IDIOTIC even in this country of chronic absurdity is the claim, by students from one so-called university who were asked what they thought of martial law 40 years after it was declared on September 21, 1972, that Ferdinand Marcos meant to discipline the country, and that the immediate cause of it was the “assassination of Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile.”

Time magazine did say in one cover story on Marcos in 1966 that his central problem as President was “instilling discipline among a contentious people.” But that was Time magazine, which in the 1960s and 1970s was echoing the US government’s support for Marcos in article after article noting his “brilliance,” praising his World War II military record, and gushing over his “beauteous wife” — in the process validating the observation by linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky that while privately-owned, the US media might as well constitute a US Ministry of Information.

Juan Ponce Enrile may have reinvented himself as a statesman and democrat, but he’s still very much alive, and currently Senate President. The so-called “assassination attempt” was on his car, which he had conveniently abandoned to the mercies of his “attackers” — the military goons the Defense Department had let loose to make it appear that the government’s opponents had become so brazen they were targeting its leading officials.

During the EDSA mutiny of 1986, Enrile was to admit that it was all staged on Marcos’ orders so he could use it as the immediate excuse for Proclamation 1081 which placed the entire country under martial law, thus suspending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, abolishing Congress, installing Marcos as absolute ruler for what he hoped would be for life, politicizing the military, and unleashing a reign of terror whose black vestiges are still with us.

The persistence of the legacies of the darkest period in recent Philippine history — among them the human rights violations in city and countryside, the corruption, stupidity and authoritarian virus that infect much of officialdom, the crushing poverty that still afflicts millions — demands understanding of what happened during the 14 years in which the country was officially and otherwise under authoritarian rule. It’s an imperative that every year grows more urgent, as ignorance about it spreads like dengue among the generations that have followed those that martial law decimated.

The declaration of martial law was an assault on at least three generations of Filipinos involved in the vast and historic movement for change that for three hundred years had been driven by the injustice and poverty of Philippine society. In the late 1960s it had matured to a point at which virtually all sectors — from students and teachers, workers and peasants, professionals and clerks, priests and nuns, to artists and writers — were united in the demand for mass empowerment, social justice and authentic independence.

Marcos declared martial law to stay in power beyond 1973, when he would have been banned from running again for the Presidency. But that focus converged with the ruling system’s inability to legally cope with the demand for reform and even revolution, and for its need to use drastic, anti-democratic means to arrest it. Marcos’ US patrons were similarly concerned with what they thought was the impending collapse of their most enduring colonial outpost in Asia, hence their support. The convergence of these factors — and Marcos’ then total control over the police and military — assured the success of the authoritarian option.

Through the arrest and detention, torture, enforced disappearance and summary execution of thousands of student, labor and peasant leaders, of activist nuns and priests, as well as academics, journalists and editors, opposition politicians, delegates to the 1972 Constitutional Convention opposed to lifting term limits on the Presidency, lawyers, doctors and other professionals, and even nationalist businessmen, the regime destroyed both the legal opposition and the movement for change that was threatening to realize in this country the democratization, authentic independence, and social justice promised by the Revolution of 1896.

The Marcos reign of terror savaged the lives and fortunes of thousands of men and women whose skills and abilities were the indispensable assets of a nation about to realize its potential as an independent and progressive entity. It was eminently successful in keeping the people of the country poor, and the country itself the client state and doormat of its US patron, both during and in the aftermath of the martial law period and the Marcos autocracy. But usually unremarked has been one of the most enduring legacies of the martial law period: its success in silencing the generations to come through the demonstration effect of imprisonment, murder and torture.

What could be described as the highest point so far of the movement for change that had flourished in the late 1960s until the declaration of martial law in 1972 had been mostly driven by the thousands of young men and women in city and countryside who had acquired the knowledge and imagination needed in the making of an alternative future. Among the youth, it was primarily students who reminded the rest of Philippine society not only of what that future could be, but also of the possibility of realizing that vision within their lifetime. Although the regime was not explicit about it, redirecting youth and student aspirations was obviously among its intentions, through, among other means, the use of terror.

But even after it was officially over, the demonstration effect of the Marcos terror was still redirecting student and youth aspirations from social involvement to personal and familial aggrandizement. Students can be either the harbingers of change or mere bystanders, and even agents of social inertia. To too many young men and women, the Marcos terror made the choice clear. It was between risking imprisonment, torture or even death on the one hand, should one choose to fight for change, or, by ignoring the cries of the poor and injured, living a life of relative ease, even if it be in a country of injustice and poverty.

Martial law was eminently successful in that and other senses. But that success has meant the failure of Philippine society to transform itself, and has condemned the Filipino people to even worse penury, injustice, and misery. Ousted from power and as dead as he may be, Marcos did win, after all — and it’s evident not only in the creeping rise to power of the family he left behind, and the possibility of having another Marcos for President at sometime in a future grown darker by the year. Most of all is its success apparent in this country’s continuing failure to ever make anything much of itself, despite the sacrifices and suffering of generations.


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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