Philippine lawmakers started a debate on Wednesday into President Rodrigo Duterte’s plan to extend martial law for the whole of next year on the island of Mindanao, a move his government said was crucial to defeating Islamist and Communist rebels.
Duterte argues emergency powers are needed because pro-Islamic State militants were regrouping and preparing for a new wave of attacks in retaliation for the military ending their five-month occupation of Marawi City in October.
That conflict was the biggest security crisis in decades and killed more than 1,100 people, mostly militants, and forced more than 200,000 residents to flee Marawi, the heart of which was flattened by shelling and air strikes.
The government is concerned the mountainous and jungle-clad Mindanao, a region the size of South Korea and home to the country’s Muslim minority, could become a magnet for international extremists.
“The reports are they are actively recruiting again,” Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told a joint session of Congress.
“What we are seeing actually is the rebellion has not stopped, it has moved to another place.”
Though Duterte enjoys massive public support, his plan to extend martial law and frequent threats to expand it elsewhere is contentious in a country that suffered nine years of oppression under the rule of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s.
Marcos was accused of inventing security threats to justify tightening his grip on power and crushing detractors. Duterte has frequently praised the leadership of Marcos, and his critics say he has a fascination with authoritarianism.
One by one, a succession of minority lawmakers argued a one year extension was unconstitutional because no rebellion was actually taking place in Mindanao, and the government was only citing threats.
The constitution allows martial law to be declared initially for 60 days in the event of rebellion. It does not limit extensions.
Opposition Senator Franklin Drilon suggested Duterte’s move was a prelude to declaring martial law nationwide. Senator Risa Hontiveros called it a “last and drastic resort”.
Duterte’s executive secretary, Salvador Medialdea, said the government had no intention to maintain martial law indefinitely.
“We do not ask for an unlimited martial law, what we are seeking is an unlimited peace,” he said, adding that unrest was “ready to explode anew at any given time”.
Critics also questioned why a communist insurgency omitted from Duterte’s initial request on Monday was two days later cited as a reason for extending martial law. Congress was due to vote on the proposal later on Wednesday.
Duterte’s request also said a little-known operative, Abu Turaifie was active in Mindanao and is “said to be” the potential point man of for Islamic State in Southeast Asia.