December 12, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

Terror on hold

“On May 23... radicals were in one religious gathering of males at a big mosque in Basak Malutlut. Security forces were going to take suspects in custody. The Maute Group resisted and the highway became a no-man’s land. Many people fled without any bag or clothes... We Meranaos are being blamed for the Marawi crisis that has displaced almost 300,000 and counting (Samira Gutoc, Rappler, 06.15.2017).”

Samira Gutoc, a Muslim Meranao, is a lawyer, former Assemblywoman (Women Sector), and is in media. She feels for devastated Marawi, seat and capital for 39 villages, and home to the Mindanao State University main campus and its majority-Christian student population. It was declared a peace zone in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in 2012, she laments. “Muslims and Christians here live side by side (Ibid.).”

She knows from her active participation in a security monitoring group that has been watching the Mautes that incidents of violence by them were “sporadic crimes against Shiites, gays, men in uniform, and suspected intelligence agents (Ibid.).” She says there have been multi-sectoral meetings on combating crime and terrorism with fellow member newscasters speaking against radicalism almost every week... “So please do not tell us we did not do anything. Dear President, please do not blame the Meranaos (Ibid.).”

But “Where is Duterte?” most everyone wondered in the five working days of last week (Newsweek, 06.15.2017).” “... (while) Philippine forces have been battling Islamist militants in Marawi for three weeks; civilians are starving and some have resorted to “eating blankets” to survive; President Rodrigo Duterte had not been seen in public since June 11, and was absent at the June 12 Independence Day flag raising and wreath laying. Ernesto Abella, the presidential spokesman, told reporters Duterte was not ill but was just “tired” and needed to “rejuvenate (Ibid.).”

Duterte resurfaced Saturday afternoon and spoke on national television at the 50th founding anniversary of Butuan City, Agusan del Norte, and later gave a pep talk to soldiers at the 4th Infantry Division Advance Command Post in Boncasi, Butuan. He said casually that “during his absence he traveled for two days ‘incognito’ with his close aide to an undisclosed place in Mindanao (Philippine Daily Inquirer-PDI, 06.18.2017).” And his people have to hold judgment and accept that.

But terror cannot be put on hold. The running and the hiding, the wounding and the dying continued through the Leader’s strange absence. Zia Alonto Adiong, Assemblyman, 1st District, Lanao del Sur in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and active in rescue and relief efforts said on Thursday that residents fleeing the besieged Marawi City said “they saw around 500-1,000 dead bodies in an area where intense fighting has taken place between security forces and Islamist militants in the last three weeks (Reuters, 06.15.2017).” The military has said 290 people have died in over three weeks of fighting, including 206 militants, 58 soldiers and 26 civilians (Ibid.).

A claim of between 500 to 1,000 dead bodies seen is too far from the number of 290 people reported dead by the military. Somewhere, not exactly in-between is the real number, much canted towards the propagandist motivation of who is saying what. But even the low-end statistics of the military (perhaps more believable, despite) can be extremely alarming for just a timeframe of about 23 days. The number of civilians killed (26 only, they say) by mistake or “collateral damage” from bungled airstrikes (10 soldiers killed by co-soldiers, aside from unknown civilians) and “surgical attacks” not as clinically precise as not to have harmed the innocents -- this cannot be shrugged off by any of our leaders.

Alas that lives, civilian and/or military, have to be cold statistics.

“Many of those in the Cabinet and Congress who are very vocal about how martial law is good may have never experienced being shot at or being forced to evacuate to a safe place, or how to lose a job, livelihood or loved members of a family,” said former President Fidel V. Ramos, military leader in the EDSA People Power Revolution that ended the 14-year Ferdinand Marcos martial law (ABS-CBN News, 05.26.2017).

But it seems to be “more fun in the Philippines” now more than ever, for those in power.

Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said last Friday that “the nearly month-old martial rule had been well-received by majority of the more than 20 million people in the Philippine south and that critics, particularly those who were not from Mindanao, had no reason to oppose or worry about it (PDI, 06.17.2017). He said that “he was for extending martial law in Mindanao until President Duterte steps down in 2022 to fast-track development and address the Marawi crisis and other peace and security problems in the region (Ibid.).”

Alvarez said this “a day after the Supreme Court ended oral arguments on petitions seeking to nullify Proclamation No. 216, which placed Mindanao under a 60-day martial law following attacks by Islamic State-inspired Maute/Abu Sayyaf terrorists in Marawi City since May 23 (Ibid.).” Earlier, “he warned of a constitutional crisis as he vowed that Congress would disregard any ruling from the Supreme Court compelling it to convene to review President Rodrigo Duterte’s martial law declaration in Mindanao (The Philippine Star, 06.08.2017).” Some 300 lawyers supported a petition initiated by detained Senator Leila de Lima, Human Rights activist Etta Rosales, along with other human rights advocates, asking the Supreme Court to order Congress to convene and discuss the declaration of martial law in Mindanao (CNN Philippines, 06.07.2017). However, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said he saw no point to do so: “Isn’t it irrelevant already since both chambers already expressed support for it (Ibid.)?”

True -- the “yes” numbers are there in the Legislature for martial law in Mindanao to expend its terror for the 60 days (extendable) granted as the President’s prerogative to declare such under the 1987 Constitution. But sadly, the specter of the numbers of killed or wounded, dislocated and traumatized by the continued war in Mindanao will fester and live long in the psyche of the Filipino.

Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.