News analysis

Vague state of emergency in the Philippines

Open-ended nature of proclamation causes concern

The Philippines is now under a "state of national emergency on account of lawless violence". What that exactly means, though, is up in the air.

President Rodrigo Duterte signed a proclamation on Monday, three days after a blast ripped through a popular market in his southern stronghold of Davao city, killing 14 people and injuring more than 60.

Barely two pages long, the proclamation, however, has not spelt out what this new "state" entails. It remains broad and vague, stirring unease.

So far, the only visible sign of this "change" has been that police are putting up more checkpoints all over Manila. But it has been "business as usual" for everyone.

Yet, with the powers the proclamation grants undefined and with no end-date, politicians, human rights advocates and analysts worry it may steer Mr Duterte's war on crime and terrorism to an even darker alley. Already, there are whispers about martial law.

Philippine police checking motorcyclists' licences yesterday, after President Duterte ordered increased vigilance following a bombing last Friday. PHOTO: REUTERS

The proclamation orders the military and police to take "such measures, as may be permitted by the Constitution and existing laws, to suppress any and all forms of lawless violence in Mindanao and to prevent such lawless violence from spreading and escalating elsewhere in the Philippines, with due regard to the fundamental civil and political rights of our citizens".

Mr Duterte cited, as reasons, the Davao bombing and attacks by Islamist militants that had left at least 15 soldiers dead. "It's not martial law," he gave the assurance.

But what is causing concern is what he said after that: "I am inviting… the military and the police to run the country in accordance with my specifications… They can do what they really need to do until such time that I can say it is safe."

Representative Edcel Lagman said that without an end-date, the declaration is like a sword hanging over the heads of the government's critics "in perpetuity". He added: "It has no limit, no time, no period."

And "while the wording of the declaration may be compliant with the Constitution, its implementation may be errant".

He recalled that in 2006, then President Gloria Arroyo had declared a "national emergency" to thwart an alleged coup plot against her government. Shortly after, police arrested four opposition lawmakers and columnists, and raided three newspapers.


It's not martial law. I am inviting… the military and the police to run the country in accordance with my specifications… They can do what they really need to do until such time that I can say it is safe.

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE, on his national emergency proclamation.

For human rights advocates concerned about Mr Duterte's brutal anti-crime push, which has led to more than 2,400 killings by police and vigilantes in over two months, placing the entire nation under a state of emergency "on account of lawless violence" may have been too drastic. "Basically, there is no widespread chaos and disorder... We think it's drastic and without basis," said Mr Ellecer Carlos, of the In Defence of Human Rights and Dignity Movement.

There has been little disruption for most Filipinos so far. There have been no media curbs, and there will be no curfews, officials have said.

"There is no loss of civil or political liberties… There is no declaration of martial law. It's simply a call to the military and the police to help out," Assistant Communications Minister Christian Ablan said.

Businessmen say they are not worried. "It is not a fundamental issue," said Philippine Stock Exchange president Hans Sicat.

And central bank governor Armando Tetangco said: " So far, it has not affected market sentiment, and I think the objective is really to improve peace and order and security in the country, which is a good objective."

Yet, the fear that the nation now stands on that slippery slope to authoritarianism persists.

"There's growing concern over (Mr Duterte's) personalistic approach to power. He doesn't use all organs of government... and he seems sensitive to perceived criticism of his war on drugs," said Mr Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies in Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Vague state of emergency in the Philippines'. Print Edition | Subscribe