Looking Back To Those Martial Law Days

22.09.2018 - Manila, Philippines - Karina Lagdameo-Santillan

Looking Back To Those Martial Law Days

September 21, 2018. The Philippines commemorates the 46th anniversary of the proclamation of Martial Law, with rallies and events expressing the hope that we never forget those “dark days” in our history, that we never fall back into clutches of dictatorship, and that we safeguard our hard-won democracy. The Marcos Regime which includes the Martial Law Period spanned 21 long years until a peaceful People Power Revolution ousted Marcos and his family from power, reinstalling democracy with free elections and a new 1987 Constitution, setting the framework for a return to democratic institutions and rule of law.

46 years.  There are generations, post-martial law babies, who never experienced those years. Our history books carry different versions. Different stories abound. Who is to be believed?

So those who grew up during the Martial Law Days fall back on their own personal experiences and memories of those years to make sense of it all.

I vividly remember the start of Martial Law.   It was a Saturday morning. I was a fourth year high student in a private Catholic girl’s school in the heart of Manila. I was active in some of the school’s extra-curricular activities like the Student Catholic Action and as president of the school’s Dramatics Club; I was active in the Metropolitan Teen Theatre League of the Philippines, the youth group of the Philippine Educational Theatre Association.

That morning, I was in school rehearsing for a play for our Drama Club when we heard the news that something major had happened, that we had to cut rehearsals short and go home. My parents had sent the car to pick me up and as I was leaving the grounds, a friend from PETA was at the gate. He told me that Martial Law had been declared by the President and that there would most likely be a crackdown on political and social dissenters.  Since he was active in an underground student leftist organization, he gave me some documents for safekeeping. I nervously stashed them under the seat of the car and headed home.

Sure enough, military checkpoints had sprung up around the city. We were stopped at one point and our car searched (luckily the documents were under the seat which, upon closer look, were not too damming in themselves). This for me was the start of my teen life during the early martial law days.

For us “regular” Filipinos, Martial Law meant a news blackout so we never knew exactly what was happening. Everything was “word of mouth”; nothing could be truly “verified”. There was the famous curfew, no staying out after midnight; hence eerily empty streets at night. Many political activists and oppositionists had fled the country for fear of being arrested (the Executive Director of PETA being one of them). We heard of disappearances (napulot sa kangkungan was a familiar expression; meaning, the body was picked up in the fields) stories of torture and imprisonment were passed around. Members of the Communist Party were being hunted down and a fierce war against its armed force, the New People’s Army was raging across the country. We heard news about troubles in Mindanao where Muslim secessionist groups were waging a war against the government under Marcos.

As a teenager who happened to be born into a middle-class family in Manila, I slowly became aware of the socio-political conditions in Philippine society. I vividly remember my rude awakening to the social inequalities that set the stage for the rise of Leftist Movement, influenced or so they say, supported by the Maoist Communists from China, one of the reasons for declaring Martial Law.  As a member of the Student Catholic Action, we visited the homeless living under the Jones Bridge in Quiapo. And I was simply aghast to see people living there. We began visiting the slums in Tondo to see people living in squalor, with barely enough to eat. In the 60s and 70s, Manila was not yet overrun by squatters. We didn’t normally see urban scavengers or street children. Whatever slums there were, were hidden from sight or were in areas we never passed through. One saw some beggars in the downtown area, notably Quiapo, but middle-class teenagers seldom went there. Face to face with such realities, and questioning why fellow Filipinos lived in poverty while others enjoyed so much more privileges, you can imagine why the youth began to question things and even teeners belonging to affluent families joined the communist movement, going up the hills to join the New People’s Army.

I remember the growing student and social unrest in the streets of Manila before the declaration of Martial law, the first quarter storm was raging. We would be caught in the rallies and demonstrations as our school was in the heart of Manila and witnessed the crackdowns, with policemen firing their guns or bludgeoning demonstrators with their truncheons in an attempt to stop the “unrest”. One other vivid memory I have is that of the Plaza Miranda bombing. That day, I happened to be in Quiapo on my way home from school. People were massing in the Plaza, a popular site for political rallies and gatherings. A miting de avance of the Liberal Party to announce their candidates for elections was set to take place. The square was jam-packed. The narrow streets leading in and out of the square tight with people. The atmosphere tense. Sensing that it would not be good to get caught in a rally with no way to escape if things got out of hand, I worked my way out. Later, I heard about the Plaza Miranda bombing which injured practically all who were present.

