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Philippines: Irrationality and double standards

Philippines: Irrationality and double standards in Maguindanao's martial law

When President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed Proclamation 1959, declaring a state of martial law, except in some areas, in the province of Maguindanao she was following the recommendations of top commanders of the armed forces and the police. Following this declaration the opinions of the Filipino people were divided; some are opposed to it while others approved of it. This demonstrates how odd the principle of rule of law, human rights and democracy is understood in the country.

President Macapagal-Arroyo, as the country's chief executive and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, abused her executive power when she declared martial law on this occasion. The executive has the power to declare a state of martial law and suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus; however, when it was declared, it failed to meet the fundamental requirements under the 1987 Philippine Constitution upon which martial law could be constitutional and legal.

The Constitution clearly stipulates that martial law could only be declared when there is an actual, not looming state of 'invasion or rebellion', as opposed to what the executive is claiming in justifying the issuing of the Proclamation 1959. Neither was there an overt act of rebellion nor public uprising by way of taking arms against the present government. The President's actions were beyond the limits of her executive power.

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The Ampatuans, a powerful political clan in Maguindanao, who are accused of having involvement in the November 23 massacre, were elected and are incumbent officials of their local governments. They are the people in power and have strong political relationships and allegiance with the government. The Ampatuan's rule over their constituents, either by fear or otherwise, was also a by product of how loyal they were to the government. Being in the government is where their power and influence was built.

Therefore, to interpret as a looming rebellion the presence of a 'heavily armed group' supportive of the Ampatuans is completely inconceivable. The province of Maguindanao, which is composed 36 towns, has been for many years the haven of heavily armed groups--whether they are illegal armed groups, militiamen or kidnap for ransom syndicates. Most of the towns in the remote and interior area are where the decade-old conflict between the Moro rebels and government forces took place. It is the Moro rebels, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who are known to have been waging rebellion, not the Ampatuans.

However, strangely the Proclamation exempts areas identified with the MILF rebels. But even the Moro rebels themselves were clueless to where these areas the Proclamation had exempted are located. After the peace talk between the government and the Moro rebels collapsed in August 2008, there was only a suspension of the military offensive between two parties. The rebels were more mobile and have acknowledged that they themselves had no permanent camps.

President Arroyo's justification over the emergence of a rebellion was not made known to the public before declaring martial law. In fact, the proclamation was kept from the public's attention for ten hours before it was officially announced. There was no transparency prior to its declaration. President Arroyo's press secretary, Cerge Remonde, was reported to have denied the proclamation of martial law in Maguindanao when interviewed before Proclamation 1959 was officially announced.

But even hours after the Proclamation was signed on December 4, the police and the military had already started arresting and detaining the Ampatuans, their supporters and several militiamen they claimed to have been involved in the massacre. The martial law and subsequent arrests of the Ampatuans also came after they were able to secure the writ of amparo, a judicial remedy, from another local court seeking judicial protection from warrantless arrest and searches by the police and the military. But instead of responding to the return of the writ of amparo the Ampatuans have filed, the government declared martial law effectively rendering the Ampatuans remedy meaningless.

On the pretext of the government's response to the call for justice for the victims of the Maguindanao massacre, President Arroyo and her secretaries had to declare martial law, not because there was an obvious and overt acts of rebellion taking place, but because the policemen and the military were having difficulty in arresting, detaining, conducting searches and collecting material evidence against the perpetrators of the massacre. The justifications of the 'looming rebellion' came, not prior to, but after the martial law.

After the province was placed under martial law, the military and the police got what they wanted--having a free hand to arrest, detain persons and conduct searches without undergoing the tedious process of court procedures. They arrests, not only of the Ampatuans and their supporters, but ordinary villagers and passersby whom they think were involved in the massacre. The notion of reasonable grounds and personal knowledge that the person to be arrested or detained is involved in the crime did not exist. They arrested persons--most of them are male, were taken into police custody, and questioned without any lawyer being present and decided according to the persons' testimonies whether he could be charged or not.

The policemen and the military, without the need of seeking court's approval to conduct searches, yielded thousands of firearms buried from the properties reportedly owned by the Ampatuans. They argue that the firearms that they have recovered were proof of the Ampatuan's military capability to rebel against the government. For the people in power to rebel against their own is incomprehensible. Some of the unearthed firearms, however, were marked as owned by the government.

Under the Constitution, the Philippine Congress--the House of Senate and the House of Representatives-- has the power to do check and balance any abuses or excess of power by the executive branch. Whether Proclamation 1959 should be revoked or not, the two houses of Congress would have to deliberate on the merit of the President's 20-page report the President has submitted to congress when she declared the martial law. The Congress has the power to also extend the martial law.

But four days after the martial law was imposed, the legislative body who is supposed to check the excesses and the abuses by the executive have yet to jointly convene to deliberate on the legality and constitutionality of the Proclamation 1959. The Congress could not convene despite the urgency of the situation. The Senate's president, Juan Ponce Enrile, said it was not possible to convene during weekends while the speaker of the house, Prospero Nograles, has already said he was approved of the martial law. There was no sense of urgency amongst majority of their members to tackle the issue of martial law.

Even before the December 9 was formally agreed as the date where the two Chambers of Congress would meet to debate on the matter, some of the lawmakers, most of them are identified as allies of the President, have already endorsed resolutions approving of the martial law. Here are lawmakers and members of the Congress, who are supposed to control the excesses of the executive, becoming apparently subservient to the executive for reasons of the party affiliations.

The political affiliation and party loyalty is what could be the deciding factors of whether or not martial law would be revoked. It is no longer what is reasonable, legal and constitutional that would decide the martial law. The lawmakers would be deciding for their own political interests and survival and may not be doing so for the benefit of the people of Maguindanao, who now suffer the brunt of the martial law. The Philippine Congress's decision on martial law in Maguindanao would be a precedent to future declarations of martial law by the executive in the future.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.


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