Carmencita Caragdag has spent a decade visiting isolated Mindanao communities where faith groups and other non-government organizations struggle to fill the governance vacuum.
The church worker and more than 20 other participants in a leadership workshop of the Ecumenical Women Forum this week visited Lumad and Moro communities in the hinterlands of Palimbang, Sultan Kudarat.
These are poor villages: children struggle for access to education, health services are scant, power is missing or spotty, and there are none of the telecommunications connections that urban folk take for granted.
For two days, they lived the spartan lives of their hosts. They heard vague reports of fighting, but had little news about the outside world.
Early morning of May 25, they said their goodbyes, got into a borrowed truck, and ran smack into the reality of martial law.
ID’s, photographs, warnings
Members of the 6th Marine Company of Marine Batallion Landing Team-6 held their party at a checkpoint in Brgy. Domulon, Palimbang for one-and-a-half hours while someone went off for “an investigator.”
Everyone in the group was able to present an identification (ID) card. But they were still interrogated about their movements and activities and made to write down work and home addresses.
Troops photographed their IDs and faces, Caragdag told ABS-CBN News.
The soldiers were polite but firm; they warned that military permission is now needed before entering areas beyond the town center, Caragdag said.
“We have been working in Mindanao for ten years,” said Caragdag. “We regularly visit churches in the hinterlands and provide social services to communities. We have never needed to ask permission to serve our people.”
In Davao City, the President’s hometown, the city government led by his daughter, Mayor Sara Duterte, is implementing a “Hold and Secure” program to prevent potential terror attacks.
The local government’s 30-pt guide discourages travel to and from Davao City, unless people have urgent needs. Locals and visitors have been reminded to carry identification documents at all times.
Davao cops rounded up more than 200 men in a known Moro community on Wednesday, demanding a show of IDs and interrogating and taking photographs of many “persons of interest” before releasing them.
In Cotabato City, people entering the city without IDs are asked to log their names, addresses and purpose of visiting. Zamboanga City, in Western Mindanao, has also issued a No ID – No Entry policy.
FALLING BETWEEN THE CRACKS
Outside of Davao City, only Caragdag’s group has reported being subjected to interrogation and forced picture-taking.
Forum members include the gender and women commission of the Catholic Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP), and women leaders from Muslim and Lumad (indigenous peoples) communities.
“Although we knew we had done nothing wrong, we were still intimidated,” Caragdag said.
Caragdag felt the sting of invasion of privacy, of having to “prove we were innocent,” but said they did not resist what was sought.
Duterte is a popular leader and campaigned on a strong law and order platform. People who backed him in a bloody crackdown on narcotics trade defend the imposition of martial law.
With the country’s recent brushes with bombings and abductions staged by Islamic militants, even those with misgivings on the drug fronts are supportive of martial law.
But there is growing concern that on-ground behavior by state security forces could lead to widespread human rights violations and a backlash of unrest.
The guidelines issued by the police and the military, and those released by various human rights groups, mostly focus on cases of arrests.
Brief detentions and interrogations are a very gray area.
“This practice is what arguably can be within their plenary powers under martial law, subject of course to the basic rights which we list in our advisory,” said Edre Olalia of the National Union of People’s Lawyers.
“But as advocates for human rights, we will contest these as arbitrary, unnecessary, and draconian, especially if it is indiscriminately targeted against ordinary civilians or the masses,” Olalia told ABS-CBN News.
Caragdag is worried about what faces indigenous peoples and Moro residents who have long fallen between the cracks of government social services.
Government-issued IDs in the country are mostly linked to social services – schools, the Social Security System, PhilHealth, cards for the Conditional Cash Transfer, driver’s licenses and passports.
The issuance of biometric IDs for voters has a lag time of several years.
The areas most prone to military and police swoops are also the poorest in Mindanao, with low literacy and education rates, little by way of regular jobs. Many people are not even registered in the national census.
