As I am composing this column on Friday morning, the alarming and confusing story about the lone-gunman attack on Resorts World a few hours earlier is still developing. And so, too, is the country’s sense of foreboding.
At the moment, the official report is that the Resorts World attack was a botched robbery and not a terrorist attack. The gunman entered the casino, shot the place up, filled a backpack with gambling chips, started one or more fires, then escaped into the upper floors of the Maxim’s hotel, where he was later found in one of the rooms, having apparently killed himself by setting himself on fire.
No, was reported shot at first, except for a security guard who apparently shot himself in panic, but reports of as many as 36 deaths started coming in by mid-morning. About 50 people were injured, most from smoke inhalation, which was apparently also what killed the people discovered on the hotel’s second and third floors.
Of course, while all this was going on, the battle between the armed forces and the Islamic State (IS)-associated Maute Group in Marawi City is still raging. As of Friday morning, at least 171 people had been killed – including 10 soldiers in an unfortunate friendly fire incident – an unknown number may be hostages, thousands have been forced to flee, and a large part of the city has been wrecked. President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law over all of Mindanao on Tuesday, May 23 when the government finally caught on that there was serious trouble in Marawi, and has said that if he thinks it necessary, he would extend martial law to the entire country.
It is hard to shake the impression that the government, and in particular the country’s law enforcement and military assets, is completely befuddled by the growing terrorism in the country. Except for Marawi, the authorities over the past couple of months have reacted with an odd sort of denial to incidents that were obviously acts of terrorism, regardless of whatever other motives their perpetrators may have had. At the end of April, two bombing attacks about two weeks apart in Manila’s Quiapo district were quickly written off as personal disputes, despite their having many of the characteristics of small-scale terrorist attacks.
Likewise, police authorities stridently denied the Resorts World attack was a terrorist attack, and said it was the work of a “deranged person” bent on robbery. And in Marawi, where “terrorism” has at least been acknowledged, the military has consistently underestimated the severity of the situation. For each of the past five days, military spokespersons have claimed the military has almost taken complete control of the city, and that only a few terrorist fighters are left, yet the situation remains unchanged. Either there are many more than the 200 or so terrorists that the military has said went to Marawi, or they are much better equipped than anyone realized, or both.
It is possible that none of these incidents are related, at least in the sense of being parts of a larger, organized plan, but there is no substantial difference between a bombing or a shooting and arson spree carried out by a sworn terrorist, or some other criminal doing exactly the same thing. People do not need to be protected from “terrorists” per se, but from being blown up, shot, or suffocated by a fire. The semantic choice being exercised by government officials is not actually making the situation better or even preventing it from getting worse. If they wish to insist that the other incidents outside Marawi are “not terrorism,” then they are simply implying the country is experiencing a rapid increase in large-scale violent crime: Either way, security and public safety is rapidly deteriorating, which is exactly the opposite of what was supposed to happen with Duterte’s accession to the presidency almost a year ago.
For Duterte, who has made imposing order a key part of his framework for growth and development, the increasing chaos is probably the worst possible situation he could face. Not only does it make his government appear basically ineffective, it is a huge distraction from any other policy initiative. And unless the government can take control of the situation quickly, normal governance is going to be further handicapped by adverse external reactions to what is happening, as well as the growing fear of the population. Terrorism, after all, simply means causing others to be terrified – it is defined by its outcomes, not its job description. If the government was less image-conscious and thought of it from that perspective, it might be more effective in putting a stop to the growing chaos.