President Rodrigo Duterte salutes honor guards at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Metro Manila, Philippines, May 24, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

A day after declaring martial law on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, President Rodrigo Duterte issued an ominous message for enforcing it.

“Martial law is martial law ha,” he said. “It will not be any different from what the president, Marcos did. I'd be harsh.”

The president’s action came after two Islamist armed groups attacked the Mindanao city of Marawi, killing three security officers and burning buildings. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that under martial law, the military will have “control of movement, searches and arrest of detained people, suspension of writ of habeas corpus.”

Given the lawlessness of Duterte’s “war on drugs,” in which the police and their agents have been implicated in the cold-blooded killing of more than 7,000 suspected drug dealers and users, military restraint in Mindanao may be wishful thinking.

And for Filipinos who lived through martial law under Ferdinand Marcos, Duterte’s casual reference to the late dictator should be especially alarming. For nearly 10 years, beginning in 1972, Philippine security forces carried out massive arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, and countless extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances for which very few were ever punished. The country’s downward spiral continued after martial law was lifted in 1981 until Marcos was overthrown in the 1986 “People Power” revolution.

Duterte faces one significant obstacle to becoming the next Marcos: the 1987 Philippine Constitution, which places restrictions on the imposition and conduct of martial law. Congress can revoke the martial law proclamation by majority vote and the Supreme Court can rule on the factual basis for its declaration. Martial law can’t be used to suspend the constitution, the courts or the legislature, and military courts can’t try civilians if the civil courts function. Anyone arrested must be charged by a judge within three days or released.

But words on paper are just that. The coming days and weeks will see if the Philippine Congress and courts are up to the task of keeping a wildly abusive president in check. Since Duterte took office nearly a year ago, they haven’t been.