Rights activists take part in a protest outside the House of Representatives building in Manila on Dec. 13 to express opposition to the extension of martial law in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
Martial law in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, originally aimed at quelling a terrorist attack in the city of Marawi in May, has been extended for another year.
A joint session of Congress approved on Dec. 13 a request by President Rodrigo Duterte to extend martial law across the region until Dec. 31, 2018.
In a letter addressed to Congress, Duterte cited continuing threats from Islamic State-inspired terrorists and communist-led guerrillas for seeking an extension to emergency rule.
The president said he requested the extension to "ensure the total eradication" of Islamist terror groups, armed lawless groups, and "communist terrorists and their coddlers, supporters, and financiers."
Legislators who opposed the extension said martial law in Mindanao has no basis in the Philippine Constitution and can lead to human rights abuses.
Senator Franklin Drilon questioned the inclusion of the New People's Army as a reason for extending military rule.
He warned that it might be used as a pretext for extending martial law nationwide.
"If we are to believe that the government is intent on ending the war against the [communist guerrillas] ... then it is entirely possible that [military] operations would have to be extended beyond Mindanao to meet that objective," said Drilon.
No need for martial law extension
Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro in Mindanao said he was against extending martial law in the region, adding that "there is no need for [it]."
He said military rule will only affect the economic standing of Mindanao because investors are not coming in.
"There are less investors because of [martial law]. I think that is important," said the prelate.
He said the situation in Mindanao can easily be handled by the local police and military stationed there.
"People are saying that there is practically no martial law now, so it might as well go back to normal," Archbishop Ledesma said.
A group of human rights lawyers also warned that extending martial law in Mindanao would only "stoke the wildfire of rights violations."
The National Union of Peoples' Lawyers said Congress' decision "seems to be part of a grand design or intention to eventually place the entire country under military rule."
"Despite dubious presentations … to justify the extension, there is objectively no sufficient factual basis that public safety requires it," said lawyer Edre Olalia.
He said that there is "no actual and real ... rebellion in Mindanao of such intensity and scope as to honestly satisfy the strict extraordinary constitutional powers."
"The proponents and supporters of these dangerous moves are playing with fire that will engulf us all," said Olalia, president of the lawyers' group.
He warned that the democratic space "is getting smaller and smaller by the day and will suffocate all our rights before we realize it."
Military welcomes extension
The presidential palace welcomed the vote in Congress.
"Public safety is our primordial concern," said presidential spokesman Harry Roque.
"We ask the public to stand behind the administration and rally behind our defenders to quell the continuing rebellion in Mindanao," he added.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Defense Department was "grateful for this affirmation of trust and confidence from our legislators."
Lorenzana recommended the extension to Duterte last week.
"The Filipino people can rest assured that we will not squander this opportunity to finally end the continuing rebellion and terrorism in Mindanao," he said.
He said the extension of martial law will "thwart like-minded groups from conducting further acts of terrorism and prevent the spillover of violence and radicalism in other parts of the country."
Military spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said the extension of martial law is "an acknowledgement" of the military's need "to quell the ongoing rebellion in Mindanao."
"The military will faithfully perform its mandate to protect the people and secure the state," he said.
Duterte declared martial law across Mindanao following a terrorist attack by Islamic State-inspired gunmen in the city of Marawi on May 23.
In October, the government declared an end to almost five months of armed clashes with the terrorists that left the city devastated and close to 400,000 people displaced.