A- A A+

Philippines coming full, sordid circle

Fatima Measham |  24 May 2017


On Tuesday 23 May, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in the southern island of Mindanao. The suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was announced soon after; it is meant to apply only to charges of rebellion or offenses related to invasion.

DuterteI grew up in northern Mindanao, three hours overland from Marawi where combined state forces clashed with Islamist militants this week in pursuit of 'high value targets'. The Abu Sayyaf and the Maute groups, which align themselves with ISIS, occupied a church and city hall.

On Friday morning, military and police officials declared the situation under control, with both groups flushed out of the city and hostages rescued. At least 20 people were killed; none are civilians. Security forces remain on high alert.

I have not been able to bring myself to ring my family. I'm sure they're fine. They live far away in a gated estate tucked into a hill. Mindanao has borne more than its share of violence but it is a large island, and conflict in one part does not mean all parts are raging. I still remember a joke from childhood, made by a smartarse uncle, that Islamist militants don't touch our city because that's where they do their shopping.

Somewhere in the past year, my sister and I made an unspoken agreement to not talk about politics, though it had been a staple of our phone conversations since I moved to Australia. My family had voted for Duterte. That is nothing to be smug about. Rather, I feel fearful and despondent. They had believed that it was going to be different. That change had come.

None of what continues to unravel in the Philippines is a shock. In August last year, barely more than a month from inauguration, Duterte mentioned the prospect of martial law in relation to his drug war. He raised it again and again as a means of dealing with criminality and extremism, a cure-all.

Duterte is the sixth president since the 1986 People Power revolution that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos. His administration facilitated the transfer of Marcos' remains to the Heroes' Cemetery. He is a close associate of the dictator's children. Martial law was long in play before the incidents in Marawi this week, and is in character for an ex-mayor with alleged links to 'death squads'.

Still, that a crisis in Mindanao has triggered a declaration of martial law — rather than the purported drug crisis that the president vowed to resolve — should give us pause. For one thing, it reflects the ease with which national governments have long used brute instruments in the south.


"Lawless violence, one of the constitutional bases for martial law, only seems to apply to Mindanao, even if a larger violence is burning through metropolitan Manila."


It is where the majority of Filipino Muslims live, where decades-old Muslim resentments are still potent, where ruthless bandits have lately found ideological cover.

Lawless violence, one of the constitutional bases for martial law, only seems to apply to Mindanao — even if a larger violence is burning through metropolitan Manila. State-sanctioned violence is fine. Routine evacuations of Muslim and indigenous Mindanaonons in the provinces is fine.

Yet whatever purported allegiances that Filipino Muslim extremists hold, the insurgencies in Mindanao predate 9/11 and ISIS. It can be traced to atrocities against their communities during the Marcos regime, and successive failures by Philippine governments to craft a structurally just and respectful relationship. These historical layers are far too complex to be reduced to contemporary narratives around terrorism.

It is also worth noting that Filipinos of different faiths have managed a peaceful coexistence in Marawi for some time. The prayers on social media for a safe resolution called as fervently on Allah. In the words of Mujiv Hataman, governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao: 'That these acts of terror are happening in a diverse community bound by mutual respect and a shared commitment to peace is a travesty. Any group who sows terror and then dares to say that they do it in the name of Islam should be ashamed. Any man who claims to fight for a just cause, yet dares to incite violence a few days before the Holy Month of Ramadhan, is a monster whose words belie his actions.'

If Duterte uses terrorist elements as an excuse to put the Philippines entirely under martial law or make it last longer than the prescribed 60 days, it could trigger political unrest and further jeopardise the economy. It will be a slow, self-perpetrating descent.

Security forces were able to stabilise the situation in Marawi, and it should be remarkable that it was quickly contained. This points to a matter of resources, coordination and close familiarity with the terrain. But there is no indication that Duterte will retract. Congress has power to revoke or extend the measure; the president has control of the legislature.

Given their recent battles against a revisionist campaign regarding martial law under Marcos, progressive Filipinos fear that the Philippines may soon come full, sordid circle.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.



Comments should be short, respectful and on topic. Email is requested for identification purposes only.

Word Count: 0 (please limit to 200)

Submitted comments

Fatima, My heart skipped a beat when I read your article, particularly as this has not been reported in our media. Having visited the Philippines during the Marcos years and arriving the same day Aquino was assassinated and myself , briefly detained by 'the men in suits' at MIA in 1983 on attempting to return home after attending a conference in La Union, this news fills me with a degree of dread. Sadly Duterte is following the script set by the deposed Marcos. One can only hope that he does not attempt to spread Martial Law to the whole country . I fear the consequences for the people of the Philippines and its economy if he attempts to. Keep us posted please.

