Martial law narrative out of context, far-fetched – Leonen

Lian Buan

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Martial law narrative out of context, far-fetched – Leonen
'There is no rebellion that justifies martial law. There is terrorism that requires more thoughtful action,' says Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen

MANILA, Philippines – Supreme Court (SC) Associate Justice Marvic Leonen believes that the violence sowed by the Maute terror group in Marawi City was exaggerated by the government, calling the official narrative “far-fetched, when it could be nothing but fake news.”

Leonen, before being appointed to the SC, was the chief peace negotiator for the Aquino administration which brokered the peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), seen then as key to finally end decades of conflict in Mindanao.

According to Leonen, the SC should have given weight to the cultural context in Mindanao which he believes proves that the crisis in Marawi City is not a case of rebellion. He was outvoted 11-3-1 as the SC upheld the constitutionality of martial law in Mindanao, with the 3 justices voting to restrict it to only certain areas in the region.

“Blindly accepting a possibly far-fetched narrative of what transpired in Marawi leading up to and including the events of May 23, 2017 and ignoring the cultural context will have its own consequences. The public will accept this far-fetched narrative as reasonable or the truth, when it could be nothing but fake news,” he wrote in his dissenting opinion.

Leonen added: “The government may be inadvertently doing a service for Maute Group and ISIS projecting them as bigger than what they really are.”

Cultural context

In his dissenting opinion, Leonen explained the historical and ideological contexts of the 4 terror groups which the military said had joined forces to establish an ISIS caliphate in the region. (READ: ISIS to declare a province in Mindanao?)

They are the Maute terror group, Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) Basilan, Ansar Khalifa Philippines (AKP) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). 

“Individually, these groups have undergone splits and are fragmented into different factions. Their stability and solidarity is unclear,” he said.

Leonen added that the government’s reliance on the ISIS newsletter, Al Naba, which supposedly indicates the linkages of the 4 group, may be misguided.

It is a propaganda material, which provides skewed information designed to influence opinion,” he said. (READ: Terror in Mindanao: The Mautes of Marawi)

He said there is also a significant ideological conflict which makes it hard to believe that the terrorists’ intent in Marawi City is to overthrow the government.

For example, Leonen said, the Radullan Sahiron ASG faction does not trust foreign fighters, while Isnilon Hapilon – supposed to be ISIS’ designated emir in the Philippines – “liked anything that smelled foreign, especially anything from the Middle East.” Military confirmed that the Maute-ASG forces in Marawi City include foreign fighters.

BIFF, on the other hand, is a group which broke away from the MILF led then by Umbra Kato. The associate justice said that even the BIFF has its own breakaway group, a faction led by Kumander Kagi Karialan who disagreed with the BIFF leadership’s decision to align with the Maute group.

As for the AKP,  he said “the stability of the group is presently unclear due to the death of Tokboy on January 5, 2017.”

“The ideological divergence within the ASG and the BIFF as well as the vacuum in the leadership of the AKP creates serious doubt on the strength of their entire group’s allegiance to the ISIS and their alleged ties with each other,” the dissenting opinion read. (READ: Why solidarity with Mindanao requires opposing martial law) 

ISIS ideology

Citing research papers and in-depth reports on ISIS, Leonen called the ISIS ideology “fundamentally nihilistic and apocalyptic.”

“ISIS ideology, as salafi-jihadis, is fundamentally nihilistic and apocalyptic, and if properly lived by its alleged adherents, it would naturally alienate the Muslim population in many areas in Mindanao,” he said.

There is something amiss with this and Hapilon’s association with them, according to Leonen.

“They are therefore relentlessly Koranic. However, Hapilon was not even a fluent speaker of Arabic at the time he was supposedly recognized as emir of ISIS forces in the Philippines. His religious knowledge was likewise reported to be limited. His allegiance to ISIS is conjectured to be motivated by his desire to be part of a Middle Eastern organization, as he ‘has always liked anything that smelled foreign, especially anything from the Middle East’,” he said.

