Ever since the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, declared martial law in the Philippines on September 21, 1972, it has become such a sensitive subject among Filipinos, especially to those who have directly and indirectly experienced what life was under military rule. Although it was formally lifted on January 17, 1981, the physical, emotional, and mental scars it left on its victims have stayed on that “Never Again” has become the battle cry of those who oppose even a whiff of dictatorial tendencies of succeeding presidents of the archipelago.
But then, in 2016, around 16 million Filipinos voted Rodrigo Duterte as their 16th president. Notable as Davao City’s street-tough mayor, Duterte rode on his populist stance, vulgar rhetoric, and the promise to get rid of much of the country’s woes in just his first few months in office to secure the highest political position in the land. In his subsequent speeches, he has mentioned several times that he would not hesitate to declare martial law should the need arises.
As fate would have it, Duterte would get his chance to do so, albeit on a limited scale. On May 23, 2017, Philippine government security forces clashed with affiliated militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which included the Maute and Abu Sayyaf Salafi jihadist groups. Reports said the conflict started when a combined Army and police teams in Marawi, Lanao del Sur in Mindanao tried to capture Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, but were fired upon. Soon, reinforcements from the Maute group, which according to the military was responsible for the deadly 2016 Davao City bombing, arrived, making the firefight into a full-scale battle.
The Maute group attacked Camp Ranao and occupied several buildings in Marawi, including the city hall, Mindanao State University, a hospital, and the city jail among others, also setting fire to Saint Mary’s Church, Ninoy Aquino School, and the Dansalan College. They also laid waste to the Marawi Cathedral and took a priest and several churchgoers hostage.
Duterte, who was in Russia during this time, cut his trip short to deal with the Mindanao issue. His very first act was to issue Proclamation No. 216, putting the whole of Mindanao under martial law, which included Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi. The 1987 Philippine Constitution provides for a maximum 60-day state of martial law without Congress approval for extension, the continuation of government functions, and the safeguard of individual freedom. But Duterte told the media the day after, “Martial law is martial law. It will not be different from what Marcos did. I’d be harsh.” He added that it could be extended nationwide should terrorism risks spread.
Unlike during Marcos’s time when there was almost universal outcry against martial law, Duterte’s version has been met with ambivalence, with his supporters hailing his decision while those against him expressing their alarm. The fact that Duterte’s administration enjoys a super majority in Congress made it easier for him to extend martial law until the end of December of this year.
Meanwhile, Marawi is still a battleground (as of this writing), with its thousands of citizens displaced, hundreds killed, and several others dying in evacuation centers due to sickness.