POSTSCRIPT / April 30, 2020 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Is Duterte weighing martial law option?

WHEN Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 to go around the constitutional ban on reelection after his six-year term, he cited as reason an alleged conspiracy of the communists on the left and the oligarchs on the right to grab state power.

Martial law enabled the then-ailing 69-year-old dictator to stay for 14 more years until the 1986 People Power Revolt sent him and his family scampering to Hawaii, where he died in exile on Sept. 28, 1989.

Did Marcos leave in his hurried escape a template that Rodrigo Duterte of Davao picked up from the scene 30 years later? Is the Philippines today drifting toward another martial law regime or a fair facsimile thereof?

Article VII of the 1935 Constitution under which Marcos was elected provides: “Section 10 (2) The President shall be commander-in-chief of all armed forces of the Philippines and, whenever it becomes necessary, he may call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion, insurrection, or rebellion, or imminent danger thereof, when the public safety requires it, he may suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, or place the Philippines or any part thereof under Martial Law.

Compare that with Article VII of the 1987 (present) Constitution which provides: “Section 18. The President shall be the Commander-in-Chief of all armed forces of the Philippines and whenever it becomes necessary, he may call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion. In case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it, he may, for a period not exceeding sixty days, suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or place the Philippines or any part thereof under martial law….”

The 1935 Constitution used by Marcos had more options or excuses for the president to declare martial law, but none of the checks and restrictions that were written into the 1987 edition.

Although the present Constitution is partly a restrictive reaction to the martial law nightmare under Marcos, it may not be enough to stop a closet strongman from coming out to attempt a repeat.

Theoretically, if President Duterte decides for a good reason (like saving the country from the pandemic exacerbated by lawless violence?) to declare martial law and stay beyond the 2022 end of his term, he might be able do it under existing circumstances.

There are indications that the 75-year-old Duterte, visited by intimations of mortality, may be hearing the siren call of martial law.

Just last Friday, Duterte said in his televised report on the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19): “I am now warning everybody, and putting notice sa armed forces pati pulis (including the police): I might declare martial law, and there will be no turning back.”

As it is Duterte’s style to threaten, that warning could be dismissed by most people – anyway “matagal na kaming takot” (we’ve been long scared) — but the disturbing element of “there will be no turning back” has been added.

Considering that Duterte has only two years and two months left of his term with many of his campaign promises unfulfilled, his saying “there will be no turning back” after he imposes martial law could be interpreted by the paranoid to mean he could stay beyond 2022.

Note that while Marcos, as commander-in-chief, called on the armed forces, Duterte announced his intention to mobilize also the Philippine National Police. He has often referred to the 350,000-strong uniformed AFP-PNP service as “my warriors” in the mindset of a warlord.

It was not the first time he hinted at martial law as an option, although he was not as definite in earlier statements, usually referring obliquely to “martial law-like” measures and such hints.

But now it looks like he has found in the COVID-19 pandemic an excuse to declare martial law, if he needs it, to tighten control and be able to stop the global scourge that started late 2019 in Wuhan City in China.

When he first buckled down (somewhat belatedly because he probably had no early inkling of the gravity of the situation and he was careful not to embarrass China being the source of the virus) to act on the pandemic, he regarded it foremost as a security issue.

Even as the World Health Organization had declared it already a global public health emergency, Duterte assigned the military and the police to be the main enforcers of control measures. Healthcare professionals were in a second echelon.

It is interesting that like Marcos in 1972, Duterte is denouncing the communist insurgents for adding to the coronavirus problem, accusing them of ambushing government healthcare personnel some of whom were ferrying medical supplies.

In his last COVID-19 report, Duterte made special mention of the communist-led New People’s Army whom he accused, together with the terrorist Abu Sayyaf group in the Sulu area, of ambushing “his” soldiers while on mercy missions.

He then rejected an overture of the left for fresh “peace talks” with Jose Ma. Sison and other political leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines-NPA-National Democratic Front.

But while Marcos produced what he said were documents showing a conspiracy between the left and the right, Duterte has not yet exhibited evidence of a similar linkup between the communists and selected oligarchs in his crosshairs.

Having fired earlier his big guns against oligarchs who were allegedly cheating the government and exploiting the masses, Duterte may find it hard linking them to the communists since apparently they have repositioned themselves closer to Malacañang.

Duterte mentioned the April 17 ambush by Abu Sayyaf terrorists of Army troopers in Patikul, Sulu. Social media videos showed military casualties being beheaded, dismembered and disemboweled, but he did not connect that barbarity to the pandemic.

He did link the NPA ambush of April 22 in Aurora where two Army soldiers were killed. He accused the dissidents of sabotaging government relief work as the troopers were helping deliver social welfare subsidies.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 30, 2020)

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