As the Philippine island of Mindanao enters its third week of President Rodrigo Duterte's martial law, social movement organizers are denouncing mounting rights abuses and war crimes committed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines with the support of the U.S. military.
Ostensibly declared on the basis of fighting the Maute group — a radical offshoot from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that declared its affiliation with the Islamic State group that launched violent attacks on Marawi City on May 23 — the new state of martial law is instead being used as a mandate to attack the country's oppressed nationalities, fan the flames of Islamophobia and suspend civil liberties in the country, human rights advocates and Moro representatives say.
“While the Filipino people detest terrorist attacks by groups such as the Mautes, we also decry the war crimes of the Philippine military through incessant bombings on civilian communities within and outside Marawi City,” Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of human rights group Karapatan told teleSUR. “Martial law, and similar militarist solutions has never been and will never be the solution to the root causes of the existence of terror groups and armed conflicts with revolutionary movements.”
Palabay is among a large and growing group of civil society and mass movement representatives who have protested the ongoing airstrikes deployed by the military against population centers. Last Wednesday, military representatives even killed 11 of their own soldiers in a “friendly-fire” incident, one of many airstrikes in a campaign that civilian representatives say is ruining the city's homes, property and public infrastructure.
While the military has described its aerial bombardments and artillery salvos as “surgical” and necessary in defeating the Maute group, a growing number of reports have testified to increased “collateral damage” across the southern island of 22 million people. In many cases, towns and neighborhoods located over 62 miles from Marawi have been indiscriminately sprayed by artillery shrapnel, bombs and 50-caliber machine guns, leading to a hemorrhaging of refugees from population centers that has drawn comparisons to counterinsurgency operations in Syria and Iraq.
“The growing rights violations due to continued airstrikes are angering the Moro people,” Amirah Ali Lidasan, social movement organizer and former chairperson of the Muslim-leftist group Suara Bangsamoro, explained to teleSUR. However, the bombings aren't the only grievance that the social movement leaders have sought to bring attention to.
“Human rights violations include forced evacuation, destruction of properties and wounding of civilians, divestment of properties, reports of illegal arrests at checkpoints and in communities,” Lidasan continued. “We received reports that most of the residents want to immediately return despite the airstrikes to rescue civilians trapped in Marawi and salvage what was left of their properties. More reports are coming about the looting of houses — with no confirmation if this was done by military or Maute. However, for those who initially reported, they say looting abounds in areas declared as 'Maute-free.'”
For Lidasan and other Moro representatives, the military's operations also have a clearly Islamophobic bias. In Davao City, the president's daughter, Mayor Sara Duterte implemented a city lockdown before downgrading the city's security policy to a strict “No ID, No Entry” policy. The move was accompanied by the round-up of 260 youth in the city's poor neighborhoods. Critics derided the mayor as a “mini-dictator” for her move, which gave free license to state security bodies to raid communities and arrest those who lacked identification papers.
“It's just so painful to see that the Maranao people are being discriminated against,” Lidasan explained, referring to the southern tribe that populates Marawi City and surrounding areas. “Among the 13 ethnolinguistic groups that comprise the Moro people, I think the Maranaw are the most exposed due to their popular economic activity — vending. So the Moro and Muslim people that most city folks know are the Maranaos, because they often buy from them.”
Across the Philippine political spectrum, martial rule in Mindanao has sparked painful comparisons to the brutal repression of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who carried out forced evacuations, land-grabs and massive human rights violations during his rule, which spanned over two decades until he was overthrown in 1986.
“The facts — summary killings, disappearances, thousands tortured and detained, the brazen corruption of public coffers, the gross inequality and poverty, the brutality and inhumanity of military rule over civilians — remain in the nation's historical memory,” the Karapatan leader noted. “Duterte and the military needed to raise the terrorist bogey – at times interchangeable with the tagging of progressives and communists as enemies of the State — to justify the proclamation of martial law,” Palabay added.
Indeed, last Friday, striking farm workers at Korean-owned banana plantation Shin Sun Tropical Fruit Corporation in Compostela Valley were violently dispersed by the Philippine Army, national police and strikebreakers. Fourteen of the striking workers, who are affiliated with the Kilusang Mayo Uno militant trade union, were beaten and detained.
Since then, 11 of the workers have been released while three union leaders remain in custody, without facing charges. According to the Federation of Agricultural Workers UMA Pilipinas, the strikebreakers told the workers that labor law is unenforceable under the new martial regime. The move came a week after the government broke off peace talks with the communist and progressive forces across the country, where an ambitious socio-economic reform agenda was being negotiated.
"Unless poverty, landlessness, lack of decent jobs and living wages, social services, and other economic and political issues are addressed through thoroughgoing and comprehensive social reforms, this will be a never-ending cycle of state violence," Palabay said.
Movement leaders have also pointed to the continued activities of the United States Armed Forces in the country's counterinsurgency operations as evidence of what they call “U.S. imperialism.” On Monday, the U.S. Embassy's Joint United Military Assistance Group held a ceremony where hundreds of firearms ranging from 200 Glock 21 pistols to 100 M203 grenade launchers were given to the Philippine Marines as a part of the U.S. Counterterrorism Train and Equip program. Meanwhile, social media posts have circulated that allegedly depict masked and heavily-armed U.S. military among frontline Philippine military groups.
“The covert participation of the U.S. government through its military has always been there through the longstanding relations, trainings and advisory roles, military aid and directional capacity and control of the U.S. military over Philippine troops,” Palabay explained. “It is no secret already that the U.S. and the Philippine military have had direct roles in creating terrorist groups such as Islamic State group and Abu Sayyaf to enable them to justify their dirty wars versus the people,” she alleged.
“With the admission of the direct and more overt role of the U.S. military in the Marawi operations, the indiscriminate character of the aerial bombings is now thus fully explained,” Palabay added. “It is a U.S.-style kind of destruction in places where they have gone to war.”
Lidasan also questioned the Philippine government's motive in implementing martial law and pursuing offensives across Mindanao.
“The Moro people are becoming skeptical about the incident and what the role of President Duterte has been,” she said. “Was it his decision? Or was he pushed by the rightists and military men in his Cabinet, and their U.S. military partners, to declare martial law?” To Lidasan, the scenario seems almost like an elaborate ploy to show a Philippine need for U.S. arms and assistance, which contradicts Duterte's previous denunciations of the United States' role in its former colony.
“But come to think of it, there was no change in the government's policy toward the U.S.,” she explained. “Duterte stood by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, EDCA, the Balikatan exercises and rotation of U.S. soldiers continued, the building of military installations in communities commenced, and plans to build ports and airports by and for U.S. military personnel continued.”
The unfolding scenario of rampant brutality against civilians is continuing to feed fears not so much of Islamic radicalism, but of an increasingly militarized scenario where the country's elites and bureaucrats remain wedded to U.S. tactics, arms, and ultimately, Washington's dictates that run counter to the interests of the Philippine people.