Notes & Essays

How is it Like for Mindanaoans Who are Still Living Under Martial Law?

One year after the end of the siege of Marawi, martial law has still not been lifted in Mindanao.
ILLUSTRATOR Jasrelle Serrano

The Battle of Marawi ended in October last year, yet we in Mindanao are still under martial law. For Moros, it is something that brings back the horrors of the imposition of Martial Law in 1972, when widespread violations of Moros’ human rights took place and truly traumatized our Muslim communities.

There were grave violations of human rights across the Philippines and in the Bangsamoro areas. Remember, too, that that time of upheaval in our communities was also when Moro communities suffered a long list of massacres: from the Palembang massacre in 1974, where at least 1,500 victims died; to the 1981 Pata massacre in Sulu, where more than 2,000 civilian Moro Tausugs were killed in a retaliatory attack by the Philippine military. The Moros were also the victims of land-grabbing, especially when then President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. set the Ilaga, a paramilitary group, against the Muslims of Mindanao.

Now martial law is in effect again, covering only Mindanao this time, declared by the current government to contain and prosecute the terrorist groups supported by the Islamic State. But President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao was not a surprise, since Duterte had hinted at this course of action prior to the declaration. Moros are divided about the issue, despite the fact that Duterte won by a landslide in all Moro areas.

Threat of terrorism

Of course, the enemy is fierce, and their ideology is chilling: The IS-linked Maute group hope to establish a caliphate by violent means, and making this happen by recruiting marginalized and disenfranchised people to their cause. Rooting out the Maute group was the point behind the months of battle in Marawi City. It became the rationale for declaring martial law in Mindanao. That much was clear to the people who now have to live under martial rule.


 “The intent of its declaration is clear to me, and the threat that brought about its declaration remains: to crack down on the threat of violent extremism, both in the form of jihadi terrorists and the communist insurgents,” says Davao-based Karlo Antonio David, 26, a local historian commissioned by the Kidapawan local government unit.

ILLUSTRATOR: Jasrelle Serrano

What's It Like to Live Under the Current Martial Law

Most Filipinos outside Mindanao picture military men everywhere under teh current version of martial law. Jolo-based Nur-raez Omar, however, says that “prior to the implementation of martial law, the visibility of the military has always been there; this is because of the threat posed by the Abu Sayyaf group known for kidnapping locals and foreign nationals. 

Mindanao residents have lived under this latest declaration of martial law for over a year now. They have yet to see appreciable results from it in terms of arrests of and offensives against the terrorists President Duterte declared martial law to curb. 

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David says that, while he is “not in a position to know how the operations are going, but from what I see, not enough is being done.” He also notes that, despite martial rule in Mindanao, he has not seen any “high-profile arrests or major offensives,” adding that the attacks by terrorist and bandit groups “are still ongoing. Isulan was the result of poor security.” 

“Maybe the difference is that the military cover more than half of the main town and are helping the police maintain peace and order." 

This martial law is, he says, “at least from my experience of it, largely only in name. Military visibility is poor, and I don't know if security measures like curfews and checkpoints are being implemented based on intelligence or the whim of local leadership—it certainly looks arbitrary to me.”

We can’t simply say the impact of martial law has just one specific result, either. The results vary by area: Sulu, for example, is a place where a strong military presence has been around for years because of the crackdown on Abu Sayyaf bandits. Omar said “it has been a norm for us that we see more military personnel around. Regardless if it’s martial law or not.” 

Omar adds, “Maybe the difference is that the military cover more than half of the main town and are helping the police maintain peace and order. There are also foot patrols from the Philippine Army around (Jolo) daily, which the town did not have before.” 

According to him, “there are also certain cases in the outskirts of the main town where certain people get apprehended by the military in known conflict areas, but they are later turned over to the local officials after their identities are verified.” This has resulted in many vocal protests by human rights groups, both in Mindanao and in the capital.


While there is, indeed, a stronger military presence in some areas of Mindanao, David notes that the military “continue to lack nuance in [their] dealings with communities in insurgent-hit locales.” 

