MANILA - Malacañang on Friday said President Rodrigo Duterte's declaration of martial law in Mindanao has succeeded in preventing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from establishing a base in the Philippines, even as government troops continued to battle the group’s sympathizers in Marawi City.
“We don’t go by ratings, but we do say we actually preempted the establishment of a wilayat (Islamic State province) [in Mindanao],” Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said in a press briefing in Davao City.
Duterte placed the entire Mindanao under a 60-day martial rule on May 23, after the ISIS-linked terror groups Maute and Abu Sayyaf laid siege to the predominantly Muslim City of about 200,000.
In justifying his declaration, Duterte said the terror groups were planning to establish an Islamic State province in Mindanao as part of the international terror group’s caliphate in Southeast Asia.
Brigadier General Gilbert Gapay, Deputy Commander of the Armed Forces’ Eastern Mindanao Command and the martial law spokesperson, said the military has so far managed to prevent a spillover of violence in Marawi City to other areas in Mindanao.
“The said success is attributed to the aggressive security operations of our units, the tightened security measures being implemented in the area, the active coordination and collaboration of other law enforcement agencies, local government units, and the support of the general public,” he said.
Gapay also stressed that the military was abiding by the rules of engagement and continued to respect human rights amid offensives under martial rule.
“As we enter the second month of implementation, we’d like to assure the public that we shall continue to work for the safety and security of everyone, as mandated to us, with utmost respect [for] human rights and the rule of law,” he said.
Three petitions have been filed before the Supreme Court seeking the nullification of Duterte’s martial law proclamation. The petitioners say the declaration over all of Mindanao was not necessary as the conflict is only confined in Marawi.
The government, represented by Solicitor General Jose Calida, argued that martial law was necessary in Mindanao because the militants were committing rebellion, a condition required by the Constitution to warrant the declaration of martial rule.
For Mindanao Development Authority chairperson Datu Abu Khayr Alonto, what the Maute group and its cohorts did in Marawi was not only a rebellion, but a “war of annexation.”
“Martial law has been declared. The president has crossed the Rubicon. There’s no turning back. The Duterte government did not declare war against the good people of Marawi. The government did not attack Marawi. Marawi was attacked,” Alonto said in the briefing.
“All the ingredients that requires the declaration of martial law is there,” he said.
Former Ateneo School of Government dean Tony La Viña, meanwhile, said the declaration of martial law in Mindanao was not justified and has triggered concerns of military abuse in parts of the region.
“There’s rebellion all over the Philippines, but you don’t declare martial law in the entire Philippines,” La Viña said in a forum on Thursday, referring to the Moro and communist insurgencies that have been plaguing the country for decades.
La Viña, a native of Cagayan de Oro City, said martial law meant little from a legal perspective, noting that the military could still conduct operations against the militants whether martial law was declared or not.
“For almost everything the military is doing in Marawi to deal with the problem, none of that requires martial law,” he said.
He added that the martial law declaration may have played into the hands of the local terrorists “who wanted recognition.”
The emergence of groups pledging allegiance to the ISIS has been considered as the biggest security problem to face the year-old Duterte administration.
Clashes erupted in the city a month ago as government troops were attempting to arrest Abu Sayyaf senior leader Isnilon Hapilon, considered ISIS’ point person in Southeast Asia.
The rise of pro-ISIS groups in the country has raised alarm in Washington and the Philippines’ neighbors in the region, which fear that the notorious terror group was seeking to establish a new front in Asia amid its successive losses in Iraq and Syria.
The government said at least 280 suspected terrorists have been killed since clashes erupted a month ago. The government has lost 69 of its men while 26 civilians have died.
The military earlier said some 500 civilians, including potential hostages, remained trapped in the battle zone.