The President declared martial law following a botched arrest operation against Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon that led to days of carnage in the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi.
The Armed Forces reported 17 soldiers and 31 rebels killed Thursday morning with scores of fighters and civilians injured.
Fighting so far has been confined to Marawi, a historic place for Filipino Muslims and strategic to movement of Moro rebel groups.
Duterte, however, cited recent surprise excursions of extremists in central Philippines and warned they could spread across the country.
He said the surprising show of strength of rebels in Marawi showed their plan to establish a province for the Islamic State in the Philippines.
National Democratic Front (NDF) peace negotiators on Thursday asked the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) to reconsider its order to intensify tactical offensives against government forces in the wake of the martial law declaration.
The NDF’s chief political consultant, Jose Ma Sison, said they would for now on reassurances by Duterte and government negotiators that NDF forces and legal activists are not the targets of martial law.
He blamed Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana for provoking the rebel leadership when he defended the Mindanao-wide martial law as a means of controlling the New People’s Army (NPA).
The NPA is the armed force of the Communist Party of the Philippines, the dominant group in the National Democratic Front that is starting the fifth round of talks with the Duterte government.
The military claims that more than half of the NPA Mindanao forces were recruited from the ranks of indigenous peoples.
Also on Thursday, Solicitor-General Jose Calida suddenly expanded the theater of conflict.
At a press briefing, he said “law-abiding citizens” have nothing to fear from martial law. Only those “rebelling against the government” should fear it.
Aside from the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups, which have a few hundred fighters, Mindanao also hosts the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), with tens of thousands of members, and the splinter Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) with a few thousand armed men.
Mindanao is also where the NPA has its strongest formations.
Periodic government crackdowns on these rebel groups have caused dislocation of communities, affecting thousands to hundreds of thousands, depending on the site of conflict.
Duterte on Wednesday swept aside rebel claims of territories and ordered the AFP to sweep into every area it needs to clear for peace and order.
SHORT CUTS, TRACK RECORD
Mixed signals from government officials and the country’s long track record in rights violations fuel the outcry against martial law.
Duterte’s vow to hew close to the terror imposed by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos has also raised hackles. Marcos’ decade-long martial law regime killed more than 3,000 activists, imprisoned 70,000 and tortured 34,000 between 1972 and 1981.
Cristina Palabay, executive director of the human rights group Karapatan, said Caragdag’s experience is a sign of a narrowing democratic space and a swift slide to fascist state status.
“The authorities have already started playing a semantics game, saying that those rounded up are not ‘under arrest’ but are detained pending verification processes. Nonetheless, such incidents are already a prelude to more abuses,” she warned.
Activists are leery because even without Martial Law, their ranks have suffered human rights violations.
From July 2016 to April 30, 2017, Karapatan said it had documented 55 cases of extrajudicial killings and 101 incidents of illegal arrest and detention.
It recently reported to a United Nations (UN) review 18,414 victims of forced evacuation as a direct result of aerial strikes, militarization and harassment against communities, and 30,904 cases of threat, harassment and intimidation, all linked to the government’s counter-insurgency campaign.
Under the previous administration of President Benigno Aquino III, the rights group also logged more than 300 political killings.
Of these, Palabay said 68 victims were Lumad from Mindanao, the target of military and paramilitary forces in long-running conflict over indigenous lands coveted by mining and plantation firms.
Martial law places on the back burner Duterte’s pledge to resolve the roots of conflict, said the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines – Northern Mindanao Region, which works closely with indigenous and Muslim groups.
Citing Duterte’s roots, the religious group said the President’s involvement in conflict resolution should have made him realize “the inappropriateness of resolving armed conflicts with more violence. We had hoped that he would understand the root causes of the conflicts we have in our island.”
It warned of military strategies like aerial bombings that could harm more civilians than rebels.
Palabay said Duterte’s declaration of martial law is the start of “open fascist rule,” which provides a false sense of security at the expense of people’s rights.