What is Martial Law?

Martial law is associated with a higher police presence.
Martial law is associated with a higher police presence.

Martial law is an imposition of direct military control over what is ordinarily a civilian function of the government. The military is authorized to handle executive, judiciary, and legislative functions which are typically dealt with by a civil government. Martial law is mostly declared in the wake of a disaster or a threat to territorial integrity.


Martial law features the use of military force, and in some cases, government military personnel acquire the authority to draft and enforce criminal and civil laws. Martial law is associated with curfews and the suspension of civil liberties such as freedom of movement and freedom of association. If military law is applied, civilians risk facing the military tribunal if they go against the martial law.

Instances When Martial Law is Used

Martial law is imposed during major natural disasters. Most commonly, martial law is declared by governments to exert its rule over the civilian population. The government of China resorted to the use of martial law to quell the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In 2006, the whole of Thailand came under martial law after a successful coup d'état was staged by the Royal Thai Army. The government may also use martial law to repress political opposition as well as stabilize active or perceived insurrections. Martial law has also been exerted in the middle of conflicts and in instances of occupations where the lack of a civil government renders the population unstable.

Martial Law in the Philippines

The history of martial law in the Philippines began during WWII when it was imposed by President Josè P. Laurel. On September 22, 1972, Martial Law was imposed in the country by President Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos was considered an authoritarian and the law was implemented in a bid to quell social strife. The president also faced the threat of a communist takeover. Before the announcement, a series of bombings had taken place as well as an assassination attempt on Juan Ponce Enrile, the Defense Minister. The Martial Law was initially warmed up to by the people, but it increasingly became associated with human rights abuses. Further economic downturn encouraged dissent in demographics such as the urban middle class. Until the end of martial law in 1981, curfews were imposed, radio and TV stations were suspended, and many people were arrested as political prisoners. More recently, the Maguindanao Province came under a state of Martial Law on December 4, 2009. This action was triggered by the massacre of 58 people by the Ampatuan Clan.

Martial Law in the US

Some court decisions made from the American Civil War to the Second World War limit Martial Law in the US. The Posse Comitatus Act passed by the 1878 Congress prohibits military involvement in matters of domestic law enforcement in the absence of congressional approval. Martial law in the US was first imposed nationally during the Civil War. Since then, several events have necessitated the law’s declaration. For example, in 1871 Chicago’s mayor imposed martial law in the state during the Great Chicago Fire. During the Second World War, the modern-day state of Hawaii was under the state of martial law. The martial law, which lasted from December 7, 1941, to October 24, 1944, was necessitated by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The loyalty of many Hawaiians, who were of Japanese ancestry, were subsequently called into question.


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