Long before President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte imposed martial law in Mindanao, he was already toying with the idea of declaring martial law, not just in Mindanao but the entire country. Why? What caused him to consider martial law when his supporters in the House of Representatives have provided him with an ironclad defense from any attempt to impeach him? Or are there other reasons – secret and unpublished – that would satisfy his private agenda?
For one thing, one can say that Duterte was a democratically elected “strongman” like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While Duterte is not a “dictator” in the mold of the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos, he was able to exercise near-absolute power in pushing his legislative agenda. Indeed, senators and congressmen who opposed his wishes were severely dealt with.
In the House of Representatives, except for a few party-list congressmen, nobody dares oppose his legislative agenda that includes restoration of the death penalty, the switch to a federal government, and lowering of the age of criminal liability. The House Speaker, Rep. Pantaleon Alvarez, a protégée of Duterte, is totally supportive of his legislative agenda. And the congressmen – who are balimbings (political turncoats) as a matter of political survival – fear him.
In my column, “Is martial law just a matter of time?” (January 27, 2017), I asked: “Why would Digong [Duterte] want to declare martial law, when his grip to power is strong? Would it be fair to presume that he might have been thinking of the day when his grip weakens and loses control of Congress? And the specter of that happening could give him sleepless nights, insecurity, and paranoia. Could this be the reason why he is not comfortable sleeping in Malacañang Palace protected by the elite Presidential Security Group?
When the Philippine National Police (PNP) submitted an intelligence report – “Narco list” – to Duterte, several judges’ names were included on the report. Duterte threatened to have them arrested. Supreme Court Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno strongly opposed it and issued a statement that said, “Law enforcers must first secure warrants of arrest from judges before judges allow themselves to be ‘physically accountable to any police officer’ as she warned of a constitutional crisis.” This did not bode well with Duterte who responded angrily, “I’m giving you a warning. Don’t create a crisis because I will order everybody in the executive department not to honor you,” he said referring to Sereno. He added, “Please, don’t order me. I’m not a fool. If this continues, [that] you’re tying to stop me, I might lose my cool. Or would you rather I declare martial law?” But Duterte relented and the matter with the “narco judges” was dropped.
Battle of Marawi
On May 23, 2017 while Duterte was enroute to Moscow for a five-day visit, the rebel group Maute struck. At about 2:00 PM, the Battle of Marawi began. At least 500 members of Maute attacked a Philippine Army brigade stationed at Camp Ranao in Marawi City. They were seen rampaging through the streets waving ISIS black flags.
While in Moscow, Duterte declared martial law at 10:00 pm that same day. He cut short his visit after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin for a short time. In an attempt to acquire weapons from Russia, Putin told him to provide a “shopping list” and he’d look at it. Duterte flew back home without the “bacon” he had expected to bring home.
Last June 5, the U.S. handed over – I mean, given free — $150 million worth of brand-new weapons that included 300 M4 assault rifles, 100 grenade launchers, and four M134D Gatling-style machine guns that can fire thousands of rounds a minute. The U.S. Embassy issued a statement, saying: “This equipment will enhance the [Philippine Marines’] counterterrorism capabilities, and help protect [troops] actively engaged in counterterrorism operations in the southern Philippines.”
It’s interesting to note that on June 2 — a few days before the handover – Duterte had complained about the quality of “secondhand” American military hardware. “I will not accept any more military equipment that is secondhand. The ones the Americans are giving, I do not want that anymore, he said.”
Boots on the ground
But weapons were not the only ones Uncle Sam had given free. A Pentagon spokesman, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross, confirmed the presence of 50 to 100 special-operations forces that are helping the Philippine marines in Marawi. He said that the U.S. also maintains a force of 300 to 500 to support regular bilateral training, exercises, and other activities in the country. He said that they’re in Marawi to provide technical assistance to the Philippine troops. However, they’re authorized to fire back if attacked.
In addition, another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the support included aerial surveillance and targeting, electronic eavesdropping, communications assistance, and training.
One might question the presence of U.S. troops in the country, which the Philippine Constitution bans. Philippine military spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla told reporters in Manila, “The presence of armed U.S. troops in Marawi was covered by a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which calls for both parties to aid each other in times of enemy aggression.” He added, “That capacity has been moved to help ground forces in Marawi, and that arrangement should not complicate our military engagement.”
Who’s in charge?
But what is strange is that the day after the handover of U.S. weapons, Duterte held a press conference and told the reporters that he “never approached America” for help. He said that he was “entirely unaware of their presence until they [the Americans] arrived.” But while he claimed that he didn’t ask for U.S. military help, it begs the question: Did the Philippine military request the aid independently without consulting Duterte? To avoid embarrassment, Duterte told the media that might have been the case. He said that due to years of U.S. training, “our soldiers are pro-American, that I cannot deny.” However, he did not comment on whether the Philippine military asked for U.S. help without his “approval.” And this raises the question: Who is in charge?
While one may wonder whether Duterte is still in charge, the answer is Yes and No. Yes, because he is still the president of the Philippines. No, because by declaring martial law, he turned over certain government functions to the military. He designated Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a retired major general, as martial law administrator in Mindanao and Armed forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief Gen. Eduardo Año as the chief martial law implementor. Año will be directly under the deputy martial administrator, who has yet to be named. He will also work with PNP Director General Ronald dela Rosa.
Indeed, little did Duterte realize that he had more power before de declared martial law. With martial law, he has to carefully work with the generals, giving them a lot of latitude. And to make sure that they remain loyal, he has to share power with them. Indeed, they can make or break him. And he knows that.
So, are you for or against martial law? As the Visayans would say it, “Martial law kuno,” while the Tagalogs would say, “Martial law daw.” But the Ilocanos will always say, “Marcos pa rin kami!” And Bongbong Marcos would be so delighted and he would say, “Martial law forever!” But the powerless and poor common tao could only say, “Hay naku, here we go again!” And for Donald Trump, he can only say, “It’s fake news.” And guess what Digong would be saying? “Sons of whores!”