Back in June, security analyst and historian Jose Custodio quoted the military as claiming that the strength of the New People’s Army had increased 25 percent since President Duterte’s great gamble on accommodating communists began. This was accompanied by a resurgence of NPA attacks even as the peace process was going on, including in Mindanao where the military believe an alliance between NPAs and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters exists. Custodio, at the time, made this observation: “Despite previous human rights violations involving a number of its personnel, it is still sensitive to collateral damage having been steeped so much in security sector reform since 1986.” By this he meant that the battle for Marawi could possibly have been concluded much sooner but the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were unwilling to act in an indiscriminate manner, say in the style of the Russians in Chechnya. It preferred to go slow, be methodical, and observe the rules of engagement despite high casualties among the troops.
Anecdotally, the AFP also encountered the problem of buildings in Marawi being heavily fortified (one journalist I spoke to mentioned having noticed long before, a fishpond, for example, that was built over a concrete underground bunker), plus the network of tunnels leading to caches of arms and food put in place by residents for periodic outbreaks of rido, resulting in urban fighting becoming even more difficult. But perhaps to its frustration, the AFP is not getting credit for this. Emily Rauhula, reporting in The Washington Post, quoted Moro sources convinced that systematic looting of the city by the military took place (vigorously denied by the AFP).
Back in July, I wrote about what I considered to be the military’s dilemma: its current crop of leaders may have originally opposed martial law (and since then, has pretty bluntly opposed a revolutionary government) but the Battle of Marawi once it ended, would inevitably lead to uncomfortable questions being asked. Extending martial law in Mindanao another year places a patriotic veil over the situation, not just to allow the continuing control of information, but bluntly speaking, to give the military room to breathe as it tries to fix problems that its commander in chief created: the resurgence of the NPA, and the creation of a civilian bastion of hostility to the AFP in Marawi.
By finally taking a hard-line position against the NPA, the President has created an opening for tying the military firmly to himself: in encouraging them to shoot communists on sight while pledging he has their back, he is doing to AFP what he has done to the police—encourage the kind of bloodlust that inevitably results not just in human rights violations, but makes opposition to all human rights advocates a matter of patriotic zeal.
On Nov. 28, an Air Force contingent intercepted an NPA convoy in Nasugbu, Batangas. Among those killed was Josephine Santiago Lapira, 22, a member of Gabriela Youth, one of five women out of a total of 15 fatalities. The NPA has claimed her as one of its own, but pointed to social media posts suggesting she was not rushed to the hospital as the military claimed. Disturbing allegations that excessive force was used led to the Commission on Human Rights announcing an investigation, prompting AFP public affairs chief Col. Edgard Arevalo to respond with a veiled threat: “Whenever these things happen, we have legitimate encounters and there were casualties from the communist or terrorist groups, their default reflex is always to conduct a hearing or CHR investigation… we respect the mandate of the CHR and we likewise expect them to respect the mandate of the AFP, which is to perform our role that is to protect the people and to secure the state.”
A final enticement appeals to the temptation that time and again has been the waterloo of a professional officer corps: business. On Dec. 9, Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was reported by the PNA as being in favor of reviving the Marcos-era Self-Reliant Defense Posture program, through a scheme involving creating a Government Arsenal Defense Industry Estate, essentially a 370-hectare PEZA-type zone in the Limay, Batangas property of the Government Arsenal. This is the sort of plan that takes the military out of its area of competence and once more puts it in the tempting position of the kind of corporate schemes for which it is institutionally ill-equipped. Combined with the Senate recently reporting out a draft joint resolution raising police and military salaries, the President is poised to be able to create a bond that could transcend any squeamishness about a presidential self-coup.