As the world has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, many leaders have used the language of “war” to define the enormity of our new reality and set the stage for a heroic response. Salvador Panelo, the former Philippine presidential spokesperson, went beyond mere metaphors earlier this month and advanced an extraordinary theory: The coronavirus, he said, constitutes an “invasion,” giving President Rodrigo Duterte the legal standing to declare martial law.
The country’s justice department rejected Panelo’s theory the next day, saying COVID-19 does not fit the constitutional provision allowing the president to declare martial law in the event of an “invasion” – by foreign armed forces – or “rebellion” – a domestic armed uprising. Harry Roque, Duterte’s current spokesperson, said the comments were merely Panelo’s personal opinion, while Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who had flirted with the idea on Twitter, said he had merely “had fun taking the idea of infection as invasion as far as I could take it.” Eduardo Año, the interior secretary and a former military chief of staff, also agreed with the justice department, saying Panelo’s theory was “just a joke.”
But it was not the first time Duterte administration officials had toyed with the idea of declaring martial law during a COVID-19 response the United Nations has criticized as “highly militarized.” Duterte himself has done it several times. In April, he threatened military rule after accusing New People’s Army (NPA) communist rebels of disrupting government aid. Days before that, the president had warned of martial law-style enforcement if people were not compliant with social distancing and curfew orders. Duterte also attacked his critics, vowing to “identify Filipinos who have done nothing [but] criticize and find fault because they want to be heard by the public.”
Duterte’s broadsides against critics – especially those he alleges to be communists – have since escalated, leading observes to accuse him of setting the stage for a declaration of martial law. These fears have intensified recently as the Philippines is on the brink of buying $2 billion worth of attack helicopters and munitions from the United States, drawing criticism from rights groups worried the military intends to use the weapons against political critics.
The Philippines’ COVID-19 response has been marked by the arrests of relief workers, activists, and authors of social media posts critical of the government. On April 30, Jory Porquia, a founding member of the leftist Bayan Muna party, was shot dead inside his home after allegedly being intimidated by police for weeks for conducting food relief programs. The next day, 76 protesters and relief workers were arrested, including four residents who posted photos online of themselves “protesting from home.” Duterte, in public addresses, has repeatedly said this dissent originates with “leftists” – part of what his office has previously deemed, without evidence, to be an “opposition matrix” aiming to overthrow the government.
Duterte’s COVID-19 task force, stocked with military and police officials, has drawn comparisons to the “Rolex 12” junta of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos from Filipinos who lived through both eras. Neri Colmenares, a human rights lawyer and former Bayan Muna congressman who was arrested and tortured during the Marcos era, said he also saw parallels between Duterte-era “red tagging” – a local term for branding opposition as communists or NPA members – and Marcos’ attacks on dissenters, other parties, and the church. Marcos declared martial law in 1972, saying communists had obtained weapons from China and intended to overthrow the government.
“[Duterte] wants the possibility of martial law to be always in people’s mind and the national discourse, because he wants to be able to use it when the time comes,” Colmenares said. “He or his subordinates subsequently take it back, only to be mentioned again in the next few speeches.” Before Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao in 2017, Colmenares noted, “he floated the idea several times before he actually imposed it.”
The Philippine constitutional provision allowing for the declaration of martial law says the invasion or rebellion must be a threat to public safety. Colmenares said that, in his legal opinion, Duterte must show that all or part of the government “can no longer operate because of the rebellion” to satisfy this requirement.
“This is why Duterte sometimes exaggerates the ambushes [by rebels] to show that it does hamper government operations to justify, someday, a declaration of martial law on the grounds that public safety is threatened because of these attacks,” he said.
In Philippine cities, sirens wail at curfew hours and army troops patrol the streets, ordered to arrest quarantine violators without warning. Up to 41,000 people have been arrested for flouting quarantine rules, the Philippine National Police said earlier this month. But the measures have not increased public confidence in the government’s uneven COVID-19 response, leading critics to accuse Duterte of using the left as a scapegoat while intensifying the specter of military rule.
“The current overall situation already spells out a de facto martial law,” said Cristina Palabay, secretary-general of the progressive rights group alliance Karapatan.
Duterte has been accused in the past of using executive orders to establish informal military rule in regions deemed unstable. Last year, the island of Negros, which was placed under such an order, saw dozens of state-sanctioned killings of farmers and land activists who opposed government land reform and agriculture policies.
Activists warned at the time that Negros could serve as a testing ground for the rest of the Philippines. Throughout the pandemic, alleged attacks and intimidation targeting environmental defenders, indigenous activists, and other dissenters – “red-tagged” as communists – have continued in provincial areas such as Negros and Mindanao, where martial law was formally lifted on January 1.
This has led to a virulent pushback by rights defenders against U.S. plans to sell arms to the Philippines. The U.S. State Department gave approval to the weapons sales on April 30, starting a 30-day congressional review period that concludes this week.
Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippines’ defense secretary, said earlier this month that buying the proposed 12 attack helicopters from the United States was out of the government’s budget. But he justified the merits of the purchase, saying it was necessary for “counterterrorism” purposes. He also criticized “leftist” groups who claimed the money would be better served going to the people and raised concerns that the targets of Philippine counterinsurgency operations have often been activists and critics, rather than armed communist rebels.
“These helicopters and weapons are meant for ground attack,” meaning they would likely be used in counterinsurgency operations, said Drew Elizarde-Miller, U.S. spokesperson for the International Coalition of Human Rights in the Philippines. “The level of risk that these weapons will be used for further displacement and destruction of civilian life is deeply troubling.”
“Approving contracts for attack helicopters would be sending a terrible message to the Philippine government that long-running military abuses without accountability have no consequences on the U.S.-Philippines relationship,” Human Rights Watch Asia advocacy director John Sifton said in a statement. “The U.S. should not be selling advanced military systems to an abusive, unaccountable Philippine military under cover of a global pandemic.”
In the past, Duterte has threatened to bomb indigenous schools, accused land reform activists of hatching a “sinister plot” to overthrow him, and ordered soldiers to shoot female rebels in their vaginas. The threats have been followed with military operations in rural areas of Mindanao that displaced thousands of indigenous peoples and have continued during the coronavirus pandemic.
An actual declaration of martial law could escalate these operations. They could also give Duterte, whose single presidential term ends in 2022, the thing many believe he, like Marcos before him, covets most.
“Both [Duterte and Marcos] seek to lengthen their hold in power, whether by themselves or their families,” Colmenares said. “Duterte, in my opinion, also wants to remain in power by ensuring that his anointed succeeds him and has no aversion to use martial law to achieve this – and similarly uses the communists as justification.”