“NEVER again” was what most Filipinos who are old enough to remember Martial Law under Ferdinand Marcos would have replied if you asked them about the chances of martial law being declared ever again. Now it has happened. The problem is that the term martial law has always been used as a synonym, a euphemism to refer to the Marcos dictatorship. And make no mistake, it was a dictatorship. The fact that the younger generation seems to know little about it and some of the older generation still refer to Ferdinand Marcos as the best President the country has ever had is a problem of what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewältigung, that is, properly dealing with the past. The German lexicon defines Vergangenheitsbewältigung as “public debate within a country on a problematic period of its recent history”. Sadly, Vergangenheitsbewältigung has never happened here. This is why people get confused about the term martial law. Is it the beginning of a new dictatorship? Is it just a legal instrument, a toothless tiger?
This time, martial law is different. The authors of the 1987 Constitution decided to have built-in safeguards, still providing for martial law per se, but restraining its powers decisively. What’s different now from the martial law of Ferdinand Marcos? First of all, martial law can be revoked by Congress. Section 18, Article VII of the 1987 Constitution states that the President may “in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it” suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or place the country under martial law. Also, the martial law period or suspension of the writ of habeas corpus shall not exceed 60 days. This is meant to safeguard individual freedom against arbitrary state action. Under a state of martial law the executive branch cannot override the function of the judiciary and legislative branches of the government.
In the light of martial law returning to the Philippines (or at least to a significant part of the national territory), how and why is it supposed to help the country? The declaration of martial law for Mindanao was an immediate response of President Duterte after the outbreak of violence in Marawi City. After years of downplaying the nature of armed groups–and this refers explicitly to the groups that actively oppose peace in Mindanao—it has become evident that this is not only about rebellion or separatism. Terrorism has found its way across the borders. And yes, this terrorism and the groups involved in it do not only idolize the so-called Islamic State (IS), these groups consider themselves a franchise of it. Even though the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Maute Group have repeatedly pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State, authorities and analysts have labeled them as mere bandits for the longest time. In fairness to those not granting those groups the status of extremist terrorists, the activities of the Abu Sayyaf have been characterized by kidnap-for-ransom acts rather than terrorist attacks for years. But terrorism knows no borders in a globalized world. Therefore, Abu Sayyaf and Maute constitute attractive targets for mergers and acquisitions in the eyes of bigger, more dangerous groups like Jemaah Islamiyah, or even the Islamic State. So, is the Maute Group that is behind the siege of Marawi City now truly a part of the Islamic State or just a violent group of bandits? The truth is probably somewhere in between. But the ongoing siege shows that they have capacities that go beyond those of bandits. And the siege itself shows that the Maute Group is following textbook IS procedures. With the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, the President has made it clear that the threat we are facing is not just a group of bandits.
The current revelations appear critical considering its possible implications on the peace process in Muslim Mindanao. The history of this process has shown major groups committing themselves to peace and autonomy while radical breakaway groups continue the path of violence. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front are willing to work together with the government to achieve lasting peace and self-determination for the Muslims of Mindanao. The actions of radical groups like the Abu Sayyaf or Maute are what political scientists call spoilers to the peace process. The people of Mindanao have suffered enormously for decades in their pursuit of self-determination. Whether it will be federalism or a truly autonomous region, the goal is still within reach. But it needs continuing efforts from all sides, the national government, the major groups in Mindanao and civil society, to keep this goal alive. All sides have to accept and realize that the fight against spoilers of peace cannot be a military action only. Whether extremist groups can be defeated in one week or in one decade, the most important task for government and civil society is to invest in preventing violent extremism which will destroy the breeding ground for radicalism. Both Christianity and Islam are religions that are based on the core value of human dignity. A paramount prerequisite for a dignified life is peace. With peace within reach, Muslim Mindanao can start prospering into a region that provides the people with the economic means for a dignified life also. Only if this path to development remains open, will the young and marginalized see that violence and extremism are not a choice.
Benedikt Seemann is the Country Director of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s (KAS) Philippine office. He oversees KAS’ various projects in the Philippines in the fields of the rule of law strengthening democracy and human rights. Prior to joining KAS, Seemann served as chief of staff to a whip at the German Parliament (Christian Democrats’ parliamentary group). He holds a master’s degree in political science and public law, having studied at the University of Trier (Germany) and Hong Kong Baptist University. He is a member of the board of advisors of CDPI.