In his defense of the government, Solicitor General Jose Calida told the SC Hapilon performed a symbolic hijra or pilgrimage to unite with other ISIS-inspired groups in mainland Mindanao.

For Leonen, Calida was not able to sufficiently explain what a hijra means and whether it proves the government stance that a rebellion is occurring in Marawi City.

“Rather, the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) source states that, in relation to hijrah, ISIS “calls on Muslims to migrate to Syria,” which is the opposite of establishing an ISIS-recognized Islamic Province in the Philippines. Indeed, it appears that ISIS expressly focuses on bringing fighters to Syria,” the opinion read.

Using Arabic words like hijra without any attempt to explain it and naming it an overt act of establishing an Islamic province within the Philippines creates unnecessary ambiguity when what is needed is clarity. It is an act of othering and discourages even the attempt to understand,” he said.

The Associate Justice thus wished these nuances were taken into consideration when the SC made its ruling.

“Even assuming that the facts alleged to have occurred on May 23, 20I7 are true, these facts may have been linked together, ignoring the cultural context, to create a false narrative by the storyteller,” Leonen said.

The military earlier said the terror groups in Marawi City are not ISIS, but eventually said they are, which aligned with the statements of President Rodrigo Duterte. Later on, military chief General Eduardo Año told the SC denying ISIS links was just part of their psychological operations.

Terrorists of ‘low-level’ discipline

Leonen made it clear that the terror acts in Marawi City are not to be taken lightly, but for him, martial law is not the answer.

For him, the military has proven it “can quell violence, disrupt many of the planned atrocities that may yet to come” even when they did not resort to martial law.

He pointed out that the culprits of Marawi siege are the same people who already have pending warrants of arrest for the commission of common crimes. 

Leonen cited the military’s own report which said the ASG is “incapable of sustaining prolonged armed confrontation in view of its limited supply of ammunition and firearms.”

There is also infighting among the terrorists, as they have “a low level of discipline” and are prone to “insubordination and infighting brought about by envy and personal differences within the group.”

“Clearly, they are capable of isolated atrocities. However, to the extent that they can sustain a rebellion threatening even the existence of any local government is a difficult conclusion to believe,” Leonen said.

“In other words, even before the Marawi hostilities, law enforcers, including the armed forces were already degrading their capability,” the associate justice added.

Don’t call them rebels

“The terrorists responsible for the armed hostilities in Marawi cannot be considered rebels. It is true that they may have discussed the possibility of a caliphate. Yet, from all the evidence presented, they are incapable of actually holding territory long enough to govern,” Leonen said.

Leonen’s dissenting opinion also appears to give a nudge to the Moro liberation fronts, also called as rebel groups, which have opened its doors to the government in peace process attempts over the years. 

MILF is now the government’s partner in trying to establish a Bangsamoro political entity, while the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has engaged with the Duterte administration.

I honor the sacrifices of many by calling our enemy with their proper names: terrorists capable of committing atrocious acts. They are not rebels desirous of a viable political alternative that can be accepted by any of our societies,” he said.

Leonen advised the government to act more thoughtfully. (READ: Duterte accepts Misuari’s offer of MNLF fighters vs Maute)

“The extremist views of religious fanatics will never take hold in our communities for so long as they enjoy the fundamental rights guaranteed by our constitution. There will be no radicals for so long as our government is open and tolerant of the activism of others who demand a more egalitarian, tolerant and socially just society,” he said.

In his opinion’s closing statements, Leonen hits the martial law proclamation as apparent authoritarianism which may just add to the flames of terrorism.

“The terrorist wins when we suspend all that we believe in. The terrorist wins when we replace social justice with disempowering authoritarianism,” he said.

Finally, he said terrorists cannot be “found and kept in check by a false sense of security created by the narrative of martial law.” –

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Lian Buan

Lian Buan is a senior investigative reporter, and minder of Rappler's justice, human rights and crime cluster.