MINDANAO has been under martial for over a month now but it’s been life as usual for residents in much of the island, a condition starkly different from the military rule declared by the late Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos.
President Rodrigo Duterte placed Mindanao in the southern Philippines under martial law on May 23 through Proclamation No 216, which also suspends the privilege of writ of habeas corpus in the island. It is effective for 60 days.
Marcos’ martial law did not only cover Mindanao but all of the Philippines through Presidential Decree 1081 signed on Sept 21, 1972. He formally ended the rule about 10 years later through Proclamation No. 2045 signed on Jan 17, 1981. Marcos’ dictatorial regime ended in 1986 after he was toppled by the popular EDSA People Power revolution.
Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao following the attack of the Islamic State-affiliated Maute terrorist group in Marawi City. Marcos, on the other hand, declared martial law in the Philippines due to the communist rebellion.
Unlike during Marcos’ time, it appears the declaration in Mindanao isn’t feared or even hated by the population.
And it is clear why.
“So far, we have not seen indiscriminate arrests against those against the government. The different branches of the government are still functioning, which shows the Constitution was not set aside,” lawyer Elpidio Peria, director of a law policy center in Mindanao, told a forum on Saturday.
When met at the sidelines, he told Asian Correspondent that there were also no reports of excessive military abuses in the larger part of Mindanao, which is composed of 27 provinces and 33 cities.
“At the checkpoints, (policemen and) soldiers are polite and do not harass the commuters,” he said.
These checkpoints are part of the “small inconveniences” of the martial law declaration, including the curfews and the need to present identification cards to authorities, Peria observed.
However, while his views on the implementation of martial law were largely positive, Peria said the declaration may be “fatally defective” because it lacked “sufficient factual basis”.
“The Maute standoff in Marawi City was characterised as a rebellion when apparently, it is (an act of) terrorism,” Peria argued.
The clashes in Marawi between government forces and the Maute Group, now entering its second month, have killed almost 400 individuals (290 terrorists, 70 government troops and 27 civilians), government data shows.
At least 200,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting, and a tent city will be constructed for them once government takes full control of the destroyed city from the hands of the terrorists, officials have said.
Meanwhile, petitions have been filed before the Supreme Court questioning the legality of Duterte’s martial law declaration. The High Tribunal is expected to decide on them in the first week of July.
To back their claims, critics of the rule cite reports of warrantless searches allegedly conducted by soldiers on houses of civilians while on the hunt for terrorists in Marawi City.
But outside Marawi, not much has been heard about such cases.
While the rule is implemented in all of Mindanao, military operations have been mostly focused in Marawi to flush out the terrorists. The rest of Mindanao, especially the urban areas, enjoys relative peace.
Emer Fermil, another Mindanao resident, said he is happy with Duterte’s martial law declaration.
“I feel secure for myself and my family. Our place has become peaceful because of the strict implementation of the curfew by our officials. In a sense, residents have become disciplined and they go home before the curfew starts, except for a few,” Fermil said.
For the Catholic bishops in Mindanao, represented by Orlando Cardinal Quevedo, the first and only cardinal in the island, martial law should be a temporary state.
“We shall condemn any abuse of martial law and as in the past will condemn it outright if it goes in the way of evil,” Cardinal Quevedo said in a statement endorsed by the Mindanao bishops.
“We exhort everyone to be calm in the face of martial law, to be obedient to the just commands of lawful authority, and not to provoke violent reaction,” he added.
Duterte’s martial law has also earned the support of the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines (ULAP), the umbrella organisation for all local government units and locally-elected and appointed officials in the country.
“The president’s declaration is in the best interest of the country. This declaration is required to ensure public safety, and to restore peace and order.
“In the forefront of local service delivery, we see this declaration as an integral move to address the urgent needs of our affected brothers and sisters in the area,” ULAP said.
The Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the organisation of all Philippine lawyers whose names appear in the Roll of Attorneys of the Supreme Court, also backs martial law in Mindanao.
“In view of what has happened in Marawi City, the imminent danger of the escalation and spread of the hostilities to other parts of Mindanao, and the existence of other terrorist groups operating in Mindanao that can take advantage of the unrest and cause criminal acts and disorder, the national leadership of the IBP sees no reason to question the declaration at this time,” the lawyers group said.
While martial law appears to have the wider support from different stakeholders, Ryan Lariba, a leader of the militant New Patriotic Alliance in Mindanao, called for an end to military rule in the island.
“Martial law has led to the intensification of militarisation in faraway marginalised communities,” Lariba told Asian Correspondent.
During martial law under the Marcos regime, military abuses and indiscriminate arrests of activists have been recorded by human rights groups not just in Mindanao but in other parts of the Philippines. Thousands have claimed to be victims of these abuses.
In the book Turning Rage Into Courage: Mindanao Under Martial Law (Volume 1), activists against the Marcos dictatorship who were arrested and tortured narrated the ordeals they suffered under the military.
“I lost consciousness many times, and was revived many times. I remember vaguely that I couldn’t sit up anymore, my whole body felt like a mass of jelly, but they’d prop me up and hit me again and again,” Macario Tiu, a martial law activist and now a humanities university professor, wrote in the book.
Right after Marcos declared martial law, the dictator also closed down newspapers and television and radio stations critical of his administration, allowing only state-owned organisations to disseminate information.
Irene Santiago, editor of the defunct Mindanao Tribune based in Davao City on Mindanao island, recalled in the book that private media outlets that wanted to operate would have to get clearance from the government.
“I was revolted by the idea of asking for a permit. It was tantamount to censorship,” Santiago, now a top government peace worker of the Duterte administration, wrote.
So far, under Duterte’s martial law, there has been no infringement on freedom of the press, as no privately-owned media outlet has been barred from operating.
Also, despite some initial protests, large-scale demonstrations have not become part of daily routine in Mindanao since the island was placed under military rule – unlike during Marcos’ time.
The horrors of the decade-long martial law rule under Marcos will undoubtedly continue to haunt the thousands who were tortured and subjected to abuse by his regime. But for many in Mindanao today, Duterte is no reincarnation of the dictator, and the experience, while still painful, will stay in the past, serving merely as a dark reminder of a very different time.