Why PH needs a non-military solution to the ISIS problem

MANILA, Philippines – On May 23, 2017, President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire island region of Mindanao, composed of 6 regions and 27 provinces, under martial law following clashes between government forces and members of the Maute Group in Marawi City.

In the proclamation signed during what was supposed to be Duterte’s official visit to Russia, the president cited the Marawi attack and several previous Maute offensives as a reason to impose martial law and suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus over Mindanao.

Martial law means the military takes over since local officials – the local government and police, among others – are unable to handle threats to public safety. With the writ suspended, police and military personnel cannot be compelled to produce the body of a person suspected to be in their custody, effectively leaving space for warrantless arrests.

The proclamation will be in place for 60 days unless Duterte wants it extended and Congress – dominated mostly by his allies – agrees to its extension. The Supreme Court may also review Duterte’s basis for the declaration.

While supporters of Duterte’s decision insist it’s a commensurate response to the threat of the Maute Group, which has pledged allegiance to ISIS, an expert on terrorism says the Philippine government needs to go beyond a “military solution” and focus on honest-to-goodness reforms for development-deprived parts of Mindanao.

Vulnerabilities

“Martial law, I think, sounds a lot graver than it actually is. I think it allows the military to take a few steps that are probably necessary at this point because the regional municipal governments and the city governments are not functioning and they are not able to deal with this,” said Justin Richmond in a May 24 Rappler Talk interview with Maria Ressa.

“However, I think martial law is not going to address these underlying issues,” Richmond added.

While radicalization may be different for each individual, Richmond said “it’s all based on vulnerability.”

“The widespread vulnerability that you see in every area dealing with radicalization is lack of economic opportunities and just general hopelessness, despair. The fact that aren’t opportunities for them to get out of Butig, out of Mamasapano, and so they are depressed and they are looking for some excitement, some hope, anything,” he said.

Butig is a town Maute Group members briefly took over in late 2016. Mamasapano in Maguindanao was the site of a failed and controversial police operation in 2015 that claimed the lives of more than 60 policemen, local armed group members, and local civilians.

The same 2015 operation triggered withdrawal of popular support among politicians in Manila for a peace deal between the MILF and the government, then headed by former president Benigno Aquino III. Talks between the MILF and the Duterte government are also ongoing.

Richmond cited the perennial problem of corruption, lack of access to basic services like education, and repeated setbacks to a peace deal, among others.

“So in every turn, the youth in these areas are hit with the lack of opportunity, racism, an attack on their own values. And they are not well-informed Muslims, they can’t even read the Koran in Arabic so they are very easily influenced,” he added.

Solving the problem

Richmond, who works with communities to “support modern Muslim voices” and train them to counter radical voices, says it’s ultimately about keeping those in power – the same people who control development funds – in check.

“They need to be held accountable for the corruption… and that follows at the feet of President Duterte. I believe he’s a strong enough leader to take them to task. He’s done it in the drug war and he needs to do it for corruption because there is no hope, no opportunity and there is no peace in Mindanao without these politicians in being held accountably,” he said.

The president has promised to make corruption eradication his top priority, just like the previous administration. Duterte has also fired several aides – including friends – over mere corruption allegations.

Duterte, who was mayor of Davao – Mindanao’s biggest city – for nearly two decades, is the first president from Mindanao. He’s repeatedly vowed to make sure development in the country isn’t focused only in Metro Manila and Luzon, but in the Visayas and Mindanao as well.

Earlier in 2017, Duterte’s aides said he wanted to take over development projects for Mindanao, particular those in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). – Rappler.com