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Premonition of Danger: Martial Law in the Philippines

On Tuesday May 23rd, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law over the southern Philippine island of Mindanao in response to a violent attack on the city of Marawi by the Maute Group, an ISIS affiliated terrorist organization. While some Filipinos may praise Duterte’s declaration as a bold and decisive move to protect civilians, others see the potential for increased human rights abuses and unchecked executive power in a regime already categorized by violence. This becomes even more disturbing when one compares Duterte to Ferdinand Marcos, a former president of the Philippines who declared martial law over the country in 1972 and became the most infamous dictator in Filipino history.

Since being elected in June 2016, the Philippine National Police (PNP) confirmed that over 7,000 people have been executed in extra-judicial killings by masked vigilantes and police as part of President Duterte’s ‘War on Drugs’. While the PNP claims that executed suspects were killed for violently resisting police officers or that the PNP cannot legally take responsibility for deaths caused by masked vigilantes- international NGOs like Human Rights Watch contradict these claims, citing the lack of evidence that victims retaliated and Duterte’s history of organizing masked ‘death squads’ in Davao City. With the declaration of martial law, these killings could become legally legitimized and more commonplace, as civil rights protections would be suspended in favor of military authority.

There is historical precedence for this prediction, which becomes frighteningly possible after listening to comments made by Duterte: “Martial law is martial law ha,” Duterte said on his proclamation. “It will not be any different from what the president, Marcos did. I'd be harsh”. Ferdinand Marcos was the president of the Philippines for twenty-one years, from 1966 to 1986. In September of 1972, Marcos issued Proclamation 1081, which formally declared the Philippines under martial law and suspended the civil rights of Philippine citizens. Marcos justified martial law the same way Duterte does: by citing the “provisions from the Philippine Constitution that Martial Law is a strategic approach to legally defend the Constitution and protect the welfare of the Filipino people from the dangerous threats posed by Muslim rebel groups”. Under this pretense of defending democracy, Marcos launched a massive militarization of the Philippines, through which “military membership grew from 55,000 in 1972 to 250,000 in 1984, and its budget ballooned from P 608 million in 1972 to $ 8.8 billion in 1984”. Without protected civil rights, citizens could not politically challenge Marcos without threat of being forcibly detained or executed. Additionally, the massive militarization increased Marcos’s capability to sustain martial law, as citizens lacked the firepower to forcibly depose him. As a consequence of these factors, Amnesty International estimates that “70,000 people were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured, and 3,240 people were killed” under Marcos’s martial law regime. When Marcos was finally deposed in 1986 and a new Constitution was ratified in 1987, restrictions were added limiting Martial Law. But what if Duterte chooses not to heed those restrictions and instead extends the declaration over the entirety of the Philippines? He has already called to raise the Philippine military defense budget by 14%, or an estimated $2.8 million pesos. While he claims this is to counter rebels and fight China’s incursions into Scarborough Shoal, the budget increase presents the same danger that Marco’s militarization did: It gives Duterte the military clout to potentially ignore or execute any legal opposition to martial law.

Ferdinand E. Marcos, President of the Philippines, visited the United Nations Headquarters today and addressed the General Assembly. He also met with Secretary-General U Thant and was guest of honour at a luncheon. President Marcos (left) being greeted by the Secretary-General on his arrival at the United Nations.

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