Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in an interview posted to his office’s official Facebook page over the weekend that he would not lift Martial Law on the strife-torn southern island of Mindanao until advised to do so by the armed forces.

Duterte imposed military rule over the region on May 23 after Islamist militants seized the city of Marawi, saying the move was necessary to contain the conflict and prevent other armed groups from taking advantage of the situation.

Pitched battle

The fighting erupted after a botched operation by military and police commandos to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a terrorist leader believed to be the “point man” for the Islamic State (IS) in the Philippines and military adviser to the local IS-affiliated Maute Group.

The militants, whose numbers swelled to several hundred after being joined by other local and foreign fighters, seized large parts of the largely-Muslim city of 200,000, taking several dozen civilian hostages. Tens of thousands of civilians fled the fighting for the nearby city of Iligan, although several thousand more remained trapped in Marawi, which has been subjected to daily artillery and air strikes in an effort to dislodge the militants.

Initially expressing confidence that they could trap and destroy the terrorists or drive them out of the city, military officials have become increasingly befuddled by the stubborn resistance. In a daily briefing on July 10, the military reported that more than 450 terrorists, 39 civilians, and 89 military and police personnel have been killed in the siege, which shows no sign of abating despite military claims that the militants have been confined to a small area and reduced to less than 100 fighters.

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Overwhelming support

Duterte, who was forced to cut short a state visit to Russia when fighting broke out in Marawi, potentially courted controversy with his declaration of martial law, a sensitive subject for most Filipinos. The country’s former dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in 1972, using the measure to shut down critical media outlets and imprison thousands of dissidents.

The move by Duterte, however, was met with wide support; in a poll released last week, the colorful, tough-talking former mayor was given a 66 percent public approval rating. The Congress, which under Philippine law has to approve any extension of martial law beyond a 60-day limit (which expires on July 22) is expected to overwhelmingly endorse the measure within the next few days. On July 4, the Supreme Court rejected a challenge to Duterte’s declaration brought by several opposition lawmakers, ruling that it was not inconsistent with constitutional provisions and was “necessary for the country’s survival.”

Tourism, investment threatened

While generally expressing support for government efforts to defeat the terrorists, critics of Duterte’s martial law declaration said that besides the potential for human rights abuses, the measure could have a chilling effect on foreign investment and tourism in the Philippines.

An official from the country’s Board of Investments in a telephone interview downplayed the impact of martial law on foreign investments, saying that there had been no significant changes in activity since the conflict in Marawi erupted.

In the northern Mindanao city of Cagayan de Oro, however, city officials told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that two companies – Cartoon Network and Six Flags – that proposed to build theme parks in the city pulled out in mid-June, seeking other, safer locations in the central or northern parts of the country. The officials estimated the lost economic potential amounted to about 1 billion pesos ($20 million) and 1,000 jobs.

Likewise, an official of the central Philippine city of Cebu, in an interview with the Cebu Daily News, said that tourism would definitely be negatively affected, reporting that tourism businesses in the region had already reported cancellations due to the ongoing unrest.

Officials of the Department of Tourism and Duterte’s office dismissed the threat to tourism, however, saying that the declaration of martial law has actually made the country safer.

As reported by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Assistant Tourism Secretary Ricky Alegre made the comments to local media in response to questions about the Philippines’ poor ranking in the 2017 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index by the World Economic Forum, which rated the country 126 out of 136 nations in terms of safety and security.