The Philippine Congress on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved President Rodrigo Duterte’s request for a one-year extension of military rule in the south to ensure “total eradication” – as he put it – of Islamic State-linked militant groups and communist guerrillas operating there.
After just a half-day of deliberations, members of the Senate and House of Representatives voted 240-27 to authorize the president’s request, which Duterte made on Friday soon after ending peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), and declaring them terrorist groups.
The vote also came seven weeks the government declared victory over pro-Islamic State (IS) groups and an end to a five-month battle against them in the southern city of Marawi. The fighting uprooted Marawi’s 200,000 residents and left some 1,200 people dead, including 974 militants.
“This is a welcome move for [our] security, but the government and the military should allow everyone to return now and make sure that none of our human rights are abused,” Mohamina Alawi, a 32-year-old school teacher displaced by the fighting in Marawi, told BenarNews.
The battle of Marawi proved to be Duterte’s toughest national security test to date during his young presidency, and led to his administration imposing martial law in Mindanao, an island that surrounds the city and makes up the country’s southern third.
Martial law was supposed to bring a sense of calm to the restive southern region, but some locals said the congressional authorization to extend military rule through December 2018 could make things worse.
“The extension of martial law for one year could lead to more widespread suffering for ordinary folks,” said Jamalodin Mohammad, 37, a school administrator. “Our rights will be limited and privileges we once enjoyed and guaranteed by the constitution could be dismissed.”
On Wednesday, much of Marawi and nearby towns remained under tight military control. Security checkpoints dotted roads going in and out of the lakeside city.
Marawi was destroyed by heavy military bombardment and is still largely deserted, although greenery has started sprouting again now that the military has stopped dropping bombs.
The only people allowed to return to the city are those living in areas where the army maintains a presence. Stores have also opened, and students have returned to Mindanao State University, a campus that sits on a hillock overlooking the city’s devastated skyline.
In arguing his case before Congress, Duterte said remnants of a group allied with Isnilon Hapilon, the main leader of pro-Islamic State (IS) militants who battled troops in Marawi, were still at-large in Mindanao, and so an extension of military rule was needed to eradicate them for good.
Hapilon likely was going to be replaced by Abu Turaipe, an obscure militant leader fighting in a marshland area far from Marawi, the president warned.
Turaipe was a former commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who broke away from the separatist group when it signed a peace deal with Manila in 2014.
Turaipe has kept waging a fight for an independent Muslim state in the south, but last year he pledged allegiance to IS. His ragtag band of fighters has been fighting with soldiers in central Mindanao since August.
Duterte also argued that martial law needed to be prolonged to eliminate communist rebels, who have been waging Asia’s longest-running insurgency, which stretches back to 1969.
Edcel Lagman, a member of the opposition in the House of Representatives who voted against the extension, said there was no “factual anchorage and constitutional basis” for it.
“Aside from the cavalier assertion of the military and police authorities that there is continuing rebellion in Mindanao, there is no well-documented support for such a contrived submission,” Lagman told Congress.
He said the country’s 1987 Constitution had deleted “imminent danger” as grounds for a sitting president to declare martial law.
“Any further extension of martial law is unconstitutional because such extension of an extension is not allowed under the Constitution, because what is authorized is only the extension of the original proclamation,” he said.
‘In danger of becoming the monsters’
Sen. Francis Pangilinan, who leads the opposition in the Senate, said Duterte had declared victory over IS in October, thereby admitting that the threat had already subsided.
“We will be in danger of becoming the monsters that we seek to defeat, those who have no regard for law, order or respect for the constitution,” Pangilinan said.
But such perceptions were “far from what’s happening on the ground” in Mindanao, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told lawmakers.
While the battle in Marawi has ended, clashes linger “every day in other parts of Mindanao,” he said.
“That’s why we understand that rebellion is a continuing act not only in one area, but it could spill over to other areas,” Lorenzana added.
Speaking at a military function on Wednesday, Duterte said he wasn’t ruling out martial law being imposed nationwide, noting that “all options are on the table.”
“There’s only one rationale there – the existence of the Republic of the Philippines,” he said.
“You threaten the existence of the Republic of the Philippines, I am sure that everybody will react and do what he must do to prevent it.”