Citing allegations of human rights violations, some sectors of the Philippines oppose the government’s continued implementation of martial law in the volatile southern island of Mindanao.
President Rodrigo Duterte originally imposed military rule after government forces on May 23 last year clashed with Islamist militants who authorities say were out to establish an Islamic State caliphate in the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi.
Lawmakers in December last year approved Duterte’s request to extend its implementation through the end of this year.
“It’s a very bizarre situation where you have theoretically martial law in place, but in fact, the requirements, the conditionalities for the declaration of martial law were not there anyway in the first place,” Loretta Ann Rosales, former chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights, told Kyodo News in a recent interview.
Activist lawyer Neri Colmenares voiced fears that Duterte may be using martial law in Mindanao to prepare the ground for its implementation nationwide.
In asking Congress for the extension of martial law until December 31 this year, Duterte said the measure “will help the (military), the Philippine National Police and all other law enforcement agencies to quell completely and put an end to the ongoing rebellion in Mindanao, and prevent the same from escalating to other parts of the country.” He cited the threats of terrorism from Muslim militants and communist insurgents.
“Public safety indubitably requires such further extension, not only for the sake of security and public order, but more importantly, to enable the government and the people of Mindanao to pursue the bigger task of rehabilitation and the promotion of a stable socioeconomic growth and development,” Duterte had said.
According to Philippine military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo, the implementation of martial law in Mindanao has led to the voluntary surrender of a number of lawless elements and unlicensed firearms, a “big achievement” that made people feel “more at peace, more secure and more comfortable.”
“When we talk about the gains of the implementation of martial law in Mindanao for a period of one year, the biggest is stability in Mindanao,” Arevalo told Kyodo News.
“We saw it during the latest conduct of elections (for village and youth officials, held May 14 nationwide), which was generally peaceful. So, business will be better and more vibrant if there is stability and people feel more secured.”
The threat from IS sympathisers or IS-inspired militants has also “significantly reduced,” especially after “they suffered a huge setback when they lost in (the battle in) Marawi,” Arevalo said.
“One year thereafter, if they have efforts to recruit, it is very difficult for them to do so with the implementation of martial law. And the people, who appreciated peace and security, no longer allow these kind of individuals to sow violence, so they provide information to authorities. All these are attributable to martial law,” he added.
Arevalo maintained there are no verified human rights violations as alleged by martial law critics like Rosales, Colmenares and various groups, including Karapatan (Rights), an alliance of human rights organisations in the Philippines.
Karapatan claims that since last year’s martial law declaration, it has documented at least 49 victims of extrajudicial killings in Mindanao, 22 cases of torture, 89 victims of illegal arrest and detention, and 336,124 victims of indiscriminate gunfire and aerial bombings.
Another group called Sandugo – Movement of Moro and Indigenous People for Self-Determination demanded the immediate lifting of martial law, saying it “only brought destruction, chaos, and more suffering for the people.”
“We are seriously against human rights violations, so much so that if there are any reports, if there are any complaints, we are encouraging them to document it, give it to us, and we will even help prosecute human rights violators,” Arevalo said.
While Rosales and Colmenares agree that martial law in Mindanao cannot be directly compared to military rule during the administration of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, they warn that the current implementation will pave the way for national imposition.
“Duterte doesn’t know how to run a democratic government. He does not have the sophistication of a statesman who can manage democracy and its processes. He does not know how to use the levers of democratic balance, the principle of checks and balances, the harmony and relations among the different branches of government while respecting the independence of each branch,” Rosales said.
“Because of that, his knowledge is to use force. And if he’s trapped in the corner, he uses force,” she added.
Colmenares said that Duterte is “enamored” with the military. “Many of his Cabinet members were military men. And he believes they’re incorruptible and efficient.”
Rosales and Colmenares are not buying the president’s oft-repeated claim that he is willing to step down ahead of the end of his term in 2022 once a federal form of government is put in place.
“He knows that when he’s out of office, he goes to prison. He has committed so many crimes. He has to stay there (in power). Or he has to ensure that the next president is someone he can trust. And unless that is sure, he will not leave power,” Colmenares said, referring to, among others, Duterte’s deadly war on drugs.
Arevalo, the military spokesman, said since reconstruction and rehabilitation of Marawi City is still ongoing, martial law in Mindanao will continue to be necessary.
“We are going to assess regularly the situation. If there’s a need or there are conditions that we think martial law can be lifted already, then we will recommend that to the commander-in-chief (Duterte), because only he can lift martial law,” Arevalo said.