No invasion in Mindanao, only rebellion – Esperon

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, December 13) — National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon admitted that there is no actual invasion in Mindanao, but insisted that a rebellion persists there more than a year after Marawi City was declared liberated from the ISIS-inspired Maute group.

Speaking to CNN Philippines' The Source on Thursday, Esperon said an actual invasion is "in the works."

He said there is still rebellion in Mindanao as Islamic terror groups seek to establish a Wilayat or a province there, while communist rebels want to overthrow the government.

The Constitution provides that invasion and rebellion, and where the public safety requires it, are the requirements for martial law to be declared in any part of the Philippines or the whole country.

Opposition lawmakers have questioned the basis for the extension of martial law in Mindanao for the third time, insisting that there is no longer a rebellion in the south.

READ: Escudero to Duterte officials: Give yourselves, not martial law, credit for better Mindanao

But Esperon said martial law is still needed due to the combined forces of local terror groups and the communist New People's Army (NPA) in the region, which they seek to wipe out.

However, he admitted that security forces cannot obliterate the terrorists even with martial law extended for yet another year.

"It's impossible to eliminate all of them. But we want to degrade them to the point when they can no longer launch offensives," Esperon said.

He added that the extension of martial law would prevent another Marawi siege from happening.

"Would you rather that we wait until they again take another Marawi City? They can do that in other areas," he said.

Martial law was first declared in Mindanao in May 2017 at the height of the siege of Marawi City by the Maute group. Congress has thrice granted Duterte's request for an extension, keeping martial rule in the south until the end of 2019.

The 1987 Constitution, crafted after the ouster of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos who imposed a brutal martial rule, put up safeguards on the declaration of martial law, including the requirement for the concurrence of Congress and the option for its factual basis to be reviewed by the Supreme Court.

During the deliberations of the 1986 Constitutional Commission (ConCom) on the present Charter, the phrase "of imminent danger thereof" was deleted from the provision on the declaration of martial law.

"It is such a vague concept which is very difficult to evaluate and, therefore, is open to abuse by the Executive. So following the lead of the Committee on the Executive, our Committee preferred to limit the grounds for the suspension of the privilege to actual invasion and actual rebellion," Father Joaquin Bernas, one of the ConCom members said during the interpellation on the provision.

Nationwide martial law?

Esperon said security forces need martial law to be in place and the writ of habeas corpus, which safeguards against warrantless arrests, to be suspended as they can nab suspected terrorists and keep them in detention for up to three days, unlike when the writ is in effect, where persons can only be detained from 12 to 36 hours without charges.

In a chance interview with CNN Philippines, Esperon said the public has nothing to fear with the continued implementation of martial law in Mindanao, which is the longest imposition of martial rule since the Marcos regime.

"Ang martial law ngayon iba na eh. You cannot close Congress, the courts are operating, local officials are still there, not replaced. Baka 'yung martial law kasing iniisip natin 'yung dati," Esperon said.

[Translation: Martial law today is different. You cannot close Congress, the courts are operating, local officials are still there, not replaces. Maybe the martial law we are thinking about is the martial law before.]

He also said the continued implementation of martial law does not signal that it would soon be declared nationwide, even if NPA rebels exist in other parts of the country.

Esperon explained that martial law is only declared in Mindanao due to the combined forces of the NPA, which he said is the top political threat in the country, and local terror groups.

He said President Rodrigo Duterte can simply use his calling out powers where there are NPA activities.

"Wala naman kasing [There is no] pronounced threat but we have to be extra vigilant," Esperon said.

Article VII, Section 18 of Constitution states that the president can call out the Armed Forces of the Philippines "to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion."

Duterte recently signed Memorandum Order No. 32 sending out police and military personnel in parts of southern Luzon and the Visayas to prevent "lawless violence" from "spreading and escalating elsewhere in the country."