MANILA – President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday said he knew he was right in placing the entire Mindanao under martial law after the Supreme Court upheld the legality of his declaration.
Duterte said placing the entire Mindanao under martial law made sense as the terror threat was not confined within Marawi City, where local terror groups who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State are still on a rampage more than a month since they initiated attacks in the city.
He said the terrorists could easily go to other places in Mindanao and wreak havoc. Thus, there was a need to place the entire region under martial rule.
“[They] can go anywhere and they can have a spillover,” the President said of the terrorists in a chance interview during his visit to the wake for five massacre victims in San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan.
The President added that martial law should have been declared in Mindanao “a long time ago,” citing the string of violent incidents that have plagued the region.
The protracted fighting in Marawi City has emerged as Duterte's greatest test a year into his presidency.
He declared martial law over Mindanao on May 23, the same day firefights between government troops and terrorists erupted in Marawi City.
Eleven justices voted to uphold the president's declaration over all of Mindanao, said Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te in a press briefing.
Three others voted to limit the declaration to Marawi City, the conflict zone. A lone justice, meanwhile, voted to nullify the proclamation altogether.
In justifying his declaration, Duterte told Congress that martial law was necessary since the militants want to establish an Islamic State province in Mindanao as part of its caliphate in Southeast Asia.
Various groups then challenged his declaration before the high court, saying what was happening in the besieged city could not be considered a rebellion, one of the grounds needed before martial law can be declared.
Under the Constitution, a martial law declaration may only last for 60 days. After this period lapses, Duterte will need to seek Congress’ approval if he wants to extend the effectivity of the declaration.
The President has repeatedly said only the police and the military could tell him if the enforcement of martial law should be extended. The police and military chiefs have expressed willingness to endorse an extension to ensure a secure environment when rehabilitation efforts begin.
While the military has said the High Court decision boosts the morale of the troops, government officials in the past have admitted that martial law had no concrete impact on the military’s anti-terror operations.
During oral arguments on petitions that questioned martial rule, Solicitor General Jose Calida said Duterte’s martial law declaration can be likened to a “calling out power on steroids.” He said the declaration provides an “exclamation point” to the government’s fight against the terrorists.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also told reporters on Monday that while government troops could carry out the same level of anti-terror operations even without a martial law declaration, he believes its imposition provides more “impact”.
Clashes erupted in the city on May 23 after government troops attempted to arrest senior Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, said to be the Islamic State's anointed leader in Southeast Asia.
The Philippine government and military earlier said that while government troops failed to catch Hapilon, the operation thwarted a bigger attack by the terrorists.
At least 461 people - 337 suspected terrorists, 85 government troops and 39 civilians - have died since the clashes erupted.
About 400,000 civilians from Marawi and outlying areas have also been displaced as a result of the fighting.
While government has put the civilian death toll at 39, the military believes this could “increase significantly” as troops have yet to reach other parts of the city where some trapped civilians were feared to have been executed.
The emergence of groups pledging allegiance to the terror group has been considered as the biggest security problem to face the year-old Duterte administration.
The rise of pro-ISIS groups in the country has also raised alarm in Washington and the Philippines’ neighbors in the region, which fear that the notorious terror group was seeking to establish a new front in Asia amid its successive losses in Iraq and Syria.