Updated at 3:45 p.m. ET on 2018-12-12
Philippine legislators approved an extension of President Rodrigo Duterte’s martial law for one more year in the southern Mindanao region Wednesday, following claims from security officials that militants linked to Islamic State continued to pose threats.
A joint congressional session, with 235 members voting in favor and 28 against, agreed to extend military rule on Mindanao beginning on Jan. 1 and ending on Dec. 31, 2019.
Salvador Medialdea, Duterte’s chief aide, told Congress that “rebellion in Mindanao still subsists” more than a year after the military defeated pro-IS extremists who had taken over the southern city of Marawi, in one of the country’s biggest security challenges that killed 1,200 people, most of them militants.
While there has been a “significant decimation of foreign and local terrorist groups” in the south, and a general weakening of communist guerrillas’ strength, martial law was still needed because “actual rebellion still clearly persists,” Medialdea said.
He said that remnants of those who fought in Marawi still remained a problem, while members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) “have remained adamant in their pursuit of establishing an independent Islamic state.”
The BIFF is a splinter group from the larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace deal with Manila four years ago. Duterte signed a law this year that establishes Muslim autonomous region in the south, but it needs to be ratified in a plebiscite scheduled next month.
The BIFF supported last year’s Marawi siege, but did not send fighters to the area. Instead, its fighters concentrated in bombing activities in the central Mindanao region, the military said, adding that foreign fighters have continued to train in BIFF’s jungle camps in the south.
“These complications are further worsened by the presence of other foreign terrorist elements, who, despite differences in ideologies share the same purpose of overthrowing our government,” Medialdea emphasized.
Medialdea also said that members of the New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, have continued to commit “armed hostilities” in the south.
He argued that the government was in the “cusp” of ending rebellions in the impoverished south, but “we cannot afford to show our enemies a moment of weakness in our resolve to defeat them.”
While Isnilon Hapilon and other leaders of the Marawi siege had been slain after five months of gunbattles, dozens of other militants escaped from the ruined city and were continuing to recruit youths from impoverished, far-flung areas, according to a military intelligence report.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra stressed that extending military rule in the south was “dictated by circumstance.”
“The matter of declaring martial law is not a matter of policy, it’s a matter of exigency,” he said.
Thousands of families remain displaced
But Drieza Abato-Lininding, leader of the Moro Consensus Group, an organization that pushes for rights of the internally displaced in the south, scored the military for claiming victory against IS and allied groups on one hand, and pressing for martial law on the other.
“The remnants of the IS group have long been gone, either neutralized or surrendered, so what threat are we referring to?” said Lininding, a Marawi resident whose ancestral home was among those destroyed in last year’s battle.
Lininding said at least 28,000 families from Marawi have remained displaced, more than a year after the military won against the militants.
“This martial law has so many effects on us. It continue to hound us. Until now we can’t return to our home. It is being used by the government to silence us and take what is legally ours,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, who voted against the extension, said he was bothered by the reasoning of the government’s top security officials.
"You made statements yesterday that martial law makes governance more effective. These are very disturbing thoughts. These are very disturbing conclusions. We cannot make martial law as an instrument to make governance more effective," Drilon said.
Rep. Edecel Lagman, a House opposition member, said another extension of martial law showed the failure of security forces to achieve their objectives.
“It is an admission by the military and police authorities that they have failed to achieve the purported objectives of martial law," he said.
As Congress voted, communist leaders ordered their guerrillas “to mount tactical offensives across the country in response to the extension of martial law in Mindanao.”
“All NPA units must exert all possible effort to punish the worst fascist units and officers of the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) who have committed grave crimes against the people,” the CPP said in a statement Wednesday.
The statement did not say if the order supersedes an earlier declaration of a unilateral Christmas ceasefire the CPP had ordered to allow its guerrillas to join their loved ones.
Lawmakers from across Southeast Asia warned on Wednesday that Duterte’s move to extend martial law in Mindanao would put human rights at risk.
“The continued imposition of martial law threatens to facilitate a culture of impunity in Mindanao and intensify human rights violations already taking place there,” said ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) Chairman Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament.
“We urge the Philippine authorities to scrap the plans for extending martial law, and instead take steps to end the ongoing abuses on the island," he said in a statement.
Jeoffrey Maitem from Cotabato, Nonoy Espina from Bacolod and Karl Romano from Dagupan contributed to this report.