BY A VOTE of 261-18, the two Houses of Congress yesterday voted to extend the imposition of martial law over the entire island of Mindanao until December 31, 2017. I waded through most of the coverage, waiting to be persuaded that the extension was crucial. I wasn’t.
I’m convinced that the persisting Maute-ISIS threat needs a military response, but I don’t understand why martial law should be imposed over all of Mindanao, or why it should even remain over Marawi itself. After all, only four barangays are still under Maute-ISIS control, and the lifting of martial law would not hinder the continued ops – especially since we are still under a state of lawlessness.
The issue of containment was raised: there is a need to prevent the spread of terrorism to the rest of Mindanao, the AFP warned. Already there are reports of terror-group consolidation in Zamboanga, Davao, Cagayan de Oro and other key cities. Therefore, proponents claimed, the imminent threat of rebellion demands the extension of martial law to prevent “contamination.” I agree, proliferation is a valid concern. However, the Constitution requires the actual existence of a rebellion or invasion, and not merely its potential, for martial law to be the right remedy.
Martial law does not enhance the combat capability of our security forces; the president’s “calling out” power does that. Neither is martial law needed to enable the AFP and PNP to capture all “persons of interest” more easily. The suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus is enough to allow our troops to detain whomever they want. All martial law adds to the mix is that it empowers the AFP to take over the administration of local governments whenever the civil officers are prevented by the rebels from operating.
It’s interesting that martial law administrator Delfin Lorenzana admitted to interpellator France Castro of the ACT Teachers party list that there is no actual rebellion or invasion in the key cities of Mindanao right now and that all the local governments in Mindanao, save in Marawi (because there is no one there to govern at the moment) are functioning.*
By Lorenzana’s account, all courts and LGUs in Mindanao, except in Marawi, are able to operate normally. So again, why the extension? I assumed his perspective and postulated a terror-group proliferation that demanded it. I was still left with the question of duration. Why five more months? What concrete circumstance prescribed that timeframe?
The Constitution gives Congress leeway to set the length of the extension: “Upon the initiative of the President, the Congress may, in the same manner, extend such proclamation or suspension for a period to be determined by the Congress, if the invasion or rebellion shall persist and public safety requires it.“ But this duty must be exercised with extreme prudence precisely because the extra powers available to the executive and security forces during martial law may be so easily abused. This is exactly what the 1987 Constitution sought to prevent.
This is also why Sen. Frank Drilon tried to amend the motion for a five-month extension of martial law to merely 60 days. Drilon reminded his colleagues that the Constitution charged Congress with reviewing the conduct of martial law after a 60-day period to check possible excesses. That function would be nullified by a five-month extension which, he contended, at this point was not amply justified.
In the end, none of the arguments contra the extension prospered. Not the stirring testimony of Marawi local Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, nor the impassioned reports of human rights abuses by militant party list representatives, nor the rational precautions of more seasoned legislators like Teddy Baguilat and Gary Alejano. The majority had made up their minds, or had it made up for them. I say that because I caught several “honorables” fiddling with their devices, reading, doodling, talking with each other (there was a pair that even shared what looked like a chocolate bar during their animated chat), and sleeping instead of deliberating on the significant issues at hand.
Despite the inattention of certain members of Congress, each one cast a vote. The House tallied 245-14 and the Senate 16-4 in favor of the extension.
I watched the proceedings with a heart open to the arguments; I was even willing to be shown the error of my stand. But what I saw reinforced my conviction that we should limit instead of expand the extraordinary powers granted the chief executive. He is already far too influential and holds more sway than he should – over a swathe of our people, and clearly, over our legislators as well.
I didn’t expect much but I hoped that by some long shot, Congress would find its voice and raise it in defense of democracy. At the very least, it could have backed the Drilon amendment and insisted on its “fiscalizing” function as a co-equal branch of government. But it didn’t. It served instead, in the words of Sen. Risa Hontiveros, as merely Rodrigo Duterte’s echo.
I agree – we must defend Mindanao and the rest of the country from the menace of terrorism; but we do not fight destabilization by weakening our democracy. We who protest the extension do not doubt the terror threat; it exists. We object to the extension because of another equally serious threat: that presented by a president with control issues, and the very real possibility that he will abuse the powers handed to him with love by a subservient, somnolent Congress.
Redeem me from the oppression of man,
That I may keep Your precepts. – Psalm 119:134
*Article VII, Section 18 of the 1987 Constitution says,
A state of martial law does not suspend the operation of the Constitution, nor supplant the functioning of the civil courts or legislative assemblies, nor authorize the conferment of jurisdiction on military courts and agencies over civilians where civil courts are able to function, nor automatically suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.