Philippines' Duterte reignites martial law fears

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte

MANILA - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte warned Thursday he may impose martial law and suspend elections for tens of thousands of local posts, fuelling concerns about democracy under his rule.

Duterte said he was considering both measures as part of his controversial campaign to eradicate illegal drugs in society, and that martial law would also solve a range of other security threats.

"If I declare martial law, I will finish all the problems, not just drugs," Duterte told reporters in a pre-dawn briefing after returning from neighbouring Thailand, which is under military rule.

Duterte said that, as part of martial law, he may create military courts to hear cases against terrorists.

"I will allow the military to try you and put you to death by hanging," he said, referring to Islamic militants in the south of the country.

Since easily winning presidential elections last year and taking office nine months ago, Duterte has given conflicting statements on whether he intended to impose military rule.

The issue is highly sensitive in the Philippines, which is still trying to build a strong democracy three decades after a famous "People Power" revolution ended Ferdinand Marcos's dictatorship.

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Duterte also said Thursday he was planning to appoint leaders of more than 42,000 districts, known as barangays, across the nation instead of having them elected in polls that were scheduled for October.

"We are looking for a way to just appoint the barangay captains," Duterte said, adding this was necessary because so many of them were involved in drug trafficking.

"Narco-politics has entered the mainstream of Philippine politics," Duterte said.

The elections, which by law should be held every three years, are important to the Philippines' democracy because the barangays are the smallest government unit responsible for services such as health clinics.

Duterte won the presidential elections after running a law-and-order focused campaign in which he promised to eradicate drugs in society by killing tens of thousands of criminals.

Police have reported killing nearly 2,600 people in his drug war while rights groups say thousands more have been killed in a state-sanctioned campaign of mass murder.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned Duterte may be guilty of a crime against humanity.

Opponents have said they are planning to file a case against Duterte with the International Criminal Court, and a lawmaker last week filed an impeachment complaint against him in Congress.

Duterte is extremely popular with many Filipinos and has a commanding majority in Congress, meaning the impeachment case is unlikely to prosper.

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