“I think martial law, if done right, is the right solution...but we need to know more what is going on because it looks like nothing is happening.”

ILLUSTRATOR: Jasrelle Serrano

Martial Law is Not 'Politically Attractive'

Whatever else can be said of martial law in Mindanao now, it is not a topic that is politically attractive right now. 

David observes that this is particularly true “with the Manobo in Agusan, where the military often fails to realize that the Manobo are caught in the crossfire. I have yet to hear major politicians talk about that. We need tough, but nuanced action on insurgency and extremism. Nuance makes for boring politics, I guess.”

The curfew imposed under this martial law is more lenient than the existing curfews martial law overwrote, too. Omar said “almost all of the establishments close at around 6 to 7 PM” now that martial law is in effect. Before martial law was implemented, however, he says that the areas also had curfews: those curfews, according to him, were set at 9 PM  and are now set for 10:00 PM “Exceptions apply to those working at night, like the medical staff of the local hospitals and clinics that operate 24/7” as well as “other people who needs to go out during curfew, as long they have valid IDs with them and valid reasons to be out.”


Understand that Mindanao was, up to recently, a place of warlords with private armies and rido, or blood feuds. Besides the terrorist threats Mindanaoans have to face, they have these peace and order problems, too. Mindanao folk expected martial law would help curb or eliminate these problems, as well as deal with the threat of terrorism. 

Warlords in a Time of Peace

Martial law is declared in areas of unrest where peace and order must be restored by combined efforts of police and military units, but David says that this martial law is “mostly a wasted opportunity to clamp down, once and for all, on warlordism and private armies.”

Martial law, ideally, is implemented with military efficiency—yet nearly a year of martial law with few appreciable results belies the efficiency and alacrity of action that is a military trademark. David points out that “lawlessness and warlordism exist where state presence is weak, and martial law could have been a chance to clamp down on abusive local hegemons—politiko-turned-businessman-turned-druglord, sometimes even academics, like in Arakan, with private armies—who have stifled local development for decades. Other than the Parojinogs and the PDEA raid in CFCST—arguably police ops, not martial law), I haven't seen any of that.”

But understand, too, that warlords fill a void: Where government services are slow to non-existent, warlords will fill the void in their own feudal way—a way that is not necessarily in keeping with the law of the land. Who, then, would stop them, if government cannot provide better options than the warlords do? 


If an extension is granted, then perhaps the military and the police should truly take this opportunity to straighten out and fix the problems that caused this latest declaration of martial law in Mindanao.

The other bothersome thing about martial law in Mindanao is that the people do not have eyes on the progress being made under it. As David says, civilians in Mindanao “are not getting enough updates on how martial law is being implemented, how the operations for cracking down on suspects are progressing, and what the greater strategy is.” If martial law is for the greater good, should that not be palpable to the grassroots?

David also criticized the political opposition for “not asking enough questions” about this year of martial law in Mindanao. “I think martial law, if done right, is the right solution,” he adds, “but we need to know more what is going on because it looks like nothing is happening.”

There is a proposal to extend martial law in Mindanao past December, when it expires. The success or failure of the nearly year-long implementation of martial law in Mindanao should be assessed using the goals this implementation of martial law seeks to achieve, the problems it is meant to address and how well the government has achieved these goals.

But, if an extension is granted, then perhaps the military and the police should truly take this opportunity to straighten out and fix the problems that caused this latest declaration of martial law in Mindanao. There are so many discussions on whether martial law has done Mindanao good or ill. Any final assessment of this should be made by the people in the affected sectors, as well as functionaries of government. We should all be invested in a shared future, a collective effort. This is the best way I see for us to avoid repeating past (and very painful) mistakes.


The Palembang Massacre

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About The Author
Amir Mawallil
Amir Mawallil is a Tausug writer based in Cotabato City. He is the founding chairperson of the Young Moro Professionals Network in western Mindanao.
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