SOON enough, the Supreme Court will rule on the legality of the declaration of martial law in Mindanao. Such questions at this juncture, however, miss the point. The legal challengers suffer from a serious miscalculation of the situation in Marawi and the threat it poses to the rest of the country, if not the entire Southeast Asian region. We hope that the President and the rest of government focus more on those security issues and take measures against the plot to establish a new Asian beachhead in the global war against terrorism.
For the Philippines, Marawi represents a far more serious danger than that posed by previous secessionist movements. Unlike the MNLF and MILF rebels, the Maute group is poised to ignite a religious war here, the largest predominantly Christian country in Asia. Even as fighting continues, the government should counter any propaganda effort that could attract even more religious fundamentalist elements, including the Islamic State (IS). For years now, local bandits have been raising the IS banner, presumably to attract fighters and other support from abroad. In Marawi, they had some success. Reports have it that the foreigners fighting there hail from Syria, Indonesia, Malaysia, and some Arab states.
Those who might dismiss these concerns as alarmist should consider that the most powerful countries in the world, including the United States, have been waging a war on terror with no apparent end in sight. Even in Syria, where the rebellion has been ongoing since 2011, the superpowers have been unable to obliterate terrorism. Instead, terrorists have defiantly struck back, mainly at civilian targets in Europe and the Middle East. They have even inspired local terrorists to copy their methods, such as beheading their captives. With these as the backdrop, no wonder some are troubled by what might happen in the Philippines if the Maute threat is not handled effectively.
The appropriate response to the attack was “shock and awe” from the police and military. A swift and stronger retaliation could have sent a strong signal against moves by fundamentalists wishing for a toehold in the country. What we saw instead was an inadequacy to end the problem quickly and decisively. Despite the setbacks, there is hope.
Looking ahead, we commend the government’s effort to reach out to its neighbors and invite greater cooperation against terrorism. Last week, officials announced joint patrols of the Sulu Sea by the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, along with assistance from Singapore. The government is also using diplomacy to gather support against this common threat. But the authorities should look beyond this region for solutions. For instance, they could look into satellite technology that the Israelis have reportedly developed to track ship movements in open waters, if they have not yet done so. We are not pretending to be experts, but the point is to leave no stone unturned, so to speak.
On the other hand, the government should not make it appear that the Philippines is the party escalating the fight. The authorities were right to downplay the assistance given by the United States. An American presence could be counter-productive if the Maute group uses that as propaganda material.
The police and military should look beyond containing the terrorists in Marawi. Besides being vigilant against attacks that may happen elsewhere, the government should strike back at all new threats with sufficient force so as to send the message: we shall not yield even an inch.
Politicians and others in society should stand united against any religious fundamentalism. We hope that those calling out the President for declaring martial law are not out to simply rack up political points. We all should work together to realize the economic development goals planned for Mindanao, because losing it will pull us all down. Mr. Rodrigo Duterte, the first president to be elected from there, ran on a promise to solve the Mindanao problem. From all fronts – political, economic and security – he deserves our support. His failure might just lead us to years of greater suffering.