Ferdinand Marcos declaring martial law on September 23, 1972 (Presidential Museum and Library)
Ferdinand Marcos declaring martial law on September 23, 1972 (Presidential Museum and Library)

The Philippine government marked the 43rd anniversary of the declaration of martial law with the usual mantras about the need for everyone to see to it that “never again” will there be authoritarian rule in this country.

Speaking for President Benigno Aquino III, Presidential Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma, who was himself a political prisoner during the period, described martial rule—which Ferdinand Marcos imposed throughout the country in 1972 through Presidential Proclamation 1081—as “one of the darkest chapters in the country’s history.”

Implicit in this and other statements is the assumption that martial law is a thing of the past, and that what obtains in the country is democratic rule.

By urging citizens to “impart to the youth the lessons learned from martial rule and the struggle to restore democracy as our legacy to future generations,” he acknowledged that many young men and women today are unfamiliar with what martial law was, which is true enough. But Coloma also argued that “The people’s struggle against martial rule served as the foundation for rebuilding democracy in the Philippines…”

The more accurate word is “restoring” rather than “rebuilding.” As flawed as it was, the pre-martial law political order of limited democracy was restored by the administration of President Corazon Aquino under the watchful eyes and pressure of the political and military elite, among whom were some of the very same people who had made martial law possible and who had served Marcos for over a decade. Reinventing themselves from Marcos collaborators into instant democrats during the EDSA mutiny of 1986, they assured their own survival and that of the political system that had made martial rule inevitable.

The involvement of these and other non-democratic forces in post-martial law governance, and their command over police and military allegiance, had several consequences. It prevented a systematic, rational assessment of the martial law period as the logical consequence of an exclusionary political system dominated by a handful of families, and instead made it appear that the Marcos dictatorship was a fluke—an aberration that only the greed and lust for power of one man had made possible.

By ignoring the institutional bases of authoritarian rule, the first Aquino administration and those that followed it also made the reform of the military and police—whose guns had kept the regime in power for over 14 years—irrelevant and unnecessary. Ignored was the need for police and military accountability, not only by identifying and punishing those elements in these organizations who were guilty of the torture, the killings, involuntary disappearances and other atrocities committed against thousands of men and women, but also the imperative of uprooting the culture of entitlement and impunity that until today emboldens violators of citizen rights.

That culture was created by the transformation of the police and military into the necessary partners of the Marcos kleptocracy during the years of dictatorship. Hence the continuing threat of a repeat of authoritarian rule through a conspiracy of right-wing cliques supported by the police and the military—a threat that in every administration including the present has often been made to compel officials and even Presidents to adopt their preferred policies.

During the current administration, military resistance has prevented the disbandment of the paramilitaries that have been identified as responsible for the killing of journalists, environmentalists, human rights defenders, reformist politicians, judges and lawyers, and other individuals.

The military includes journalists in Orders of Battle to encourage their “neutralization.” They have named media organizations among the “enemies of the State.” The police disperse with truncheons and water cannon demonstrations and rallies led by groups that do not have the same command over bloc votes as certain religious sects.

Military units occupy hinterland schools and arrest, torture and eliminate teachers and community leaders with the help of so-called Civilian Volunteer Organizations for daring to educate children the State is unable to provide teachers and facilities for. With the benefit of their “advice,” their patrons in Congress have successfully prevented the passage of a Freedom of Information law, while approving posthaste the Cybercrime Prevention Act. They have also labeled as “leftists” and “communists” journalists who dare tell the truth about the virtual martial law conditions and the human rights violations in communities identified for “development” by the military because they’re said to be “rebel-infested.”

As in the Marcos period, counter-insurgency continues as the principal justification for training, arming and funding the paramilitaries that have been implicated in such atrocities as the November 23, 2009 Ampatuan Massacre.

Apparently because of police and military pressure, the Aquino government’s response to these horrors, including the killing of 50 journalists and media workers since 2010 (among whom 29 were killed for their work as journalists) has been to simply do nothing or too little; to minimize the number of journalists killed and the seriousness of the problem; and to ignore calls from international and domestic human rights groups to dismantle the paramilitary groups.

Is the reason for his inaction on human rights issues due to Mr. Aquino’s fear of the police and the military? Is he unwilling to risk their withdrawal of support but ready to sacrifice not only the rights of the people but also his own autonomy for the sake of remaining in office during the last five years and in the next eight months?

One of Mr. Aquino’s most recent acts suggests the answer. Two weeks ago he provoked speculations that the official version that elements of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force (PNP-SAF) killed alleged Malaysian terrorist “Marwan” was not consistent with the evidence. But he abruptly dismissed his own claims about an “alternative (sic) truth” after police sources demanded that he believe the PNP version rather than the MILF’s.

The country is not officially under martial rule. Mr. Aquino has not issued his version of Marcos’ Presidential Proclamation 1081. The courts, for all their slow–as-molasses performance of their duties, are functioning. No civilian may be tried by a military tribunal. Congress has not been dismantled. A Constitution is in place. But extra-judicial killings and human rights violations continue, and many communities are nevertheless experiencing the same repression that prevailed during the Marcos dictatorship, even as journalists continue to be killed with impunity, in some cases with the encouragement of the police and military.

Despite his campaign pledge to protect human rights, has the current President of the Philippines not taken the steps necessary to do so because he doesn’t really care? Or is he sufficiently wary of the police and military to do anything to, say, stop the military occupation of schools in “rebel-infested areas” and the killing of Lumad leaders in Mindanao? If that is the case, what the residents of these communities and some journalists are going through is martial law by Presidential default rather than proclamation—but martial law nevertheless.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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