A Filipino soldier uses binoculars during the siege of Marawi City by Islamic State-aligned militants, July 1, 2017. Photo: Twitter

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is set to roll back martial law on the southern island of Mindanao, a move that will relieve residents but one that could open the way for Islamic State (ISIS)-backed militants in the wings.

Martial law, first imposed on May 23, 2017 after ISIS-aligned fighters with the Maute and Abu Sayyaf Groups (ASG) staged a debilitating siege of the island’s Marawi City, will not be extended into 2020, the government announced on December 10.

Marawi’s five-month siege killed some 1,100 individuals, mostly Islamic militants, uprooted over 350,000, and left the core of the country’s only Muslim majority city in ruins that will cost an estimated 72.2 billion pesos (US$1.4 billion) to rebuild.

Martial law has since been in place across 27 provinces and 33 cities, a rights-curbing measure that has perturbed many of the island’s residents but which authorities now say succeeded in weakening ISIS-linked local terrorist groups.

Duterte, the country’s first president to hail from Mindanao, an island of 25 million, declared Marawi liberated from the clutches of ISIS-linked militants on October 17, 2017, attributing the successful military operations against the jihadists to the imposition of martial law.

Meranaws, or the people of Marawi, have since strongly protested against the extended period of martial law as “security overkill.” Those measures have included night-time curfews and greater powers for security forces to conduct warrantless searches.

When martial law was first introduced in Mindanao, some feared Duterte might extend the measure across the entire archipelagic country, in a cynical bid to consolidate more authoritarian powers.

President Rodrigo Duterte fires a few rounds with a sniper rifle in Davao City, March 2018. Photo: AFP/Joel Dalumpines

Martial law in Mindanao was originally scheduled to last for only 60 days, but Duterte later requested Congress to extend it until December 31, 2017. He requested on security grounds and was granted by Congress two additional extensions until December 31, 2019.

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo announced the decision during a press briefing in Malacañang, the Philippine seat of power, on December 10, saying that “any incipient major threat will be nipped in the bud even without martial law.”

“[Duterte’s] decision is based on the assessment of the security forces as well as the defense advisers that the terrorists and extremist rebellion have been weakened as a result of the capture or neutralization of their leaders,” said Panelo.

He also said that de facto military rule over the island had resulted in lower crime rates, ranging from murder, homicide, physical injury, car-napping, robbery, theft, rape and even cattle rustling.

Rommel Banlaoi, chair of the Manila-based Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said the lifting of martial law does not mean that security threats from extremist groups have been extinguished.

“Terrorist threats have been reduced but they still persist and continue to evolve,” he told Asia Times. He said the military needs to sustain “focused military operations” in particular against the ISIS-linked ASG, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and the Ansar Khilafah Philippines.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana did not call for another extension of martial law, but rather has pushed for passage of amendments to the Human Security Act to give security forces more powers to fight terrorism.

The law currently allows for the detention of terror suspects without a court-ordered arrest warrant for three days, which Lorenzana wants extended up to 60 days to give authorities more time to build cases against and interrogate terror suspects. The proposed amendments are pending at the Philippine Senate.

Human rights lawyers working for the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL) have opposed such amendments, noting that some of the proposed provisions violate constitutional rights including freedom of assembly, expression, association, travel, press freedom and due process.

“The proposal will take away your life, liberty and property without giving you a fighting chance to defend yourself,” the NUPL said in a statement.

Lorenzana said the recommendation to lift martial law in Mindanao was based on the military and the police’s joint recommendation. He expressed confidence existing Islamic militants lacked the capability to launch another Marawi-type siege.

Still, Islamic militants have continued to operate with deadly results even with martial law in place, witnessed in recent suicide attacks involving foreign jihadists.

In January, a powerful explosion perpetrated by ASG killed about two dozen people and injured more than 100 others at a Catholic church in Jolo, the capital of Sulu province. An Indonesian jihadist couple orchestrated the suicide attack.

Debris inside a Catholic church where two bombs exploded in Jolo, Sulu province, January 27, 2019. Photo: Westmincom via AFP

In August 2018, a foreigner with links to ASG detonated a van full of explosives at a military checkpoint in Basilan that left 11 people dead, including the suspect. ISIS claimed responsibility for both of the lethal blasts.

Meanwhile, a September bomb attack in Sultan Kudarat province was allegedly carried out by a Swedish national who was arrested and charged along with five others. Authorities identified them all as ISIS sympathizers.

In Marawi, where martial law was strictly implemented even after the defeat of the Islamic militants, war-weary residents welcomed Duterte’s decision to end martial law with cautious optimism.

Drieza Lininding, chair of the Marawi-based Moro Consensus Group, welcomed the move while also calling for vigilance. “We don’t know what’s in the minds of peace saboteurs, both from extremist groups and the government,” he said.

Ironically, Malacañang timed its martial law lifting announcement to coincide with International Human Rights Day, recognized worldwide on December 10.

Human rights and indigenous people’s groups in Mindanao have recorded 162 victims of alleged extrajudicial killings since Duterte assumed power in mid-2016; 98 of those slayings happened after martial law was imposed on May 23, 2017.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (in screen) salutes with soldiers at army headquarters in Manila, March 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Leon Dulce, coordinator for the People’s Network for the Environment, which had campaigned for lifting of martial law, stressed the draconian measure “restricted the operational spaces, brought a climate of fear and muzzled the opposition of activists in Mindanao.”

When martial law is finally lifted on December 31, 2019, the island would have been under military rule for a total of 952 days.

At the same time, Mindanao will still live under a heavy military presence, with 60% of the estimated 200,000-strong Armed Forces of the Philippines still deployed on the island and no orders in sight for a pullout.

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