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COMMENTARY

Where’s mention of Mindanao martial law?

05:03 AM August 01, 2018

For something as consequential as martial law, there was not a single mention of it in President Duterte’s State of the Nation Address (Sona). And for a vast island group, home to six unique administrative regions, Mindanao was only mentioned eight times. Finally, in his sentence closing that mention of Mindanao, Mr. Duterte spoke of only two directions his home region could take: war or peace.

This says a lot about the President’s mindset on Mindanao. While a Mindanaoan himself, he thinks in terms of the binaries and stereotypes he is supposedly against, but which his status as an oligarch has afforded him. Ironically, he painted Mindanao through the prism of a Manila-centric narrative, in the same way, say, that President Barack Obama of African descent had to run the United States like a white president would.

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Director Joyce Bernal took close-ups of the guests at the Sona who wore only bright, celebratory Islamic attires as the President spoke of “The Land of Promise.” Pictures of Mindanao, an island region of “lumads,” migrants, Muslims, Christians, etc. were flashed. Most of these showed the typical colors and stories of Mindanao: Islamic, festive, virginal, etc. And while these were on screen, Mr. Duterte spoke of Mindanao as if it were wronged only by those living outside it.

It was a convenient and idealistic portrayal that could only have come from a speechwriter’s callow idea of the region. Case in point: “The Land of Promise” has been Mindanao’s branding since after World War II. But so much has changed since then.

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While the President’s message of increased funding was welcome, we’ve heard it all before. We’ve seen new roads being built, and knowing how these corruption-ridden projects seem to benefit the same groups of people just turns us off. While he may have good intentions with the Bangsamoro Organic Law, its particulars—along with how they would jibe with his Charter change—are still very much up in the air as to their eventual value. Also, not once was there a mention of peace talks with the communists, a bigger concern for more areas in Mindanao than the Maute terrorist group.

Mr. Duterte’s 2018 Sona, sticking to the script, had little to do with Mindanao. A few hours before he delivered his speech, a small group of rallyists passed outside my classroom’s window. They were calling for an end to martial law. One of my students quipped, “Is there even martial law? There are so many crimes here in Butuan now.”

Here lies one of the contradictions of Mindanao’s martial law. While it is in full effect, the decades-long vacuum in governance has conditioned people to believe that martial law’s sole purpose is to fight criminality, despite its being much more than that—a vast and fearsome apparatus of control by the government. And while it was imposed in Mindanao supposedly to counter terrorist activity, the term “martial law” seems to have become nothing more than an ordinary, benign umbrella description for the intensification of government efforts against sundry targets.

Because of martial law, there is a huge concentration of power in Mindanao these days, but hardly anything seems to have changed, too. This contradiction of an extended yet seemingly unfelt clampdown gives the impression that, whether it is under special rule or not, Mindanao is forever weak and unstable, and that its only hope for development lies with the same politicians and the same strongmen who have occasionally lifted this island region up. This martial law is precisely what dynasties need to stay in power.

One thing it has enabled, though, is the expulsion of lumad communities in Lianga, Surigao del Sur, by the Armed Forces. With hardly any media coverage, the lumad, hundreds of them, were herded 16 kilometers out of their ancestral lands to a cramped evacuation site. They are still there, surrounded by soldiers armed with machine guns. Educators in the lumad ranks allege that this was done to make way for coal mining companies that Mr. Duterte himself had approved. This, and what it represents, is the part of Mindanao that was tellingly absent in the President’s Sona.

DLS Pineda teaches at Father Saturnino Urios University, Butuan City. After finishing his undergraduate and master’s degree in UP Diliman, he decided to reside in his father’s hometown in Agusan del Norte.

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TAGS: martial law, Mindanao, Rodrigo Duterte, Sona, State of the Nation Address
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