Karapatan decries Duterte’s threats of imposing martial law

Nearly five weeks into the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine, the government seems to be gearing for intensified State repression, human rights watchdog Karapatan warned, with President Rodrigo Duterte’s threat of a martial law-like military and police takeover to curb the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. 

Karapatan hit back at Duterte’s threat, stating that “more draconian and militarist measures will not only fail to comprehensively address the crisis but these will also effectively worsen and prolong it,” as they viewed these threats as the government’s way of “setting the stage for more attacks on people’s rights and civil liberties.”

“From mass arrests of the poor, abuses in checkpoints, heightened police and military deployment in communities, to continuing counterinsurgency operations in the countryside despite the government’s unilateral ceasefire declaration and the repeated scapegoating of the Left, Duterte’s threats of imposing martial law is already a lived reality for Filipinos,” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay said. “Instead of putting the government’s efforts to address this public health crisis and the people’s legitimate demands, Duterte is exploiting the pandemic to realize his Marcosian delusions of iron-fist authoritarian rule.”

In the latest of his late-night televised addresses, Duterte on Thursday, April 16, said he has ordered the military and police to be ready to take over the enforcement of social distancing and curfew measures, describing the takeover as “parang martial law na rin” (just like martial law). A leaked internal Philippine Air Force memorandum dated April 17 regarding the president’s “latest pronouncement on [the] martial law-type role” of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) has also been recently confirmed by AFP spokesperson Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo, who said that the military is preparing for deployment with the PNP “in case people will continue to defy protocols and disobey the rules.”

Palabay averred that “this rhetoric of blaming people’s supposed lack of discipline to justify the imposition of more repressive policies misses the point of why people, especially the poor, find it so hard to abide with quarantine measures. People are going out of their homes to flock to markets or to continue their livelihood because of their precarious living conditions caused by years of government neglect and anti-poor policies. They are not receiving sufficient aid, if they even receive anything at all, and now, the government is more intent in criminalizing and penalizing the poor for their poverty.”

United Nations special rapporteurs have expressed concern on April 17 over “the rise of reports of killings and other instances of excessive use of force targeting in particular people living in vulnerable situations” and reminded governments and law enforcement agencies “[b]reaking a curfew, or any restriction on freedom of movement, cannot justify resorting to excessive use of force by the police; under no circumstances should it lead to the use of lethal force.”

According to the PNP, a total of 29,632 individuals have been arrested nationwide from March 17 to April 17 for supposedly violating quarantine measures. Unabated military counterinsurgency operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic have also led to the staging of fake surrenders as well as the killings and arrests of activists. Arrests have particularly targeted peasant advocates and organizers like 71-year-old Proceso Torralba, who was arrested last April 11 in Butuan City, Agusan del Norte, on trumped-up kidnapping and serious illegal detention charges.

“It is highly deplorable that, in the face of mass hunger and a looming food security crisis brought by lockdown measures, the military continues to be at the frontlines of State fascism in the countryside in leading the killings and arrests of farmers and peasant advocates like Proceso Torralba, Marlon Maldos, and Nora Apique. The government’s unilateral ceasefire declaration is a complete sham, and the government is leaving the people to die in the hands of either sickness, hunger, or bullets — or worse, a combination of the three,” the Karapatan officer said.

“Despots all over the world are using lockdown measures against the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse for heightened police and military deployment, political repression, and more nefarious forms of social control to consolidate power. The Duterte administration is obviously not immune to this fascist contagion, and the more that the people should be vigilant and stand in solidarity in resisting the State’s fascist attacks and asserting our legitimate demands for measures such as mass testing, protection of frontline health workers, more funding for social services, and the fast-tracking of distribution of amelioration to vulnerable families and communities,” she ended.