Duterte's martial law threat – and what he did not tell us

MANILA, Philippines – “I am now warning everybody, and putting notice sa Armed Forces pati police: I might declare martial law, and there will be no turning back,” President Rodrigo said in the first minutes of his recorded public address on the coronavirus that was aired on Friday morning, April 24.

His spokesman Harry Roque had just announced the extension until May 15 of the “enhanced community quarantine” or lockdown of Metro Manila and several other areas with high concentrations of coronavirus cases.

Duterte spent the first 6 minutes of his speech in a tirade against the communist-led New People’s Army (NPA), on how its “lawlessness” all over the country might force him to take the extreme measure of declaring martial law – a threat he has repeatedly made since the start of the pandemic.

Citing an alleged rebel ambush that killed two Army soldiers in Aurora province on Wednesday, April 22, Duterte scored the NPA for supposedly sabotaging the government’s pandemic relief efforts, as the soldiers were merely facilitating the distribution of social welfare subsidies.

What Duterte said. “You made it impossible for me to move. At gusto ninyo ipasok muna yung mga dema – ayaw naman ng military. Binigay ko sa military ‘yung papel ninyo. Sabi ng military, ayaw nila. Sabi ko ano, you explain to me bakit. So I gave them about two hours explaining to me bakit, bakit hindi puwede ‘yan. ‘Eh ganito ‘yan Sir eh.’ Sabi ko, sige, naniniwala ako sa inyo,” Duterte said.

(And you wanted to sneak in those dema – the military would have none of it. I gave the military your paper. The military said they didn’t want it. I told them, you explain to me why. So I gave them two hours to explain to me why it couldn’t be done. “It’s like this, Sir.” I said, alright, I believe you.)

The “paper” the President was referring to was the proposal from the National Democratic Front (NDF), the CPP-NPA’s political wing, for the resumption of peace talks, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told Rappler.

But it was a proposal the NDF sent "long before," probably between late 2019 to early 2020, according to Lorenzana.

“I’m calling the Armed Forces to invent something more to innovate so that the soldiers will not be at the mercy of [the NPA],” Duterte said in the speech aired Friday.

Lorenzana said what Duterte meant is that “the AFP should innovate – revisit their tactics and strategies – to avoid casualties.”

Armed Forces chief of staff General Felimon Santos Jr explained: “The martial law he is talking about is because he is angry and he might declare it if the CPP-NPA-NDF continues to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic situation in terms of armed terrorism and agitation of the public to hate the government."

The military has given assurances it's playing a “support role” to the police in implementing the lockdown. Soldiers help guard checkpoints, patrol the streets for violators, and lend trucks, ships, and planes to transport medical equipment and relief goods. (READ: Even in stricter lockdown, military to play 'support role')

What's the context of Duterte's mention of an old NDF proposal? Flashback to early December 2019: Duterte played peacemaker with the communist rebels, saying he was sending Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III to the Netherlands to talk to the exiled communist rebel leader Jose Maria “Joma” Sison about reviving peace negotiations.

Duterte said it was his “last card” in brokering peace with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the NPA, after an earlier attempt at peace talks bogged down two years earlier.

It was, after all, a campaign promise he made.

So Bello did talk to Sison in the Netherlands and both sides declared a ceasefire during the holidays as efforts to set the stage for negotiations went underway.

But Duterte and Sison could not agree on a venue. Duterte insisted it should be in the Philippines. For Sison, it should be anywhere but the Philippines, fearing he might be arrested the moment he lands home.

Why it matters now. The public heard nothing more about the planned peace talks after that – until Friday morning, somewhere in the President’s meandering diatribe against the communist rebels.

“We read it [the paper Duterte was referring to] and they were not acceptable. The conditions were one-sided, too much in favor of the CPP-NPA. They would have had belligerent status. They should be treated as local terrorists,” Lorenzana said.

Having belligerent status would have afforded the CPP-NPA a degree of legitimacy, and would have made international humanitarian laws on warfare apply to its members. Being branded as terrorists implies that a group is unlawful even by international conventions, and governments would have more elbow room to fight them.

The Philippine and US governments consider the CPP-NPA a terrorist organization.

“We disagree with the demands of the NPA especially on the release of all of their so-called political prisoners for peace negotiations to proceed and for the CPP-NPA to share power with government,” said Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff General Felimon Santos Jr.

Asked whether Duterte’s exchange with the military on the NDF’s proposal happened with the lockdown already in place, the first half of which was covered by a ceasefire with the NPA, Lorenzana said it was “long before,” around the time Bello was doing back channel talks with Sison from late 2019 to early 2020.

So it appears that attempt to restart peace talks between the government and the CPP-NPA-NDF  also failed because the military found the rebels’ demands unacceptable.

From the beginning, the defense establishment had been vocal about their opposition to the peace talks, preferring instead the current “localized” approach of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

Lorenzana and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr, both former military generals, had openly opposed the idea of wholesale peace talks. They said the communist rebels could not be trusted, as evidenced by continued attacks on government forces during past ceasefires.

The rebels, however, have accused government troops of the same thing.

What about martial law? “In the event that the President declares martial law, we will implement it in accordance with existing laws and the provisions of the Constitution," said AFP spokesperson Brigadier General Edgard Arevalo. "We have the wealth of experience and lessons learned in the enforcement of martial law in Mindanao (from May 2017 to December 2019). We will capitalize on it."

The military would respect the Bill of Rights, the Law of Armed Conflict, and “other applicable laws” in case it does happen, Arevalo said.

“Meantime, the AFP is devising new techniques, tactics, and procedures to ensure further that in assisting local government units, our troops will not fall prey to treacherous attacks by these terrorists, the NPA.” – Rappler.com

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.

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