Martial law alone cannot solve problems in southern Philippines
President Rodrigo Duterte must tackle the decades-old neglect of Muslim-majority areas and bring all sides to the negotiating table
The Philippines’ constitution allows the country’s leader to declare martial law in only two circumstances: invasion and rebellion. President Rodrigo Duterte pointed to the latter when putting all of the southern island of Mindanao under military rule to fight Muslim extremists who claim links to Islamic State. He has threatened the measure nationwide should the menace widen. But with the action reminding of the dark era of dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ rule, it should be used when absolutely justified and for only as long as is necessary, as with the battle to seize back the city of Marawi.
There should be no disputing that the overrunning of the city of 200,000 people by heavily armed militants was a justified circumstance for military rule. Any extension of the maximum 60-day order can only be approved by lawmakers. Tough action was needed; fighting that had been raging for months in the countryside spread to urban areas and in the past week, dozens have been killed, civilians captured and as much as 90 per cent of the population forced to flee. The army has reportedly used the imposition of curfews and powers to search and arrest without court approval to great effect and only pockets held by the militants now need to be recaptured. Yet while Duterte’s supporters say those involved are rebels, his critics contend they are merely criminal gangs.
Muslim-majority southern provinces of the Catholic-dominated nation have for decades been neglected and mismanaged by Manila, to the point that poverty is rife and there is a strong sense of injustice. The rise of extremist groups seeking independence or self-rule has been a by-product, leading to decades of extremism, including kidnapping, murder and terrorism. To attain their goals, militants have reached out to like-minded Muslim extremists for support.
But while martial law can tackle emergencies, it is no way to bring about peace. Muslim leaders want greater autonomy and that can only be attained through negotiations. Diplomacy has repeatedly failed due to a lack of resolve by Manila and various militant groups, with rare exceptions. Duterte has to create the conditions for all sides to come to the table.