May 23, 2017 marked the beginning of two catastrophes that befell the people of Mindanao; one year later, the harsh impact on their daily lives and the profound trauma in their individual and collective psyche seem far from being assuaged.
First, there was the so-called siege of Marawi City, a nearly-five-month war between the state security forces and fighters of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups allegedly affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Due to almost daily aerial bombings and artillery firings by the government forces, guided by American and Australian spy planes and drones, the war caused the death of 1,000-plus fighters on both sides, with an undetermined number of civilians killed and missing; the displacement of a big number of the 400,000 residents of Marawi and adjacent municipalities; and the destruction of a wide swath of the main Islamic city (including mosques, cultural structures, and residential neighborhoods).
Today, the displaced residents who have not yet been allowed to return to Marawi are beleaguered by many problems. They feel uncertain how long their current condition will last and what future awaits them. The people of Marawi have been left out in the planning of the city’s “rehabilitation” – but they want to do the rebuilding themselves, in their own way. The many questions they ask have not received satisfactory answers from government and military authorities.
Three civil-society organizations – Tindeg Ranao, Ranao Multisectoral Movement, and Moro Consensus Group – are opposing the building of a P400-million new military camp for the Philippine Army in the old city hall complex which, in January, President Duterte announced would be completed by 2020. Building houses for the displaced families should be given priority, they declare. (Tindeg Ranao says 140,000 are still cramped in 67 evacuation centers and in the homes of relatives). The organizations also oppose a plan to set up a special economic zone in the city.
On the massive destruction caused by aerial and artillery bombardments, which has angered the people of Marawi, Duterte said he was assuming full responsibility as commander-in-chief of all the state’s armed forces. It was right for him to say so. After the first few weeks of fighting wherein the AFP suffered many casualties in unfamiliar close-quarter fighting, it was he who ordered the city’s “carpet bombing” so as to lessen the risks for the soldiers. “I will really destroy everything… and I will take full responsibility for it,” he told reporters in Cagayan de Oro City.
Now the Duterte government is appealing to the people of Marawi to be patient. “The magnitude of destruction of this disaster is immense,” said Gen. Eduardo del Rosario, chair of Task Force Bangon Marawi, “but we are doing our best to fast track the process [of reconstruction]. However, an analysis by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) shows that the alleged master plan for rebuilding Marawi “remains a patchwork of disconnected promises mired in multiple problems.”
The other and wider catastrophe, correlated with the Marawi siege, affected not only that city but the whole of Mindanao. This was when President Duterte imposed martial law and suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus simultaneously, through Proclamation 216, covering the entire island. He did so upon the recommendation of his military and security advisers. Mind that the 1987 Constitution says that “in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it, (the President) may…suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or [emphasis mine] place the Philippines or any part thereof under martial law.”
Duterte opted to use both extraordinary powers in tandem, resulting in a double whammy against the people of Mindanao.
Originally set to last for only 60 days (as delimited by the Constitution), the edict has been extended twice: first by five months until the end of 2017, then by another year ending December 2018. Duterte was able to easily do that – thanks to the servile majorities in the House and the Senate that he both controls; first separately then in joint session, they endorsed the proclamation and its extensions. Thanks, too, to the pliant majority of the Supreme Court who leniently reviewed and approved the presidential issuances.
The initial stated aim of Proclamation 216 was to suppress the “rebellion” of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups in Marawi. This was later expanded in order to “suppress all acts of rebellion and lawless violence” in the whole of Mindanao [specifically] to “dismantle the NPA, other terror-linked private armed groups, illegal drug syndicates, ‘peace spoilers’ and other lawless armed groups.” Except for the NPA, the other armed groups cited couldn’t be deemed to be engaged in rebellion or invasion – the only specific acts for which imposing martial law and suspending the privilege of the writ can be authorized under the Constitution and only “when the public safety requires it”(Section 18, Article VII).
Yet the majority of the Supreme Court apparently let this erroneous listing pass when they reviewed, as the Constitution requires, the “sufficiency of the factual basis” for the proclamation and its extensions. Such leniency has opened the door to misinterpretations (for instance, AFP chief Gen. Carlito Galvez claims that martial law is still needed because “illegal firearms continue to proliferate” in Mindanao) and to abuses and human rights violations in the edict’s implementation by the security forces, as borne out by human rights groups’ reports published in the press and submitted to the relevant agencies of the United Nations.
Persistent opposition to martial rule cum writ supension has been raised in Mindanao and many areas of the country, particularly because of Duterte’s repeated intimations that he might declare martial law nationwide if “enemies of the state” cause similar “trouble” outside Mindanao.
Now comes the news report that the consultative committee (con-com) which Duterte formed to recommend charter changes towards shifting to a federal system of government has unanimously approved an amendment to the provision cited above: adding “lawless violence” to invasion and rebellion as another reason for the imposition of martial law.
Retired Lt. Gen. Ferdinand Bocobo, a con-com member, said he suggested the amendment in view of present challenges to national security posed by “terrorism and violent extremism” to which, he added, acts of lawless violence are related. Replying to a question, he claimed that “simultaneous or large-scale” attacks by the New People’s Army would be enough reason for the President to impose martial law. “For NPA attacks to fall under ‘terrorism’ as ground to declare martial law, these attacks should cause widespread and extraordinary fear and panic among the populace,” he explained. (He was referring to the provision of the Human Security Act of 2007, the anti-terrorism law.)
But retired SC associate justice Eduardo Nachura, a con-com subcommittee head, goes even farther. “Lawless violence,” he said, ‘does not have to be widespread as a ground to declare martial law or suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.”
As if it hadn’t been easy enough for him to have his way in Mindanao, now the President’s men seem to be thinking up more ways to make it even more of a breeze, next time around!
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Published in Philippine Star
May 26, 2018