Leftist lawmakers in the Philippine House of Representatives filed a resolution Wednesday seeking an investigation into alleged human rights abuses by the military in the south, where martial law was declared last year to defeat Islamic State militants in Marawi.
Seven House members filed Resolution 1973 after Marawi residents complained recently that they were not being allowed to return to the city to rebuild their destroyed homes and look for relatives who were still missing.
“While no amount of investigation, compensation and accountability will bring back lost and shattered lives, properties, culture and dignity, this investigation is important for the people to regain a part of their lives and culture,” the resolution read.
“As duly-elected representatives of the people, Congress should not allow and condone human rights violations and oppression of the people of Marawi, and instead heed the people’s call for justice, peace and right to self-determination,” it added.
While a five-month battle last year aimed to defeat pro-Islamic State (IS) militants who had taken over Marawi, many civilians complained that their relatives had gone missing and were presumed killed or tortured by soldiers who mistook them for enemy combatants, Congressman Carlos Zarate said.
“The people of Marawi themselves were complaining of human rights violations, not only to the half-million people that were displaced by the siege,” Zarate, who represents the leftist Bayan Muna bloc, told reporters.
“Until now, they are looking for answers. What happened to their loved ones who were left inside the main battle area at the height of the fighting,” he said.
Militants led by Isnilon Hapilon laid siege to Marawi in May 2017, displacing its population and taking dozens of civilians hostage. He was backed by foreign fighters from Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
There were many stories of civilians trapped for days, and later escaping amid a hail of gunfire from the militants but being presumed as combatants by the military.
The siege left some 1,200 people dead, most of them militants, according to the government. Yet, a year after the fighting has ended, many civilians have remained missing.
Residents who had returned to Marawi discovered their homes in ruins, and reported finding skeletal remains of unknown people still left uncollected.
A gravesite in the outskirts of Marawi also contained the remains of unknown people, but whom the army had presumably counted as enemy combatants.
At the height of the battle President Rodrigo Duterte placed the entire south under martial law, and the edict remains in effect until the end of this year. It gives the military vast powers, including carrying out warrantless arrest against anyone it deems as a threat.
Constitutionalists and analysts have warned that maintaining martial law in Mindanao even after the end of the siege in Marawi could lead to abuses.
The fear is not unfounded. The late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos employed the same tactic during his brutal regime that ended in a people power revolt in 1986 that toppled his rule. Marcos died in exile in Hawaii three years later.
“There is no clear comprehensive plan for the affected people – that’s why the residents were concerned. Billions of money will be used for the rehabilitation but until now the people are still at lost,” Zarate said.
Rights group Karapatan said the government’s refusal to immediately lift martial law in the south “speaks of its militarist past.”
“Martial law is among the regime’s tools to suppress the exercise of legitimate dissent and of the people’s direct actions to uphold basic rights and democratic interests,” the group said in a statement.
“This is evidenced by the cases of intensified human rights violations in Mindanao during the one-year implementation of martial law,” it said.
Karapatan said it had documented at least 49 victims of extrajudicial killings in the military-controlled south, with an average of one victim a week, since the declaration of martial law in May last year.
It said it had also documented 22 cases of torture, 89 victims of illegal arrest and detention and more than 330,000 victims of indiscriminate gunfire and aerial bombings.
The military has earlier denied accusations of abuse, and said it was open to any investigation.
Mark Navales in Cotabato City contributed to this report.