THE Supreme Court recently upheld the constitutionality of Presidential Proclamation No. 216. Ironically, this landmark decision has been trumpeted by some government officials as the green light for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to proceed in its campaign against terrorists and other enemies of the state in Mindanao. The reality is the AFP has been dutifully fulfilling this mandate even before the declaration of martial over Mindanao.
And even more ironic is the fact that the government itself has cast doubt on whether martial law is the appropriate state response to terrorism. Solicitor General Jose Calida during oral arguments before the Supreme Court stated that martial law does not give new legal powers to the president.
Therefore, as far as law enforcement goes, government has essentially the same power under martial law as it had prior to its declaration. Correspondingly, purported abuses committed by military forces on the ground are actionable regardless of martial law. It is thus difficult to imagine what has changed for Filipino security forces in their effort to destroy terrorists.
Of course, the irony of ironies is the fact that there is already an existing anti-terrorism legal framework, i.e. the Human Security Act (HSA) of 2007. This law created the lead government agency tasked to address the problem of terrorism, the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC).
The ATC is an “inter-agency body organized to implement the HSA and assumes the responsibility for the proper and effective implementation of the country’s anti-terrorism policy.” Its mandate “includes the formulation and adoptions of a comprehensive, adequate, efficient, and effective anti-terrorism plans, programs, and counter-measures to suppress and eradicate terrorism and to protect all people from act of terrorism.”
In light of the issues and complications faced by the AFP in the Marawi Siege, a fundamental rethink of the country’s war on terror is clearly warranted. First and foremost, a comprehensive review of the Human Security Act of 2007 must be conducted immediately by Congress. The President must take the ATC to task as well. Indeed, the overall anti-terrorism approach must now be re-assessed thoroughly by this administration.
Truth be told, there are nuances of terrorism in the country which must now be duly recognized. For instance, Filipino Muslims believe the ISIS ideology to be reprehensible and un-Islamic. Therefore, the commitment of terrorists such as the Maute Group to establish a “caliphate” in the Philippines is highly doubtful. In the broader anti-terrorism context, facing zealots in the battlefield is very different with dealing with mere “wannabe-jihadists”.
Then there is the fact that no ISIS central command currently operates in the Philippines. Terrorists in the country are only a motley collection of disparate armed groups comprised of criminal gangs, low-level insurgents and the private armies of some local politicians. Presently, the fight against terrorism in the Philippines is literally a war on multiple minute fronts. But the creation of a single large and formidable terror network is still a distinct possibility.
The most challenging peculiarity is the fact that the terrorists have brought their mission of destruction in urban areas. This means terrorism is not just about holding a certain territory hostage. It is also about ramming down an evil ideology on the collective throats of the populace. Accordingly, there are two arenas of war now: 1) on the streets and 2) online. And the esteemed academic, Dr. Mansoor L. Limba, correctly warns that, “To take ‘terror’ as Marawi’s single story is no doubt a dangerous game to play.”
Many nation-states have learned that mere military might will not be enough to defeat this enemy. Hence, extending martial law may be the wrong path to take because it will reinforce the belief that the “all-out war” approach is the only viable way. The plain fact is the evolution of how terrorists wreak havoc on society demands more sophistication and strategy in the Philippine government’s anti-terrorism effort.
The urgent task at hand is finding a more comprehensive and coherent anti-terrorism response. Obsessively focusing on the debate whether terrorism constitutes rebellion will only distract from what needs to be done to properly address this serious public need.