Marcos and martial law

Before it became wholly associated with the suicide terrorist attacks against the United States, Sept. 11 used to be remembered as the day Salvador Allende, Chile’s first elected Marxist president, was killed in the course of the military coup that installed the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.  That tragic event started the reversal of democracy throughout Latin America.

By coincidence, Ferdinand Marcos was also born on that day.  One wonders what could have crossed Marcos’ mind as he celebrated his 56th birthday, his first as dictator of his country, on that fateful day in 1973 when the socialist alternative was violently snuffed out in Latin America. Could it have confirmed his belief that dictatorship was the only way forward for developing nations?

Marcos imposed martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, purportedly to preempt a conspiracy between the communists and the oligarchic elite.  He appealed to the middle and lower classes of Philippine society to help him build a “New Society” that would extirpate the virus of communism and free the country from the grip of the feudal elite. He called his project a “revolution from the center.”

It is easy to think the worst of any man if this frees us of any responsibility or guilt for what happened.  Thus, we are not surprised that some of Marcos’ most ardent acolytes during martial law are today among his most vocal critics. But, to explain the rise of the Marcos dictatorship solely in terms of the overweening ambition and insatiable greed of one person is to strain the imagination.

The fact is, it was impossible for Marcos to put the entire country under martial rule without the armed forces who were willing to act as its executioners, without a public that was at least sympathetic to the plan, and without a US government that was willing to wink at the entire thing because it saw in Marcos a great ally and friend who would protect American interests. In short, Marcos could not have been the sole author of martial law.

His accomplices were not all generals or cronies. Some were otherwise thoughtful people—writers and academics, intellectuals and technocrats—who were dazzled by the prospect of being able to put their ideas in the hands of a president who had the will to realize them.  They had no problem rationalizing their involvement with the dictatorship.  Like many ordinary Filipinos at that time, they thought that what the country sorely lacked was a willful political leader that knew exactly what to do with power.

It is important to recognize this because the sooner we stop thinking of martial law as the deed of one man, the easier it may be for us to prevent its recurrence.  Marcos’ evil genius lay in the fact that he knew what the Filipino people could accept, and what divided them against one another. He knew what America’s strategic goals were, and what it could abide as a global power.  He knew what was happening in the rest of the world, particularly in the emerging economies.

He saw, for example, how the domestic capitalist classes in many Third World countries ended up being the junior partners of foreign capital because they were simply not big enough to compete.  Thus, he was convinced that the state must nurture the local bourgeoisie and steer the economy in such a way as to give them the clout they needed to become pillars for sustained economic growth.

Marcos was particularly impressed by the progress attained by South Korea under the stern rule of Park Chung-hee.  He wanted Park’s Asian model replicated in the Philippine setting.  This was the same plan that Lee Kuan Yew had put in place in Singapore to compensate for that country’s smallness in size and lack of natural resources.  On a much bigger scale, this was also the path that Deng Xiaoping chose for China from 1978 onward.

This model privileged the concept of social cohesion and stability over individual rights.  Wherever it was adopted, it entailed a great sacrifice in human rights and political liberties, leaving in its wake the killing, torture, and forced disappearance of thousands of dissenters in the hands of death squads.

By the time Marcos declared martial law, Philippine society was besieged by political instability, endless investigations in Congress, a rise in criminality, restiveness in Mindanao, and a communist movement that was attracting the youth into its ranks.  Marcos’ own people staged bombings in the city in order to simulate a general breakdown in public order.  By the middle of 1972, everything appeared to confirm what was on everybody’s mind—that the existing political system had reached its limits.

Marcos failed for many reasons.  Fluctuations in the world economy were not congenial to the Marcos experiment.  But perhaps, more important, the sense of national purpose that guided the Korean and Singaporean transformation proved to be weak in our case.  The Marcos cronies became the corrupted version of the chaebols that spearheaded Korean industrialization. The frugality, simplicity, and austere ways that Park and Lee personified were sadly missing in our own leaders. Instead, “Imeldific” excess and pomp became the principal markers of the New Society.

It took almost 14 years for the Filipino people to dislodge the Marcoses from power. The patriarch is dead but members of his family are back in power.  No one has been jailed for crimes committed in the name of martial law.  The bulk of the money stolen from the Filipino people has not been recovered.  This is not just a question of failed memory; this is the result of a flawed social system that remains vulnerable to the temptations of authoritarianism.