By Inday Espina-Varona and Mark Saludes
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte marked human rights day on Dec. 10 by urging Congress to approve extending martial law for one more year in the southern island of Mindanao.
Thousands of rights advocates protested nationwide, pledging to “thwart dictatorship” and stop a planned overhaul of the constitution that would usher in one-man rule.
Hundreds of clergy, Religious and laity marched with other groups, demanding justice for the recent murders of a Catholic priest, Marcelito Paez, and a Protestant pastor Lovelito Quinones.
“If Duterte thinks we are afraid, he is wrong. We will not be silenced,” said Redemptorist Father Oliver Castor.
“We will carry on fighting against injustices and continue to serve as voices of the poor,” said the priest, the spokesperson of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (RMP), an ecumenical group that works with peasants and indigenous peoples.
Paez, the murdered priest, was a national board member of the RMP.
Protesters called Duterte a “butcher,” citing a bloody crackdown that has killed thousands of suspected drug addicts and dealers and a presidential promise to pardon police for human rights violations.
Martial law opposed
Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, in Mindanao, attacked the move to extend martial law.
“There is no need for martial law,” Ledesma said.
The prelate said the police and military have seen an end to a five-month war in Marawi City between the government and IS-inspired rebels.
Duterte wrote to Congress on Dec. 8 saying the military and police requested the extension, and cited continuing threats from remnants of the IS-inspired group and communist rebels.
He last month called the communists a “terrorist” group and threatened to include their “legal fronts” as targets.
Extending martial law, will “quell completely and put an end to the ongoing rebellion in Mindanao and prevent the same from escalating to other parts of the country,” the president said.
Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao on May 23, the day the Marawi conflict started. His allies in Congress, where he enjoys a supermajority, started sessions on Dec. 11 to look at his extension request.
They have until Dec. 13 to decide before their Christmas break. The existing martial law order expires on Dec 31.
Rights group Karapatan warned that extending martial law would result in a new bloodbath, this time among activists and indigenous tribes. It said 125 political activists have been killed since Duterte took power in 2016.
The last two weeks has seen 12 killings, including the massacre of eight indigenous people in Lake Sebu, South Cotabato.
On Dec. 10, the day before Human Rights Day, gunmen shot dead 24-year old Bernardo Clarion, an activist based in Davao, Duterte’s home city.
“Today, we are once again confronted by the truth that governments do not grant people their rights,” said Cristina Palabay, Karapatan’s secretary-general.
The group has asked the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing Agnes Callamard and special rapporteur on human rights defenders Michel Forst, to launch an investigation into at least 25 political killings.
Duterte, however, threatens to block any international probe into extrajudicial killings under his watch.
Church people as targets
The killing of Fr. Paez and Pastor Quinones sends “a disturbing message” to church people working for the poor and marginalized, said Father Dionito Cabillas of the Philippine Independent Church.
“It seems that they have already started a systematic attack on people and progressive organizations,” said Cabillas.
Philippine Independent Church bishop Carlos Morales is among more than 100 activists arrested under Duterte’s government. He is suspected of collaborating with communist rebels.
“If they could hurt or kill a man of God, then they can just step on someone’s basic civil rights without any remorse,” said the priest.