ASSISTED by US Special Forces, the Philippine military and police forces are looking to finally “liberating” Marawi City in Lanao del Sur today, from the grip of the Maute terror group and its confederates, which have engaged the government in bloody clashes since May 23, 2017, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to issue Proclamation 216, declaring martial law and suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in the whole of Mindanao.
The military hopes to clear the city of its militants, who have killed civilians, taken hostages, desecrated and burnt churches, and hoisted the black flag of the Islamic State (IS) in various parts of Marawi to proclaim their kinship with the murderous Islamist group. After missing a couple of self-imposed deadlines, they appear confident of ending the siege today, the 119th anniversary of Philippine Independence.
There are no published data on the Mautes’ combat strength. Sources who claim to know what’s happening suggest that various insurgent groups have contributed one company each to raise a composite force of 700 fighting men to challenge the government. This means at least 100 men each from the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Moro National Liberation Front (Lost Command), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Lost Command), the Bangsa Moro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), the Jemaah Islamiyah, Rajah Soliman, and the Mautes. Some foreign jihadists—Malaysians, Indonesians, Singaporeans, and other nationalities—have also walked in.
After three weeks of fighting, the Maute brothers Omar and Maudie are reported to have been killed (still unconfirmed). Members of the Maute clan, including the patriarch and matriarch, have been arrested; over 300 “supporters” are now being hunted by the police. But a significant portion of the militant force is believed to have slipped out of Marawi and taken a fallback position in another province. If true, the “liberation” of Marawi would not necessarily mean the end of the Mautes.
Marawi now an IS province
Meanwhile, highly reliable sources report that the IS has formally designated Marawi as its“Eastern Province.” This is denominated (in Arabic) as Dawlah-ul Islamiyah Wilayat-al- Mashriq, under Emir (Arabic for commander) Isnilon Hapilon, a 51-year- old Basilan-born fighter of the Abu Sayyaf Group. Hapilon is reported to have pledged absolute allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new Caliph of the Iraq and Syria-based Islamic Caliphate. His current whereabouts are unknown, but unconfirmed reports suggest he may have strategically or tactically withdrawn from the siege.
In any case, the report, if true, makes Marawi the eighth IS “province”, after those in Algeria, West Africa, Libya, Sinai, Yemen, the Caucasus (Chechnya), and Khorasan (northeast of Persia), but the very first one in a predominantly Catholic Christian nation-state. Outside of Muslim Mindanao, the rest of the country is about 85 percent Catholic. Ever since global terrorists struck at the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, and the IS was founded in Syria and Iraq in 2004, non-Islamic cities have been attacked by the IS. But none of the assailants ever had a Christian-denominated national address.
If, as the Indonesian defense minister recently revealed, 1,200 IS operatives are now in the Philippines, and the IS decides to launch future operations within the country or Southeast Asia, it would probably use these operatives from their new address. But what most people fear is that the reported IS presence could further radicalize the long-running Moro insurgency in southern Philippines. In the last 50 years or so, the Moro insurgent groups have grown in number, and atrocities attributed to them have also increased. But until now, neither side has tried to exploit religion as a motive of the conflict.
A religious war?
The IS could change all that. The Islamists could foment a religious war not only against Christians whom they call “infidels,” but even against their fellow Muslims whose understanding of the Koran and Islamic precepts and principles do not fall within their standards. The wars between Christians and Muslims over the Holy Land have been among the bloodiest in history; the last religious wars, known as the Thirty Years War, ended with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Neither the DU30 government nor the Filipino people can allow this to happen. The jihadists must be booted out; the predominantly Christian population, together with the mainstream non-violent Muslims, must be left in peace.
After weeks of fighting, the city of 200,000 has been abandoned by those who have the means to relocate themselves temporarily in Cagayan de Oro, Zamboanga, Davao or elsewhere for the duration of the siege. As of June 2, 175 combatants and non-combatants have already died—120 militants, 36 military personnel, and 19 civilians. Along with the casualties, damage to homes and property is increasing. So is the number of displaced families and persons.
The government has the tanks, planes and satellite information on enemy troop movements and the like. But the enemy seems more familiar with the terrain, and the art of guerrilla warfare. Against the foreign air strikes which have proved effective in Syria and the Levant, the Mautes are making good use of deep underground tunnels built by an earlier generation of rebels. At least one air strike recently missed its target, killing 11 government soldiers and wounding seven others in a “friendly fire.”
