Philippines Analytical Brief: The Declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao

Philippines Analytical Brief | June 12, 2017
Authors: Riley Smith and Gaofan Zhang
 
ANALYTICAL BRIEF
 
 

Executive Summary
On May 23, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across the southern island of Mindanao after militants from the ISIS-linked Abu Sayyaf and Maute insurgent groups attacked and occupied the city of Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur province in northern Mindanao.  The swift imposition of martial law across Mindanao raised concerns that an expansion of martial law across the whole of the country was imminent.  However, the administration has thus far shown restraint in taking such action outside of Mindanao.  While it was made quickly, the martial law declaration in Mindanao appears to be an attempt by Duterte to replicate the level of control that he exercised over the security situation in Davao City while he served as its mayor for over 20 years.  Despite the concerns that the declaration of martial law has raised, the Philippines’ prospects for economic growth remain uninterrupted thus far, according to a report from Moody’s Investors Service.  This is largely due to the relatively low-levels of economic activity in many parts of Mindanao, even though spurring economic development and attracting increased investment to the island is a priority of the Duterte administration.  

One consequence of the clashes in Marawi is likely to be a continued improvement in relations with the United States.  Relations had already started to warm in the months following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States last November.  Duterte's thus far muted response to reports that U.S. special forces are providing technical assistance to Philippine security forces in the fight to retake Marawi is a further indication of improving relations.  Whether the fighting in Marawi, which is the most significant challenge Duterte has faced in his first year in office, will signal a shift in domestic priorities away from the crackdown on drugs and towards counter-terrorism efforts remains to be seen.  Given the extent to which the anti-drug stance defined Duterte's presidential campaign and his first few months in office, as well as the Government's tying of the campaign to efforts to improve law and order in the Philippines, it is unlikely that the administration would abandon its anti-drug actions to refocus its efforts on counter-terrorism.  Rather, Duterte's recent claims that the drug trade funds terrorism in the Philippines indicates that he may attempt to more closely tie at least some counter-terrorism operations to the anti-drug campaign.

 
The Declaration of Martial Law Across Mindanao
On May 23, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across the southern island of Mindanao after militants from the ISIS-linked Abu Sayyaf and Maute insurgent groups attacked and occupied the city of Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur province in northern Mindanao.  According to Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana, during the period of martial law the writ of habeas corpus will be suspended, curfews will be enforced, and checkpoints will be set up along roadways.  Duterte said the initial declaration would last only 60 days, but he also said he was prepared to extend it if the security situation in northern Mindanao did not improve.  Under Article VII, Section 18 of the 1987 Constitution, the president can declare martial law “in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it.”  However, the president must also submit a report to the Congress, which has the power to disapprove the declaration of martial law.  In general, no declaration of martial law or the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus can last for more than 60 days unless a majority in Congress votes to extend it "if the invasion or rebellion shall persist and public safety requires it."  Six members of the opposition bloc in the House of Representatives seeking to nullify the martial law declaration filed a petition before the Supreme Court (SC) on June 5.  The SC has scheduled three days for oral arguments – June 13-15 – to examine the constitutionality of the declaration, and Duterte has said that he would abide by the Court’s decision.
 
Update on the Fighting in Marawi
At this time, it is unclear how long it will take for Philippine security forces to regain complete control of Marawi.  The military claims that it has retaken 80% of the city, but two Government deadlines have passed without much progress on retaking the remaining parts of Marawi.  According to the Government, the clashes erupted after Philippine security forces attempted to serve a warrant of arrest for Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, which intelligence indicated was in Marawi.  In attempting to arrest Hapilon, the Government believes that Philippine security forces interrupted plans by Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group to take over the city and declare it part of ISIS's caliphate in the Philippines.  These interrupted plans, according to the Government, are the reason why there were more militants in  the city than first anticipated.  Consequently, initial Government assessments of a quick routing of the militants have given way to a situation more akin to a siege as security forces, which are more used to engaging the militants in the jungles of southwestern Mindanao, must adapt to fighting in an urban setting.  Complicating matters has been the militants’ use of reinforced basements and network of tunnels that Marawi residents constructed following an uprising in the 1970s.  Several battalions of soldiers and scores of fighter jets, tanks, and helicopter gunships were involved in the fighting as of June 8, with the head of Western Mindanao Command, Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, estimating as many as 400 militants were left in the city.  Another estimate put the number at under 250.  The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that as a result of the almost three weeks of airstrikes and fighting, more than 200,000 people have been displaced from their homes while around 800,000 people in outlying areas are facing increasing food insecurity.  As of June 10, the death toll from the fighting was at least 216, including at least 138 militants, 58 government troops, and 20 civilians, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
 
