Eye on Asia: Martial law in Mindanao, Philippines

As the world reeled over the Manchester bombing, #PrayforMarawi was trending on Twitter feeds in the Philippines after insurgent violence erupted in the southern island of Mindanao.

Government forces and radicals from Abu Sayyaf and the Islamic State-linked Maute Group engaged in a gun battle in Marawi City, resulting in numerous casualties.

The violence led to President Rodrigo Duterte declaring martial law in the Mindanao region on 23 May.

Militant activity in Mindanao

A number of insurgent groups operate in Mindanao, a Muslim-majority region in the predominantly Catholic Philippines.

They include the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and Abu Sayyaf, which has been declared a terrorist group by the United Nations.

Islamic State-linked Maute Group was blamed for the bombing of a night market in Davao City in September 2016, which killed 15 people and wounded 71 others.

Duterte's election vow

The attacks in Mindanao are personal for President Duterte.

He was mayor of Mindanao's Davao City for almost 20 years and built a reputation for being hard on criminals and terrorists. Duterte rose to office on a campaign that vowed to crush the various insurgencies across the country.

Duterte has warned martial law could be expanded to other parts of the Philippines.

He has pushed a federalist system as the key to addressing insurgent and regional demands for autonomy.

Duterte has warned martial law could be expanded to other parts of the Philippines, including the Visayas, which he describes as “just walking distance” from Mindanao.

Detractors, noting Duterte's authoritarian leanings, say his numerous threats of martial law should be taken seriously.

Threat in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is home to large Muslim communities that are internationally perceived as having more moderate values than those in the Middle East. The violence in Mindanao's Marawi City, along with Wednesday's bombings in Jakarta (24 May 2017), raises the threat of Islamic State expansion into the region.

While regional leaders view counter-terrorism as a major security priority, they face rapidly shifting religious dynamics domestically.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, the recent sentencing of a former Jakarta governor for blasphemy has stoked concerns of radicalism and religious violence. In the Philippines, the return of Islamic State foreign fighters threatens to further complicate existing insurgencies where religious difference mixes with historical grievances on state power. 

The strategy taken by Indonesia and Malaysia has been to promote Southeast Asia as exemplary of peaceful, mainstream Islam. The path, however, is more difficult for countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, where Muslim populations are in the minority and often marginalised.

History repeats

The most famous and repressive period of martial law in the Philippines lasted from 1972 to 1986 under former president Ferdinand Marcos.

Marcos justified martial law on insurgent violence after a series of bombings and an assassination attempt on the defence secretary were credited to communist insurgents.

After invoking martial law, Duterte referenced the Marcos era in a live Facebook interview: “Martial law is martial law. So kayong mga kababayan ko (So my fellow countrymen), you’ve experienced martial law – it would not be any different from what President Marcos did. I’d be harsh.”

Weapons from Russia? 

The US and the Philippines have previously cooperated on combatting terrorism in Mindanao, with the US supplying weapons and training. 

Since taking office, Duterte has turned away from US-Philippines relations in favour of exploring relations with China and Russia to address issues such as terrorism and South China Sea disputes. 

During his official visit to Russia, Duterte is believed to have sought Vladimir Putin's assistance in supplying weapons to combat terrorism. The request, and Duterte’s visit to Moscow, is likely to further concern the US.

Leaked transcripts of a call between Duterte and US President Trump, however, suggest tensions may be easing, especially after Trump's apparent endorsement of Duterte’s war on drugs.

NZ's eye on terror

In August 2017, New Zealand will join Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines at a counter-terrorism summit in Indonesia, that addresses the rising threat of Islamic State in the region in the form of foreign fighters returning to their home nations. 

– Asia Media Centre