IT is easy to misread, misinterpret and misunderstand a leader like President Rodrigo Duterte whose public pronouncements are a mix of jokes and serious allegations regarding the extent of corruption in government, the illegal drugs scourge and the spread of terrorist organizations in the country, especially when his speeches are punctuated by a barrage of crisp profanities.
One thing’s for sure, he is not joking about the deepening infiltration of the southern Philippines by Islamist militants, particularly by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the global terrorist network that goes by the acronym ISIS or IS.
ISIS has big plans for Mindanao, foremost of which is to turn the porous island into an IS nucleus. But more than that, Mindanao will serve as base of operations for an IS East Asia Division.
It is no fantasy, and definitely not a figment of President Duterte’s imagination, when juxtaposed with images and footages of the raging battle between government troops and Abu Sayyaf and Maute militants in Marawi City, the capital of Lanao del Sur.
The militants have taken over government buildings, took civilian hostages and probably killed scores of innocent civilians. They are carrying and raising the monochromatic flag of ISIS that has come to symbolize the brutality of jihad in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia and southern Philippines.
The situation now in Marawi City was the very topic of a gathering of security experts last month in Singapore, the Milipol conference on homeland security.
According to a report by Agence France-Presse, a security expert discussed extensively the creation of a militant base in Mindanao. “Currently, IS is moving towards creating a territory in southern Philippines. The most recent communication issued by IS has announced that they have formally declared an East Asia division of IS in the southern Philippines,” counter-terrorism analyst Rohan Gunaratna said.
“The instability in the southern Philippines and the availability of weapons, internal displacement, refugee flows … create the ripe conditions for foreign terrorists to come,” he told AFP after his speech.
The siege in Marawi prompted Duterte—on May 23—to issue Proclamation No. 216, Declaring a State of Martial Law and Suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus in the Whole of Mindanao.
His critiques were quick to point out the folly of what the President has done. Human Rights Watch has raised the prospect of abuse of authority by the implementors on the ground. Martial law is not a free pass for abuse, according to HRW.
Former President Fidel Ramos, a veteran of the Marcos regime martial law, noted that Proclamation 216 was ill-timed and “unbecoming” of the Duterte administration. “Those in the Cabinet, in Congress, who are very vocal about martial law being good for Mindanao, may not have experienced being shot by someone. Or being forced to evacuate in a safe place, or to lose a job, livelihood, or a loved member of a family,” Ramos said on Friday. He urged Duterte not to expand the coverage of martial law beyond Mindanao.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, the president of the opposition Liberal Party, made it clear he would block any move by Duterte to place Visayas and Luzon under military rule, especially in the absence of circumstances similar to Mindanao.
The criticisms are a healthy expression of the people’s constitutional rights and must not be suppressed even if the ISIS threat is as real as the cracks of gunfire ringing out of Marawi City. The body count tallied so far is 11 government soldiers, 31 militants. The response must not only be real, but focused and equal to the exigencies of the situation without harming the innocent and truth.