Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos on Friday joined mounting calls questioning the government's decision to place the entire southern island of Mindanao under martial law to defeat a small band of Islamic State-linked militants.
Ramos, whom President Rodrigo Duterte had earlier credited for convincing him to run in last year’s elections, has become the most senior former government official to question the declaration of military rule.
"Martial law all over Mindanao may be proper in the eyes of the administration, but there are enough peaceful areas there that do not need to be subjected to martial law,” Ramos, a former general, told reporters in Manila.
Ramos cautioned Duterte against expanding military rule to also cover the entire country.
Duterte’s threat to widen martial rule, Ramos said, created anxiety among Filipinos by provoking “a sense of fear and foreboding, which is very unbecoming at this time when the present administration claims to be scoring successes.”
He urged the 72-year-old Duterte to instead calm widespread fears by assuring the public that the gunbattle in the southern city of Marawi would soon be over.
“The violence must be confined to smaller and smaller areas until martial law is no longer necessary,” he said.
Ramos also called on Duterte’s aides, some of whom did not live through the horrors of martial law, to limit their statements at this period of "violence, conflict and tension."
He warned that expanding martial law could lead to more military abuses and rights violations, rather than stop terrorists.
“Our government must take strong measures (against violence) without abusing human rights, to limit the violence without any violation of human rights,” Ramos said.
"There are already a lot of human rights violations even when there’s no martial law," he said, alluding to claims by various human-rights experts that thousands have died since last year on Duterte's war on drugs.
Quelling a rebellion
Duterte earlier this week declared martial law across Mindanao to quell what he said was a clear rebellion by a small group of militants called the Maute group that had allied with Abu Sayyaf extremists.
Intense clashes since Tuesday have left 31 militants, 11 soldiers and two police officers dead as of Thursday night. At least 30 soldiers have also been wounded, officials said.
The death toll was expected to rise as the military, backed by armored vehicles and fighter helicopters, attempted to dislodge militants in at least three villages in Marawi, about 1,170 km (730 miles) south of the country’s capital Manila.
Security officials disclosed on Friday that the Filipino militants were backed up by fighters believed to be from Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
But Duterte, in a speech to troops in nearby Iligan city, on Friday dismissed the Maute fighters as led by two brothers "who got enamored with money from shabu (meth)." He said the Maute leaders funded their movement with drug money, enabling them to recruit militants and fuel the movement.
Duterte did not say where he got the intelligence information, but the president has been known to say things that are unverifiable snippets of information.
Earlier this week, he claimed that one of those killed by the Maute fighters was a policeman who was beheaded, which was later disputed by the supposed victim himself, who turned out to be alive.
The Commission on Human Rights on Friday also called on the military to uphold the people’s rights as it moves to enforce tough security in the south.
"The Commission reminds the members of its police force and army in Mindanao where the limits of their power lie in regards to protecting its civilians," it said in a statement. "There is legislation and protocol in place to ensure that the human-rights abuses that have occurred in the past are not repeated."
"Those who are arrested or detained person cannot be charged beyond the period of three days, nor can civilians be tried in military tribunals. The declaration of Martial Law does not suspend the functioning of the civil courts and the legislative assemblies," the body said.
Thousands of activists were killed or went missing and presumed killed by state forces when dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, in what many consider as the darkest chapter in recent Philippine history.
After martial law was declared, Marcos’ political opponents, including his archrival Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., were arrested without warrants and jailed.
Marcos, who lifted the military rule on Jan. 17, 1981, reasoned out that it was necessary to quash communist and secessionist rebellions. He continued to rule the country until 1986 when he was toppled by a civilian-backed military revolt led by Ramos and former Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile.