MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine defense secretary said Friday that President Rodrigo Duterte has considered the possibility of placing the entire country under martial rule over fears of planned left-wing protests getting out of control, but he added the prospect of such a declaration is "very remote."
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Duterte has thought of expanding a martial law declaration in the south to cover the entire Philippines due to fears the planned protests could spiral out of hand and threaten the government and public safety.
Lorenzana, however, belittled the capability of left-wing activists to stage massive protests nationwide. One is planned for Thursday next week to mark the anniversary of the 1972 martial law declaration by late dictator Ferdinand Marcos that had been associated with massive human rights violations and muzzling of civil liberties.
Asked about the prospects of such a declaration, Lorenzana quoted Duterte as saying recently, "'If the left will try to have a massive protest, they'll ignite fires in the street, they will disrupt the country, then I might.'"
Lorenzana, however, told a televised news conference the prospect of a martial law declaration is "very remote," adding the military and local governments nationwide have not monitored any planned massive protests by anti-government groups. "We do not have those indications in our reports," Lorenzana said.
Left-wing protests in Manila and elsewhere in recent years have nowhere been near the size of the mammoth "people power" street protests that ousted Marcos in 1986 and President Joseph Estrada in 2001. A left-wing alliance, Bayan, said Duterte may be trying to spark fears to discourage people from joining its protest.
"The mass actions for the 45th anniversary of martial law are more than justified given our current worsening human rights situation and drift toward dictatorship," Bayan leader Renato Reyes said. "We do not anticipate any untoward incidents emanating from protesters."
Hundreds of activists and Muslim tribesmen opposed to Duterte's martial law declaration in the south scuffled Friday with riot police who blocked them from marching near the U.S. Embassy. Police made no arrests and the demonstrators peacefully backed away after two hours.
Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao in May to deal with a deadly siege by Islamic State group-aligned militants in southern Marawi city and help prevent similar uprisings elsewhere in the country's volatile south. The United States and Australia have deployed surveillance planes to help Filipino troops battling militants in Marawi.
At least 860 people, including more than 600 militants, have been killed in Marawi, a mosque-dotted center of Islamic faith in the largely Roman Catholic nation's south. Marawi's central business and residential districts now resemble a smoldering wasteland of destroyed buildings and debris.
A final military assault, backed by airstrikes, was underway to eliminate the remaining few dozen gunmen still fighting from houses and small buildings near Lake Lanao, according to the military.
Duterte has faced growing criticism and protests over his deadly crackdown against illegal drugs, which has left thousands of people dead, as well as martial law in the south and the Marawi offensive.
His decision to allow the burial of long-dead Marcos in the Heroes' Cemetery last November has also shocked democracy and rights advocates and set off protests.