House briefed on martial law behind closed doors

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Thick smoke rises as fighting continues in Marawi. (Reuters)

MANILA, Philippines — The House of Representatives was briefed behind closed doors by members of the executive branch, including security officials, on the factual and legal bases for Proclamation 216, through which President Rodrigo Duterte placed the whole of Mindanao under martial law.

But martial law is not expected to face any strong challenge from a chamber dominated by the pro-administration “super majority.”

As much was hinted at by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, who, like Senate President Aqulino Pimentel III, has rejected calls for a joint session of Congress to discuss the merits of martial law, which a number of lawmakers as well as legal and constitutional experts say is required by the Constitution.

In a statement at the start of the briefing, Alvarez reiterated his full backing for Duerte’s declaration of martial law on May 23, hours after fighting broke out between the Maute group and government forces in Marawi City.

“Given what has happened, a strategic and decisive response is necessary so that we may rise up to the perilous challenges of the occasion at hand,” Alvarez said. “We have to do this, not only because the dangers we face have devastated the lives of thousands. We have to do this, not only because these threats can easily spill over and engulf the rest of the nation in flames. We have to do this, because it is the right thing to do.”

“Let us remember that how we decide today will determine the trajectory of our response to the grave threats posed by terror groups — the Mautes included — that (have) rampaged (through) the peaceful City of Marawi and the people of Mindanao,” Alvarez added.

Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea read the text of the proclamation, while deputy executive secretary Menardo Guevarra reported on General Order No. 1, which details the guidelines for implementing martial law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, as well as the designation of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana as martial law administrator and Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Eduardo Ano as implementor.

After Medialdea’s report, the briefing was converted into an executive session.

The House convened as a committee of the whole composed of all its members and named Majority Leader Rodolfo Farinas as chairman for the briefing.

Defining his position on martial law, Alvarez asked: “Will our collective response extend a helping hand to our Commander-in-Chief and, consequently, empower him to decisively destroy the delusional terror dreams of these extremist groups? Or will our response be to view the occasion from ivory towers and, while disconnected from the realities on the ground, choose to chain the hands of the President at a time when he needs our full support the most?”

He also addressed concerns that martial law might repeat the abuses of the Marcos dictatorship, asking lawmakers to view the situation “not exclusively from the perspective of the past” and noting that the Constitution provides sufficient safeguards against possible abuses by agents of the state.

However, soon after declaring martial law, Duterte said his would be no different from Marcos’, which was marked by widespread human rights abuses and massive plundr.

Alvarez also offered assurances “that we are keeping a watchful eye upon the unfolding of events and will step in as a counter-balance should and when the need arises” even as he acknowledged the problems of Mindanao could not solved “purely through military might.”

“The situation is far more complex. Besides military action, we have to address the historical, social, economic, and political roots of the problem. After all, the most potent weapon against terrorism, insurgencies, and rebellion is nation building,” he said.

“Let us extend to the President the aid which he needs. Let us also do our part and legislate lasting solutions to the problems we face. We owe this to the people of Marawi City. We owe this to the people of Mindanao,” he added.

Among the Cabinet officials expected at the briefing are National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Public Works Secretary Mark Villar, Commission on Human Rights chair Chito Gascon, Social Welfare Secretary Judy Taguiwalo, Mindanao Development Authority chair Datu Abul Khayr Dangcal Alonto, and Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial.