Are we witnessing a replay of the Philippines’ recent history in President Rodrigo Duterte’s proclamation of Martial Law in Mindanao to deal with a terrorist threat? Will the Philippines once again be subjected to the perils beset the country by the rule of Ferdinand Marcos? Duterte’s exceptionalist narrative suggests that by taking the same actions as Marcos took 45 years ago, he can nonetheless achieve different results.

On 23 May, Philippine government troops attempted to arrest Isnon Hapilon, the leader of the armed Maute group, in Marawi City, Mindanao. The operation was unsuccessful, but the Maute group’s members retaliated by besieging the city’s jail and the campus of Dansalan College. Residents of the city, overwhelmingly Muslim Filipino, or Moro, were subjected to firefights between Hapilon’s followers and government forces. In reaction, President Duterte cut short his ongoing visit to Moscow to declare Martial Law in Mindanao for the prescribed sixty days, returning home to address the crisis.

The trigger for this proclamation was rebellion against the state and invasion, which is supposedly justified by the presence of international fighters within Maute’s ranks. With characteristic bravado, Duterte boasted to reporters that this new manifestation of Martial Law—tantamount to military rule—would achieve what practically every government ever based in Manila has not: that is, solve Mindanao’s problems ‘…once and for all’.

Mindanao is the Philippines’ most restive region, with several armed groups contesting government forces for close to fifty years. Originally dominated by Muslim separatists seeking independence from the largely Catholic Philippines, these mainstream groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have been at the negotiating table with Manila in recent years. Having abandoned the goal of independence in favour of autonomy for a Moro homeland or bangsamoro, the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) with the MILF concluded in 2014 and the intended Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) are the most recent frameworks within which a more lasting peace is being sought.

But much of the violence is now perpetrated by extremist fringe groups such as Abu Sayyaf in Basilan and Sulu, and the Maute Group operating in Lanao. While these have often been dismissed as mere kidnap-for-ransom gangs, their international connections have grown with declarations of allegiance first with Al Qaeda and now Islamic State (IS). Early in 2016, IS had designated Hapilon Emir for Southeast Asia. On 1 June, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana confirmed the presence of eight foreign fighters in Marawi, with two each coming from Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and Chechnya. With increasing reports of this growing IS presence in Marawi already raising tension, Duterte has upped the ante with the implementation of Martial Law.

If an authoritarian Philippine president imposing Martial Law to crush Muslim rebels in Mindanao sounds familiar, that’s because it happened only a generation ago in 1972. At that time, Ferdinand Marcos was the President, and the MNLF rebellion led by Nur Misuari provided a compelling excuse, precipitating the country into its darkest days of dictatorial rule. Rather than solve his problems however, Marcos’ heavy-handed approach swelled the ranks of rebel armies—the Communist Party of the Philippines’ New People’s Army (NPA) and Misuari’s MNLF—who had never seen their numbers greater before or since.  Manila’s military response ravaged Mindanao, culminating in the destruction of Jolo, the capital of Sulu province, in February 1974. The region has not seen real peace since.

With that era still within the living memory of many Filipinos and Mindanawons, there has been no shortage of critics of Duterte’s declaration of Martial Law last week. These bemoaned the seemingly amnesic lurch the country has now taken into circumstances it suffered through just a few decades ago—and the even more tragic prospect of making the same mistake for the second time in recent history. Some warn of overkill as Duterte’s own Defense Secretary Lorenzana confessed during a briefing with legislators, believing Maute can be contained without the use of Martial Law, and that it was not the Defense Department that made the recommendation to impose it.

The MILF, Manila’s most important partner in Mindanao, presented an official stance that was skeptical and reserved: ‘Such proclamation, presumably made within the legal processes of the Government of the Philippines, is apparently designed to contain the Marawi incident’. Despite condemning the actions of Maute group and assuring its efforts to help supress it, the MILF warned of the risk of violence spreading, urging the government to ensure that Martial Law ‘does not spark more fighting in other areas’.  The Consortium of Bangsamoro Civil Society, a network of non-governmental Moro organisations, also expressed misgivings, seeing the situation in Marawi indeed being initiated by Maute group but exacerbated by Martial Law. It lamented the return of large scale conflict: ‘This situation is brought about on one hand by terror attacks and on the other hand, by the counter-terrorism response’.

