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Assuring words against martial law

“I will never declare martial law,” President Duterte said in a television interview last Thursday. “It will lead to the downfall of the country.”

This is as clear as it can get and those who have been nursing fears of martial law should set them aside in the face of this outright declaration made by the President.

The first time fears of the possibility of martial law came up was after the bombing of the night market in Davao City last September, leaving 14 dead and 70 others wounded. There were calls for emergency measures, including a state of lawlessness possibly leading to a declaration of martial law or a suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.

When the presidential proclamation was finally released, it was entitled – to everyone’s relief – “Declaring a state of national emergency on account of lawless violence in Mindanao.”

Actually, martial law is no longer a potent legal instrument to be feared by the people. It was part of the 1935 Constitution and it was used by President Ferdinand Marcos when he declared martial law in 1972, allegedly to stop a Communist takeover of the country. After the EDSA People Power Revolution of 1896, the powers of the presidency were stringently limited in the 1987 Constitution – which is what we have today. This was in reaction to abuses committed by martial law which shut down Congress in 1972 and the President ruled by decree.

Today, under the present Constitution, martial law may be proclaimed only “in case of invasion or rebellion when the public safety requires it” and only for a period not exceeding 60 days. And within 48 hours, the President must report to Congress which may revoke such proclamation.

If there is an invasion of the country, President Duterte said, he may declare martial law. “But rebellion and insurrection? Wala yan.” He would declare war against an invading country, but “you don’t have to declare a war against the Republic of the Philippines” – which is what martial law actually is.

President Duterte said he prefers the 1935 Constitution’s provisions on martial law – they did not require Congress and the Supreme Court to concur with the presidential declaration. Perhaps some legislators will raise this issue in the Constituent Assembly which will soon be called to amend the Constitution, primarily to set up a federal system of government for the country.

But until that is done, we have President Duterte’s statement that he will not declare martial law to meet any bombing or other violence in the country. It is not needed, he said. A declaration of a state of lawlessness is enough.

This is most reassuring, especially to those who remember the dark days of martial law in 1972-1981 which we hope will not ever befall the country again.