Thirty-seven years ago

When Marcos declared Martial Law in September 1972, my wife Karina and I were both just 26.  We were university instructors freshly embarked on an academic career. Our first-born, a boy, was barely two and had just learned to walk by himself.  The rest of our children, three girls, were born after Martial Law.  Today, my wife is retired from government service, and I have less than two years to go before I say goodbye to my career at the University of the Philippines. Our little toddler has retraced our steps and has become a professor himself in the same UP campus where we started out as instructors. He and his wife are educators, and their newly-born daughter may likely be one too. Thirty-seven years can indeed constitute a lifetime – enough to create a sense of eternal recurrence, of events endlessly repeating themselves.

The precise feeling that I have right now is that, as a nation, we too are back to where we were just before Marcos assumed martial law powers. Marcos won an unprecedented second term in the presidential election of 1969, one of the dirtiest in the country’s history.  That term would have ended in 1973, with no possibility of re-election.

A democratically-elected Constitutional Convention was winding up its work in 1972.  Marcos had done everything to shape the final draft of the new constitution.  He wanted the existing term limits lifted, under the same presidential system or under a parliamentary government.  But the opposition was determined to stop him from extending his stay beyond 1973.  This was the situation a few weeks before Proclamation 1081.  The air was filled with rumors of an imminent Martial Law declaration.

The term held little meaning for many Filipinos; it was not yet part of their experiential map.  The closest analogue to Martial Law that the older people could summon was the Japanese Occupation.  But we who were born after the war had no experience of this terror either.

And so while impending Martial Law created in us a vague uneasiness we could not grasp, it did not bother us enough to prod us into making defensive preparations.  Instead what we chose to imagine was the impending end of a hated regime, seeing in the threat of Martial Law no more than the hostile whimper of an exhausted presidency.

How wrong we were!  We underestimated Marcos, and overestimated our people’s inclination and capacity for resistance.  When the arresting military forces rolled out into the streets on that early morning of September 23, picking up regime critics, protest leaders, and potential rallying figures one by one, there were no countervailing forces to block their way, and no radio or television flash reports to announce their deed.  There was only stillness, a silence occasionally broken by frantic phone calls.  We spoke in whispers, and learned to communicate in a cryptic language that presumed the presence of a third listener.  As the morning light settled in, we were told who had been arrested, but we had no idea who else was on the list.

That morning, the newspapers did not come, the TV screen was blank, and the radio emitted only static noise.  Later in the day, Metro Manila would learn what had just happened: the whole country was now Martial Law. Fearful and confused, people stayed home to await an official announcement from government.  With clockwork precision, Marcos had taken over all the reins of government without resistance.  Even as we had talked about its possibility, Martial Law still came as a surprise.  The ease with which the dictatorship was installed – and the length of time (almost 14 years) in which it was able to rule our lives – still baffles me.

Martial Law changed the whole political landscape in our country.  It shattered all the certitudes which had previously governed the seasons of our nation’s life.  Marcos erased all the existing boundaries of Philippine politics.  While he took pains to cloak his actions in legal pieties, these came through as brazen and whimsical. No one knew how the dictatorship would end.  The only thing about which we felt certain was that, to get rid of Marcos, everything was now permissible – including revolution.  Whatever his ultimate motives, Marcos had unwittingly opened the road to radical social transformation.

Edsa I came as a lucky break for the moderate forces that had joined the battle against Marcos in the dying years of the regime.  It preempted the birth of a military regime and the full ripening of a leftwing revolution.  It reconstituted the old order, cleansing it of traces of the aberrant order that Marcos represented.  The popular forces of discontent that had fed the revolution were subsequently absorbed into the populist campaign of Joseph Estrada.

Estrada’s unceremonious ouster from the presidency in 2001 revived the fault lines of the elite-led political order.  The succession of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her decision to run for a fresh 6-year presidential term in the 2004 election further exacerbated these instabilities. Ms Arroyo today is in the same position as Marcos in 1972 – the position of someone who, having repeatedly bent the law to stay in power, can no longer afford to relinquish it.  To continue in power at the end of her term, GMA has to get her allies to amend the constitution, or, failing that, create the conditions under which she can continue indefinitely as president in a holdover capacity.  Martial Law is undoubtedly one of the cards she’s holding.  Whether or not she decides to play it, I hope we are better prepared than 37 years ago to oppose it.

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