Duterte reaches for more power

A military confrontation in Mindanao has provided Rodrigo Duterte with the ideal pretext for a declaration of martial law he has long sought, explains Alessandro Tinonga.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte addresses reporters during a press conference (JaLozano | Wikimedia Commons)Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte addresses reporters during a press conference (JaLozano | Wikimedia Commons)

PHILIPPINES PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law in the southern part of the country, representing the next phase in Duterte's drive to centralize political power in his own hands, using repression and bloodshed.

Duterte went on the offensive after fighting between government troops and Islamic rebels on the southern island of Mindanao came to a head in late May.

After the Philippine Army unsuccessfully tried to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a commander of the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf, the militants called for reinforcements. About 100 gunmen from Abu Sayyaf and another group called Maute entered the city of Marawi and effectively took over a sizeable section for section for several days.

In the course of the fighting, 44 people have been killed, 31 of whom were alleged militants, while the rest were soldiers and police. A Catholic priest and several parishioners were kidnapped, and many thousands fled the city in search of safety.

Duterte's declaration of martial law suspends rule by local government and puts the army in charge of the entire island. According to the constitution, Duterte can essentially use the army as he deems necessary for 60 days, unless the Congress revokes his declaration or extends it.

Duterte also threatened to extend martial law to the rest of the country, perhaps for a period of up to one year. "If I think that you should die, you will die," he said on May 24. "If you fight us, you will die. If there is open defiance, you will die. And if it means many people dying, so be it."

Martial law under Duterte is a very dangerous development for the people of the Philippines. As mayor of Davao City, Duterte oversaw death squads that targeted petty criminals and drug dealers as well as his political opponents. As president of the country, Duterte launched an iron-fisted "war on drugs" that so far has claimed the lives of more than 7,000 people through police murder and state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings.

While the violence of Abu Sayyaf and other militants poses a real danger to everyday Filipinos, Duterte has shown that he is willing to oversee mass bloodshed to solidify his rule.

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THE SKIRMISH in Marawi in late May poses the question: Has ISIS landed on the islands?

In the thick of the crisis, much of the media coverage of the fighting on Mindanao uncritically echoed assertions by the Philippines government.

During a press conference, Duterte stated that the police chief in Malabang was beheaded by terrorists at a checkpoint. Several unconfirmed reports started to spread about beheadings taking place all across the region. A few days later, the press found out that not only was the Malaban police chief not beheaded, he was actually alive.

Duterte also asserted that the militants in Marawi were acting as an arm of ISIS, going so far as to assert that the Philippines had been "invaded." Yet Solicitor General Jose Calida stressed that the government had no evidence of a direct link between the militant groups and ISIS.

To be clear, both Abu Sayyaf and Maute are reactionary organizations that have committed atrocities, including beheadings, and recently declared their allegiance to ISIS. However, both are groups with roots in the Philippines, which predate ISIS. They sprang up and have endured because of the grinding poverty and ongoing instability that plague the region.

Mindanao has historically been one of the poorest areas of the Philippines. In a country devastated by the Marcos dictatorship's decades of plunder, then by neoliberal policies, Mindanao had been continually overlooked by the government when it came to aid or development programs. Mindanao's population is majority Muslim, which also explains the government's neglect in a predominantly Roman Catholic country.

As a result, corruption became the order of the day, and the desperate thirst for change served as the source for sustaining several rebel groups.

Abu Sayyaf grew out of one of those groups. In 1991, it broke from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), opting to fight for a separate Islamic state instead of the MNLF's call for an autonomous zone. For most of its existence, it has engaged in kidnapping and extortion to fund its operations.

While many of its commanders continue to be committed to its founding vision of establishing an Islamic state, it has behaved much like a gang. Its enduring appeal to its recruits is the promise to secure resources for an area wracked by poverty, to provide protection in a region ruled by local strongmen, and to give a sense of purpose amid widespread despair.

While Maute is newer on the scene, its orientation and existence is very similar. Both groups' allegiance to ISIS is probably a strategic move to attract more material support and prestige, rather than build an international alliance motivated by a singular goal.

Despite years of fierce counter-intelligence operations by the Philippine state, often with the help of the U.S., these rebel groups have been able to endure. The harsh and desperate conditions that people face in the region will continue to provide groups like Abu Sayyaf with a potential base of support.

