Wherever a military exists, so too can martial law. Martial law refers to the period of time when the military is in place as the top governmental authority of a population. As former Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a man from a country well-acquainted with martial law, so succinctly put it, “Martial law rests on the sanction of force and not on the sanction of law.”
By Derrick Grant, founder of Prepper Press
Over the course of history, martial law has been implemented throughout the world, as the breakdown of civil government, whether due to war, rebellion, or natural disaster, is not limited to any one geographic or ethnic domain. Nor is the desire for power limited to any one person, country, region, or ethnicity. Martial law is a form of acquiring power over a population, and of keeping that population in check.
Martial law takes different forms in different countries, just as traditional governing structures do, but is often marked by a suspension of certain rights, the threat of military justice for civilians, and restricted travel by citizens. Censorship and surveillance under the guise of protecting the citizenry are hallmarks of martial law. In the twentieth century the threat of communism and terrorism were both used by governments to rationalize their use of the military to control the populace. Labor strikes which turn violent, or which present a ruling party with the prospect of organized opposition, have also motivated the implementation of martial law.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries with notoriously volatile or heavily authoritarian governments have implemented martial law over the years. Among these countries are the Philippines, China, Pakistan, Thailand, Taiwan, and Egypt. The Western world is not immune from martial law, however, with the United States and Ireland among the ranks of countries that have declared martial law in the modern era. Even Canada, a country as uncontroversial as you can get, has implemented martial law several times in recent centuries.
Canada and Martial Law
Since World War I, Canada has implemented martial law three times – during World War I, during World War II, and during the October Crisis of 1970. During the October Crisis of 1970 a Canadian government official was kidnapped and murdered and a British diplomat was kidnapped in Quebec. Canadian military forces were sent into Quebec and the police were given wide authority within the province of Quebec, resulting in the arrest of nearly 500 people. Canada also imposed martial law, perhaps somewhat ironically, due to the freedom-seeking Continental Army’s invasion of the Quebec region during the American Revolution.
United States and Martial Law
America’s relationship with martial law is much more sweeping than Canada’s. From the country’s founding through to the twentieth century, the world’s beacon of freedom has at times put the military in a place of power over the civilian authorities and the rule of law. During the Civil War, though Congress did not declare martial law, they did approve many of the tenets which President Lincoln put before them to cancel certain rights, such as the revocation of the requirement of habeas corpus. The Civil War is the most well-known example of an implementation of martial law tenets in the United States, but that era is far from the only time such authoritarian rule has been implemented in the United States.
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During the American Revolution the British imposed martial law on the colonists, primarily in response to the Boston Tea Party. Shortly after the Revolution, under the presidency of George Washington, the military was deployed to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, though there is some argument as to whether this constitutes an implementation of martial law as the civilian authorities still had power – they just could not handle the rebels who had already attacked the home of a tax collector and refused to cooperate with federal officials.
Two decades later, an American region found itself under martial law when General (and future President) Andrew Jackson imposed it in New Orleans during the War of 1812. Under Jackson’s rule, New Orleans remained under martial law even when there was no longer the threat of an invasion, a fact that did not please civilians. Following a decisive victory for American forces, Jackson was unwilling to concede the military’s power for months. He went so far as to have a judge arrested for demanding that the writ of habeas corpus be followed and a senator arrested for writing a newspaper column questioning the continued presence of martial law in New Orleans.
The seemingly placid Midwestern state of Idaho was also the site of a martial law implementation, including the trial of civilians in military court. In 1893 striking mill workers in Coeur d’Alene not only blew up the mill at which they worked, they also shot at any worker who dared try to return to work. After the military was called in, over 600 people were arrested, though just about two dozen were actually tried and sentenced to prison. In later decades, both Colorado and West Virginia were in similar situations when martial law was implemented due to coal workers’ strikes that grew violent. In 1934, a dockworkers’ strike resulted in parts of San Francisco being put under martial law. San Francisco was also under martial law in 1906 following the Great Earthquake, albeit for a brief period.
Though the Posse Comitatus Act, passed in 1878, prevents the U.S. military from taking on the role of law enforcement, the United States is not immune from declarations of martial law, or declarations that skirt near and around martial law. Recently, some in the United States have likened the modern phrase ‘state of emergency’ with martial law, noting that following such natural disasters as Hurricane Katrina certain laws were suspended and the government and military were given powers such as restricting sales of certain items, implementing curfews, and restricting gun ownership.
While the United States and Canada have had their share of temporary martial law experiences, in other parts of the world, martial law has been a more permanent part of people’s lives.
