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The Philippines’ Congress has voted to extend martial law on the southern island of Mindanao until the end of the year, guaranteeing a continued intensification of military presence in the region.
Initially declared on May 23rd, martial law was imposed on the island by President Rodrigo Duterte, who presented it as a means to contain an armed uprising by the Islamic State-aligned groups, Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group. Philippine military forces launched an offensive on the largest city and capital of the island, Marawi, in an attempt to apprehend the leader of Abu Sayyaf, Isnilon Hapilon, subsequently leading to the outbreak of widespread fighting across the city. According to Al-Jazeera, more than 300,000 civilians have since been forced to flee the city and surrounding areas; and upwards of 600 civilians have been killed, including forty-five executed by insurgent forces. According to the Constitution of the Philippines, martial law can only be imposed for a maximum of sixty days without congressional approval. President Duterte thus requested that Congress approve his request for an extension of martial law until the end of the year, maintaining that it was a necessary measure to ensure that the threat posed by these groups was contained in the region and that authorities could properly focus on recovering from the conflict. This request was met with overwhelming support by Congress, with only 18 of the 261 members present voting against the motion; a result displaying growing support for the militaristic approach to domestic issues favoured by Duterte.
The island of Mindanao is the home of the Muslim-majority, Moro people. Since 1969, armed groups within the region have been openly hostile to the central government, advocating for the creation of an independent state. From the onset of this insurrection, there have been numerous peace talks between the central government and the primary insurgent group, the Moro National Liberation Front and later, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Peace talks were finally deemed successful in 2014, with both parties agreeing to the creation of an autonomous region, Bangsmoro. However, hardliners such as the aforementioned Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups continued their insurgency, citing the continued desire to create an Islamic state encompassing the entirety of the Philippines as their motivation.
Duterte’s government, unlike those preceding it, have refused to seek peace terms with the current insurrection, excluding them from earlier peace negotiations on the grounds that they are nothing more than “criminals.” This, paired with the militant groups’ proclivity towards targeting civilians and participating in criminal endeavours, promises a continuation of strife in the region. Furthermore, detractors of Duterte’s plan for continued martial law state it as both unnecessary and, according to Rommel Banlaoi of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, “[…] an exaggeration of the use of coercive power of the state.” Senator Risa Hontiveros, one of the 18 who voted against the extension of martial law, rationalized her opposition stating, “Absent any plausible explanation, I can only reach one conclusion: Martial law has no strategic contribution to the military’s antiterrorism operations in Marawi.” While security remains the top priority for both the government of the Philippines and its population, many fear a return to the authoritative period of Ferdinand Marcos, with Mr. Banlaoi going as far to state, “Extending martial law can unmask the Duterte government’s real political intentions to apply authoritarian rule in the country, like the way he ruled Davao City for 20 years as a city mayor.”