Potential Motivations and Consequences of the Martial Law Declaration
The quick imposition of martial law across the whole island of Mindanao following the outbreak of fighting in Marawi raised concerns amongst some that an expansion of martial law across the whole of the country was imminent.  Duterte himself has said that he would expand martial law to the Visayas and Luzon if he believes there to be a terrorist presence in these areas.  Were such evidence to arise the likelihood of an expansion of martial law would increase significantly.  Thus far, though, the administration has shown a degree of restraint in taking such action outside of Mindanao, where there is already a precedent for martial law being declared in the post-Marcos era.  In the days following Duterte’s declaration, an apparent botched robbery of the casino in the Resorts World Manila complex on June 2 that left at least 37 people dead from smoke inhalation exacerbated concerns that martial law could be expanded, as initial media reports labeled it a terrorist attack related to the fighting in Marawi.  However, the police – an institution that through the Philippine National Police Director-General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s longtime friendship with Duterte is itself closer to the administration than the military – clearly made an effort to assuage those concerns and emphasize that it was a criminal incident.  Ultimately, there was no expansion of martial law to Luzon.  Also, in mid-April, prior to the eruption of fighting in Marawi, 11 Abu Sayyaf fighters sailed from Sulu province to Bohol, with the reported goal of carrying out an attack during Holy Week.  Security forces interdicted the militants before they could carry out the attack.  This incident occurred before the fighting in Marawi broke out, so before the implementation of martial law in Mindanao and before mention of expanding martial law if terrorists were believed to be in the Visayas or Luzon.  It also took place in parts of Bohol that are not located near the resort areas.  Nevertheless, the Duterte administration refrained from declaring martial law in the affected area, despite it taking over a month for the security forces to track down all the militants involved and despite it being the first attempt by Abu Sayyaf to launch such an operation in the Visayas.  There is also relatively recent precedent for the declaration of martial law in Mindanao to respond to a deteriorating security environment.  In December 2009, then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo placed Maguindanao province in Mindanao under martial law after members of the Ampatuan clan massacred 57 civilians, an incident that drew local and international condemnation.
  
In covering the whole island, Duterte’s declaration is more sweeping than Arroyo’s in 2009, and it is that aspect that has been the source of some of the concern.  The swift decision to put the whole island under martial law reminded many of an earlier nationwide state of emergency declaration that also appeared to be an overreaction.  The September 2 bombing of a night market in Duterte’s hometown of Davao City triggered the state of emergency declaration, but its nationwide implementation appeared to many to be a rushed decision for what was localized incident.  However, while it was made quickly, the martial law declaration in Mindanao appears to be an attempt by Duterte to replicate the level of control that he exercised over the security situation in Davao while he served as that city’s mayor.  The challenge that the administration faces is that the mechanisms to exert such control over a city are not necessarily scalable to the level of a province or a region, leaving martial law as the alternative that Duterte believed to be most effective.  Recent reports that some Maute group militants may have slipped out of Marawi during the fighting have likely only bolstered the view among those in the administration that a broader response to the fighting in Marawi was necessary.  On June 9, Philippine authorities arrested Ominta Romato Maute, the mother of Omar and Abdullah Maute, the founders of the Maute group who authorities believe played an instrumental role in planning the attempted takeover of Marawi.  She was arrested in the town of Masiu, which is located on the other side of Lake Lanao from Marawi.  She was reportedly captured with two wounded fighters, and the authorities believe the group was attempting to procure firearms before escaping from the area.  Her arrest came just days after the arrest of her husband, Cayamora Maute, at a checkpoint in Davao City's Toril District. 
 
One consequence of the clashes in Marawi is likely to be a continued improvement in relations with the United States.  Relations had already started to warm in the months following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States last November.  The previous administration of President Barack Obama had earned the ire of the former Mayor of Davao City for criticizing his violent anti-drug campaign.  The arrival of a new U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines in Manila late last year and the ushering in of a new administration in Washington, D.C. in January provided an opportunity for Malacañang to put the strained relationship on better footing, and the Trump administration's willingness to not criticize Duterte for the anti-drug crackdown has bolstered these efforts.  Reports that U.S. special forces are providing technical assistance to Philippine security forces in the fight to retake Marawi is a further indication of improving relations.  Duterte has said that he was not aware of an arrangement with U.S. special forces, as his martial law declaration names Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and AFP Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año as the administrator and implementor, respectively, of the declaration.  Reports about U.S. special forces' assistance in the fight to retake Marawi came just days after the United States presented the AFP with hundreds of new machine guns and other weapons intended to help in the fight against terrorism in the country.  The handover occurred at a ceremony highlighting the counter-terrorism assistance program in which the United States has been engaged with the Philippines for the last decade.  Duterte's thus far muted response to U.S. assistance to retake Marawi is in considerable contrast to previous statements made last September and November calling for the removal of all U.S. forces from first Mindanao and then from the entirety of the Philippines.  A clear indication of whether Duterte sees the potential to deepen counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States in light of the fighting in Marawi would be a resumption of previously scaled-back military exercises.  
 
Whether the fighting in Marawi, which is the most significant challenge Duterte has faced in his first year in office, will signal a shift in domestic priorities away from the crackdown on drugs and towards counter-terrorism efforts remains to be seen.  Given the extent to which the anti-drug stance defined Duterte's presidential campaign and his first few months in office, as well as the Government's tying of the campaign to efforts to improve law and order in the Philippines, it is unlikely that the administration would abandon its anti-drug actions to refocus its efforts on counter-terrorism.  Rather, Duterte's recent claims that the drug trade funds terrorism in the Philippines indicates that he may attempt to more closely tie at least some counter-terrorism operations to the anti-drug campaign.          
 

The Expected Economic Effects of the Martial Law Declaration
Despite the concerns raised by the clashes in Marawi and the subsequent declaration of martial law, according to a report from Moody’s Investors Service the Philippines’ prospects for economic growth remain uninterrupted.  Instead, the firm’s Senior Credit Officer, Christian de Guzman, indicated that Philippine economic growth is still expected to be around 6.5% this year.  This is largely due to the relatively low-levels of economic activity in many parts of Mindanao, even though spurring economic development and attracting increased investment to the island is a priority of the Duterte administration.  While it is home to 24% of the Philippines’ population, Mindanao contributed less than one percent of country’s total GDP growth in 2016, and so the imposition of martial law across the island has had a limited influence on the overall economy.  However, Moody’s also mentioned that the possible prolongation and expansion of the martial law could ultimately dampen business confidence in the economy and result in a reduction in foreign direct investment flows.