Government and governance, National security | Asia, Southeast Asia

2 June 2017

Does martial law in Mindanao spell the end of democracy in the Philippines? Alan Tidwell takes a look at the state of democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.

Today one might well ask, does President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao spell the end of democracy in the Philippines? The simple answer is ‘no’. The cadaver of democracy already rests on the steps of Malacañang Palace and in the funerary plots of the 7000 killed thus far in Duterte’s war on drugs. It is a little late to worry about the niceties of things like habeas corpus.

Rather, the declaration of martial law ought to be seen as just one more nail in democracy’s coffin in the Southeast Asian nation. So, where did this nail come from?

Duterte declared martial law on 23 May 2017, suspending habeas corpus for the whole of Mindanao, and the islands of Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu.

The putative cause of the declaration stemmed from an outbreak of violence in Marawi City, on the shores of Lake Lanao. The Maute group, founded by brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, has aligned itself with ISIS since mid-2015. Trouble erupted when the Philippine military launched a mission against elements of the Maute and Abu–Sayyaf groups (Abu-Sayyaf is a small terrorist group operating in Mindanao and Sulu).

More on this: Duterte and Donald’s ctrl-alt-delete

Duterte had signalled the possibility of martial law well before the 23 May attack. The Philippine Sun Star reported on 16 May 2017 that Duterte had been considering declaring martial law in Sulu. A week before the Marawi attack Duterte said: “Do not force my hand to declare martial law because if I do, I will solve everything, not only about rebellion. I will solve everything that ails Mindanao. If I declare martial law, there’s no way of telling how long would it take us to restore order, or we might not really be able to succeed.”

Clearly, Duterte had been looking for an opportunity to make martial law a reality. The attack on Marawi City gave him the excuse he was looking for.

Mindanao is no stranger to violence. It is the site of at least two conflicts pitting insurgents against the government. The New Peoples Army (NPA) is a communist inspired insurrection in Mindanao in the south and Luzon in the north. Duterte has made efforts to engage with the NPA to end the conflict. Thus far, however, the talks have foundered.

On the western side of Mindanao, several Muslim groups fight against the state. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) signed a peace deal with the government in 1996. The Moro Islamic Liberation group (MILF) splintered from the MNLF and has been fighting ever since. They too have signed agreements with the government, but as yet no final peace deal has been negotiated. The Abu-Sayyaf group is a much smaller group known mostly for kidnapping and beheading their captives.

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Like Mindanao, Duterte himself is no stranger to violence either. The former mayor of Davao, in eastern Mindanao, has several times claimed involvement in homicides. He claimed in December 2016: “In Davao, I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys (police) that if I can do it why can’t you? And I’d go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around, and I would just patrol the streets, looking for trouble also. I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill.”

Martial law has a long history in the Philippines, and most notoriously under Ferdinand Marcos. Under Marcos it was clear he had no real intention to return to democracy, with martial law in place from 1972 to 1981, and he was only removed from power by the People Power Revolution.

Martial law returned briefly in Maguindanao from 4-13 December 2009 when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo sought to disarm a local militia.

Which sort of martial law will Duterte pick – the shorter Arroyo version or the multi-year Marcos kind? Given his already apparent disdain for the rule of law and earlier mentions of martial law, it seems most likely Duterte will opt for the multi-year version of martial law, one heavy on order and light on law. I am betting on the longer version.

Violence in Mindanao gives Duterte cover to launch martial law. It allows him to complete the transformation of the Philippine state from a weak democracy into a more authoritarian state. How it plays out in the future and what the implications are of this transition for the Philippine people and the wider region remains to be seen. One thing is certain – Rodrigo Duterte has brought an end to democracy in the Philippines.

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