Even a study published by West Point's counter-terrorism center in 2010 concluded that "a strong civilian government sincere in nation-building is needed to put an end to the ASG [Abu Sayyaf] by resolving the ethnic and political disputes plaguing the region."

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INSTEAD OF looking at fresh solutions to end the many complex conflicts in Mindanao and many other sections of the Philippines, Duterte and his administration are escalating the conflict. In an already difficult situation, Duterte is blowing the crisis out of proportion in order to sow fear and establish a grip on the country so he can start enriching himself and his fellow elites.

Even before Duterte was elected president, he often remarked that the country needed to be placed under martial law as it had been during the Marcos dictatorship. To put an end to the rebel conflicts, modernize the country and jump-start the economy, a strongman is necessary to get things on the right track, according to Duterte, without interference from democratic procedures or special interest groups.

One of his main strategies to kick-start the economy has been his effort to reset the Philippines' relationship to the main imperialist powers in the region.

Last year, Duterte announced that he was planning to break off relationships with the U.S. and seek better relations with China. Despite a long-running dispute with China over claims to islands in the South China Sea, Duterte has opted to relinquish these claims in favor of more economic cooperation with China.

Both countries are starting to finalize plans for more than two dozen projects that cover $9 billion in loans and $15 billion in investment pledges to revitalize Philippine infrastructure.

This much-improved friendship has caused anxiety in Washington, with many foreign policy experts and the Defense Department expressing fear that U.S. interests will be stymied. Despite Donald Trump's attempts to cozy up to Duterte, there's very little that the U.S. can offer in the way of financial inducements. Under Trump's proposed budget, foreign aid to the Philippines, as well as many other countries, will be reduced.

And though the recent uptick in fighting in Mindanao might produce opportunities for the U.S. to show its value in counter-terrorism operations, it may not rival the prospective cash flow from China into new Philippine private-public partnerships.

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AS MUCH as upgraded infrastructure is desperately needed, it's not clear that most Filipinos would actually benefit from the new ventures with China. In a detailed study of the deals, Kenneth Cardenas from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism found very little evidence that the funds would do anything but hand over billions to the wealthiest Filipinos.

Among the beneficiaries, according to Cardenas, are businesses tied to members of Duterte's entourage, firms that had a track record of taking massive government handouts without completing the projects, several unstable firms, and a few firms that had no history whatsoever. In the end, the infrastructure binge appears set to deepen corruption, sacrificing the needs of Philippines society in order to enrich a privileged few.

While Duterte continues to enjoy strong support according to polls, the support may not last if he is unable to deliver improvement in the lives of working-class Filipinos. Already, the number of poor people who trust Duterte is slipping.

Despite calling himself the Philippine's "first socialist president" and his rhetoric about challenging the elites--Duterte went so far as to encourage people to seize estates on May Day--he has done very little for the poor. As commentator Benjie Oliveros wrote:

The poor have hardly benefited, if at all, from the policies being pushed and implemented by the Duterte administration. The salaries and wages of rank-and-file employees and workers have remained the same; contractualization is still being practiced; landlessness is still prevalent; prices and rates of basic goods, services, and utilities remain high. And social inequities remain, as well as the system that perpetuated it.

If justice is going to be realized in the Philippines, working-class Filipinos and all those oppressed by the state must fight against the elite in order to redistribute the vast wealth of the archipelago. Martial law and its potential expansion will be a mighty blow to the movement.

It is impossible to find any common cause with the Duterte government on the issue of combating terrorism. The state is not interested in using martial law or similar measures to combat only Islamic extremists, but to repress any developing resistance.

The state-backed terrorism unleashed by Duterte's "war on drugs" has already killed more people than the entire dictatorial reign of Ferdinand Marcos, according to estimates. Giving him any space to use such methods will only ensure that the left will be crushed.

In the small but growing protest movement, activists recognize the methods that Duterte is employing mimic those of the Marcos dictatorship. "Today we will celebrate the ouster of the dictator," said activist Kat Leuch at a rally commemorating the 31st anniversary of the People Power Revolution. "But we must also continue to escalate the struggle against the threat of a new dictatorship."

Even those who are most at risk of being harmed by Abu Sayyaf recognize the danger of Duterte. Near Marawi, Aida Ibraham, a leader of a local Muslim organization, held a candlelight vigil.

"We are protesting the acts of violence committed by the attacker," she told reporters. "But we also oppose the military action and the declaration of martial law. With this kind of escalation, it's always the innocent that pay."