If you lived through Hurricane Katrina, you probably know what martial law is like. Curfews. Tight security. Gun confiscation. Martial law plays out differently in different places, but it usually involves some common denominators: civil restrictions, police surveillance, economic instability. Just to name a few.
I know, because I’m living in it right now.
In the Philippines, martial law was declared over a month ago in our southern island of Mindanao. The president, Rodrigo Duterte, issued the proclamation hours after Islamist militants attacked the city of Marawi, about 3 to 4 hours from where I live. A group called “Maute”, inspired by ISIS, stormed into town and torched buildings, took hostages, freed jailed rebels and attacked a police station, seizing vehicles and weapons. They went on a rampage following a failed attempt by our military to capture one of their leaders (on whose head, by the way, is a $5-million bounty by the FBI) who was hiding in the city.
The government responded with ground assaults and air raids. Urban warfare has dragged on for 7 weeks now, but security forces have managed to regain 15 of the 19 villages besieged by the rebels. Hundreds have died, including soldiers, police, civilians and the terrorists themselves.
While most of the residents fled, dozens got trapped inside their homes, succumbing to starvation and death. Others were taken as prisoners and used as human shields by the terrorists who held strategic sniper positions in mosques and tall buildings. Many of the city’s structures have been reduced to rubble.
President Duterte’s decision to impose martial law wasn’t received without criticism. Marawi, located in the predominantly Muslim province of Lanao del Sur, is a tiny city of 87 kilometers — a mere thousandth of the 97,530-kilometer expanse of Mindanao. Many have questioned why the entire island, with a population of 20 million and the second biggest island in the country, was placed under martial rule. Insurgency and terrorism are problems our government has had to deal with for decades, especially in this region. Various groups have waged all kinds of rebellion in an attempt to gain power, supremacy or autonomy from the national government: communist rebels, Muslim extremists, clan and political warlords. Attacks like this are, at best, isolated — and really aren’t new. A state of emergency probably would’ve sufficed. But the president fears that the militants, reportedly seeking to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate in Marawi, could spread and “contaminate” surrounding areas.
Under Philippine Constitution, military rule can only last for 60 days. The Defense department issued guidelines saying government institutions remain in function and the rights and liberties of citizens would remain. Mr. Duterte announced the writ of habeas corpus suspended, but the Defense officials assured the public it isn’t. However, there are the usual curfews, military checkpoints, and increased police presence in public areas. The military also said it reserves the right to censure the press and social media, warning to arrest those spreading false or “aggravating” information.
In the southern city of Davao, where the president was mayor for 20 years, protest rallies are prohibited.
Many in the Philippines are wary of military rule. In 1972 the country fell under it during the dictatorship of late-President Ferdinand Marcos, widely believed to have ordered the killings, detention, torture and disappearances of tens of thousands of his critics.
Duterte said his version of martial law would be no different, and threatened he would be harsh. Whether his words are mere rhetoric or a soon-to-be reality remains to be seen. But with his administration already under fire for its murderous “war on drugs,” in which more than 7,000 have been killed, human rights activists are getting angry and all the more anxious. Military rule could open the way for more government abuses.
Mr. Duterte would hear none of it. He has actually floated the idea of extending martial law indefinitely, or expanding its coverage to the entire country. He has even threatened to jail those who oppose it.
Of course, few Filipinos are surprised. Duterte had already warned that his presidency would be dictatorial even while he was campaigning for the post last year.
Two days after his martial law declaration, about 250 “persons of interest” were rounded up in his hometown of Davao for failure to show proof of identification. In other Muslim-dominated provinces, citizens are expected to show at least 3 valid IDs. This poses a problem for native or indigenous groups and the very poor, most of whom live off-the-grid and are unregistered.
In the Philippines, differences among social groups — and the resulting prejudices — continue to thrive, especially here in Mindanao. For example, if you’re from a tribe, town or religious sect suspected or even remotely associated with militancy, you can expect to be held up for questioning, more closely, by the police.
Already, security checks have been the norm in Lanao and neighboring areas, especially during the first few weeks of the siege. From Marawi to the adjacent city of Iligan, a mere 1 hour’s drive away, public vehicles pass through 3 security checks — extending travel time by an hour or more. From Iligan to the next and bigger city of Cagayan de Oro, 2 hours away, another 5 checkpoints can be expected. In 2 of the cities, police climb on buses to look over passengers. In the 3 others, passengers are asked to come down for bag inspection and ID checks. Travelers on private vehicles must also show IDs.
Prices of goods have reportedly have gone up in far-flung areas. Food supplies may not be reaching stores on time, or perishing quickly during transport due to the long queues and extensive searches at checkpoints.
Curfew across Mindanao is at 10 p.m. and lasts until 4 a.m.
Thousands of tourists have cancelled their bookings, not just in our island but also in the central region of Visayas. The U.S. Embassy in Manila cautioned Americans about the situation and temporarily suspended travel by Mission personnel to Mindanao. Canada advised against all travel in the island except Davao, while Israel’s Counter-terrorism Bureau urged Israelis to immediately leave the region. Other countries, like Australia and Singapore, advised their citizens to remain vigilant and exercise caution when traveling in these parts.
The Philippine peso has weakened ever since the martial law imposition. It is now, as of this writing, P50.85 to US$1 — down by 2.07 percent from the previous P49.82. According to reports, it’s actually down to an 11-year low.
The overall, far-reaching effects of martial rule are incalculable at this point. The social stigma and apprehension alone are immeasurable, as is the opportunity it gives for military and police to abuse their powers. In a recent speech to soldiers, the president said he would take responsibility for any crime they commit while implementing martial rule. He even joked they could rape women with impunity. This, of course, elicited widespread criticism. Since then, women in safer, unaffected areas of Marawi have chosen to leave their homes and stay instead at refugee centers for fear of just that – being raped by security forces.
I don’t know many Filipinos who are 100 percent happy with martial law. I certainly am not, neither are those averse to authoritarianism. Which is exactly the type of government Mr. Duterte seems to favor.
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