it was all lost on those who were not even willing to suspend judgement for 48 hours to hear the president’s report. They had already formed an opinion and were out in the streets protesting, even as ISIS militants were leaving a carnage of bodies all over Marawi city.

People took to social media decrying the state of affairs, and warning that martial law would be used by Duterte to silence dissent to his war on drugs, which has claimed thousands of lives through police and vigilante operations. Duterte himself tied the ISIS militants to drugs, saying that drug money was helping to finance terrorist operations.

Western response

Meanwhile in France, the state of emergency, which had been in place since the Paris attacks of November 2015 was extended by Pres. Macron, in the wake of the Manchester arena bombing on Monday. It had already been extended last year to safeguard the French presidential and parliamentary elections.

Under the state of emergency, the French government is allowed to search properties and confine people to house arrest without judicial oversight. After Monday’s attack in the UK, Macron indicated he wanted additional anti-terror measures passed.

In the UK, the threat level was raised to ‘critical’ which meant that an imminent attack was expected. Soldiers were deployed on the streets to prevent a second incident, even as suspects were were being pursued. A number of anti-terrorism laws in the UK give the government sweeping powers to prevent acts of terror.

These anti-terror police powers include the ability to:

  • stop, search and hold someone for up to 28 days, without a formal charge
  • restrict the activities of individuals suspected of “involvement in terrorist-related activity”, but for whom there is not sufficient evidence to charge.
  • freeze bank accounts and assets of suspects (both local and foreign)
  • take fingerprints and DNA samples from individuals subject to control orders.

These measures are even more draconian than the counter-terrorism laws or under Martial Law in the Philippines, which require authorities to bring suspects before a judge within 3 days of being held.

They are not unique to Britain. Australia has similar anti-terror laws in place, which were used this week to arrest an African-born woman, who was suspected of merely seeking to leave Australia to join ISIS overseas. Note, she hadn’t plotted any act of violence yet. And she could face a decade behind bars! Of course we have heard of Guantanamo Bay where the US government still holds terror suspects indefinitely.

Human rights groups oppose the restrictions that these laws impose. Human Rights Watch counts 140 countries world-wide which have legislated counter-terror measures since 9/11. The fear is of a creeping police state in the West. In weak states, such as the Philippines, the fear is that these laws are being used to suppress dissent and oppress minorities.

The problem of course is that when it comes to acts of terror, the rights of the innocent inevitably get curtailed or trampled on. Whether it is the people who are victims of terrorism, or the people suspected wrongly for engaging in terrorism. There is no fool-proof way to guarantee that no one’s rights will be curtailed or abused. It is a difficult balancing act, especially after an attack has occurred.