I AM very tempted to just continue with my recent commentary series on Sabah and Malaysian politics, as what is happening politically in a neighboring country would perhaps interest Filipino readers as well. But what happened recently in the southern part of the Philippines, as well as elsewhere in the world, would preempt such neighborly political narrative, and would perhaps necessitate more urgent comment. The comparatively more mundane politics can wait.
President Duterte declared martial law in the whole of Mindanao during his state visit to Russia two weeks ago, and indeed cut short the visit to return home to deal with the worsening armed conflict in his native island. The attacks carried out by terrorists, self-proclaimed to be a part of the global terror network of Islamic State, had intensified in recent months, especially after the daring bombing in Davao City last year. Those of us who are residents of neighboring Sabah of course empathize with the sufferings of the innocent residents of Mindanao, who have to deal with so many armed and dangerous groups with differing ideologies. Occasionally, such armed incidents had in the past “spilt over” to Sabah, as was the case when in 2013, armed elements from the so-called Sulu Sultanate landed in Sabah and engaged the Malaysian armed forces.
In emergency circumstances such as the present, when the Philippine armed forces would require a greater degree of flexibility to root out terror groups which pose a clear and present danger not only to public order but indeed the lives of ordinary citizens, the imposition of martial law for a short and defined period of time is understandable. It is akin to that instituted during a state of war, when the very existence of public institutions is at stake. For let’s make no mistake about it – this is essentially a civil war going on.
On the other hand, Philippine authorities and the Filipino people must also not lose sight of the fact that Philippine democratic institutions serve as shining beacons not just for the Filipinos, but also for the many other Southeast Asians aspiring for democracy. As such, the implementation of martial law must not be handled callously, but very carefully, so that gross violations of human rights are to be avoided in the process. The extension, if any, of the martial law period should also undergo an acceptable degree of democratic scrutiny, as is provided for under the Philippine Constitution. Neighboring countries would cheer on the Philippines as the country and its people tackle terrorism bravely. But at the same time, all eyes are also on the Philippines as its martial law, albeit a partial one, is being carried out.
Indeed, terror attacks are escalating in the region and elsewhere. A suicide bomber blew himself up and brought down a policeman in Jakarta. Ramming down of pedestrians by vehicles followed by random stabbing of passersby took place twice in a period of two weeks or so in London, the United Kingdom. A passenger tried to force his way into the cockpit of an airliner in Melbourne, Australia. Closer to home, there are conflicting accounts of a deadly arson incident in a Manila casino early this week. These are but a few of the recent cases of violence which have indeed struck fear in the hearts of many people in the region and elsewhere in the world. The perpetrators may or may not proclaim themselves to be aligned to this or that terrorist groups, but the cruel fact remains that people are killed in the process.
These rampant and random killings are taking place around the world, and across both geographical and ideological divides, from Russia to Sweden to Egypt and also countries mentioned in the previous paragraph, just since the beginning of this year. Very often, prominent politicians would call on all concerned parties from around the world to work together to counter terrorism in all its forms, as was reiterated during the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. A starting point for such international cooperation would of course be the sharing of relevant and timely intelligence. Nations must be abundantly clear about the borderless nature of terrorism. They must understand that when it comes to combating terrorism, their national security needs are not well served by withholding important leads from other, albeit ideologically opposed, nations, but are actually better served by sharing the pertinent information even with erstwhile rival nations. Until this can be done in a truly voluntary basis, the global fight against terrorism will always remain a local, fruitless effort.
The world, for example, is shocked by the decision of a significant group of Middle Eastern countries which decided suddenly to sever diplomatic ties, communication channels and even transportation routes with Qatar. While we are still trying to figure out the geopolitical motivations and consequences of such a surprise development, we must not lose sight of the need for solidarity of all parties concerned when it comes to eradicating the scourge of terrorism.