Gavin 26 May 2017

My heart goes out to the ordinary people of the Philippines because with President Rodrigo Duterte they have another upsurge of severe repression in their country. I have been to the Philippines twice and met many courageous people there who have been fighting for justice for the ordinary working people, the peasants and the poor for years. Wherever there is martial law, the rights of the ordinary people go out of the window. Those brave individuals who take a stand can expect to be targeted by the military and their vigilantes Amongst the brave people who stood by people were the officials in the progressive unions and progressive church people like Australian priest Fr Brian Gore and Italian priest, Fr Hector Maury SJ. Brian Gore fell foul of Ferdinand Marcos and had to beat a trumped up charge of murder along with several parishioners. Hector Maury founded the National Sugar Workers Federation of the Philippines. It is important for political leaders who support democracy, social justice and human rights that they do not endorse Duterte's irresponsible approach to democracy or dealing with drugs and drug addicts because it will lead to more innocent people being killed and suffering for no reason and doing nothing to resolve the problem.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock 26 May 2017

Well, I guess no one needs tell you about the Philippines, Fatima. I don't know much about the place, but I do know a wee bit about the Sultanate of Sulu and the long history of seafaring and piracy (rather like Devon) the area and its people have, as well as their resistance to the Spanish, the Americans and the independent government. I guess they feel encroached upon (land) and also a threat to their own independent culture. Southern Mindanao is a litmus test of whether a majority Christian country (Catholic at that) can deal justly and live at peace with its Sunni Muslim minority. The fact that the borders are porous to Indonesia and Malaysia, where there are people who support a violent confrontation in order to establish a worldwide caliphate, does not help. Duterte does not seem the right man for the job, nor are his methods appropriate.

Edward Fido 26 May 2017

Similar articles

Children's flourishing inside and outside the nuclear family

Andrew Hamilton | 12 May 2017

Little girl playing TwisterPublic celebrations of family life such as the International Day of Families should be uncontroversial. But they sometimes focus on the definition of the family, with the claims of the stable nuclear family of father, mother and children set against the claims of other kinds of family groupings. These discussions should not distract from such larger questions as: why are families of any description important, and what qualities are needed if they are to be effective?

Seeking a fair go on budget night

Frank Brennan | 07 May 2017

Scott MorrisonPart of the cost of the double dissolution election last July has been the creation of a Senate with the largest, most diverse group of crossbenchers ever. This will make the passage of any new contested Budget measures difficult, particularly given the Prime Minister’s vulnerability on his right flank, and the Labor Party's propensity to mimic the Opposition tactics adopted previously by Tony Abbott. The government needs to create a clear narrative as to how it will achieve equitable and sustainable growth through this Budget.

Businesses need to get serious about gender diversity

Neve Mahoney | 03 May 2017

Chalk outline man and womanWhether to have targets or quotas is a hard question to answer. Quotas have been employed by several European countries to great effect. But in Australia companies are encouraged to set themselves targets, which are optional. Businesses are moving towards targets at a glacial pace, with women in senior executive roles increasing by 2 per cent per annum since 2012. As long as it is up to businesses to create a diverse workplace, they need to put in the effort.

Cry if you want to as mandatory detention turns 25

Kerry Murphy | 03 May 2017

Bleak looking birthday candlesFriday 5 May is the 25th birthday of the introduction of mandatory detention in Australia by the Keating government. It is by no means a 'happy birthday'. Rather it is a sombre reminder of how control, power and political vilification can be used for political ends. There are now more sections in the Migration Act dealing with statutory bars, mainly directed at asylum seekers, than the total number of sections in the whole of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901.

Steering SS Australia through the doldrums is serious work

Andrew Hamilton | 08 May 2017

Malcolm Turnbull steers the SS Australia through turbulent watersIn Australian public life we are becalmed in a sea where the trade winds of political will, imagination, ability to agree, trust and firm direction do not blow. We search for portents in the US skies and hope for wind from the budget. The challenge facing the serious person on the ship is to avoid responding to each rumour and proclamation and focus on what matters. What is needed is to sustain the spirits of the crew and to plan the continuation of the journey when the wind again fills the sails.