The Philippine army is making some headway in its fight to defeat groups allied with the Islamic State that have besieged Marawi City, on the southern island of Mindanao. But just as in the extrajudicial war on drugs unleashed last year by president Rodrigo Duterte, in this war it is civilians who are paying the price.
In the last three weeks, Mindanao, the southernmost major island in the Philippine archipelago, has been plunged into a chaotic counterterrorism campaign after two terrorist groups joined forces in late May to assault the main city, Marawi.
This isn’t entirely a new challenge for Manila. Abu Sayyaf, considered to be the Islamic State’s Southeast Asia chapter, has tormented the Philippines since 1991. The Maute group is a more recently formed hard-line insurgent force consisting of about 100 militants. Ominously, both Abu Sayyaf and the Maute have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
To deal with the insurgent threat, Duterte — who in the past year has praised Hitler, insulted Barack Obama and the Pope, joked about rape, and bragged about personally killing people — is bringing his trademark tact and finely measured touch.
On June 6, Duterte told soldiers battling the Islamic groups, “I am not ordering you to take an ordinary police action. I am ordering you to crush our enemy. When I say crush them, you have to destroy everything, including lives. Rebellion is no joking matter.”
There have been some successes. After three weeks of clashes, the head of military command Maj. Gen. Carlito Galvez told Reuters that militants have pulled back from three neighborhoods in Marawi. The Philippine army announced today it has enlisted Facebook to shut down accounts used to spread misinformation about the account.
But there is little solace for civilians literally caught in the crossfire. Most residents have reportedly fled the city of 200,000, while at least another 1,000 remain either trapped and hiding in their homes, or being used as human shields. These civilians have no running water, electricity, or food.
Those who have managed to flee the Islamic State affiliates are not yet free from worry. The only secure place left is a large provincial government compound on the outskirts of the city which houses all other freed Marawi citizens.
Another source of worry: Duterte declared martial law throughout the island of Mindanao, with initial plans to keep it in place for two months. That meant that the civilian government was replaced with armed forces and that civil liberties are suspended.
Recently, however, Duterte has toyed not just with maintaining martial law in Mindanao, but expanding it nationwide. That would harken back to Ferdinand Marcos, a former president and dictator of the Philippines who kept the country under martial law for a decade starting in 1972. During that time Marcos carried out extrajudicial killings, torture, and mass arrests.
Duterte, somewhat unsurprisingly, has pined for Marcos’s years, and compared it to his own time in office. According to Human Rights Watch, Duterte said “Martial law is martial law. It will not be any different from what the president, Marcos did.”
Duterte’s take-no-prisoners approach — whether on diplomacy, the drug war, or the war on terrorism — is very much worth keeping in mind, especially as the United States attempts to calibrate the type of place it will ultimately occupy in the Asia-Pacific region. The Philippines, like Japan, is an American treaty ally — potentially putting U.S. forces on the line to defend Duterte’s policies.