Are these misgivings justified, or can Duterte overcome them and still succeed?

Mixed with Duterte’s tough-guy narrative as a leader is also one of exceptionalism. He has fashioned himself as the solver the country’s problems not by the force of new ideas, but by shrugging off the consequences that perhaps, in his eyes, neutered the actions of previous Filipino politicians. In sensational fashion, he has questioned the once hallowed relationship with the United States, embraced erstwhile South China Sea rival China, and rekindled long neglected links with Russia. All this was to create political space for his signature achievement—the ongoing ‘eradication’ of the Philippine ‘drug problem’ into which he has consolidated the entire scope of issues that ail Philippine society. He has tied crime, political corruption and now, in a recent press conference on the Marawi crisis, even terrorism to drug trafficking, suggesting that the founders of Maute were corrupt cops enticed by the illegal drug trade. He has enabled police and military linked vigilantes to conduct extrajudicial killings of perceived ‘drug users and pushers’ and ‘drug dealers’, leading to the killing of approximately 7080 individuals across the country, with 3603 of those still under investigation, according to the Philippine National Police (PNP).

These simplifications of the country’s problems have played well with popular audiences. The most telling evidence of how much Duterte is an exception is his popularity.  In an April poll, Pulse Asia found his approval rating to be at over 76%—which is already down from an even higher 83% in late 2016. This has emboldened Duterte against his political opponents. He has had to face few consequences after isolating prominent critics such as Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Leila De Lima, the lead investigator into the country’s extrajudicial killings.

Now, in taking on a resurging terrorist threat on Mindanao, Duterte’s belief in his own exceptionalism has led him to test the naked power of the presidency in a way no president has dared to since Marcos. He even felt confident enough to say, in a video posted on Facebook by prominent ally, Mocha Uson, that he would be willing to extend military law to a year. In the same video, Duterte made no effort to shy away from characterizing his Martial Law to be as bad as that the 1970s: ‘Martial Law is Martial Law…it would not be any different from what the President Marcos did. I’d be harsh. I was asked one time…how I would deal with terrorism, I said I would be harsh. I have to do it to preserve the Republic’.

But can Duterte really trump history? By following the same path in Mindanao followed by the country’s previous autocrat, can he yield different results?

There are key differences in the situations of Duterte’s and Marcos’. The most cited is the nature of the law he is employing. Governed by the 1987 constitution, written only a year after the overthrow of Marcos, Duterte’s version of Martial Law is constrained by the continued operation of the Bill of Rights, the freedom of the press, assembly and petition, which in the 1970s were all suppressed. Civilian courts will also continue to function, and will conduct the trials of those captured and arrested during Martial Law. This is in contrast to when Marcos’ key opponents Benigno Aquino and Jose Diokno were arrested and subjected to military courts. Most importantly, existing legislative assemblies cannot be abolished, as they were under Marcos.

Another difference is Duterte’s political situation. Early into his first term, the current president is enjoying a surprisingly resilient ‘honeymoon’ period and still holds almost fanatical support from his base.  Any mistakes he may have made have not yet had the time to produce consequences. Thus Duterte’s popularity is likely to prevent the swelling of the ranks of Maute in the way the MNLF’s did forty-five years ago. At that time, Marcos was at the end of his second term, suffering a low point in his popularity. His missteps in the economy had already become apparent by the early 1970s. His aggressive infrastructure spending on white elephant projects had already ballooned foreign debt, coinciding with successive credit downgrading and cuts to aid. By March 1970, Metro Manila suffered through massive street protests and police clashes in what has come to be known as the First Quarter Storm, one of the pressured that led Marcos to declare Martial Law.

