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Duterte Signals Crackdown in Mindanao

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has signaled an impending crackdown on terrorists in his native province of Mindanao—and he says human rights concerns won’t hold him back. Reuters reports:                                                                                                                              

Duterte said the southern Philippine province of Mindanao was already a hotbed of rebellion and banditry and he was worried about “looming terrorism” and an influx of extremists who could exploit the insecurity.

“Once the terrorists of the Middle East are deprived of the land area, the real estate area where they can sleep … they will wander to other places and they will come here and we have to prepare for that,” he said during a speech at a law enforcement agency.

“Remember, these guys, they do not have an iota of what is human rights, believe me. I will not just simply allow my people to be slaughtered for the sake of human rights, that’s bullshit.” 

The brash Philippine leader has drawn heavy criticism for enabling extrajudicial killings as part of his war on drugs. Now, he appears to be shifting his focus to Mindanao, where jihadists from the Abu Sayyaf group have been escalating their insurgency through piracy and kidnapping. The central government has long fought an offensive against militants in the southern Mindanao islands, with some help from U.S. forces, but now Duterte seems intent on taking matters into his own hands. Earlier, as part of his dramatic “separation” from the United States, he demanded that U.S. troops withdraw from southern Mindanao.

Duterte’s latest declaration might be more than rhetorical bluster: On Friday, he warned that he could use his executive privileges to suspend habeas corpus rights, potentially leading to mass warrantless arrests. Although Duterte did not specifically repeat that threat on Monday, his Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella commented that suspending habeas corpus remains an option given the “state of emergency” and “lawless violence” in the region. Duterte’s ominous warning that Islamic State militants could come to the Philippines suggests that he is preparing for extreme measures.

Another phenomenon to watch is how the conflict, and Duterte’s response to it, could drag in other regional players. The conflict is not confined to the Philippines; in the past few months, Abu Sayyaf militants have kidnapped sailors from Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, leading to increased coordination and maritime patrols among the three countries. Duterte has recently spoken of the need for a “calibrated” counterterrorism strategy with Indonesia and Malaysia.

Whatever happens, Duterte shows no signs of letting up on his provocative rhetoric and take-no-prisoners attitude.

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