Martial Law Imposed As Troops Battle Islamists

By Rorie Fajardo-Jarilla

Residents of the Philippine city of Marawi have told IWPR how they were forced to flee their homes amid ongoing battles between state forces and armed extremists linked to Islamic State (IS).

But they also expressed fears that President Rodrigo Duterte’s imposition of a 60-day period of martial law on the southern island of Mindanao was an excessive measure that might spur further human rights abuses.

Fighting broke out in Marawi, the mostly Muslim capital of Lanao del Sur province, on May 23 when special forces raided an apartment believed to be the hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, a senior leader of the Abu Sayyaf group.

Several factions of the militant organisation, notorious for kidnapping for ransom, have pledged allegiance to IS in recent years. Hapilon is on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, with the US Department of State offering a five million US dollar reward for information leading to his capture.

Hapilon had reportedly sought refuge in the city to recover from a wound sustained in a January airstrike.

But the raid appeared to spiral out of control after Abu Sayyaf called for reinforcements from another IS-affiliated group known as Maute. Another 100 fighters flocked to Marawi and by nightfall there were reports of Maute snipers positioned around the city.

Militants were said to have beheaded a police chief and taken a Roman Catholic priest and his congregation hostage, as well as setting fire to buildings, including a Catholic church and a college. There were reports that the black IS banner had been hoisted over the city hall and the Amai Pakpak medical centre.

At least 20 people were believed to have been killed and nearly a quarter of the city’s 200,000 residents forced to abandon their homes and flee.

 “Our city was so dark. Snipers were everywhere. No one was safe,” said Salvador (not his real name) a Marawi resident who asked to remain anonymous. He told IWPR in a telephone interview that he and his family had fled the city on the evening of May 23, sensing that the crisis was far from over.

Another resident, Bert Macapanton, told IWPR that he had been in Iligan, some 45 minutes’ drive away, when he heard about the fighting and tried to rush back to check on his family.  

“But I was no longer able to reach home,” the 62-year-old man said. “It took me five hours to find an alternative route because the city was already on lockdown.” He managed to contact his family and tell them to leave their home at dawn the following day and head for the city of Cagayan de Oro, some four hours’ drive away. He himself fled to the adjacent town of Marantao.

“In Marawi city, [the militants] are now in a game of chase with the military,” he said.

 The south of the country has seen decades of violence between state forces and rebel Muslim groups. Marawi’s population is mostly made up of Maranaos – which means “people of the lake” – one of the 13 Muslim minorities in the predominantly Catholic Philippines.

It is also locally known as the ‘city of streamers’ because families announce any milestone in their lives through banners hung either in front of their houses or across the streets.

 “The people in my city are suffering now,” said Salvador, adding that as he and his family fled they saw military checkpoints all over the city, many houses already abandoned and throngs of people fleeing on foot, on vehicles and even by boat.

“I believe nearly half of the people there already left. We can’t go back now there yet,” he continued, adding that he feared looting would begin if the military failed to take control.

Salvador said that he agreed with comments by made a Philippine senator, former police chief Panfilo Lacson, that events in the city were a result of “failed military intelligence”.

“The military knew from the very start that Hapilon’s group was very dangerous – so why go there as the weaker force?” the Marawi resident continued. “What happened to the millions of pesos spent on military intelligence work?”

 Duterte, himself a Mindanao native, declared martial law while on an official visit to Russia. His spokesperson Ernesto Abella said that the president had taken the action to suppress “lawless violence and rebellion.”

The president told media when he arrived back in Manila on May 24, having cut short his trip, that the period of martial law might last longer than 60 days and be extended around the archipelago. He explicitly compared the measure to the period of martial law imposed by former Phillipines dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s, making it clear that the response to the violence would be brutal.

“If I think that you should die, you will die,” he said. “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.”

He has repeatedly threatened to impose martial law on the south, under which the authorities can conduct warrantless arrests, impose curfews, and suspend the writ of habeas corpus.

In the 1970s, that led to scores of extrajudicial killings, as well as the disappearances and torture of activists and human rights advocates. Marcos was eventually removed from office after a popular uprising in 1986.

The Marawi residents who spoke to IWPR said that imposing martial law had been premature, arguing that it would only stoke fears of state-sponsored human rights abuses similar to the Marcos era.

Duterte has already been heavily criticised, both at home and abroad, for rising numbers of extrajudicial killings and arrests linked to his signature policy - the war on drugs.

“We have mixed feelings on the president’s declaration of martial law,” Salvador said. “We feel that it is still not needed because the military could still contain the ‘lawless elements’ even without martial law. To us, it is tantamount to human rights violations, arbitrary arrests,” he said, adding, “We also want to hear more from the president what this means – because sometimes, you know, we get a lot of surprises from him.”

(Rorie Fajardo-Jarilla is IWPR’s Asia Programmes Coordinator and Philippines Country Coordinator.)