Marcos also helped trigger the rebellion in Mindanao himself. The summary killing in 1968 of Moro commandos training for a botched invasion of Malaysia eventually ignited the Moro independence movement spearheaded by the MNLF. Additionally, according to historian Patricio Abinales, Marcos’ attempts to consolidate power by circumventing local government in the 1960s meant that his men were filling roles once occupied by Moros who were locally respected. Marcos’ representatives often did not have the credibility to serve effectively as middlemen between Manila and localities in Mindanao. As the independence movement gathered momentum, there was no local mechanism to help contain it. Duterte, on the other hand, benefits from decades of negotiations and frameworks for peace built on these types of mechanisms, the most recent one with the MILF to establish the CAB. These accords have more or less solidified the role local mediators can play in negotiating with different moderate Moro groups and facilitating the isolation and suppression of more radical ones. Additionally, he is from Mindanao, having served as the Mayor of Davao and is the Philppines’ first president from that region.

But are these differences between the situations and Martial Laws of Marcos and Duterte enough to make this an exceptional time in Mindanao—enabling Duterte to use his enhanced authority to solve its problems ‘once and for all’, as he says? Unfortunately, if there is any conclusion to be drawn from over three hundred years of actual and attempted rule by Manila over Mindanao, it is that aggressive military solutions have exactly the opposite effect in terms of quelling unrest. Remove the ominousness of Martial Law for Filipinos, and we are left with yet another run of the mill military strategy for Mindanao: another of a hundred that have been tried and have failed. The Spanish, Americans, then Marcos, Aquino, Estrada, Arroyo, and now Duterte have tried.

An important factor in this situation is the role of moderate groups at the peace table—the MILF, and to an extent the remnants of the MNLF. The MILF’s statement on Marawi warns of the consequences of allowing government forces once again to run roughshod over local mediatory mechanisms: ‘recent events have shown that disregard of these mechanisms have been disastrous to our communities and to the effort to bring to fruition the end of the decades-long conflict in our homeland’. The MILF had hoped the mechanisms put in place within the CAB would have come into play in a situation such as that currently unfolding in Marawi. Duterte’s Martial Law proclamation usurps this once again in favour of the army—a state institution that has historically been viewed by Moros with deep suspicion. There have already been signs of unease with Duterte’s approach amongst those working on long term solutions for Mindanao. The resignation of Bangsamoro Transition Commission member Samira Gutoc-Tomawis on 29 May, for example, suggests that there is growing consternation about the regression toward militarism.

The Moro enthusiasm for the CAB and the BBL lay in the distancing of the military role in peacebuilding in favour of locally familiar and trusted players operating within culturally relevant frameworks. Reasserting the role of the military can once again polarise the atmosphere, potentially compelling moderate groups into an untenable choice between the state and the locality. Can they continue to side with Manila if their towns are decimated by aggressive government offensives and overkill? Will fear of Maute, Abu Sayyaf and the growing presence of the Islamic State allow them to overcome their ambivalence toward Manila? If the brutality of past government armies in Mindanao is mirrored by the troops emboldened by Duterte’s assurances that he had their backs with the statement: ‘You can arrest any person, search any house…If you happen to have raped three women, I will own up to it’, those already working for peace might lose hope.

Marcos’ Martial Law and that of Duterte may indeed possess key differences, in both the law itself as well as the circumstances in which it is being applied. While Duterte and his supporters may view his regime as exceptional and thus immune to the usual consequences that beset other Philippine leaders, he could still find himself falling down the same dark tunnel as previous presidents, dictators, and colonial rulers have who were seduced by the apparent simplicity of the military solution in ending their problems with Mindanao. Perhaps the most important factor to consider is neither Martial Law, nor Duterte’s exceptionalism, but in how these will function within the context of Mindanao, and the role its inhabitants and the peacebuilding mechanisms built there will play.


Cesar Suva is Program Development Manager at the Calgary Immigrant Educational Society.

In 2015 he completed PhD research at the Australian National University’s School of Culture, History and Language. His thesis, Nativizing the Imperial: The Local Order and Articulations of Colonial Rule in Sulu, Philippines 1881-1920, is available online here.