A protester chants anti-government slogans during a march towards the Philippine Congress ahead of President Rodrigo Duterte's State of the Nation address in Quezon city, Metro Manila Philippines July 24, 2017. Reuters/Erik De Castro
A protester chants anti-government slogans during a march towards the Philippine Congress ahead of President Rodrigo Duterte's State of the Nation address in Quezon city, Metro Manila Philippines July 24, 2017. Reuters/Erik De Castro

More than two months since guns fell silent in the terrorism-ravaged Philippine city of Marawi, an outcry is rising against military measures imposed in the name of maintaining security.

Last May, President Rodrigo Duterte put the southern island of Mindanao under martial law for 60 days after the Islamic State-aligned Maute Group laid siege to Marawi, displacing more than 350,000 civilians the predominantly Muslim city that suddenly morphed into a war zone.

The rights-curbing order was first extended to the end of 2017 and later for the entirety of 2018. Some 1,100 people, mostly militants, were killed in five months of fierce urban warfare, a battle that tested the mettle of Filipino troops who have traditionally been disposed to jungle fighting against rebel groups of various stripes.

It’s not clear what role martial law played in eventually subduing the Islamic State-linked militants, who used hostages and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to keep troops at bay. An unknown number of militants fled Marawi before security forces overran their last redoubt in October.

But many now see Duterte’s extension of martial law across Mindanao for all of 2018 as overkill, with no clear signs of Islamic State-aligned militants regrouping or plotting a major attack. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, with world leaders in attendance, was held in Manila without incident in November, the order’s critics note.

Duterte has pointed to the threats of international terrorism and Islamic extremism in the region as the main reasons for maintaining martial law in Mindanao, including over his hometown of Davao City.

President Rodrigo Duterte gives a pep talk to troops fighting the extremist Maute group in Marawi, Philippines August 24, 2017. Photo: Presidential Palace/Handout via Reuters

Last May, when the Maute Group-led fighting first started, Duterte at one point suggested putting the entire nation under martial law. Martial law suspends various civil rights, including habeas corpus, and entails military-enforced curfews.

Officials say other militant groups like the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Abu Sayyaf Group and the Turaife Group – all of which have declared loyalty to Islamic State – may launch another surprise assault at any time. Some analysts have suggested Cotabato City, an ethnically diverse urban center of around 300,000 in Mindanao, could be a next target.

Philippine troops clashed briefly with what the military said were pro-Islamic State militants on Saturday in a district in Lanao del Sur province, a known stronghold of the rebel group in central Mindanao. Army spokesman Major Ronald Suscano said in a statement that six soldiers were wounded in the skirmish.

However, Duterte is looking beyond internationally-linked terrorists to justify martial law. The communist New People’s Army, an insurgent group that has fought against Manila for decades, is now also targeted by the martial order. The NPA has responded by vowing to ramp up its attacks.

New People’s Army (NPA) fighters in formation in the Sierra Madre mountain range, located east of Manila. Photo: AFP/Noel Cialis

So have Duterte’s political critics. While Duterte’s net satisfaction rating rose to “very good” in the fourth quarter of 2017, according to a local Social Weather Stations (SWS) poll conducted in mid-December, a majority, or 62%, of those polled “opposed” the extension of martial law in Mindanao. Another 26% “disagreed” with the order; 12% were “undecided.”

Opposition among those polled was highest in Metro Manila at 67%, with 62% of respondents in Mindanao and 55% in the central Visayas region opposed. A majority of respondents, or 66%, also believed security forces can suppress the remnants of the Maute Group and Abu Sayyaf without imposing martial law.

A similar survey conducted by SWS in September last year showed that a majority of respondents favored the extension of martial law until only the end of 2017.

That resentment is galvanizing legal action. In recent weeks, three separate petitions have been filed to the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of maintaining martial law without a clear threat to security. They have been filed variously by opposition party leader Edcel Lagman, the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) and former Human Rights Commissioner Loretta Ann Rosales.

The resistance is motivated in part by bad memories under former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who leveraged martial law to abolish Congress, shut down media and crush dissent from the period spanning 1972-81, likewise in the name of upholding security.

Duterte has indicated his fondness and respect for the former dictator, seen in his decision in 2016 to give him a hero’s burial that many Filipinos opposed. To date, though, there have been no sustained big street protests against martial law in Mindanao, nor have there been reports of the massive disappearances or warrantless arrests seen under Marcos.

Protestors hold mock hammers with words ‘No Hero’ in front of a portrait of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos on November 22, 2016. Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

All three of the anti-martial law petitions pending at the Supreme Court argue that no rebellion is currently active in the region following the defeat of the Maute Group rebels at Marawi.

“Actual invasion or actual rebellion presupposes the existence of a theater of war that requires the imposition of military law on the civilian population,” said Rosales, a martial law victim under Marcos who petitioned the Supreme Court this month. “Thus, in the absence of an actual invasion or actual rebellion…there is no factual basis for extending martial law.”

Lawyer, former lawmaker and NUPL chairperson Neri Colmenares said the constitution only allows for the imposition of martial law when there is an actual rebellion and when the operations of the civilian government are substantially impaired.

“The government is functioning in Davao City and the entire country, so why replace it with martial rule?” the former lawmaker said in a statement mentioning Duterte’s hometown. The Supreme Court has already consolidated the first two petitions and heard initial oral arguments. It’s unclear when a decision may be handed down.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, the administrator of martial law, has defended its extension, saying that military rule is still needed in Mindanao due to the continuing threats from terrorist groups. “There is a continuing reorganization,” he said, warning that militant groups are planning “to wage another Marawi-like urban attack.”

A Philippine soldier seen through a hole in a wall of a damaged building in Marawi on the southern island of Mindanao on August 30, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ferdinandh Cabrera

Solicitor General Jose Calida, for his part, claims that there is “still rebellion in Mindanao.” “Until the rebellion is quelled, there is reason to extend martial law and suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus,” Calida said in defense of the order.

Meno Macalandap, head of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines’ chapter at Lanao del Sur province, where Marawi is the capital, said his group was disheartened and disappointed when martial law was extended until the end of 2018.

“To give us another year of martial law is intolerable for all of us,” he lamented, claiming that Muslim homes inside and outside of Marawi have been searched without warrants and even looted by state forces during last year’s siege.

Macalandap also believes the extension of martial law will give Islamic State militants ammunition to attract fresh recruits by highlighting alleged martial law abuses by the government against local people.

He is among many in the area who hope the Supreme Court rules against the legality of maintaining martial law as the region strives to rebuild and rehabilitate from last year’s violence.

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