The Filipino people are all-too-familiar with ‘temporary’ human rights violations, not the least due to the repetitive imposition of martial law throughout the country’s history. From the 14-year period of martial law in 1972-1986, it comes as no surprise that President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent request for an extension of martial law in Mindanao was approved overwhelmingly. Justifying the measures in the name of national security, Duterte stressed the growing threat of Islamic terrorism in Mindanao.
Reacting to Duterte’s third extension of martial law, Senator Francis Escudero hesitated, “this cannot be the new normal.” There is, however, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines, this exact sense of normality in the region, “we have received overwhelming positive feedback, not only on our efficient implementation of martial law, but also its impact to security… and well-being of local communities.” This is against the perspective of Senator Franklin Drilon, who refers to the measures as being disproportionate to the situation on the ground, “there is no actual armed uprising that is taking place in Mindanao.” Despite this, an overwhelming majority of senators and representatives accepted the measures as necessary to deter terrorism in a predominantly Muslim Mindanao. To this extent, Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea stated, “we cannot afford to show our enemies a moment of weakness in our resolve to defeat them.”
Several experts on the conflict in the Philippines, such as Soliman Santos, have continuously correlated the link between the imposition of martial law with an increase in violence in the region. Meanwhile, the military response to the threat of terrorism also greatly ignores the perspective of the locals. Many researchers in this regard have shown that the Filipino population in Mindanao see poverty and limited livelihoods as main threats to security, not terrorism. This is interesting in direct comparison to the perspective of the Government of the Philippines, which instead prioritizes terrorism as the most imminent threat. With this prioritization of counter-terrorism against local concerns, one may ponder whether Duterte’s rhetoric has created an ‘imaginary threat,’ a threat by which the imposition of martial law incentivizes conflict rather than stabilizes peace.
The third extension of martial law in Mindanao, which was set to expire this month, was implemented against the backdrop of a supposed proximate threat from various Islamic and Communist groups in the region. Groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the New People’s Army (NPA) have historically, though arguably less so now, challenged the Government of the Philippines over historically-rooted grievances. However, these groups are often characterized by their sometimes-violent activities, hereby both being referred to as terrorist organizations, more than their legitimate grievances. This neglect is visualized through the continuous imposition of martial law in Mindanao.
In a world where leaders too readily resort to violence to counter terrorism and other forms of threats, it is imperative that we choose to critically analyze the utility of measures such as martial law. In the Philippines, with 235 senators and representatives voting for and only 28 against the use of martial law in Mindanao, this is evidently not happening. This is important, not least since the use of martial law allows for the indefinite detention of suspects without trial; a community of fear. Instead of extending martial law, it is therefore crucial that Duterte seeks to build trust in the Mindanao community – a community that has endured past repressive martial law regimes under Ferdinand Marcos. Historically, the positive and largely peaceful impacts of doing this can be seen in peace agreements with groups such as the MNLF and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Both agreements included vast members of civil society and illustrates the importance of understanding the perspective of the locals on the ground. Understanding this bottom-up approach would allow for one to see beyond Duterte’s violent rhetoric that seeks to simplify the complex situation in Mindanao as merely a matter of terrorism. This alternative to martial law will encourage different actors to connect and address some of the historically-rooted grievances in society and subsequently reverse the tendency under martial law of responding to violence with violence.
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