Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte embarked on a five-day trip to Moscow (May 22-26) intent on fortifying a strategic partnership with Russia, including assistance and arms to combat a rising tide of Islamic militancy at home.
He was forced to cut short his trip, however, to address a security crisis caused by a series of coordinated attacks by Islamic State (IS) affiliated groups in his home island of Mindanao.
Duterte still managed to arrange an earlier-than-scheduled meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, the second formal meeting between the two leaders in the past six months.
The two countries signed ten major pacts including an Agreement on Defense Cooperation (ADC) which will pave the way for closer military-to-military ties through enhanced intelligence-sharing, training and possible future joint exercises.
The intelligence-sharing component will have a particular focus on counterterrorism cooperation. In his meeting with Putin, Duterte openly asked for greater Russian assistance in dealing with Southeast Asia’s rising IS problem, particularly and pointedly in Mindanao.
It isn’t clear whether the attacks were deliberately undertaken while Duterte and the bulk of his cabinet, including National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, were thousands of miles away in Russia.
The Maute group, also known as the Islamic State of Lanao (ISL), has laid siege to the city of Marawi, the largest in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), shortly after a failed raid on the safe house of Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group, a leading IS-affiliate group in the region.
It is likely that the absence of senior government officials, including the president, emboldened the extremist group to launch what appears on the surface to be a revenge operation.
Throughout their rampage across the city, Islamic militants beheaded a police chief, took a priest and several civilians hostage, and waved the flags of IS across Marawi, as tens of thousands of civilians fled for safety.
The horrific scenes rekindled painful memories of the siege of Zamboanga in 2013, when a breakaway faction of the Moro National Liberation Front, allegedly led by the militant group’s founder Nur Misuari, laid siege to one of Mindanao’s most prosperous cities.
The ensuing clashes between the rebels and law enforcement agencies led to the displacement of 100,000 people, with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) faction occupying several neighborhoods across the predominantly Christian port city.
Then President Benigno Aquino’s government took several weeks to end the crisis through a massive deployment of troops and continuous aerial bombardments of the combatants’ positions. Duterte, however, took a firmer step by declaring martial law across all of Mindanao.
The decision was likely based on concerns that the siege on Marawi is the first salvo of a large-scale plan to foment instability across the island and beyond.
The abrupt declaration took many by surprise, bringing back memories of the abusive martial law order under Ferdinand Marcos’ regime in the 1970s and early-1980s. “It will not be any different from what the President Marcos did,” declared Duterte shortly before he left Moscow to return home. “I’d be harsh.”
Critics were quick to raise concerns, wondering why the president had to declare martial law across all of Mindanao without providing a specific explanation of the supposed wider threat. They say he could have adopted milder constitutional measures, such as a state of emergency, to fully mobilize law enforcement and military personnel to restore order in Marawi.
Upon his return from Moscow, Duterte upped the ante by threatening to declare martial law across the entire country.
“I will not hesitate to do anything and everything to protect and preserve the Filipino nation,” warned Duterte, in acknowledgement of growing public expectation to address the unfolding crisis in his home island and fears the instability could spread to the main island of Luzon.
“I might declare martial law throughout the country to protect the people,” he added.
Despite Duterte’s threatening language, fears of a return to the dark days of martial law under the Marcos dictatorship still seem farfetched.
The 1987 Philippine constitution has multiple in-built safeguards which allow both Congress and the Supreme Court to push back hard against any executive abuse of power.
Though Duterte’s allies in the legislature may accept martial law in Mindanao, its extension to the rest of the country will likely face concerted opposition from various pillars of state and an energized civil society.
In a reassuring move, the Philippine military, which has largely internalized democratic values since the fall of the Marcos regime, released a set of guidelines which ensure the implementation of martial law takes the mildest form possible and safeguards basic civil liberties.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno also instructed judges in Mindanao to stay put and continue their normal functions. But public pressure is mounting on Duterte, the first Filipino president from Mindanao, to end the conflict in his home island once and for all.