By Luis Liwanag and Froilan Gallardo
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to impose martial law to quell communist rebels he accused of harassing troops escorting aid and food deliveries for residents under coronavirus quarantine, as he extended a pandemic lockdown in Manila and nearby cities until May 15.
In a late Thursday meeting of a top-level inter-agency task force on COVID-19, Duterte agreed to extend an “enhanced community quarantine” in high-risk areas. Portions of the meeting were broadcast Friday morning.
“I am now warning everybody and putting the police and the AFP on notice, I might declare martial law and there will be no turning back,” Duterte said, referring to the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The current lockdown covers the entire island of Luzon, home to about 60 million people, about half of the nation’s population. The quarantine was supposed to end by April 30, but would now be extended until May 15 to contain coronavirus infections, he said.
Duterte said he has a standing order for security forces during his presidency to “kill all” members of the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and its “legal fronts” that he said were also extorting money from businessmen.
“You better hide,” Duterte said, referring to communist rebels.
The president accused guerrillas of attacking aid deliveries, but did not mention a specific incident. However, earlier this week, the military said an NPA unit attacked government forces who were distributing cash aid in the northern province of Aurora, killing two soldiers.
In a statement sent to BenarNews on Friday, the NPA denied Duterte’s allegation about the guerrilla attack, describing it as an “outrageous lie” to “pass the blame for his own massive failure in responding to the COVID-19 crisis and to justify his further use of authoritarian power.”
“The people should condemn Duterte’s recent threat of declaring martial law,” it said. “The regime’s negligent, ineffective and tyrannical ways in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic have brought Duterte deeper in political quagmire.”
The Philippine communists have been waging one of Asia’s longest running insurgencies, which began in 1969. Thousands of civilians and fighters from both sides have died in the fighting.
Duterte, a self-described leftist, previously suspended peace talks with the NPA’s political wing, after accusing the guerrillas of launching attacks despite the negotiations.
Killing is an oft-repeated refrain by Duterte and a bedrock of his anti-crime efforts. About 6,000 suspected dealers and drug addicts have been killed since he took office in 2016, according to government figures while activists and rights groups claim the number could be much higher.
Earlier this month, Duterte said police can “shoot to kill” anyone who fought back or insisted on crossing checkpoints. His statement was touched off by an impromptu rally staged by residents of an urban poor community that had not received promised aid by the government. Twenty-one were arrested, but subsequently released on bail.
“The COVID-19 will not end. It will be here and it will stay until kingdom come,” the president said in his rambling address, adding that the Philippines would be lucky to be among those picked for an early vaccine trial should scientists find an immediate cure.
On Friday, the Philippines reported 211 new coronavirus infections, bringing its cumulative cases to 7,192. Fifteen new fatalities were also added, taking the nation’s death toll to 477.
Globally, more than 2.7 million people have been infected with the death toll topping 193,000 as of Friday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
World Bank, ADB offer additional aid
Meanwhile, multilateral lending agencies the World Bank and the Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced new loans to the Philippines to help the government sustain its COVID-19 response.
The loans would go to cash subsidies to some 18 million poor households, as well as help boost the Southeast Asian nation’s health-care system.
“The assistance is our largest budget support loan to the Philippines ever and reflects our strong commitment to providing cornerstone assistance swiftly and effectively to help the country mitigate the pandemic’s devastating impact on Filipinos, particularly the poor and vulnerable, including women,” ADB president Masatsugu Asakawa said in a statement Friday.
“Amid a global pandemic, the most vulnerable are developing countries, especially those with densely populated cities such as the Philippines,” he said of his agency’s U.S. $1.5 billion loan to the Philippines.
A day earlier, the World Bank announced a $100 million loan to fund the country’s “urgent healthcare needs in the wake of the pandemic.” The money would go to the health department’s crisis response efforts, it said.