It has been a tumultuous few weeks for the Philippines. Last May 23, firefights and clashes between the Philippine government and Maute troops erupted in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, after failed attempts by the military to arrest Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, who was reported to have been in the city. The death toll has since numbered over 100, including civilians, government troops, and local terrorists. Meanwhile, the Department of Social Welfare and Development reports over 71,000 people displaced by the armed conflict and in desperate need of supplies.
A few days later, a lone gunman entered a famous mall, casino, and hotel complex Resorts World Manila, firing shots and setting fire to gambling tables and carpets. Over thirty casualties were reported from the incident, including the gunman himself–with most suffocating due to the smoke caused by the fire. Over 50 were injured. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, although other evidence seems to point otherwise.
Indeed, the Philippines has just suffered through two crises on opposite ends of the country. And what has the government’s response to this been? As the violence in Marawi escalated, President Duterte declared martial law in the entire Mindanao island. Shortly afterward, the president said that in order to protect the people, he may consider expanding the declaration to Luzon and Visayas, if he believed that ISIS were to secure a foothold in these areas–a fear only strengthened by the Resorts World Manila incident, no doubt. Just like that, a nationwide imposition of martial rule looms over the country.
While this kind of news is difficult to fathom at first, it becomes necessary for the rest of the country to understand just what exactly this declaration entails. The very words ‘martial law’ bring to mind bloody images and stories of victims tortured and killed, and with good reason–after all, it is an ongoing battle to ensure that the lives lost during those days, and the crimes of those responsible, are never forgotten. However, this doesn’t mean immediately equating the martial law recently enacted to the same dark period under the Marcos regime–revisions to the Constitution have brought forth different checks and balances for this very purpose.
For one, the martial law period only lasts for 60 days, with Duterte needing Congress’ approval to extend it beyond that. Warrantless arrests can only be made under certain criteria, and even after an army officer detains a person, they have to be judicially charged within three days before they can be set free. These are among the few provisions that were put in place to ensure that the abuses of the Marcos era are not repeated.
After all, martial law itself exists, not as an abuse of power, but as a last resort, of sorts, intended to keep the public safe. The 1987 Constitution declares that it can be enacted in case of invasion or rebellion and when public safety requires it–while it can be argued whether it was a justified response to the Marawi crisis, it does not change that martial law is intended to put the government in control when the public is endangered.
None of this means that we should be gladly accepting the President’s recent declaration with open arms, however. Being informed also necessitates understanding that Duterte has shown a willingness to turn a blind eye to these very checks and balances. He explicitly says that he will ignore the Supreme Court and Congress as he declares martial law over Mindanao, despite the Constitution granting these bodies oversight, and even claims it will not be any different from the martial law under Marcos’ rule.
All this only means that we should be wary. Being informed is understanding the reason behind enacting martial law, but also the potential risks it poses. It is not necessarily equating the dark period of the past with today’s crisis, but realizing that these dangers are a very real possibility.
A few weeks into the implementation of martial rule, the situation in Marawi stays tense. Military command assures that its fight against terrorism will be according to the law and with respect to human rights. Meanwhile, investigations into the gunman’s attack on the entertainment complex, along with discussions as to issues regarding security and safety, continue.
In these difficult times, we must do whatever we can to help our fellow Filipinos, whether it is donating food, clothing, and materials to drives, or simply sharing factual information and diffusing fear-mongering. More than that, it is our duty to stay informed about what these issues mean, and vigilant to what these issues might become.