MANILA // Citing the threat of rebellion and a breakdown in law and order, the Philippine president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, yesterday declared martial law in the southern province of Maguindanao, where 57 people, including 30 journalists, were killed in a bloody massacre. Hours before the declaration was read on national television, hundred of troops supported by light armoured vehicles fanned out across the province securing local government buildings, including the provincial government offices in the capital, Shariff Aguak, and making arrests.
Among the first arrested was the powerful warlord governor of the province, Andal Ampatuan; his son, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) governor, Zaldy Ampatuan; the ARMM vice-governor Akmad Ampatuan; Shariff Aguak mayor Anwar Ampatuan, and Cahoner Ampatuan a local politician. A total of six Ampatuans have been arrested, including another son of the governor, Andal Ampatuan Jr, who has been charged with 25 counts of murder following the massacre of his political rival's convoy.
The Ampatuan clan is one of the most powerful and feared in the southern Philippines with close political ties to Mrs Arroyo but those ties have frayed since the November killings when members of the Mangudadtau clan were stopped at a security checkpoint near the provincial capital and taken to a remote hillside and murdered. Under the provisions of the martial law declaration, the military has unquestioned authority to arrest and detain anyone suspected of having been involved in the killings without having to first secure an arrest warrant. One of the problems the government has had since the massacre was finding a local judge willing to sign warrants, especially against the Ampatuan clan, which has ruled the province for a decade.
This is the first time martial law has been declared anywhere in the country since the former president Ferdinand Marcos imposed it in 1972. It was lifted in 1981. The military chief of staff, General Victor Ibrado, told a media briefing he had received reports that private armed groups had been massing all over Maguindanao, though did not provide any evidence. The house speaker Prospero Nograles gave his full support for the declaration, while the former president Fidel Ramos described it as "unnecessary".
Senators Francis Escudero, Francis Pangilinan, and Benigno Aquino, who is running for president in next year's elections, were unanimous in saying the situation in Maguindanao did not merit the imposition of martial rule because there has been no invasion or outright rebellion in the area. "These are not obviously present in Maguindanao," Mr Escudero said in a statement. "The current state of emergency would have sufficed to address the clamour for justice for the massacre victims and restore the rule of law in the province."
Mr Pangilinan said Mrs Arroyo should immediately take back the declaration because all the key personalities linked to the November 23 killings are already in police custody. "The rule of law must prevail, constitutional processes must prevail. The courts cannot be abolished there or elsewhere. The president of the Philippines remains accountable not only to the Congress of the Philippines, but to the people of the Philippines for taking this extraordinary course," Mr Aquino said in a statement.
The executive secretary, Eduardo Ermita, read the proclamation at 7am local time on national television. Under the martial law declaration the writ of habeas corpus has been suspended for the next 60 days. The proclamation does not cover officially recognised Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) camps in the province. Peace talks between the MILF and the government are due to begin later this month in an attempt to end a bloody 30-year separatist rebellion.
The declaration, however, did not specify whether it covered both declared and undeclared MILF camps. Security sources said both clans - the Mangudadatu's and Ampatuans have been hiding weapons inside MILF friendly camps since the massacres. Maguindanao Congressman Didagen Dilangalen, interviewed on ANC television, said the "case of rebellion has not been proven". Adding: "it's ironic that martial law does not apply in areas of the MILF where rebellion exists".
Since peace talks between the MILF and government broke down in August 2008 a number of commanders have broken away and are running their own race. The Ampatuans gave the military support in hunting the rebels down and they were rewarded with military aid to keep up the fight. Mr Dilangalen warned that there was a "grand scenario" behind the martial law declaration but when pushed did not elaborate.
An extra 2,000 troops are reported to have moved into the province taking the number to 6,000. Before the massacre about 2,000 troops were stationed there. The commander of the military's Eastern Mindanao Command, Lt Gen Raymundo Ferrer, said during a press conference that he had been ordered to take charge of the province - one of the poorest in the Philippines - until the government can appoint a new set of local officials.
Over the last two days police and military have uncovered large caches of weapons and ammunition - much of it apparently earmarked for the military. Yesterday security forces raided a warehouse in Shariff Aguak and uncovered a stockpile of weapons, two armoured cars, three police patrol cars and 60,000 rounds of ammunition, all allegedly owned by the Ampatuans. Police and military expect to arrest more than 100, mostly members of private armies allegedly loyal to the Ampatuans, who participated in the massacre.