Since the collapse of the Marcos terror regime in 1986, only two post-EDSA presidents have dared invoke the martial law provisions of the 1987 Constitution and to awaken justifiable fears of a return to the abuses and violence of fascist rule.
The first president to do so was Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo; the second is Rodrigo Roa Duterte. Because even Mrs. Arroyo opposed the Marcos regime, a declaration of martial law, through which Ferdinand E. Marcos endowed himself with dictatorial powers, was a line three presidents had dared not cross. For Rodrigo Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino III, crossing that line was unthinkable for quite understandable reasons.
It was Mrs. Arroyo who, though somewhat half-heartedly, crossed that line. A state of emergency she declared supposedly because of an imminent coup attempt didn’t morph into a state of martial law in 2006. But some media organizations were nevertheless harassed, demonstrations banned and the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus suspended during the seven days it was in force.
Mrs. Arroyo lifted the state of emergency on March 3, a week after she had declared it on February 24, 2006. But like Rodrigo Duterte, of whom she is now a cherished ally, she too declared martial law during her problematic term, but only in Maguindanao province, where the November 23, 2009 massacre of 58 men and women including 32 journalists and media workers happened. Declared on December 5, martial law was lifted on December 13, 2009.
Both were thought to be Mrs. Arroyo’s attempts to stop criticism of her regime, but her declaration of martial law in Maguindanao was also widely interpreted to be a trial balloon to test public reaction should she place the entire country under martial rule as a prelude to her remaining in power beyond 2010. Public response was mostly negative, the result of, as well as an additional factor in, her unpopularity. Mrs. Arroyo wisely yielded to public opinion in both cases.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s approval ratings are not at basement levels as those of Mrs. Arroyo’s were. It helps explain why, outside Mindanao at least, his placing that region under martial law has been more popular than it should be. The Supreme Court ruling upholding the Constitutionality of the declaration has also boosted his approval ratings.
This is a deadly mix of ingredients that can prove fatal to the future of what remains of Philippine democracy. It consists not only of Mr. Duterte’s popularity and the consequently unthinking popular support his actions, whatever they are, are likely to enjoy, but also of the Supreme Court’s virtual surrender to presidential discretion of its role as guardian and protector of civil liberties. Even more disturbing is Mr. Duterte’s practically yielding to the police and military the decision of whether to lift martial law in Mindanao, prolong its effectivity beyond 60 days, or even extend it to cover the entire country.
That Mr. Duterte is unlike any other Philippine president since the country regained its independence in 1946 hardly needs reiteration. It is what his uniqueness consists of that should be the focus of public concern, but unfortunately isn’t.
Unlike the five presidents who preceded him, Mr. Duterte has had no qualms about expressing his admiration for Ferdinand Marcos and for martial law, which for some strange reason he apparently believes is a quick path to addressing not only the drug problem but the rest of the country’s ills as well.
Martial law has in fact been in his mind long before the Marawi crisis. He has several times mentioned it publicly as an option that would enable him to address the country’s problems, even as he berated the Supreme Court and proclaimed that he would ignore its rulings. Equally crucial is his repeated declarations that he doesn’t care for human rights, which he has even dismissed as a shield for criminality.
These and his pledge to protect from prosecution police and military personnel accused of offenses committed in the course of his brutal anti-drug campaign have resonated in a community that has never respected human rights in the first place, emboldening soldiers and policemen to commit even more of the abuses that were already rampant in the Philippine countryside even before the imposition of martial rule in Mindanao.
Mr. Duterte has nevertheless announced that he will lift martial law only if the police and military say so because they’re supposedly in the best position to determine whether Marawi has been secured and the Maute and other terrorist groups crushed.
Mr. Duterte’s allies have described the police and military as Mindanao “stakeholders.” They are not, being State actors. The real stakeholders in Mindanao are ordinary citizens, the business community, non-governmental organizations, religious groups, and local officials who’re in touch with what’s happening on the ground. But there is no indication that Mr. Duterte will even bother to consult them.
The paradox is that the Supreme Court ruling upholding the Constitutionality of the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, despite the Court’s protests otherwise, has assured Mr. Duterte that the presidential power to declare martial law is governed by no other principle except his discretion, which includes the prerogative to impose martial rule anywhere and over the entire country.
Mr. Duterte’s leaving it to the police and military rather than the people affected by martial rule to decide an issue crucial to the lives and fortunes of millions of his constituents in effect puts those damaged and damaging institutions, with their legendary corruption and contempt for due process and human rights, in command of what are essentially political decisions.
Although they claim to be going through the motions of supposedly studying the situation in Marawi, no one should entertain any doubt that at the end of the day the police and military establishments will recommend prolonging martial rule and even extending it to cover other areas and even the entire country.
Neither the police nor military has been transformed into the protector of democracy and the Bill of Rights. But Mr. Duterte assumes that the views of the police and military on what is after all a political question would be so absolutely reliable he would have no choice but to implement them. He will claim that when to lift martial rule is still his decision to make, but that decision’s being based on the police and military viewpoint ultimately means he will merely be their transmitter.
It stands to reason that any recommended course of action by these far from disinterested sources must be weighed against such other considerations as its political, economic and social costs — insights into which those who have a stake in their communities as well as experts in various fields can provide. But by relying solely on the police and military, Mr. Duterte is diminishing the preeminence of civilian perspectives implicit in the Constitutional mandate of civilian control over the military, for which there are sound reasons. It is to prevent the entire country’s being hostaged to violence and the use of force; to preclude the savaging of the Bill of Rights; and to provide a perspective broader than the tunnel vision of institutions committed solely to the preservation of their own and their patrons’ narrow interests.
Although a lawyer among whose professional responsibilities is that of upholding due process and protecting civil liberties, and a president whose oath of office binds him to the defense and preservation of the Constitution, Mr. Duterte seems to have no understanding or even awareness of these principles. Rather than politics — meaning his own Constitutionally-mandated authority as President of the Republic and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the police — he has put the police and military in command.