Martial Law in the Philippines: An Enduring Horror Story

Martial Law in the Philippines: An Enduring Horror Story
Photo Credit: Reuters/達誌影像

What you need to know

Decades have passed since Ferdinand Marcos' Martial Law, but the much of the Philippines still lives in terror.

With today marking the 44th anniversary of Ferdinand Marocs regime’s declaration of Martial Law, social media has been buzzing, with TV and radio stations blaring out the kind of hate speech and enforced ignorance my mother talked about when I was little. It feels strange and unsettling to hear about the Marcos regime as “golden years” of old. Where did they get that idea? I had never heard anything other than the worst of the Martial Law in the Philippines. How is authoritarianism anything other than oppressive?

This is getting out of hand. Pro-Marcos demonstrators are attacking Martial Law victims, Marcos’ son, a staunch apologist for the regime, was nearly elected to the vice-presidency, a number of youths are yearning for a glorious throwback to an age of discipline and an administration is pushing for a hero’s burial of a dictator. At the moment, the country exists with parallel histories at odds with each other.

The reality of this dumbfounding fervor is almost as scary as the recollection of the days leading up to Martial Law, a period when the nation woke up to radio silence, the number of people on the streets dwindled, universities mysteriously shut down, people snatched from their homes in the dead of night and battalions of armed men pierced through once busy districts. Questions were cast aside when eventually, a presidential appearance on television declared Sept. 21, 1972 as the official beginning of the nearly 14-year Presidential Proclamation 1081, Martial Law.

Starting then, curfews were enforced, all media content was screened by the state, all opposition organizations criminalized, student councils and publications were shut down, anyone critical of the government was rounded up and tossed in jail, warrantless arrests became a norm and the slightest violation of any regulation could merit the harshest of punishments from the authorities. Absolute power in the hands of one man who had an entire bureaucracy and military force bending to his will.

At the time of the declaration, Marcos was near the end of his second term and had become widely unpopular. There was growing repression of political opponents, rampant corruption, and a surge in the prices of basic necessities. Protests had also reached unprecedented numbers and militancy in the two years prior.

I distinctly remember being put to bed as a child after my mother told me a few stories about Martial Law. She flat out told me about the torture she experienced, the most painful probably seeing her husband beaten repeatedly in front of her. He was eventually murdered by the military along with many of her friends and comrades in the progressive movement. Not the most child-friendly tale to hear before sleeping, but she rarely dwelt in those kinds of things.

From a very early age, the history of terror wrought upon the country by the Marcos government became apparent and admittedly fascinating to me. It was a horror story meant to keep me in check, so that I would become vividly aware of its discontents while mindful of any sort of return.

Historical revisionism

Lucky for me, I had the privilege of an upbringing that discussed the experience under the dictatorship at length. However for most Filipinos, young people especially, the country’s history education has left them with a skewed notion of Marcos.

Much of this stems from textbooks and history classes blatantly glossing over the atrocities committed. Instead, it prefers to elaborate on repressive state measures as triumphs on peace and order. They also mention how land reform and key infrastructure projects, like the trains, pushed the Philippines toward unprecedented progress.

Some reports have noted how teachers born after the 1986 People Power/EDSA uprising, a series of demonstrations that toppled Marcos, reduced the massive number of human rights violations to hearsay. Just last week, the official gazette of the Philippine government published a photo of Marcos online commemorating his birth. The caption read, “Marcos was the first post-independence president to be re-elected in 1969. In 1972, he declared martial law to suppress a communist insurgency and secessionism in Mindanao. In 1986, Marcos stepped down from the presidency to avoid bloodshed during the uprising that came to be known as ‘people power.’”

The widely circulated photo further enshrined Marcos as a growing symbol for national unity in a turbulent country of radical movements and uprisings.

In truth, the conditions for these movements to thrive were put into place by the systematic breakdown of the economy and political stability even before Martial Law. The Marcos years saw record highs in poverty incidence and social inequalities with 42 percent living below the poverty threshold. Meanwhile, foreign direct investments ballooned by 3,246 percent. This contributed largely to the dismantling of local industries. Consequently the country’s debt incurred at this time soared from US$122.8 million US$3 billion, 70 percent of which is owed to the U.S. and will be paid by taxpayers until 2025, according to local think tank Ibon Foundation.

A look into the country’s human rights record shows a more palpable image of the savagery. While there are many undocumented cases, Amnesty International noted around 3,240 summary executions, more than a thousand enforced disappearances, 34,000 victims of torture and 70,000 arrested individuals during Martial Law.

Convenient amnesia

It comes as no surprise that nationalist and progressive movements spread like wildfire as a response to the abuses. Marcos responded as well citing the “communist threat” as the main justification for imposing military rule.

It can be argued that this spurned both the people and the revolutionary movement into greater action when faced with an outright tyrant. Many members and former members of the revolutionary armed movements of the Communist Party, and the New People’s Army frequently comment on how the advent of the dictatorship was ironically their biggest contributor of new recruits.

Activists went underground or flocked to the far flung areas of the countryside to organize and build the rebel army to liberate the country from the regime and its American backers. Ordinary people from students and priests to workers and peasants risked their lives to end an autocratic establishment.

Why then are so many intent on slipping through the cracks of history to return Marcos to a place of reverence; albeit an imagined one? And in doing so, negating the sacrifices of countless Filipino martyrs? Does this mean they were the villains or monsters of this horror story? Were the associations of people simply aiming to destabilize an otherwise straightforward path to 21st century development?

The myth that an iron fist was needed to prevent the country from plunging into deeper disarray has gained considerable popularity. Part of the reason may be for the state to paint people’s movements in a bad light or at least an irrelevant one.

A lasting theme of the conventional interpretation of Philippine history has been to downplay the importance of organized social forces. Generally speaking, that people themselves make history happen or that indiscipline toward an oppressive status quo is actually a good thing.

The collective amnesia did not happen overnight or by chance. There is a direct state responsibility to recognize and make measures to ensure the people understand the atrocities. While the state has made efforts to underscore the Martial Law’s place in our collective memories through resolutions and court decisions, mis-education has dealt a more decisive blow.

Its victims are generations of misinformed youths, and a number of legitimate people’s organizations are still fighting for genuine reforms. The public is left desensitized to persistent attacks on communities and activists under post-Marcos presidents.

Never again

Old wounds cannot be healed like this. Billions of ill-gotten wealth remains in the hands of the Marcos family while a majority of Martial Law victims have yet to receive any form of compensation or recognition.

These wounds have been continuously pried open with impunity. In the last few months we witnessed the jarring images from the extra-judicial killings of indigenous leaders from Lumad tribes, the massacres of peasants in Kidapawan and Fort Magsaysay along with the fast growing deaths related to the current anti-drug campaign. State terror is alive and well.

Decades later and we are still under attack. Sept. 21 has taken on a whole new meaning. It serves as a reminder that no matter how painful or frightening, we all need face the current crop of injustices. The horrors of the past and present evoke a new story that ends with a nation screaming “Never Forget, Never Again.”

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole