After threatening to do it for months, the Philippines' ultra-hardline President Rodrigo Duterte on May 23 declared martial law on the conflicted southern island of Mindanao. The declaration takes immediate effect and will last for 60 days—officially. But in his comments upon the declaration, Duterte said it could last up to "a year"—and (not for the first time) favorably invoked the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, under whose harsh rule the Philippines saw a decade of martial law. "To those who have experienced martial law, it would not be any different from what president Marcos did," Duterte said. "I'll be harsh."
Duterte's murderous war on low-level drug dealers and users has already jacked up a body count of perhaps 7,000 just since he took office last year. And while the martial law declaration is ostensibly in response to an ISIS-linked terrorist group, it will give his security forces an even freer hand. Duterte has before declared an ill-defined "state of lawlessness" in Mindanao; the new emergency measures officially delineate sweeping powers, allowing use of the military to enforce the law, and to detain people without charge for long periods.
The declaration was sparked by an outburst of violence in the Mindanao city of Marawi, which cut short Duterte's trip to Russia to meet with Vladimir Putin. Two soldiers and one police officer were killed in the fire-fight that erupted after troops raided an apartment where militant leader Isnilon Hapilon was thought to be hiding. Militants from Abu Sayyaf and possibly the even more extreme Maute Group—which have both pledged allegiance to ISIS—occupied the town's main streets, threw up barricades, and burned a Catholic church and two schools. Photos posted on social media by Marawi residents showed gunmen patrolling the city with the black flags of ISIS.
And there is plenty of potential for a convergence of Duterte's drug war and anti-terror campaign: the Islamist militants have been repeatedly accused of profiting off the Mindanao cannabis trade to fund their insurgency.
Finally, Duterte's declaration comes just as the transcript was leaked of President Trump's April 29 phone call with the Philippine strongman, in which he invited him to visit the White House later this year. The Washington Post reports that Trump complimented Duterte during the call, according to the "confidential" transcript obtained from a Philippine source. "You are a good man," Trump told Duterte, adding that he was doing an "unbelievable job on the drug problem…. Many countries have the problem, we have the problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that."
With both Putin and Trump behind him, the last legal restraints on Duterte's official brutality are now being lifted. Ominously, an initiative to impeach him over his human rights violations on May 15 died in the Philippine House of Representatives—shot down by the Justice Committee, controlled by Duterte's allies.
It looks like the Philippines are facing their greatest test since the long rule of Marcos ended with a popular revolution in 1986.