DAVAO, Philippines — Soon after Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law on Mindanao, soldiers parked a large tank in front of city hall in Davao, the Philippine president’s home town and the largest city on the island. It immediately became an attraction, and locals now flock to the symbol of a new, more muscular approach to the country’s problems.
All day long, residents smile and pose for selfies in front of the tank. Some ask to take photos with the military men on duty, who happily oblige. Others stretch out their arms and clench one hand into a fist, a symbol of support for the president. They laugh, and instead of saying “Cheese,” they chant, “One, two, three — Duterte!”
“We think this is great. I like the security martial law offers. Good civilians will be protected as long as we follow the rules,” said Charyien Intong, who works at a local medical clinic.
Behind her, a vendor sold ice cream to children, who chased each other around the tank.
“Martial law is what’s needed. Otherwise we’re in danger,” said Reynold Genoves, a local student. “Duterte is a good man. More importantly, he’s a strong man.”
All around Davao, the heart of Dutertismo, residents gush about martial law. Not everyone is clear about what it means or why it’s needed here. Davao is several hours away from where the military is fighting extremists linked to the Islamic State, which is what prompted the introduction of martial law, but the president’s declaration has electrified supporters of his new, aggressive approach.
“The previous presidents could never keep us safe or fight terrorism,” said Intong.
The officials in charge of implementing the policy say it has energized operations and means that they have to spend less time on civil procedures and on listening to their critics.
“Martial law has given teeth to the objectives of the military and the police by emboldening them,” said retired army Maj. Gen. Benito de Leon, head of the Public Safety and Security Command Center in Davao. Now, he said, they can feel “protected from any harassment from cause-oriented groups, like human rights groups.”
De Leon, and other officials here, noted that the 1987 constitution imposes limits on martial law that should make a reprise of the Ferdinand Marcos era impossible. In 1972, Marcos responded to a communist threat by imposing military rule, then ran the country until he was deposed in 1986. The Philippine government is now compensating thousands of victims of human rights abuses suffered during that period, and tens of thousands more have lodged claims.
“We abide by international humanitarian law. I can expect my people to always abide by that law,” said Alexander Camilon Tagum, senior police superintendent in Davao, sitting in his office surrounded by his samurai sword collection. “You won’t hear about any abuses.”
The government has been unclear whether martial law will be used only in relation to the fight against the Islamist insurgents or be used explicitly to fight drugs, street crime and the ongoing communist rebellion, as well as to further all the other goals of the security state. Duterte has attempted to link the Islamist rebels to drug money, which would give him more leeway to maneuver if he succeeds.
“Martial law is a power that is provided to any president,” said Mags Maglana, of a group called Konsensya Dabaw (Conscience Davao), which was originally organized to protest Duterte’s decision to give Marcos a hero’s burial. “But we’re not exactly sure what [Duterte’s] agenda is. We question why all of Mindanao is covered. It seems overkill.”
Duterte is overwhelmingly popular in Davao. First elected mayor in the 1980s, he pursued the sort of rough justice against drug dealers and communist insurgents — with the “Davao Death Squad” famously operating alongside his government — that he has now taken nationwide with a “war on drugs” that has claimed thousands of lives. Residents say the city is safer thanks to his years in office.
The mayor today is Sara Duterte, his daughter, who has launched an “Iron City” program that includes 900 new auxiliary police officers.
Tagum, the police superintendent, said that operationally, martial law means that officers are allowed to perform full searches at checkpoints and make arrests without civil warrants if justified by intelligence.
“It’s primarily about fighting the terrorists,” said Brig. Gen. Gilbert I. Gapay, a deputy regional military commander. “But there is a free-rider effect. When you enhance checkpoints, you also contribute to enhancing anti-criminal activities.”
He acknowledged that some soldiers hate martial law, since it means they lose their rest time and are given new responsibilities.
“We are trained differently,” he said. “We’re not trained for law enforcement. We’ve operated together with [the police] for a long time, but being in the lead is a different thing.”
At a news conference in Davao the same day Duterte was visiting the city, Gapay asked local journalists if they felt uncomfortable under martial law.
“No, sir. We feel secure!” answered one smiling young reporter.