Martial law was declared, through Proclamation 1959, this morning, December 5, 2009, in Maguindanao province, except for some areas covered by the ceasefire with the MILF. The reason, according to Executive Secretary Ermita is because “heavily armed groups in the province of Maguindanao have established positions to resist government troops, thereby depriving the executive of its powers and prerogatives to enforce the laws of the land and to maintain public order and safety.” Subsequently, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Gen. Victor Ibrado announced that joint police and military teams have arrested Maguindanao Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr. and his son, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) Gov. Zaldy Ampatuan.
It is curious that it is Ermita–not the President nor her official spokesperson–who disclosed the proclamation to the public. It is curiouser that senior civilian and military officials on the ground and involved in the Maguindanao crisis were not aware of the proclamation. For the first time, the name of the National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales comes up when reporters asked Secretary Ronaldo Puno if there is martial law proclaimed. “Ask Bert Gonzales,” he said.
Martial law is certainly the more viable option compared to the declaration of a state of emergency since the latter allows the Ampatuans–who held sway over the civilian authority in Maguindanao and up to the ARMM level–to stay and even maintain control over their domains. Martial law will allow the national authority to reassert power in Maguindanao and sweep away the Ampatuan reign of terror.
While this may be an immediate effect of martial law, it is also a problematic solution. If it is a sham or a diversionary tactic to shield or distance the president from her responsibility in the massacre, it may not really do away completely with the Ampatuan’s political hold on Maguindanao and may open–in the future–a fiercer contest among the Maguindanao’s clans. If it becomes a real solution, the Ampatuans may resort to retaliatory political tactics that will damage much of the president’s and the administration’s electoral chances.
There is a side to the proclamation that needs constant monitoring. Most of the ingredients for a Maguindanao massacre or other forms of political terrorism exist in other warlord areas in the country–fierce political dynastic contests, presence of armed groups, and relative breakdown of nonpartisan governmental and military chain of command. If these types of incident occur in these areas, an argument can be made to implement martial law or similar emergency measures on a nationwide scale. Then we may truly have a possible no-election scenario.
The declaration of martial law in Maguindanao–done by a small but influential group in Malacañang–may not be an endgame but an opening bid in a volatile electoral situation.