Eating crow and US involvement
Faced with such an enemy, DU30 had to eat crow by asking the US special forces to join the effort, despite his pompous boast in Beijing last October that he was “separating” his government militarily and economically from the US and aligning it with Cina and Russia “against the world.” He probably could have asked China and Russia to help, too—after all, Russia is already helping the al-Assad regime in Syria fight IS; but the Filipino soldiers, who have stood with American troops in previous wars and have been training with them in the Balikatan military exercises, have no previous exposure to the Chinese or the Russians. Even the communists have offered to help. National Democratic Front chair Fidel Agcaoili has been quoted as saying the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/NDF, which has an on-and- off peace talks and ceasefire with the government, would like to join forces with the military in its fight against the Mautes, on the condition that DU30 lift Proclamation 216. It was a generous offer, but based on a condition that was unacceptable to DU30. Agcaoili apparently wanted to say that, like most Filipinos, the CPP/NPA/NDF is against the IS, the Mautes, and martial law, which has provoked many petitions before the Supreme Court regarding its validity. But in reality, the CPP/NPA/NDF was playing a double game. Highly informed sources say that through its Moro Army Committee (MAC), composed of its Muslim members in Mindanao, the NPA has been providing funds, arms and munitions, including some crude weapons from North Korea, to the Mautes.
Setting the pace
The offer was instantly rejected by Defense Secretary and “martial law administrator” Delfin Lorenzana, who said the proposed tie-up with the NPA would violate the principle of “one country, one army.” And DU30, who initially appeared inclined to work with the NPA, eventually adopted Lorenzana’s position. The nation is clearly united in wishing the government all the success in ending the IS/Maute menace. Filipinos, regardless of whether or not they originally supported DU30, would like to see him wipe out this particular enemy. But they would like to see him using the correct and legitimate political and constitutional mechanisms and processes, not any type of shortcuts. They will not stand for any trampling down of the Constitution to attain his declared objective.
This is the same principle involved in DU30’s war on drugs. The nation and DU30’s foreign critics support him in his avowed desire to rid the country of illegal drugs, but this is no license for him, the police and the so-called “vigilantes” to kill a single suspect. And at least 8,000 have been killed.
The cancer metastasizes
In Proclamation 216, this cancer appears to metastasize. Invoking the Maute problem in Marawi, DU30 has declared martial law and suspended the privilege of the writ in the whole of Mindanao, but he has refused to comply with the requirements of he Constitution that would complete the validity of his act.
In defiance of the Constitution, he deliberately refused to report to Congress, in person or in writing, within 48 hours after he signed Proclamation 216, and the two Houses of Congress deliberately refused to convene in joint session, within 24 hours, as directed, to listen to his report, if there is such a report, and to confirm or reject the validity of the proclamation.
And yet all sorts of people have been arrested or ordered arrested, including two former mayors of Marawi, the brothers Fajad Salic “Pre”—(already arrested) and Solitario “Omar” Ali Salic (still at large). They are highly spoken of within and beyond the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as among the more responsible Muslim leaders and dependable government allies in the fight against Islamist extremism, poverty, underdevelopment and injustice.
I have not been to Marawi as much as I would have wanted to, but more than 40 years ago, the Islamic Sultanate League of Marawi City made me, the youngest member of the Marcos Cabinet, an honorary Sultan—Sultan a Macalangcap (Bearer of Truth)—and since then I have tried to keep myself informed on the most important developments there. I have heard many good things about these two former mayors. On my GNN cable TV show yesterday, former Defense Secretary and National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales suggested that DU30 could have enlisted the services of the two brothers to try and organize a peace dialogue among the Muslims. Even the brothers’ political adversaries are genuinely saddened by their ordered arrest, said Gonzales.
But our basic problem has to do with the validity of Proclamation 216. Unless and until DU30 formally withdraws his earlier statement that he will not follow the Supreme Court or Congress, he remains contemptuous of what the Constitution says. To this, House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez has added his own pledge to defy the Supreme Court, should it ever order Congress to convene in joint session to listen to the President’s report—if there is such a report—pursuant to Section 18, Article VII of the Constitution.
This sounds like “power flowing from the barrel of a gun,” as Mao Zedong famously said. Where does Alvarez get this kind of arrogance? What kind of society and government do we have that we should have such creatures speaking for us? Without doubt, if both the President and Congress refuse to comply with the constitutional provisions needed to make Proclamation 216 valid, that instrument is unenforceable and void.
Not martial law, but revolutionary govt
Therefore, we do not have martial law but an “undeclared revolutionary government.” This happened because DU30 seemed more interested in using the IS/Maute crisis to grab unlimited and unaccountable power for himself. He was several steps ahead of everybody else. So he has deposed himself as a duly elected President in order to become a revolutionary President. There has been a power grab, which invites others to do their own power grab. It leaves our people and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which is the protector of the people and the State, no choice but to pick their own favored power grab. Should they support DU30 or should they do their own power grab? The war has just begun for the survival of the unfittest.