Political unrest. Student activism. The growing threat of a Communist takeover. Violence in Mindanao. An alliance between the opposing political party and the Communist Party to overthrow the government, These were the reasons given for Martial Law. But, in the days and years that followed, Marcos used Martial Law to silence all political opposition and to consolidate his power, his and a select band of handpicked people who became known as the Marcos cronies. The politics of patronage was alive and well, except that there was a new oligarchy now in power.

Everyone who lived through the martial law years will tell a different tale, based on their experiences. Martial Law meant and had a different effect on their lives. As a “collegiala” then as a regular student in the University of the Philippines, Martial Law effectively cut off any form of organized social action unless you went underground and the nascent social consciousness that was just beginning to express itself among the youth went into hibernation.  Most everyone focused on their daily lives went their own ways and pursued their own interests. The youth found their outlets elsewhere, expressing themselves through music, theatre, or, they went to the disco. The hippie movement found its way to Manila. So, yes the music and drug scene was alive and well in Manila. Drugs of all kinds could be found, from heroin and cocaine to acid and all kinds of uppers and downers. There were “buy-bust operations” during that time, too. The one good thing was, there were no “Nanlaban kaya pinatay” (Resisted arrest and killed) scenarios. Offenders were hauled to Camp Crame and incarcerated but not necessarily and summarily executed. Friends and connections in high places meant you could easily get out of any jam or scrape you might find yourself in, barring any political or social involvements that displeased or seriously attacked the reins of power.

Most of the intellectuals and oppositionists had either gone on exile abroad or gone underground. Many of the country’s best and brightest were co-opted into the programs of the government, under the President’s vision of a “Bagong Lipunan” (the New Society). Many consider the early years of Martial Law as the Golden Years, pointing to the regime’s achievements like the Rice and Roads program, the many infrastructures built– the Cultural Center of the Philippines, the Heart Center and Lung Center, the rise of a technocracy which was supposed to engineer the country into an industrialized, ergo, prosperous era, the likes not yet seen in Asia. Not to mention Imelda’s lavish support of the Arts and Culture and her inspiring Vision of Manila as the City of Man. There was “peace and order” now in the city, no more demonstrations and rallies, no social unrest except in the countryside and in Mindanao where the government was hard put to quell the New People’s Army and the Muslim secessionists, something which was of course, whitewashed.  And so they say that the Martial Law days were not bad at all.

And yes, for me, looking back, the early days of Martial Law was a fun time of experimentation. It was poetry sessions at Luneta Park, plays at the CCP or Fort Santiago, free concerts at the University grounds and jams at a Mabini folk house. Dabbling in the current form of esoterica or occult, delving into Eastern mysticism was a popular pastime. At one time, kids were either into Ananda Marga movement or joined the Hare Krishna cult. And, arts and crafts aplenty to keep you occupied. Since there were no malls yet to easily buy stuff, you made them yourself. The original ukay-ukay (secondhand) place? Bang Bang Market where you could buy great second-hand stuff for close to nothing.

Then came the later years, when the excesses of the Marcos Regime became too hard to ignore. Notably, the excesses of Imelda Marcos with her shoes, her parties, her gowns, her shopping sprees in New York…There was growing evidence that the politics of patronage favored a few and the promised prosperity never trickled down to the majority. The poor still remained poor, unable to lift themselves out from the quagmire they were born in. By then, talk of Marcos being literally the Sick Man of Asia”, clearly suffering from advanced lupus, and who could very well die sometime soon was emboldening the oppositionists.

By the early nineteen-eighties, I had finished university and was working in a Makati office.  In 1983, oppositionist leader, a former political prisoner and Marcos staunchest adversary, Benigno Aquino who was in exile in the US, returned home. He was gunned down at the airport’s tarmac, a decisive turning point.

