The Philippine crisis is reaching another acute stage 45 years after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972. The country barely survived it then. But this time the affliction could very well be terminal.
Today as in 1972, authoritarian rule, whether through another declaration of martial law or the formation of a “revolutionary government,” is being falsely proffered as the solution to imaginary attempts to remove President Rodrigo Duterte from power (even the military has declared that there is no such plot), and even as a means of addressing the country’s many problems.
The claim that authoritarianism is both new and the quickest way to development is as false as it is deliberately misleading. Marcos took that route before, and, by declaring martial law, first of all assured himself in 1972 of remaining in power beyond 1973 when his second four-year term under the 1936 Constitution would end. But martial law was also the means through which he tried to crush the burgeoning movement for the democratization of political power that has always been the key to the achievement of social change and authentic independence. Both would have finally addressed and ended the poverty, inequality and many other afflictions that have haunted this country and its unfortunate people for centuries.
Together with a promise to “save the Republic,” Marcos also vowed to “reform society,” but did neither. By the time he was overthrown, the country had instead so regressed it was heavily indebted, its foreign debt having ballooned from less than a billion US dollars when he assumed the Presidency in 1965 to 30 billion in 1986; 100,000 people had been arrested and detained; thousands had been tortured, murdered and forcibly disappeared; perennial hunger had become the lot of millions more; thousands of the best sons and daughters of the people were dead; and employment opportunities had become so limited the export of Philippine labor had morphed into an undeclared State policy.
Marcos had pushed the country to the very brink of ruin. Despite his claims, authoritarian rule through martial law was not the solution to the problems of Philippine society: it was the very opposite. But it wasn’t only part of the problem. From 1972 to 1986, his dictatorship was the problem.
When the Marcos terror regime was thankfully overthrown by the EDSA civilian-military mutiny in 1986, it was widely thought that together with the restoration of the institutions of liberal democracy — a free press and fair elections, among others — it would also pave the way for the democratization of political power that had been the call in the country’s streets, factories and countryside before martial rule.
Instead, the same political dynasties, including the Marcoses, that had monopolized political power since the Commonwealth period regained control of the government to the exclusion of the young professionals, the liberated women, the awakened workers, the indigenous people and the organized farmers who comprised the core of the anti-dictatorship resistance.
The handful of dynasts that had regained power made sure, together with the remnants of the Marcos kleptocracy, that the demand for the changes that would usher in the making of a just, prosperous and truly democratic society — among them the abolition of the tenancy system, the country’s industrialization and its liberation from its status as a neo-colony — would not prosper.
The political dominance of what has been described as the descendants of the principalia class that collaborated with the Spanish and US colonial regimes and with US imperial interests is both the source and the cause of the Philippine crisis. The consequence of their continuing control of the Philippine state is the underdevelopment of the political, economic and social structures that are responsible for the poverty of millions of Filipinos in both city and countryside, and which fuel the social unrest of centuries.
The poverty, social injustice and mass misery the crisis has spawned have naturally compelled both its victims as well as those other men and women committed to the betterment of their country and people to address its consequences and to propose solutions. These attempts are driven by the same spirit that moved the reformists and revolutionaries of the late 19th century to correct what they saw was a state of things that through hard work and with careful thought, honesty and good faith could be changed for the betterment of all.
But because it would mean putting an end to dynastic rule, the struggle for an alternative state and society has been met with derision and marginalization, and with outright suppression in 1972 as well as during the regimes that followed that of Marcos’. The country’s experience during the last seven decades (1946-2017) should by now have made it obvious except to the willfully blind or intellectually challenged that only the implementation of fundamental political, economic and social reforms can put a stop to the political instability that has made the threat of authoritarianism a perennial concern, and end the conflicts, wars and rebellions that have characterized Philippine history and society for over 300 years.
That is why the Duterte regime’s resumption of peace talks, the conclusion of which was premised on the adoption of the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER) renewed hopes not only for peace, but even more fundamentally, for the achievement of those reforms that would address the causes of the near-perpetual conflicts that have long divided Philippine society.
Unfortunately, both the regime’s termination of the talks and Mr. Duterte’s threat to impose a “revolutionary government” have dashed those hopes to pieces, and brought the Philippine crisis to its most acute stage since 1972.
Having terminated peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), should Mr. Duterte make good his threat to concentrate in himself the unlimited power that he craves and with which he will then savage the Constitution, particularly its provisions on free expression, freedom of assembly and association and those other rights through which free men and women can contribute to the making of a just and prosperous society, the opposite of its announced aims — to address the problems of Philippine society and end the destabilization plots Mr. Duterte claims are directed against him — will happen.
It will instead further destabilize an already volatile political system, in the course of which Mr. Duterte himself can be among its victims. And like martial law in the 1970s and 1980s, the “revolutionary government” Mr. Duterte is thinking of imposing won’t be the solution either. It will instead be the problem, and for who knows how long.
Except in the rarest of instances, authoritarian rule has never led to peace, progress and stability, but to further conflict, retrogression, and political uncertainty. Those in the corporate press and media who have expressed support for a “revolutionary government” on the argument that it hasn’t been tried before are wrong. It has been, but they called it martial law and “constitutional authoritarianism” then. Its consequences — the poverty, the injustice, the violence, the human rights violations and the continuing deterioration of Philippine society — are among the most putrid legacies of one-man rule to a country in perpetual crisis.