Martial Law and Other Countries
For 38 years the citizens of Taiwan lived under martial law, with the threat of communism within Taiwan used as the rationale for continuing martial law even though the country was supposed to have a democratic constitution following the end of World War II. When martial law was lifted in Taiwan in 1987, it was the longest period of time any nation had been continuously under martial law.
However, Syria surpassed Taiwan for that dubious distinction, with 48 years of martial law not ending until 2011. Syria’s martial law was implemented in 1963 following a military coup in which the Baath Party seized control of the country. For nearly 50 years Syrians were faced with restricted rights, surveillance, baseless interrogations, and government-controlled media.
Egypt comes close to Syria in terms of the continuous time its citizens were under martial law, with the country essentially under martial law from 1967 until 2013. The government renewed the state of emergency doctrine, which put the country under martial law, every three years during that time frame with an exception of the period immediately preceding Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981. The threat of terrorism was consistently used as reasoning for continued martial law in the country. Under Egypt’s martial law people could be jailed for no reason or for any reason, censorship was legal, and civilians could be tried in military court. In 2011, removing this doctrine was a tenet of the protestors’ during the uprising in Egypt, though it lasted for two more years.
Though it pales in comparison to the half-century of Egypt’s martial law, the Philippines were under martial law for the extended period of nine years from 1972-1981. Ferdinand Marcos used the threat of communism as well as recent bombings to convince Filipinos of the need for martial law. However, the honeymoon period for the military authority ended quickly, with Filipinos becoming disillusioned by the regime’s use of torture and suspension of civil rights. This was not the Philippines’ first experience with martial law, as the country had been under martial law for a time during World War II. However, Marcos’ abuse of power would be what civilians in the Philippines remembered and used as the basis for holding future politicians’ feet to the fire when the specter of martial law reared its head, particularly in the case of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the early 2000s. Her efforts were thwarted, and though martial law was implemented in a region of the Philippines, the country as a whole was only put under a state of emergency.
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Though it has not been under continuous martial law throughout its history, Pakistanis have plenty of experience living under military regimes at points in their lives. Following a coup in 1958, martial law has been implemented and retracted on a fairly regular basis in Pakistan, though they also have a history of military rulers such as General Pervez Musharaff who do not rule with martial law.
Like Pakistan, Thailand has seen its share of coup d’etats, and such uncertainty and power grabs makes for an easy environment in which to implement martial law. Thailand has gone through periods of martial law in 2004, 2006, and 2014. Though martial law has ostensibly been lifted in Thailand, but some, including officials at the United States State Department have argued that the security measures put in place upon the announcement that martial law was being lifted may actually be just as bad, if not worse, than martial law. Media groups in Thailand specifically called attention to the measure’s restrictions on free speech, saying in a statement, “Civilians are also at risk, as people who communicates and discusses topics through online social media that contain information viewed by the authorities as threat to national security, cause of public alarm, spreading of false information or public misunderstanding will be punished on the same condition.” The United Nations Human Rights Commissioner also called attention to the regime’s repeal of martial law in name only, calling the new measures “draconian.”
In addition to the countries such as Thailand where martial law has been a continuous or regularly occurring part of life, there are several other countries which have been under martial law sparingly.
Poland is one such country. It has only been under martial law once, from 1981 to 1983, as the government sought to quash its opposition. While it was only under martial law for this two year period, it was a harsh time of military rule during which hundreds of arrests were made and citizens’ daily life and basic rights were greatly restricted. As part of martial law in Poland, members of opposition groups such as Solidarity were jailed, citizens had to adhere to a curfew, and travel was heavily restricted with the airport and roads closed down. Schools were closed, phones were disconnected, and all communication was subject to censorship. While the government said they did not want any bloodshed from this period of martial law, about one hundred deaths are blamed on the implementation of martial law.
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In China, martial law was instituted in Beijing throughout May and June of 1989 in reaction to the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. During their enforcement of martial law, the troops had the authority to use any power necessary for self-defense if they encountered any impediment or delay in carrying out their mission.
Iranians were subject to martial law for a period of about three months in the fall of 1978 when the Shah appointed a military general to be in charge of Tehran. Although the regime was short-lived, it resulted in hundreds of deaths when the military massacred protesters in Tehran.
From the United States to Iran to the Philippines, martial law is a widespread phenomenon in the modern world, with the last two centuries providing many examples of governments over-reaching and military officials overstepping the rights of citizens. Martial law can be declared by any government, at any time. After all, the very basic notion of martial law is that it rejects the rule of law and instead uses force. It behooves people, even in a democratic country, to learn the history of martial law and to understand your rights and the ways they can be subverted – and have been throughout modern history.
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