Guns, bombs, destruction, death – ask a non-Mindanaoan to conjure up an image of Mindanao and these are probably some of what they are going to tell you. Mindanao has always been seen as a battlefield, where bullets don’t choose any flesh to hit, where children lose their parents, where parents lose their children, and where peace is seemingly non-existent.
Last May 23, 2017, Islamic State-aligned group, Maute attacked Marawi resulting in destruction of homes, burning of Mosques and hospitals, death of civilians and soldiers, and displacement of residents. This prompted President Duterte to declare Martial Law in all of Mindanao and caused him to cut his trip to Russia short in order to come back to the Philippines.
60 days have passed and the battle is far from over. President Duterte believes that an extension until the end of the year is the solution and therefore has asked the Congress to deliberate and consider his appeal.
With the recent crisis that has struck Marawi, one cannot help but ask if maybe what they have been saying about Mindanao is true. Will Mindanao ever have lasting peace?
Looking back, past Martial Laws has only brought more deaths than created peace. Is another one really the answer to the terrorism that has long since plagued Mindanao?
On July 22, 2017, the same day the 60-day Martial Law should have lapsed, the Congress convened to deliberate on President Duterte’s appeal, a 7-page document, to extend Martial Law until the end of the year. It was the first time Congress convened in a joint session to consider the extension of martial rule.
Pacquiao, one of Duterte’s alliances in the Senate, voted yes to the extension. He said that this is the time to trust and support the administration in exercising its authority.
He then resorted to using Bible verses again and said, “In the Bible, it says let everyone subject to the governing authority for there is no authority which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God, consequently whoever rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves,”
Despite Duterte’s statement that his Martial Law won’t be any different than Marcos’, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. assures the public that this administration’s Martial Law will not be the same as the late dictator’s. In addition, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana says that Martial Law will not expand outside Mindanao.
Of course, deliberations would not be complete without the opposing party. Members of the Minority bloc – Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, Senators Francis Pangilinan, Risa Hontiveros, and Bam Aquino were among the few ones who voted against the extension of Martial Law.
Early on the deliberations, Drilon proposed to limit the extension of martial law to 60 days but was later rejected by Congress.
Drilon said, “The reason why martial law was limited to 60 days (in the Constitution) was in order that the decision of the President be subjected to regular review.”
Aquino said the 60 days should have been enough. He believes that attention should now be focused on rehabilitation. He further stressed that rehabilitation should be done under civilian authority instead of military authority.
Hontiveros believes that Martial Law has no strategic objectives and argued that there are a lot of ways to resolve the crisis in Marawi through existing laws since terrorism, after all, is a continuing crime.
“[W]hile the threat is clear and the need for urgent response compelling, one thing remains unanswered: exactly how martial law contributes to meeting this threat. Walang maisagot dito ang ating mga security advisers, na ang tanging nasabi ay kailangan ng ‘enhanced security-based operations.’ It is absurd that we use ‘timeliness’ and ‘needs on the ground’ as a reason for martial law. Lahat iyan kayang sagutin ng calling-out powers ng pangulo,” Hontiveros said.
Quezon City Rep. Christopher Belmonte, who also voted against the extension and believes that doing so defeats the purpose of the very institutions we have sworn to serve.
“To do so may set a dangerous precedent of normalizing authoritarianism. We should focus on peace as soon as possible, Mr. Speaker,” he added.
After seven hours of deliberation, the Congress granted President Duterte’s appeal with an overwhelming vote of 261-18 from all 279 lawmakers present from both chambers.
“Please ask us what we feel”
Ranao Rescue Team Spokesperson Samira Gutoc-Tomawis stood in front of hundreds of legislators during the session on the Martial Law extension to share stories of human rights violations her fellow Maranaos experienced.
One story included an alleged psychological interrogation by pouring of hot water on the hand of a 20-year-old with a developmental disorder. Tomawis said that they have a photo as an evidence that can prove it. Another account was of a man, who was rescued from Marawi, being told by men in uniform to dig their own graves.
Tomawis also expressed her dismay upon seeing dead bodies of her fellow Muslims left unburied for days, a taboo in Islam where the dead should be buried within 24 hours. Another account was of a woman who was asked to take off her clothes in an evacuation center. Covering up women’s bodies are strictly followed in Islam.
