WHAT started as a straightforward law enforcement operation to capture a homegrown and educated bandit became a tragedy of local consequence but overreaching national scope and concern.
Security forces attempted to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, former Moro National Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf leader, who is the country’s highly notorious outlaw. He was implicated in various criminal activities, including the 2001 hostage taking of Filipinos, United States (US) nationals and other foreigners at Dos Palmas Resort in Palawan for which he was indicted by the US Department of Justice.
He is included in the department’s most wanted list and carries a $5 million bounty on his head. In 2014, a video surfaced showing Hapilon pledging fealty to the Islamic State of Iran and Syria (Isis). Last year, he was reported to have been selected to lead Isis in Southeast Asia with orders to expand the activities of the group from the hinterlands to the urban areas of Mindanao. The avowed long term objective of the jihadists is the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in the island.
Hapilon has been the subject of many military operations, the latest of which was in January when he was reported to have been injured by airstrikes on a militant camp. Last week, security forces launched a raid after receiving intelligence that the Arabic spoken ideologue was in Marawi for medical treatment. To the surprise of government forces, the apartment hosting him was heavily defended by the Maute Group, another radical Islamist band operating in Mindanao.
The University of the Philippines engineering graduate turned fugitive slipped away and his defenders ran amok in the city killing civilians and troops in sporadic firefights. As of this writing more than 60 militants have been reported slain while government forces suffered at least 20 casualties and more wounded as the number of civilian victims has escalated, but no official count is available. A Catholic priest, a college professor, and scores of laymen were also taken hostage as the siege continues.
A day into the encounter on May 23, 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, a move that has again divided the nation whose wounds from the abuses of the dictatorship of former President Ferdinand Marcos have barely healed.
Majority of Mindanao residents applauded the step taken by the incumbent president. Critics, on the other hand, claim that a state of lawlessness exists in Marawi and not “invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it,” as the Constitution explicitly commands. Other collateral issues have also emerged such as the reasoning why the whole of Mindanao was put under martial rule when the disorder is isolated in Lanao del Sur.
Solicitor General Jose Calida claims that the declaration was justified as a number of the militants killed in the clashes were of Malaysian, Singaporean, or Indonesian origin. Their direct participation is considered “foreign invasion” that necessitated the proclamation of the whole island group under military supervision. The purpose of the Mindanao-wide coverage was to expand the dragnet against the armed group that has the propensity to mingle unobtrusively with civilians when cornered.
Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, while explaining the situation, encouraged citizens who may have been aggrieved by the presidential initiative to go to court and seek relief. Administration supporters say Aguirre is right because the system of check and balance in a democratic regime empowers the judiciary to resolve political issues affecting the country. They argued that any government action enjoys the presumption of regularity unless pronounced otherwise by a competent court. And since no complaint has been lodged by the people directly affected by the president’s decision, the assumption is that the military rule is working as expected.
Despite fears of civil libertarians, fueled by President Duterte himself, martial law has not been declared nationwide a week into the Marawi standoff. Congress, tasked by the Constitution to review the validity and necessity of martial law, by not convening at all, has tacitly approved of the presidential declaration. The fundamental law limits the state of military decree to last for not more than 60 days. Should a controversy arise in its implementation and a citizen questions it in court, the judiciary is still open to decide on the merits of the case. Most importantly, the fourth estate and social media are as vibrant as ever.
The fact that Congress, the courts, and the media have not been padlocked or taken over by the government means Duterte has no intention of perpetuating himself in power. When Marcos declared martial law in 1972, claiming the need to put an end to the violence perpetrated by the communists, he immediately silenced these institutions. The swift takeover unmasked his desire to rule the country indefinitely.
Duterte shows none of the predilections of Marcos and had been vocal on the strain the presidency puts on him physically and psychologically. But he has on many occasions displayed a miserable degree of respect for institutions and the rule of law in the pursuit of his objectives.
This is why Filipinos should never be complacent. Eternal vigilance is the price to be paid for freedom. The voice of dissent must always be heard to remind the powers that be that abuse of their position will not be tolerated.
Healthy criticism of executive privileges and judgment call in governance is a requisite for a well-functioning democracy. This is the only guarantee that the dark days of the Marcos era martial law would not come to haunt the country again. A citizenry and political opposition cowed by the leader hungry for complete dominance and personal gain is the shortest path to the death of freedom. And on its death throes authoritarianism and fascism shall flourish.