February 2, 2017 2:45 pm JST

Duterte openly flirting with martial law

The still-popular president is evoking memories of ex-dictator Marcos

JUN ENDO, Nikkei staff writer

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has started to consider declaring martial law in connection with his anti-drug campaign.

MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has started exploring the possibility of declaring martial law. His signature anti-drug campaign would be the excuse.

This is evoking dark memories of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos' iron-fisted rule.

To be sure, the number of Filipinos who have direct knowledge of the Marcos era has declined. But even today many islanders still have bitter memories of the crackdown on human rights and years of martial law.

Marcos reigned from 1968 to 1986. Martial law lasted from 1972 to 1981.

Despite growing concerns both at home and abroad, Duterte shows no sign of flinching. He is increasingly leaning toward martial law to push ahead with his bloody -- and highly controversial -- war on drugs.

Duterte apparently craves martial powers. They would allow security authorities to detain people for long periods of time without warrants and be more aggressive in their investigations.

Duterte clearly expressed a desire for martial law on Jan. 14, when he delivered a speech during a ceremony at the Davao City Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

"I will declare martial law, if I want to. No one can stop me," Duterte said. "They say, 'Why are you declaring martial law?' Because I have to preserve the Filipino people and the youth of this land."

Duterte served as mayor of Davao, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, for many years.

Since being inaugurated as president in June, Duterte has made eradicating drug crimes his top policy priority. He has given police the OK to shoot and kill suspects who put up resistance.

Duterte's harsh crackdown on drugs raised suspicions among Filipinos that he might be trying to impose martial law. But he initially showed a negative stance on such a desperate move -- despite a spate of terrorist attacks in the country.

When a bomb attack took place in Davao in September, Duterte stopped short of imposing martial law. He instead declared "a state of lawlessness" across the country and ordered military and police forces to step up their clampdown.

On Nov. 11, Duterte hinted at the possibility of suspending the writ of habeas corpus, a safeguard against warrantless arrests and illegal detentions.

When an explosive device was found near the U.S. embassy in Manila on Nov. 28, security authorities raised the country's terrorism threat level.

Those steps were all seen by some as preparations for martial law. But Duterte had been dismissing these views, calling them "stupid."

He began changing his tune on Dec. 22. During a speech in Pampanga Province, He voiced his dissatisfaction with the difficulty of invoking martial law and then keeping it in force over time.

"If I declare martial law today because there is an invasion or war, I cannot proceed on and on, especially if there is unrest. I still need to go to Congress, to the Supreme Court, if there's anybody who'd file a complaint to look into the factual basis of the declaration," he said.

Several days earlier, Duterte was vowing to continue his anti-drug crackdown until his six-year presidential term expires in 2022. He had initially promised to complete it within half a year of taking office.

Under the constitution, a president can declare martial law if an invasion or rebellion takes place, threatening the people's safety. The president is obliged to report the measure to Congress within 48 hours.

The national parliament can revoke martial law with a majority vote. In addition, the Supreme Court can determine whether martial law is appropriate if it receives a complaint from citizens.

Duterte apparently had these procedures in mind when he called for revising the constitution during that speech on Dec. 22.

The current constitution, with its strict prerequisites to martial law, was established three decades ago, after Marcos was removed from office by the People Power Revolution.

A decade and a half earlier, Marcos had declared martial law in the name of defeating communist forces and suspended the constitution, which otherwise would have barred him from running for a third term.

The way to his long, brutal dictatorship was paved.

Under martial rule, police and military forces were granted enormous powers that they used to crack down on anti-government activists. Many people were detained, tortured or went missing.

The current constitution was ratified in 1987 by an overwhelming majority in a national referendum. It cannot be suspended even if martial law is declared, and the national legislature's functions are maintained.

There is more. The constitution only allows a president to keep the measure in force for up to 60 days. For an extension, a president must get congressional approval.

Duterte's call for a constitutional revision drew immediate criticism, even from Vice President Leni Robredo, who issued a statement the next day describing the threat of martial law as "the worst Christmas gift to the Filipino people."

Duterte's remarks about the constitution are "an insult to the experience of the Filipino nation that endured great suffering and hardship under the martial law regime," Robredo added.

In November, the Philippine government buried Marcos' body at the national Heroes' Cemetery in Manila, ignoring strong domestic objections and sparking large-scale protests in various parts of the archipelago.

Former President Fidel Ramos spoke up on the matter. "I felt very bad," he said.

While enjoying extremely high popularity at home, Duterte's flirtations with rewriting the constitution have raised public concern.

According to an opinion poll conducted by Pulse Asia Research in December, 74% of the respondents think martial law is not necessary, up 10 percentage points from the firm's September survey.

More than 2,500 suspected drug users have been killed by police in connection with investigations in the six months since Duterte became president. More than 4,000 others have also been killed, but it is unclear by whom.

The Duterte administration has come under fire from the United Nations and human rights groups for rampant "extrajudicial killings," some by vigilantes.

Duterte has turned a deaf ear to the criticism. Martial law, he might be thinking, could allow him to mute the criticism.

Despite controversies, Duterte enjoys an extremely high approval rating, between 70% and 80%. While some lawmakers have condemned his threat to impose martial law, others have showed understanding.

After saying, "I will declare martial law, if I want to" on Jan. 14, Duterte finished his speech with a confident flourish: "I don't control the judiciary," he said. "And of course, Congress, we can't hack it. But one day we will be able to, when the time comes, that's easy."

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