Another martial law year for Mindanao

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Soldiers and military vehicles are a common sight in Mindanao’s urban areas. — BW FILE PHOTO

By Camille A. Aguinaldo, Reporter

THE TWO chambers of Congress, by a majority vote of its members in a joint session on Wednesday, approved another one-year extension of martial law in Mindanao in 2019.

The Senate voted 12-5 in favor with one abstention, while the House of Representatives voted 223-23.

Overall, 235 lawmakers voted for the extension, 28 against, and one abstained.

Senators who voted in favor were: Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III, Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel F. Zubiri, Senators Juan Edgardo M. Angara, Joseph Victor G. Ejercito, Sherwin T. Gatchalian, Richard J. Gordon, Gregorio B. Honasan, Panfilo M. Lacson, Emmanuel D. Pacquiao, Aquilino L. Pimentel III, Grace S. Poe Llamanzares, and Cynthia A. Villar.

On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon, Paolo Benigno A. Aquino IV, Francis G. Escudero, Risa N. Hontiveros-Baraquel, and Francis N. Pangilinan.

Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph G. Recto was the only lawmaker who abstained.

Martial law was first declared in Mindanao in May 2017 after government forces clashed with the extremist Maute group in Marawi City. After the 60-day period prescribed under the Constitution, Congress granted the President’s requests for an extension until December 2017, and later until December 2018.

In justifying the President’s request for a third extension, Executive Secretary Salvador C. Medialdea maintained that rebellion continues to hound the country’s southern islands despite the gains made by the government in the past one year and seven months.

He then cited the continued activities of local terrorist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf, also notorious for its kidnap-for-ransom activities, and the Daulah Islamiyah and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.

Mr. Medialdea added that communist groups continue their armed struggle to “overthrow this government and supplant the same with communist rule.”

“We are at the cusp of ending rebellion in Mindanao. Now more than ever, we cannot afford to show our enemies a moment of weakness in our resolve to defeat them,” he said in his speech during the joint session.

For his part, Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana noted that around 180 terrorists remain at large in the country.

In a statement, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesperson BGen Edgard A. Arevalo also cited the clamor of local government executives in Mindanao to extend martial law, aside from continued security concerns.

The lawmakers who opposed the new one-year extension warned that the use of such extraordinary powers by the government might become the “new normal” for Mindanao.

“Is this the new normal?” Mr. Drilon said. “Martial law is like an antibiotic. It is resorted to only when ordinary over-the-counter drugs have ceased to work… We must not resort to it when other, less extreme measures are available.”

Mr. Drilon also raised concerns over the reasoning that martial law has improved governance in the region because local chief executives were more cooperative in the fight against terrorism. He said it was never the intention of the Constitution to use martial law to enhance governance.

Senator Francis G. Escudero pointed out that Mindanao can achieve peace and economic progress without the need for a martial law declaration.

“Martial law cannot be the new normal in Mindanao… Let us give credit to ourselves, not martial law,” he said.

For his part, Albay Rep. Edcel C. Lagman took note that the third extension will “prolong inordinately” the martial law period to 951 days, adding that this runs counter to the 1987 Constitution provisions, which prescribes a short duration of martial law for 60 days.

Magdalo Rep. Gary C. Alejano said the military and police forces could carry out operations against terrorist groups even without martial law.

“We are making it look like the hands of our security forces are tied and they cannot move without martial law. This is very wrong… There is no substitute in talking peace and order to identify and address the root causes of rebellion in the country,” he said.

Malacañang, meanwhile, welcomed the extension with assurances that the “fundamental rights and liberties of our citizens shall at all times be respected and that our uniformed services shall act strictly within the confines of their mandate.”

“With the continuation of martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, we expect to achieve substantial progress in addressing the persisting rebellion in Mindanao, as well as promoting the overall security and peace and order situation in the island,” Presidential Spokesman Salvador S. Panelo said in a statement.

Philippine National Police Director General Oscar D. Albayalde, for his part, said martial law is needed to sustain the “gains” and “momentum” of security forces on the ground.

“Ang sinasabi kasi natin dito ay ‘yung (What we are saying here is) sustainability… sustain the gains… momentum,” said Mr. Albayalde in a chance interview yesterday.

The police chief also said that allegations of human rights violations in Mindanao under martial law are not backed up by official or legal complaints.

“They can always allege… What they are saying are legit military operations, these are not human rights violations, these are legitimate military and police operations. Kung meron silang alam (If they know something), give the incidents to us and we will investigate,” he said. — with reports from Arjay L. Balinbin and Vince Angelo C. Ferreras