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Double-whammy acts by Congress in one day

On Dec. 13, on its last session day before the holiday break, the 17th Congress of the Philippines, dominated by the “super-majorities” of President Duterte’s political allies, took two controversial actions both of which will have negative impacts on the lives of the Filipino people, particularly the vast number of the poor and marginalized.

The first was the approval, in a joint session by the Senate and the House of Representatives, of the president’s second request to extend – throughout the year 2018 – his May 23, 2017 Proclamation 216, imposing martial law and suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus for 60 days in the whole of Mindanao.

Aimed at quelling the siege of Marawi City by the Maute and Abu Sayyaf extremist groups allegedly to set up an Islamic State province in Southeast Asia, the proclamation was first extended, with the approval of Congress, for five months until Dec. 31, 2017. Although the siege was ended in October with the Maute and Abu Sayyaf leaders and fighters wiped out, the state security forces cited various justifications for the year-long extension. These were not in accord with the requisites set by the Constitution (“in case of invasion or rebellion”).

The second disputed measure was the ratification, separately by each chamber, of the final version of the Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion bill (TRAIN), which was adopted Monday by the bicameral conference committee. TRAIN is touted to reduce personal income tax, but imposes higher taxes on fuel, petroleum products, and other commodities. That means basic goods and services will be more expensive -- which inevitably will further burden tens of millions of low-income families already hard up as they are.

The year-long extension of martial law in Mindanao came fast and swift.

On Monday, Duterte sent his letter-request separately to the Senate and the House leaderships. On Tuesday, security officials briefed key members of each chamber on the situation in Mindanao. (After the three-hour briefing, House majority leader Rodolfo Farinas was quoted in media as saying his colleagues “overwhelmingly” favored extending martial law.) Then on Wednesday, after four hours of questioning executive officials in the joint session, the voting was called. Result: 240 for the extension, 27 against. (Among the senators: 14 for, 4 against; among the House members, 228 for, 23 against.)

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Duterte sought the extension on the following grounds: the remnants of the Maute group are actively recruiting members among the Muslim youths; 185 Moro rebels in the government’s martial-law arrest order remain at large and “in all probability are presently consolidating their forces”; the Turaife group was monitored as “planning to launch bombings, possibly in Cotabato”; the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters continue to defy the government, and the Abu Sayyaf remnants remain a serious security concern; and the New People’s Army “took advantage of the situation by intensifying their decades-long rebellion against the government... purposely to seize political power through violent means and supplant the country’s democratic form of government with communist rule.”

The “super-majorities” in the 17th Congress accepted these justifications. But there are opposing views from the people of Mindanao, both Muslims and Christians. Specifically, I note the sentiments of the Marawi residents as publicly expressed by Macabangkit Lanto, lawyer, former congressman, ambassador, and cabinet undersecretary.

“Many residents of Marawi City are lackadaisical toward, if not wary of, the issue of extending martial law in Mindanao, maybe out of despair and hopelessness,” Lanto wrote in a commentary. He added, wryly: “Such an extraordinary presidential power reserved by the Constitution for extreme crisis did not save their city from being flattened into rubble. In fact, it might even have emboldened military planners into carpet-bombing Marawi and unleashing military might. Martial law neither protected their houses from ruin nor accelerated the city’s liberation from the jihadists.”

“The alleged ‘significant violent activities‘ and continuing threat by extremists to security, upon which the military and police base their recommendation to extend martial law,” Lanto pointed out, “are way off the constitutional requirement of persisting rebellion or invasion or when ‘public safety requires it.’ The fact that there is no ACTUAL rebellion and invasion in Mindanao stares us in the face.” But then, he lamented, “cases are often decided, not on legal grounds, but on other factors, not the least of them politics.”

About the NPA’s intensified military actions cited as rationale for the martial-law extension, a Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial called the government tack “misleading” because “the intensification comes as a direct result of the administration’s withdrawal from the GRP-NDFP peace negotiations.” (It was also a response to the martial law imposed in Mindanao and the AFP’s “all-out war” against the NPA). Pointing out that the communist insurgency was not part of the original rationale for the imposition of martial law, the editorial asked, “How can it suddenly become part of the rationale for its extension?”

A cause for graver concern was Duterte’s remarks to reporters on Wednesday that if the NPA further intensified its recruitment and stepped up its attacks against government forces, he would consider declaring martial law nationwide. And mind this: he would leave it to the military and police to say when he would do so.

As regards the ratification of the TRAIN bicameral report by the House plenary, media accounts show that it was rammed through – or railroaded, without voting and with no copies of the report given to the legislators – late at night when there was no longer a quorum, as required by the House rules for such final action.

The presiding officer, Deputy Speaker Raneo Abu, responding to the motion to ratify the report, ignored ACT-Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio’s shouts, “Mr. Speaker, objection! Objection!” as he hastily declared, “Any objection? There is none. The motion is approved!”

That’s how many unpalatable administration legislations have been passed in the House.

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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