Duterte weathers Marawi siege, pandemic crisis by steering power levers


Sonny Coloma

Two major crises that the Duterte administration faced were the Marawi siege of 2017 and the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak in March 2020 that hit its peak in December 2021.

President Duterte had just arrived in Moscow on May 22, 2017 for an official visit and talks with his “favorite hero,” Russian President Vladimir Putin, when news reached him about a shootout in Marawi City between government troops and militants linked to the Islamic State (IS), including the Maute and Abu Sayyaf jihadist groups. He declared martial law immediately, cut short his visit, and headed home with his delegation to confront the crisis.

These jihadist groups had also been tagged as the primary suspects in the Davao City night market bombing on Sept. 2, 2016 shortly after Duterte assumed office. At least 14 persons were killed and 67 were wounded. In its aftermath, he issued Proclamation No. 55, “declaring a state of national emergency on account of lawless violence in Mindanao.” Prior to the Davao bombing, there was a skirmish between government and Abu Sayyaf forces in Patikul, Sulu on Aug. 29, 2016, in which 15 soldiers were killed. Also mentioned was “credible threats of further attacks and similar acts of violence by lawless elements in other parts of the country, including the metropolitan areas.”

Invoking Section 18, Article VII of the Constitution and exercising his powers as Commander-in-Chief, he ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police (PNP) to “suppress any and all forms of lawless violence in Mindanao and prevent such lawless violence from spreading and escalating elsewhere in the Philippines” but emphasizing that such actions should be done “with due regard to the fundamental civil and political rights of our citizens.”

Notice that the issuance of Proclamation No. 216 on the declaration of martial law and the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao following the onset of the Marawi siege, escalated the preceding declaration of a state of national emergency a month earlier.

As required by the 1987 Constitution, Congress reviewed and upheld the proclamation on May 31, 2017 and extended its validity until Dec. 31, 2017 by a vote of 261 in favor and 18 against. This is one of the constitutional reforms after the EDSA People Power Revolution of 1986 that ousted the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. Marcos’ martial law declaration in 1972 under the 1935 Constitution did not require concurrence by the co-equal legislative branch. The Supreme Court upheld the declaration with Justice Claudio Teehankee casting the lone dissenting vote.

On the ground and by air, the AFP engaged the rebels in fierce battles and by mid-June, projected that the siege would be over, but pockets of resistance remained until Oct. 16 when the rebels’ leaders, Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon were reportedly killed following the rescuing of hostages. President Duterte declared the liberation of Marawi on Oct. 17. Superior firepower and manpower had been deployed to squelch and end a rebellion.

While the origins of the coronavirus pandemic had been traced to Wuhan, China as early as in December 2019 – and the first Covid-19 fatality in the Philippines, that of a Chinese national, was reported on Jan. 30, 2020 – the government officially acknowledged it 45 days later when it announced the enforcement of enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in the entire island of Luzon effective on March 16, 2020.

Faced with an unprecedented global coronavirus pandemic, President Duterte secured emergency legislation from Congress. He also mobilized an inter-agency task force (IATF) that supervised the implementation of community quarantine and lockdown operations. The jury is still out, but evidently this strategy paid off in terms of ensuring that critical care hospital facilities would not be overwhelmed. The massive Covid relief operations – as well as the national vaccination program – strained the national budget and pushed the country to record debt levels, a burden that will be borne by the incoming administration.

Covid-19 exacted a heavy toll on the poor. On account of restrictive lockdowns, the country plunged into a deep recession, with gross domestic product (GDP) contracting by 9.8 percent in 2020 on a year-on-year basis. Unemployment rates rose, and so did the incidence of involuntary hunger. Even while factories were allowed to reopen, public transportation was severely cut back. The Department of the Interior and Local Government reported that as of mid-May 2021, up to 6,700 community pantries had been put up by citizens following the initiative by Ana Patricia Non on Maginhawa St., Diliman, Quezon City.

According to the Social Weather Stations (SWS) September 2021 report, President Duterte’s net satisfaction rating “fell 10 points to 52 percent and was “the lowest since Duterte’s 45 percent rating in June 2018.” Bloomberg headlined in October 2021 that the “Philippines Is Still The Worst Place To Be In Covid Even As Cases Ease.” The government resorted to heavy borrowings to address the economic and health crisis, raising the country’s debt to GDP ratio to a record high 63.5 percent. Still it must be noted that starting in February 2022 – and following a rapid and widespread surge in heavily populated regions attributed to the infectious Omicron variant – the severity of infections had been cushioned by the relatively high vaccination rates attained in these areas.

Coincidentally, the vaccination czar, retired AFP chief General Carlito Galvez, also served as the commander of the Western Mindanao Command during the Marawi siege.

All told, President Duterte who rose to prominence on the back of his high-profile record as the tough law-and-order mayor of Davao City, weathered both the Marawi siege and the coronavirus pandemic by steering the levers of power at his command and pushing the use of state power to its legal limits without fanning the flames of civil unrest.