MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine defense secretary said Friday that President Rodrigo Duterte has considered the possibility of placing the entire country under martial rule over fears of planned left-wing protests getting out of control, but added that the prospect of such a step is “very remote.”
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Duterte has thought of expanding a previous declaration of martial law in the south to cover the entire Philippines due to fears the protests could spiral out of hand and threaten the government and public safety.
Lorenzana, however, belittled the capability of left-wing activists to stage massive protests nationwide. One is planned for next Thursday to mark the anniversary of the 1972 martial law declaration by late dictator Ferdinand Marcos that was associated with massive human rights violations and muzzling of civil liberties.
Asked about the prospects of such a declaration, Lorenzana quoted Duterte as saying recently, “‘If the left will try to have a massive protest, they’ll ignite fires in the street, they will disrupt the country, then I might.'”
Lorenzana, however, told a news conference the prospect of expanded martial law is “very remote,” adding that the military and local governments have not monitored any planned massive protests by anti-government groups. “We do not have those indications in our reports,” he said.
Duterte said activists can stage street protests even without government permits, and that even communist guerrillas can join as long as they don’t bring their guns. He warned them, however, not to break the law. “I will not hesitate to use force even if it would mean my downfall as president of this country, remember that,” Duterte said Friday on state TV.
Left-wing protests in Manila and elsewhere in recent years have been nowhere near the size of the mammoth “people power” protests that ousted Marcos in 1986 and President Joseph Estrada in 2001. A left-wing alliance, Bayan, said Duterte may be trying to spark fears to discourage people from joining its protest.
“The mass actions for the 45th anniversary of martial law are more than justified given our current worsening human rights situation and drift toward dictatorship,” Bayan leader Renato Reyes said. “We do not anticipate any untoward incidents emanating from protesters.”
Hundreds of activists and Muslim tribesmen opposed to Duterte’s martial law declaration in the south scuffled Friday with riot police who blocked them from marching near the U.S. Embassy. Police made no arrests and the demonstrators peacefully backed away after two hours.
Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao in May to deal with a deadly siege by Islamic State group-aligned militants in southern Marawi city and help prevent similar uprisings elsewhere in the country’s volatile south. The United States and Australia have deployed surveillance planes to help Filipino troops battling militants in Marawi.
At least 860 people, including more than 600 militants, have been killed in Marawi, a center of Islamic faith in the largely Roman Catholic nation. Marawi’s central business and residential districts now resemble a wasteland of destroyed buildings and debris.
A final military assault, backed by airstrikes, is underway to eliminate the remaining few dozen gunmen still fighting from houses and small buildings near Lake Lanao, according to the military.
Duterte has faced growing criticism and protests over his crackdown against illegal drugs, which has left thousands of people dead, as well as martial law in the south and the Marawi offensive.
His decision to allow the burial of long-dead Marcos in the country’s Heroes’ Cemetery last November also shocked democracy and rights advocates and set off protests.