Martial Law Lifted In Mindanao

As the new decade was welcomed in on 1st January 2020, two and a half years of martial law in the Filipino island of Mindanao was finally lifted. The laws—officially known as Proclamation No. 216—were initially implemented by President Duterte in May 2017 following the capture of the city of Marawi by ISIS-linked fighters. After the Filipino army recaptured the city, martial law was introduced to deter further encroachments by Islamic fighters and crackdown upon the perceived Islamic militias and rebels that Duterte claimed were a serious threat to the island.

The lifting of this martial law follows claims from opposition politicians in the Philippines that the supposed rebellion in the area necessary to justify its three previous extensions did not exist anymore and potentially never existed. Filipino human rights lawyer, Edcel Lagman cited a military report stating that zero people had been arrested since the most recent extension of the law, undercutting the severity of the threat that the Duterte administration perceived.

While the revocation of these laws should be celebrated, it is equally important to acknowledge the years of suffering that they inflicted during their duration. Martial law permitted the mass censorship of information and media, combined with the curtailment of civil rights to protest and assemble in the name of national security. This made it far harder to disseminate information and oppose the continuation of these laws. The laws also legitimised and encouraged campaigns of army-orchestrated violence against those seen to be enemies of the state. In particular, environmental activists were targeted—the Philippines was the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists—as well as journalists and other activists. This was done to permit the enrichment of Filipino elites at the detriment of those in the surrounding areas. 

Importantly, the traditional arguments about whether the oppressions of this law were justified in the name of national security and safety do not particularly apply as rebel-backed violence failed to be curtailed while military violence increased. Political analysts Richard Heydarian and Jose Antonio Custodio argue that the proclamation failed to prevent the spread of weapons or drugs into the area while also encouraging a significant increase in suicide attacks, motivated by opposition to the laws. It becomes clear that this policy was never for the benefit of those whose rights were stripped but instead for an anocratic political regime to claim political points by quashing an imaginary rebellion. 

However, when assessing the legacy of martial law in the region, it is important to not uncritically accept that martial law has permanently ended. The Duterte administration has announced the creation of a military base in the area, likely permitting the revitalisation of military power at the expense of civil liberties even if these gains and losses are not explicitly legislated. Aggressive solutions have failed to help the people of Mindanao or assist the rebuilding of Marawi. While the lifting of these legal oppressions should be celebrated, in the broader context of the Duterte regime this remains only a minor victory.