Monitoring coronavirus: What rulings say about NPA and martial law

Lian Buan
Monitoring coronavirus: What rulings say about NPA and martial law


(UPDATED) Justice Benjamin Caguioa once warned that if the NPA conflict is upheld as basis to declare martial law, the Philippines may be trapped in a perpetual state of miitary rule

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Is a new martial law declaration forthcoming?

The coronavirus pandemic has fueled new rhetoric from President Rodrigo Duterte to order a “type” of martial law.

In a taped address aired early morning Friday, April 24, Duterte ranted against an alleged attack of the New Peoples’ Army (NPA) on troops delivering aid.

“Maybe I will declare martial law. Ikaw na NPA, numero uno, hinaharang ang tulong sa tao, pati supply ng pagkain nila. Kaya I’m now warning everybody and putting notice sa AFP pati pulis: I might declare martial law and there will be no turning back kung ano ang martial law na klase na gagawin ko,” Duterte said.

(Maybe I will declare martial law. So NPA, you’re number one, blocking aid for the people, even their food supply. So now I’m warning everybody and putting notice to the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the police: I might declare martial law and there will be no turning back on whatever type of martial law I will do.)

It was not the first time that Duterte threatened to declare martial law because of the NPA. In August 2019, Malacañang said the President can opt to declare martial law over the spate of killings in Negros Oriental. Malacañang blanketly attributed the killings to the NPA, even if the Central Visayas police chief had asked the public then to refrain from linking all the killings to the NPA.

On April 16, the President had warned of a “martial law-type” implementation of the Luzon lockdown in response to continued quarantine violators. This prompted renewed concerns that a martial law declaration was not far from happening.

On April 17, responding to a question from a reporter, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra cited the constitutional requirements of a martial law declaration.

“As a lawyer and the commander-in-chief, the President knows that he may declare martial law only in actual cases of rebellion or invasion, not on the ground of a public health emergency,” Guevarra said.

But going by the 4 times that the Supreme Court (SC) upheld President Rodrigo Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao – the initial declaration, followed by 3 extensions – the administration has a wide opening to find legal basis for another martial law declaration.

Let’s take a look at the rulings.

NPA and martial law

From the declaration of martial law in Mindanao on May  23, 2017 until it was lifted on December 31, 2019, the Duterte administration always included communist rebels among its grounds for the move, even if  the declaration was specifically  addressed to the siege of ISIS-allied local terrorists in Marawi City.

When the SC upheld the second extension of martial law in February 2018, it said, “The NPA’s ‘intensified’ insurgence clearly bears a significant impact on the security of Mindanao and the safety of its people, which were the very reasons for the martial law proclamation and its initial extension.”

Retired justice Noel Tijam penned that ruling.

This prompted dissenting Justice Benjamin Caguioa to warn of  “perpetual martial law.”

“This precedent dangerously supports the theoretical possibility of perpetual martial law. This precedent dangerously suggests a perpetual violation of people’s constitutional rights,” Caguioa said.

“In this scenario espoused by the ponencia, violent attacks by different armed groups could easily form the basis of an endless chain of extensions, so long as there are ‘overlaps’ in the attacks,” he added.

Presidential discretion

Not only has it upheld the NPA conflict as a justifiable reason to declare martial law, the High Court has also consistently upheld presidential discretion in proclaiming military rule.

In the first-ever ruling, the Court basically empowered Duterte to declare national martial law based only on his sole discretion.

“The Constitution grants him the prerogative whether to put the entire Philippines or any part thereof under martial law. There is no constitutional edict that martial law should be confined only in the particular place where the armed public uprising actually transpired,” the SC said in its ruling penned by retired justice Mariano del Castillo.

In March 2019, the Court upheld  Mindanao martial law for the fourth time, even if the government has not filed a single rebellion charge since 2017 when martial law was proclaimed.

Violence reports were also inaccurate, mixing attacks of communist rebels with those of terrorists, and sometimes even with ordinary crimes rooted in community disputes.

But the ruling penned by Associate Justice Rosmari Carandang further empowered presidential discretion.

“We must not fall into or be tempted to substitute our own judgment to that of the People’s President and the People’s representatives. We must not forget that the Constitution has given us separate and quite distinct roles to fill up in our respective branches of government,” said the ruling.

In layman’s term, as articulated by no less than Chief Justice Lucas Bersamin: “Whether that information is true or not is irrelevant. If there was false information and the President did not know it but nonetheless acted upon it, the theory is, it is still within the competence of the President to make a decision on that.”

Callout powers

To suppress lawless violence, Duterte has a call–out power that he can use, without having to resort to martial law.

The calling out power is a constitutional authority of the President to call out both the military and the police to respond to security threats. 

In fact, Duterte had used this before, through Proclamation No. 55 declaring a state of national emergency on account of lawless violence, following the Davao City bombing in September 2016.

Proclamation 55 is still in effect.

Duterte had also deployed policemen and military nationwide as he warned of tough punishments on violators of the enhanced community quarantine.


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Lian Buan

Lian Buan covers justice and corruption for Rappler. She is interested in decisions, pleadings, audits, contracts, and other documents that establish a trail. If you have leads, email or tweet @lianbuan.