Summing up in Mindanao
General Ed Año, the Armed Forces chief of staff, has submitted his report on the security situation in Mindanao to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. The contents of this report, according to President Duterte, are what he will rely upon in deciding whether or not to extend martial law in Mindanao.
With a whole week to go before the State of the Nation Address next Monday, the President has enough time to fully reflect upon a decision that he can already disclose in his second annual report to the nation. If he’s inclined to lift martial law, an announcement to that effect would put a perfect highlight on what is expected to be a very well-received speech, framed by the record-high ratings he still enjoys after a year in office.
There are a good number of reasons why the AFP might support the outright lifting of martial law either on its 60th day, as required, or very shortly thereafter. Among them:
Wholesale rout of the enemy in Marawi. True, it still isn’t safe for every one of the thousands of civilian evacuees to return to their homes. Not every building has been cleared, not every sniper post taken out. But at this point, the question is no longer “if,” nor even “when,” but “how soon” complete normalcy can return to the damaged city.
Lopsided kill stats. At last count, the fatalities on the Maute/ISIS side exceeded 400 and counting, while losses on the government side were less than a hundred. This is only to be expected whenever rebels engage in frontal and positional warfare with a numerically and logistically superior opponent.
Ending civilian casualties. What is truly distressing though is the still-uncounted number of civilian casualties, with bodies still being unearthed here and there. The toll this will take on the community’s morale is bound to be heavy. Nonetheless, we can at least be comforted by the thought that this human tragedy will inoculate potential recruits and their relatives to the blandishments of imported jihadist terrorism.
Exemplary AFP. Contrary to the doomsday warnings of martial law critics, especially of the red and yellow varieties, the military behaved with utmost decorum, given the circumstances. No mosques were bombed. No abuses of civilians or prisoners were reported. The AFP even went so far as to chide their PNP brothers for promulgating a Muslims-only ID policy in Tarlac, or for sending scalawag cops to Mindanao duty as some form of punishment. As Secretary Lorenzana rightly pointed out, it is precisely hot spots like Marawi that demand the best cops, not the worst ones.
International support. The incursion of ISIS into Marawi quickly persuaded other countries to offer new resources that we can now rely upon. Our closest neighbors, Indonesia and Malaysia, arranged to run joint sea and air patrols together with our forces. The United States, though unsolicited, sent firearms and materiel. The Chinese were profuse with pledges of aid, which we are still waiting for them to make good on.
The high likelihood of Duterte’s lifting martial law in Mindanao can be gauged from the desperate lengths that yellow media outlets like Rappler and the Inquirer have gone to in order to keep alive the bogeyman of Marcos-style martial law being declared throughout the entire country. It’s pathetic, the sight of grown-ups trying to scare other grown-ups like little children.
On the other hand, there is still a residual case that can be made for extending martial law in Mindanao, whether in full or only in the highest-risk areas. Among them:
ISIS threat. In the wake of actual complete defeat in Mosul, Iraq and a similar imminent defeat in Raqqa, Syria, the ISIS terrorists have few other places to go. One of them is Southeast Asia, home to many Muslim-majority countries and the never-vanquished Muslim minority of Mindanao. In fact, the Philippines has already been declared as the next battlefront of the caliphate armies. Coming here will be much more convenient for Indonesian and Malaysian recruits to their bloody cause.
Pan-Mindanao terror networks. The entire island is still host to a wide variety of rebellious groups, apart from the mainstreamed MNLF and MILF who are now deeply engaged in the peace process. Incident are still being reported from Sulu and Tawi Tawi to Lanao, Compostela, and Zamboanga. Breaking up these terror networks is vastly simplified by simple interdictory measures like roadblocks—which have already netted a large number of high-value suspects—as well as aggressive measures like suspending habeas corpus, which buys more time to extract and act upon usable intel from captured rebels.
Drugs and politicians. The huge cash hoard discovered in Marawi in the early days of the fighting there can only have come from the drug trade and/or well-heeled local politicians who support the rebels for a variety of reasons. Allowing these politicians to reclaim and again unrestrictedly lord it over their fiefdoms may simply mark the return of instability, increasingly fuelled by the easy money made from drugs.
We may see in the next few days how the President has decided to deal with this issue. The country’s recent experience with the trauma of Marawi, coupled with the remarkably high trust reposed in Duterte, should at least help to quickly build public consensus behind whatever course of action he chooses.
Readers can write me at [email protected]