A year after they beat back local and foreign militants linked to the Islamic State (IS) in the southern city of Marawi, the Philippine military on Friday rejected calls to lift martial law in the region.
Armed forces chief Gen. Carlito Galvez said at least 30,000 unlicensed weapons remain in the hands of civilians in the southern region of Mindanao, noted for decades of Muslim separatist rebellion in the predominately Catholic nation. The figure is on top of the estimated 130,000 weapons estimated to be in the hands of rebel and lawless groups, including those who led the siege in Marawi.
“We need martial law because we still have to get 80 percent of the loose firearms,” Galvez said. “Peace-loving people have seen the remarkable improvement in peace and order. They no longer see guns in the streets.”
Abu Sayyaf acquiring weapons
A recent military intelligence report stated Abu Sayyaf militants in the southern island of Jolo have been acquiring new weapons and state-of-the-art equipment.
The weapons are smuggled in by sea from the nearby countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, with militants taking advantage of porous borders, according to the report seen by a BenarNews reporter. A fresh delivery allegedly included military-grade night vision goggles and assault rifles.
A source who spoke on condition of anonymity said photographs of the weapons circulated in the social media platform Telegram as recently as last month.
The report follows the 2017 attack of Marawi led by IS Filipino leader and Abu Sayyaf commander Isnilon Hapilon. At least 1,200 people, mostly militants, were killed in the five-month battle that ended in October after Hapilon’s death.
Brig. Gen. Cirilito Sobejano said troops have been given until the end of the year to defeat Abu Sayyaf, the fiercest of the country’s militant groups operating in the south.
Abu Sayyaf has fewer than 500 members but has been blamed for kidnappings, beheadings and some of the country’s worst terrorist attacks, including a ferry bombing on Manila Bay that killed more than 100 in 2004.
“Soldiers will be utilizing all available war materiel, resources, and ground, air and sea mobility to finish the Abu Sayyaf terrorists in Sulu,” he said.
Previous regional military commanders vowed to crush the Abu Sayyaf only to see the group regroup and commit new atrocities. It is holding 12 hostages including three Indonesians, one Vietnamese, one Dutch and seven Filipinos and has behead three hostages in the past two years.
Martial law to continue
In Manila, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said suggestions by rights groups to lift martial law are ill-timed while he sought to assure the public it would be declared over as soon as President Rodrigo Duterte and the military determine there is no more threat.
“Nobody wants martial law beyond the necessity of having martial law. So the palace would like to assure the public the moment the need for martial law ceases, it will be lifted,” Roque said.
“But certainly one year after the siege, the time to lift martial law is not yet here,” he said.
Rights group Karapatan challenged the statement, saying giving the military total control in the south has led to rights abuses and dozens of alleged extrajudicial killings in the southern island of Mindanao.
“The Duterte regime’s adamant defense for the continuing imposition of martial law in Mindanao speaks of its militarist and ineffective approach in addressing the root causes of the social problems that spawned the armed conflicts in Mindanao and elsewhere,” Karapatan leader Cristina Palabay said.
“Martial law is among its tools to suppress the exercise of legitimate dissent and of people’s direct actions to uphold basic rights and democratic interests,” she said.
Richel V. Umel from Marawi, Jeoffrey Maitem from Cotabato and Dennis Jay Santos from Davao contributed to this report.