A vanishing chance for peace in Mindanao

Duterte’s declaration of martial law has derailed prospects for peace with rebel groups

Jeroen Adam

Government and governance, National security | Asia, Southeast Asia

13 June 2017

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao not only has serious implications for human rights and democracy, but also risks shattering an already fragile pathway to peace on the island, Jeroen Adams writes.

After an extremist rebel group pledging allegiance to the Islamic State invaded the Philippine city of Marawi on 23 May, it should have come as no surprise to see the Duterte administration rush to proclaim martial law on the southernmost island of Mindanao.

This isn’t the first time Duterte has threatened martial law as a radical solution to many supposed defects of Philippine society. Often, reference is made to the Marcos dictatorship (1972-1986) which established martial law as a means to quell all types of opposition, armed as well as unarmed.

Despite some of the constitutional constraints installed in 1987 in order to avoid a return to those dark days, Duterte does not seem too worried by legal impediments. He has explicitly stated that he will ignore both the Supreme Court and Congress when it comes to his decision. In a similar vein, Duterte made it clear he does not intend to install some sort of martial law ‘light’: “Martial law is martial law. My fellow countrymen, you’ve experienced martial law. It would not be different from what President Marcos did. I’ll be harsh.”

For many, such statements are seen as a clear indication of the administration’s strength, fortitude and determination to fight radicalism and extremism. Evidently, this does not bode well for the future of liberal democracy in the country.

More on this: War and martial law come to Mindanao – again

The proclamation of martial law fits within a longer trajectory of this administration wherein basic human rights are systematically violated. One only needs to look at the countless extra-judicial killings that have occurred under Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, or his administration’s intimidation of opposition politicians, including the arrest of Senator Leila de Lima, a vocal critic of Duterte, on drug-related charges in February this year.

These concerns aside, the sudden proclamation of martial law is also an indication that the administration is losing grip on the situation of armed conflict in Mindanao. This should, therefore, be interpreted as a sign of weakness, rather than one of strength.

So far, a two-pronged strategy has been deployed by the Duterte Administration towards Mindanao. Peace negotiations with one set of rebel groups have been combined with a purely military strategy towards another set of extremist rebel groups, the latter notably including the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute groups.

Recent events have seriously constrained this strategy. First, despite intensive military confrontations these past few months, the threat of Islamic extremism only seems to be increasing, with the attack on Marawi the most recent culmination. As fierce fighting is still ongoing at the moment of writing, it is also obvious that the fighting capacity of the Maute group has been greatly underestimated.

In response, Duterte has openly requested the support of other rebel groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the communist New People’s Army (NPA) in fighting the Maute group in Marawi.

More on this: Will Duterte's tactics tackle the Abu Sayyaf Group?

Apart from being an indication of the limited trust Duterte seems to have in the capacity of the regular armed forces to quell the rebellion, this strategy also risks adding to a further militarisation of an already complex conflict landscape.

Second, this request cannot be separated from the ongoing peace negotiations with the aforementioned rebel groups. So far, it is difficult to judge what the impact of martial law on these talks will be. However, a closer look at the ongoing negotiations with the NPA shows some worrying signs. Upon the proclamation of martial law, the fifth round of these talks were immediately abrogated. This abrogation was followed by an order by Duterte to arrest the communist members of the peace panels upon their return from the Netherlands. Interestingly, both the MILF and the NPA have recently offered their support in combating – or at least containing – the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups.

As Duterte further militarises an already complex conflict, the political capital he had previously built up in Mindanao is crumbling away. The abrupt installation of martial law over the whole island, and the boorish statements that accompanied it have brought back memories for many Muslims of the brutalities of the Marcos dictatorship. Different Muslim NGOs and commentators have explicitly expressed their concern that martial law potentially opens the door for grave human rights violations.

The events of the past few weeks all seem to point in one direction: that the last prospects for a sustainable peace in the region are rapidly vanishing.

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