Manila — The specter of the past that a generation of Filipinos no longer wants to experience suddenly took shape on May 24 at 10 p.m., Manila time, when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared the island of Mindanao under a state of martial law after government troops clashed with the armed extremist Maute group in Marawi City.
Duterte placed the country’s southern island under military rule while he was on state visit in Russia, cutting short his trip. "Martial law is martial law. For those of you who have experienced martial law, it would not be any different from what president Marcos did. I'll be harsh," he declared in a videotaped interview distributed by one of his supporters and was picked up by the media. He was referring to the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law from 1972 to 1985 that was known for its abuses and human rights violations.
His foreign affairs secretary Allan Peter Cayetano said Duterte cut his Russia trip short because of the firefight but maintained that the two countries were still able to sign agreements. "His physical presence is needed in the Philippines and his priority is always the protection of every Filipino, he will act within the framework of the Constitution, we will follow all rules and regulations," Cayetano said.
Duterte’s spokesperson Ernesto Abella said in deciding to declare the entire island under martial law, Duterte believed that “there were possible grounds of the existence of rebellion,” and to “control terrorist movements in the area.” He said there are also security problems in nearby areas like in Sulu, Zamboanga peninsula and Central Mindanao. He clarified that the military rule would only be for 60 days. In the next days, however, Duterte said it might be for a year, and would likely include the island of Visayas or the entire Philippines should conflict escalate.
But even as Duterte and his associates were giving differing pronouncements defending the president’s decision, and as the military launched an offensive in Marawi City, the city where the armed conflict was confined to, outspoken Filipinos expressed their confusion and criticism of the declaration.
They questioned the president’s decision to include the entire Mindanao island even if the armed conflict was only in Marawi City, which is considered one of the more peaceful cities and was experiencing for the first time a siege by the ISIS-inspired Maute group.
Former president Fidel Ramos described Duterte as “very panicky” for declaring martial law and even eyeing to expand it to include Visayas and Luzon, the two other major islands in the Philippines. “There is enough peace there that need not be subjected to martial law,” he said.
Protesting Filipino netizens who opposed Duterte’s decision said that even the late former president Corazon Aquino, who succeeded Marcos in 1986 after a people power revolt, never panicked when she confronted at least nine coups and never even considered declaring martial law during her leadership.
In his previous speeches, Duterte has said once he declares martial law in Mindanao, he would want to solve all of the security problems in the area. Also previously admitting that he is indebted to the Marcos family, Duterte has publicly toyed with the idea of declaring martial law as he cited the threat of illegal narcotics.
Thousands of residents have evacuated Marawi City to escape the fighting. This scene has always played many times in Mindanao due to religious extremism, rebellion and insurgency. This is also not the first time that Maute group and others like it have threatened the lives and livelihood of Filipinos.
As of this writing, the government said it has identified foreigners who have been reported to be aiding the Maute group, which it claimed is loyal to ISIS, but there are yet no proven ties between these two groups. A tragic reality however, is that Marawi, the once peaceful city in war-torn Mindanao, has become a city under siege for the first time.