WE MUST not lose sight of the central, crucial, fact: 14 persons died and 67 others were wounded in the Davao explosion late Friday night. All of the victims were innocents, out to enjoy the city’s popular night market. In the wake of inevitable speculation and confusion, it is important that we focus on the plight of the victims, and support the city’s immediate and valiant efforts to bury the dead with dignity, ease the pain of the survivors, and pursue justice.
Much still remains to be determined, but initial findings show that a mortar round filled with shrapnel may have been the explosive device behind the blast. This rules out one of the early hypotheses, that an LPG tank had exploded; it also confirms the suspicions of many that the Sept. 2 explosion was an act of terrorism.
If it is true that the Abu Sayyaf bandit group or its allies were in fact responsible for the explosion, then the choice of target was a deliberate challenge to President Duterte. Davao City is the President’s hometown, where he served as mayor for more than two decades, and where his daughter is serving her second term as mayor. It is where the President tries to spend as much time as possible, and where in fact he was spending the weekend.
The Abu Sayyaf gang had at first claimed responsibility, and then later pointed to another, allied, group. These claims need to be verified, but there is no lack of excuse for the terrorists to target Davao. The Armed Forces of the Philippines has deployed several thousand troops to Sulu in a massive offensive against the Abu Sayyaf; it is the largest such operation in over a decade, and while it has not yet cut off the head of the terrorist group, it is succeeding in restricting the group’s scope of operations. It was inevitable that the terrorists would strike outside of their usual territory, at least as an attempt at distraction, or as a strategy to prove that the military offensive had not undermined its capacity to foment terror.
The Philippine National Police, to be sure, has not given up on the possibility that “disgruntled vendors” at the night market were behind the explosion. But the Abu Sayyaf has proven before that it can send its agents into Davao and its environs. Just last year, Abu Sayyaf terrorists kidnapped a party of four in Samal Island, just off Davao City. It is unlikely that government investigators will discard historical and recent proof that the Abu Sayyaf has reached into Davao.
Unfortunately, the decision of the President to declare a “state of lawlessness” in the wake of the Davao explosion has been attended by a lack of coordination on the part of Palace officials. The result has been unnecessary, and unnerving, confusion.
There should be no dispute that it is well within the commander-in-chief powers of the president to call out the Armed Forces to conduct law enforcement operations. This is squarely within the graduated scheme of powers contemplated by Article VII, Section 18. To be sure, the Constitution uses the phrase “lawless violence,” while both President Duterte and his advisers continue to use “lawlessness” to describe the condition that allows the exercise of the calling-out power. But the jurisprudence on this power clearly holds that the actual declaration of such a condition of lawless violence is actually unnecessary; the President can order the Armed Forces to help the police, and that is that.
But the sequence of events last Saturday created confusion rather than the clarity the President needs to rally the country behind him. The scope of the declaration of the state of lawlessness was at first nationwide, then limited to Mindanao, then widened to the entire country again; the defense department was reported to have suggested that the scope be limited to those areas in Sulu and Basilan where the Abu Sayyaf is massed; the current status is nationwide yet again. Various spokespersons for the Duterte administration were also heard from, and they did not speak in one voice. We trust that, from today onward, the administration will clarify the use of the President’s calling-out power by speaking in unison. Too many voices help drown the central, crucial, fact: This is a tragedy, and we must prevent it from happening again. One way to ensure that is to look after the victims and their families, and to pursue justice with the full force of the law.
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