Some cynical voices have called the mid-2010s the age of the strongmen, heads of state with far-reaching authority and aggressive policies both foreign and domestic. Among this tide of firebrand leaders is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, infamous in squeamish circles worldwide for his bloody anti-drugs campaign. He’s also known for his loud anti-Americanism. Despite that, however, he is on cordial enough terms with Donald Trump to receive a White House invitation. Meanwhile, Duterte is in the middle of a state visit with Vladimir Putin in Russia.

But urgent words of a violent encounter back home between government forces and ISIS-aligned Islamist rebels have forced Duterte from Moscow to take his usual extreme measures, by placing the main Philippine island of Mindanao under Martial Law.

Call for lockdown

While still on his Russian state visit in Moscow, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made an announcement on Tuesday, May 23, that he is declaring martial law on the large southern island of Mindanao. This came about as a result of a large-scale gun battle that took place earlier in the day in Marawi City, the capital of the Mindanao province of Lanao del Sur. Local police and government military forces have mobilized there in order to capture Isnilon Hapilon, leader of the Islamic militant Maute group which has aligned itself with the Islamic State since 2014.

The Maute group is composed of breakaway extremist elements from long-time Muslim separatist groups that have operated in Mindanao for decades before returning to the fold in peace agreements with past administrations. The attempt to arrest Hapilon, according to Philippine Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Eduardo Ano, led to 50 armed men storming Marawi City and setting fire to houses and buildings.

One police officer and two soldiers were reportedly killed, with a dozen more that have been wounded.

Indelible problem

Mindanao is the largest main island in the southern Philippines. It has also been a century-old battleground between the Muslim inhabitants and predominantly Christian forces from the rest of the islands, from Colonial Spain to Colonial America to the Japanese occupation and ultimately the military of the Philippine republic.

Similar to a nationwide Communist insurgency, the menace of Islamic insurgents and terrorist groups continue to plague the Philippines even under the intimidating leadership of Rodrigo Duterte.

The latest word from Marawi is that the Maute group has cut off the city from the outside world. As a precaution, all major cities in Mindanao, including Duterte’s hometown of Davao City, have been placed under military lockdown, with travel restricted and scrutinized.