Filipino police and military forces in the small city of Marawi on the island of Mindanao attempted to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf criminal gang, on May 23. By the end of the day, President Rodrigo Duterte’s government had declared martial law throughout the island for 60 days and launched a military assault.
By June 2, that ongoing assault, including air strikes, had killed at least 160 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
This dramatic escalation represents the further slide of Duterte’s administration towards authoritarian rule and a betrayal of his election campaign promise to pursue a negotiated end to Mindanao’s multiple insurgencies.
The clashes began when Hapilon’s supporters engaged the police and army in a firefight and called on reinforcements from the “Maute group” – a breakaway from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) led by brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute.
The MILF, founded in 1978, has been the leading group fighting for self-determination for the Moro people of Mindanao for the past two decades.
Mindanao was never controlled by the Spanish colonial state in the Philippines. However, when Spain ceded the Philippines to the US in 1898, the island was included. The US-Moro war, which lasted until 1913, killed 20,000 Moros.
The US colonial state and its neocolonial successors used large-scale transmigration to make the indigenous Moro and Lumad peoples a minority in Mindanao.
Fighting between the Moro independence movements and the Filipino state killed 120,000 people between 1968 and 1996.
Since 2011, the MILF has been engaged in a peace process with successive governments. In 2014, a peace deal was signed.
The Maute group is one of several to break away from the MILF in opposition to the deal. It has adopted a jihadi ideology, but it is unclear how true allegations are of its affiliation to ISIS.
The Abu Sayyaf group, which has been active since 1991, portrays itself as a Salafi terrorist movement, and is seen as such by the West. However, it is widely suspected in Mindanao that the group is just a profit-motivated criminal gang.
Its notorious decapitations of Western hostages serve as a tactic to raise the amount of ransom money obtained by kidnappings.
The martial law measures include strict censorship of media and social media. This has allowed the government’s narrative to dominate media coverage.
According to this narrative, it is a fight between the Filipino state and ISIS-affiliated terrorists, including foreign fighters from as far away as Chechnya, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Lurid reports have appeared of the terrorists decapitating people who fail to recite Quranic verses and being responsible for most of the deaths.
However, the information that does get out challenges the government’s narrative. For example, it was widely reported that the Amai Pakpak hospital had been seized by the militants, who had taken staff hostage and flown an ISIS flag from the hospital.
However, on May 25, the hospital’s chief of medical staff, Dr Amer Saber, told GMA television network’s 24 Oras program that these reports were false.
“There was no hostage taking,” he said. “They were not able to raise any ISIS flag in this area.”
Social media reports suggest that the civilian death toll is considerably higher than the 24 acknowledged. It is likely that the official figure of 120 killed militants includes some who were actually civilians and that the overall death toll may be higher than what is being reported.
It is also clear that whatever violent acts the militants are committing, the biggest threat to civilians is from government air strikes.
“There were many dead civilians and the dogs were eating them,” Norhidaya Imam, a woman who fled the clashes, told the May 31 Philippine Daily Inquirer. “I saw it myself. In our village alone there were many civilians hit by bombs fired by the military.”
The destructiveness of the air strikes was illustrated by a “friendly fire” incident on May 31 that killed 11 soldiers — more than a quarter of the deaths sustained by the government side.
Filipino socialist group Party of the Labouring Masses (PLM) has campaigned against the martial law declaration and air strikes. In a May 25 statement, it described the declaration as “an indication of the failure of the Duterte government to solve the conflict in Mindanao through the peace process it supposedly initiated with the MILF”.
The martial law declaration has also threatened the peace process with the leftist New People’s Army.
There are widespread concerns that the declaration of martial law in Mindanao is part of a Philippines-wide drift towards authoritarian rule.
These concerns were heightened when the army was deployed to the streets of Manila on May 28. Soldiers set up random roadblocks with police, despite the government acknowledging there was no evidence of any threat of terrorist attacks in the capital.
The PLM helped initiate a coalition including trade unions, church groups, journalists and lawyers to campaign against martial law in Mindanao and its possible extension to the rest of the Philippines. Lawyers with the coalition are petitioning the Supreme Court to challenge the validity of the May 23 declaration.
Duterte has consistently displayed a positive attitude towards the rule of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled through martial law from 1971 until his overthrow in 1986.
In his election campaign last year, Duterte combined populist promises to move away from neoliberalism and US domination and to negotiate with Moro and leftist insurgents, with promises to be a “tough guy” against crime and disorder.
Since coming to power, he has shown his claims to be a “socialist” to be false. He has brought in policies intensifying neoliberalism, for example making it easier for foreign corporations to own land.
He has been more inclined to keep his promises to be “tough on crime”, although this has dramatically increased violence and disorder, most notoriously through his war on drugs: a campaign of extrajudicial killings against residents in Manila's poorest communities in which more than 7000 people have been murdered by police and death squads.
Victims have included some drug users and sellers, but also political activists and random individuals.
The PLM has been part of the In Defence of Human Rights and Dignity (iDEFEND) coalition opposing these mass killings. The slaughter has been justified by government propaganda claiming that an epidemic of illegal drugs is tearing Filipino communities apart.
In reality, data from the Dangerous Drugs Board shows that only 1.8 million Filipinos (out of a population of more than 100 million) used illegal drugs in 2015. This was mostly marijuana and a third of these had only used once in the past 13 months.
As a result of these policies, much of Duterte’s popularity with poorer voters has disappeared.
One area where he has been trying to maintain his progressive appeal has been in foreign policy, which he has reoriented away from the traditional Filipino policy of total subservience to the US.
Significantly, when he made the martial law declaration he was in Moscow meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he asked for military hardware.
However, the economic policy measures keeping the Philippines subservient to Western capital make it unlikely that these foreign policy initiatives will bring more independence to the Filipino people.
What they are more likely to bring is something similar to the situation with Sri Lanka: competition between global powers seeking support from the regime, giving it a freer hand to abuse the rights of its population.