By Ignacio R. Bunye
President Rody Duterte momentarily shifted his focus last week from the war on drugs to another front. This time, he had Islamist militants in his sights.
Duterte’s target consisted of combined elements of the Maute Group, a relatively small band which claims association with ISIS, and the Abu Sayaf Group reportedly led by Isnilon Hapilon.
Hapilon, who was reported to have been severely wounded in his native Basilan in January, surprised the military when he resurfaced in Marawi City.
Hapilon was reported to be on a mission to link up with Maute and other militants in Central Mindanao.
What started initially as pursuit operations against Hapilon developed into full-blown running gunbattles in an area covering 11 barangays in Marawi City.
As these developed, the hostiles occupied buildings (including a hospital and a school), houses and bridges, taking civilians as hostages, and hoisting IS-style black flags.
The fighting triggered a massive exodus of Marawi residents to Iligan City with many, unable to find transport, escaping on foot. As of this writing, casualties mounted on both sides.
Duterte was in Russia, on a state visit, when the crisis began to develop. He responded by cutting short his visit and issuing from Moscow on May 23, Proclamation No. 215, declaring martial law in the whole of Mindanao and suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.
He also named AFP chief of staff Eduardo Año as martial law administrator. Año was originally scheduled for early retirement (to take on the post of DILG secretary) but Duterte extended his military service for another six months.
Duterte’s move caught many by surprise. After all, initial pronouncements from military spokesmen described the situation as “contained,” “under control” with several areas “cleared of Maute presence.”
Analysts also earlier described Maute as “a small group” and “a manageable threat.”
But to Duterte the actions of the militants constituted rebellion, one of the grounds for declaring martial law. And he was not taking any chances.
Critics of the President, including a group of Muslim lawyers, claim there is not enough factual basis for the declaration of martial law. Furthermore, declaration of martial law is supposed to be a last resort.
Let them go to court, countered Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre.
The President’s allies further allayed fears of possible abuses similar to what occurred during the Marcos years. They cited that under the 1987 Constitution:
- The declaration of martial law may be revoked any time by a joint declaration of both houses of Congress.
- The declaration may not last more than 60 days. Any extension must be approved by Congress.
- The Supreme Court may also look into the factual basis for the declaration.
As of this writing, any chance of joint Congressional action appears to be remote. Mindanao congressmen are reported to be “concerned” but “generally supportive” of the Duterte’s initial move.
Businessmen friendly to the administration are also cautiously optimistic that the rest of Mindanao will survive the effects of the fighting.
One businessman, who is in the 24-hour convenience store business, however, hopes that President Rody will not declare a curfew.
“When that happens, that will really be bad for our business.”
Let us all hope for the best but be prepared for the worst.
Heard on the air:
DZBB’s Rene Sta. Cruz: Hindi ba ang pagsunog ng mga gusali at paghostage ng mga sibilyan ay violation din ng human rights? Eh bakit wala man lamang akong naririnig mula sa Commission on Human Rights?
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