“I am from Marawi City, your honors, please ask us what do we feel. Please ask us how do we stand up and arise? Twenty bodies are in funeral, 100 days or almost 60 days not buried… Sa Islam, one day lang po. Hindi puwede, bawal sa Islam, the highest form of prohibition,” she said.
“I am so sorry I have to speak for 250,000 people and 400,000 Maranaos scattered all over the country,” Tomawis added.
Senator Grace Poe urged different government sectors to work together and strengthen efforts to to respect religious and cultural boundaries within those areas.
Tomawis also stresses the fact that the timing of the attack could not have been more unfortunate. The siege happened during Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, they are not allowed to eat or drink from dawn until dusk and could only break their fast outside daylight hours. The arrival of food before dawn was a crucial factor and was sadly not carried out very efficiently since the strict permit systems hindered the food from coming in on time. Sanitation was also a problem in evacuation centers since ablution is crucial before prayer.
The unheard voices
Nor-Fatimah Cahar, a Fifth Year BS Accountancy student and also a Maranao, expressed her opposition with the 5-month Martial Law extension in Mindanao. She believes that it is not the solution for the situation her Muslim brothers and sisters are currently facing right now. It will only invoke fear and worse, it may normalize military rule. She also said that it will only inflict chaos especially now that there have been reports of human rights abuses among the common people.
“When I learned that the extension of Martial Law was passed by the Congress, I finally understood why we always fail to stand as one and protect our nation. If we look closely, it seems that our higher officials in the government do not think of other ways to solve the problem. Thus, they resort to the idea that the AFP could protect the people and end this terrorism. Confronting the deeper roots of this problem is the only way to eradicate this conflict and not the Military way. Never will be.” Cahar stressed.
Cahar also said that having been to Cagayan, Lanao del Sur and Iligan City, she can affirm that there are multiple human rights violations committed during the 60-day Martial Law. These violations have remained unreported due to fear.
The administration, in its strong support to empower our armed forces, has somehow forgotten to listen to its citizens. Citizens, who, like our soldiers, are wounded in the same war.
“It saddens me because when these victims call for help and voice out what they have seen or experienced, people are apathetic and resorts to labeling them as ‘story makers’. How can the voice of the people truly reign if these voices have not been absorbed and heard?” Cahar said. She then commended Miss Samira Gutoc-Tomawis for her conviction and courage to speak up for the rights of the Maranaos.
Cahar reiterates that her fellow Maranaos do not feel safer with the heightened militarization. With Maranaos scattered around the country wanting nothing but go home, she cannot help but feel helpless for them.
“How can they feel safe if they are feeling so much sorrow by being aliens of new places while worrying what awaits them in the future? How can they feel safe if they are discriminated and abused? Moreover, it is disheartening that because of this crisis and the extension of Martial Law, we, Maranaos, become aliens of our own home. To tell you honestly, the Islamic City of Marawi does not bleed through the smoke after a blast nor the firing of bullets, but through the movement of her entire inhabitants coursing away from her.”
Cahar says that the Maranaos and the entire Muslim Community are disheartened by the results of the legislation that occurred last July 22. She believes that the Martial Law was extended because there was no unified Moro voices against it and that very few leaders nowadays stand up for their rights and rise above their interest.
“May this serve as a reminder to all of us that we should choose the right leader who can defend and protect the right of its people. With this, I believe that a lone voice of reason will triumph over the cacophony of ill intentions.” Cahar added.
Martial Law, never the answer
What do we do when our legislators do not echo our voice but only the voice of their own political security and stability? What do we do when our lawmakers pledged their allegiance to the government instead of the people?
Indeed, the recognition of the Muslim community’s struggles and much-needed representation continue to create small ripples that never move the vast ocean and until Mindanaoans’ collective voices are recognized for nation-building, we’ll just have to commit to the flames of a fire we did not start for now.
For some, Mindanao may only look like a battlefield. But for the Muslim community, it is their home. And while we all tread upon the scars of this land, may we never forget that it is only us that can heal it.
How many Martial Laws must be declared before we finally realize that it is not the answer?