After a long “sleep”, Filipinos finally took to the streets to voice their sentiment. Enough is enough. No to the Marcos dictatorship. The parliament of the streets began, with massive rallies almost on a daily basis, noise brigades; “Yellow Rain” confetti pouring out of windows even in streets of business Makati, demanding a step-down and return to democracy. This time, it wasn’t just the organized Left or political oppositionists wanting to take their turn to hold the reins of power. Ordinary people, workers, employees, students came out to express their will, all clamoring for an end to Marcos power and the return of democracy. Once quiet Manila was bubbling over with much discussion and action. A group of us who were involved in the Humanist Movement, plastered the city with posters “Gawing Makatao ang Pilipinas”. (Humanize the Philippines), did street surveys to consult the man on the street, held long-into-the night discussions on possible non-violent ways to effect change, and even launched  The Humanist Party which fielded candidates for the much-desired elections.  The social spirit came alive as could be seen in the passionate involvement in the Snap Elections that Marcos called in a bid to stay in power with ordinary citizens guarding ballot boxes to ensure clean elections. I believe that it was during that time when the concept and desire for Human Rights were finally coming into its own. The opposition party slogan “Maka-diyos, Maka-bayan, Maka-tao” (Pro-God, Pro-country, Pro-people) resonated strongly.   Finally, thousands upon thousands heeded the call to come out to EDSA and the non-violent People Power Revolution happened and Marcos family fled to Hawaii.  As they say, the rest is history.

While Martial Law lasted for 11 years, Marcos was in power for twenty-one long years. People wonder why it took so long for Filipinos to stand up to a dictatorship, allowing one family and its band of cronies to do as they will to a whole country.  Some scholars chalk it up to centuries of colonial rule which left its mark on a people subservient to power and fearful of authority, afraid to rock the boat, willing to patiently live under oppressive conditions. Yes, it took a while for Filipinos to gain the courage to stand up. But stand up they did.

Fast forward to September 21, 2018. On the occasion of the 46th anniversary commemorating Martial Law, we Filipinos find ourselves under what appears to be a government with a strong dictatorial bent. They say more Filipinos have been killed Duterte’s relentless war against drugs to date, than those who were tortured and killed for their socio-political views during the Marcos years. There is Martial Law in Mindanao and a threat that the President could use his powers to declare Martial Law nationwide, this time citing terrorism as the reason. Ousting the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court via an illegal quo warranto instead of the constitutionally mandated impeachment process. Harassing the Commission on Human Rights for investigating human rights abuses. Throwing a senator in jail for investigating deaths in Davao during President Duterte’s as Mayor. Clearly, this administration can’t take opposition and criticism which is part and parcel of a democracy with its checks and balances.  It has used extra-legal means to silence its critics and has attacked human rights advocates. More worrying is that the Marcoses are back in power, with the President clearly favoring son. Bong Bong Marcos, who ran for Vice President but narrowly lost to Liberal Party Leni Robredo (a recount is ongoing) in the last election. Imee Marcos is Governor of her home province, Ilocos Norte. Imelda Marcos, a Congresswoman. A tactical alliance between Duterte and the Marcoses became clearly evident when the body of the late dictator was finally allowed by to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Park), not to mention the President’s numerous public remarks to his followers saying that, if he ever gets ousted, he preferred Bong Bong Marcos to be the next President. Imee Marcos is spearheading A Move on from Martial Law campaign, claiming that is time for Filipinos to move on from the abuses, murders, and massacres  during her father’s dictatorship, saying the millennials have moved on. On the other side, victims of Martial Law and other human rights groups are making a call for justice, not Amnesia. 

Once again it is the civil society groups, the organized workers’ organizations, the Catholic Church, Left-leaning organizations and the political opposition who are still the most vocal, raising their voices to remind us that tyranny and dictatorship does not bring anything good in the end. The myth that we need a strongman at the helm for our country to prosper is slowly being shattered as inflation rises and high prices of food, transportation and essentials eat into the ordinary household’s already tight budget, where even rice, our staple food, is in short supply and needs to be imported.

The question is: will ordinary people, the regular Filipino on the street, stand up and express their political will. Under this highly populist administration, a demonstration of popular will and its vigorous expression for people’s rights and just dues can exert pressure to stem the tide towards “strong-arm” politics.

The question is: When will the Filipino stand up?

Categories: Asia, Human Rights, Politics
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