What did Duterte’s martial law achieve in Mindanao?

Military rule over the island, which will end tomorrow, did nothing but deepen the suffering of the local population.

Mindanao Martial law
Activists hold placards calling for the end of martial law in Mindanao region at a rally held in observance of Human Rights Day in Manila, Philippines, December 10, 2019 [Eloisa Lopez/Reuters]

On December 10, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte announced that he will lift martial law in Mindanao by the end of the year, signalling an end to the controversial order that placed the entire southern island under military control.

Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao in May 2017 after hundreds of fighters from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf armed groups laid siege to the southern city of Marawi. 

While Duterte declared the city free of “terrorists” just a few months later, he asked Congress to allow him to extend the military rule to address an unspecified “rebellion” in Mindanao. 

Congress, which is dominated by Duterte’s allies, approved the extension of military rule three times. The first extension lasted until the end of 2017, while the second lasted until the end of 2018. The third extension prolonged the military rule to the end of this year. 

Opposition politicians and private petitioners challenged the extensions in Philippine courts, arguing that “there is no rebellion” that would legitimise the imposition of military rulebut the Supreme Court, which is also dominated by Duterte’s supporters, sided with the president.

In January this year, opposition politician Edcel Lagman claimed that a military report submitted to Duterte stated that not a single person in Mindanao had been captured, arrested or charged with rebellion during the second extension of martial law. 

Arguing that the lack of arrests is indisputable proof that there is no active rebellion on the island, he once again called for an end to martial law. 

Duterte’s spokesperson Salvador Panelo responded to Lagman with the perplexing claim that the military rule should continue exactly because there had been no arrests. 

“If no arrest has been made on the rebels then with more reason martial law in Mindanao should continue because the rebellion continues,” he said in a statement

Now, after another year under martial law, Duterte still does not have a substantial number of “rebels” behind bars. And as the imposition of military rule over the island of Mindanao appears to be finally coming to an end, many are asking the same questions: Did Duterte’s martial law succeed in quashing the “rebellion”? Was there ever a rebellion? And if there was not, what did this two-and-a-half-year long masquerade actually achieve?

Killing environmental activists, silencing journalists 

On December 3, 2017, the Philippine army’s 27th Infantry Battalion peppered the remote village of Datal Bonglangon in South Cotabato, Mindanao, with gunfire, killing eight people from the T’boli Indigenous community.  

Members of the T’boli community later said they believe their village was targeted by the military because they dared to stand up to a coffee grower encroaching on their ancestral lands. The army later said the eight victims were caught in crossfire between its soldiers and the New People’s Army, a communist rebel group. 

But human rights groups, Indigenous campaigners, independent forensic experts and legal activists dispute the military’s version of events. According to a recent report by Global Witness, an independent watchdog, such attacks soon became the norm under Duterte’s martial law, as the military rule “empowered an army already known for protecting business projects and attacking those who oppose them”. According to the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, a local NGO, 19 environmental activists were killed in Mindanao in 2019 alone. 

Indigenous communities and environmental activists were not the only ones who lost their lives and livelihoods in the lawlessness encouraged by martial law in Mindanao.

On July 10, motorcycle-riding assailants in the city of Kidapawan shot radio host Eduardo Dizon. On July 3, gunmen also fired at another local station in General Santos, another city in Mindanao. Last June, the publisher of a local weekly newspaper, Dennis Denore, was killed in Davao del Norte. These attacks on journalists, who are all believed to have been targeted because of their work aiming to expose corruption, clearly shows that Duterte’s martial law has not only failed to bring order and security to Mindanao, but also created an environment in which defenders of justice can be silenced with impunity.

Martial law even failed to stop the flow of drugs on the island, something that is known to be one of Duterte’s priorities. In December 2018, for example, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency announced that they believe a portion of the large shipment of methamphetamine hydrochloride that they seized in Cavite in August 2018 has made it into Mindanao.

Marawi remains a ghost town 

Supporters of the extension of martial law in Mindanao have also claimed that it would speed up the rebuilding of Marawi city, which was carpet-bombed by the Philippine military during the 2017 siege. But, as it failed to bring law and order to the island, Duterte’s military rule has also failed to aid the rehabilitation of the city.  

As of November 2019, more than 4 billion of the 10 billion-peso 2018 rehabilitation fund remains unreleased and will expire by the year’s end. More than two years after its “liberation”, Marawi remains a ghost town. Moreover, thousands who lost their homes during the siege are still struggling to survive in makeshift camps outside the city. 

A leader of the Moros, the Muslim community indigenous to Mindanao, Rufa Cagoco Guiam, told me “Task Force Bangon Marawi is nowhere near fulfilling its promise of reconstructing Marawi, despite billions of pesos in its disposal. What does this say of the government that ordered the destruction of Marawi’s economic heart?” 

A new military garrison to continue military rule

While it is hard to argue that martial law in Mindanao achieved anything, it is even harder to be certain that military rule over the island will indeed come to an end in the next few days. In January 2018, the Philippine government announced plans to construct a major military base in Marawi City. The base is yet to be completed, but locals say when it does, it will ensure the continuation of military control over the region.   

The Marawi-based civil society group Suara Bangsamoro denounced the construction in a Facebook post, arguing that a military camp will only “breed distrust”.

“The non-extension of martial law is a smokescreen for a more sinister and monstrous attack on the Moro people: the rise of a sprawling military camp at the heart of an Islamic city that it has destroyed,” the group said.

“After reducing Marawi into ashes, Duterte commits yet another historical injustice against the Moro people by establishing a military garrison around a civilian population it has sweepingly treated and unjustly punished as ‘terrorists’.”

Martial law in Mindanao, which was extended for more than two years to quash an imaginary rebellion, achieved nothing other than increasing the suffering of the local population. As a president who is inclined to shoot first and ask questions later remains in power, we are likely to see many more rebellions on the island, both real and imaginary. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.