Martial law Philippine-style

Compared to the dictatorships that flourished in Southeast Asia and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, the martial law regime that Ferdinand Marcos inaugurated in September 1972 might have been the most benign. To say that, of course, would not comfort those who were brutalized and victimized by martial law. Nor would it blunt the criminal impunity that was unleashed in its name. But, it might allow us to make sense of the contradictions that hounded the Marcos dictatorship from the start, and eventually led to its collapse.

Apart from being a sharp lawyer, Marcos was a keen student of history, politics and global affairs. He prided himself in being not only an astute politician but also, in some sense, an intellectual who understood the power of ideas in human affairs. For this reason, he managed to attract some of the country’s best minds to work with him: Onofre D. Corpuz, Cesar Virata, Gerardo Sicat, Alejandro Melchor, Jaime Laya, Arturo Tanco, to name a few. Many of them were professors I knew at the University of the Philippines—bright, honest, idealistic and patriotic. I always wondered how they felt being in the same government as the cabal of thieves, killers and scoundrels that surrounded Marcos and Imelda during that ignominious period of our nation’s past.

Many of these individuals joined Marcos’ “New Society” because they genuinely thought it was time to replace the dysfunctional political order that for too long had hobbled the country’s progress. The premodern oligarchy that controlled government, they argued, had kept the country’s economy backward, and aggravated the social conflicts that threatened to destroy the nation.

They questioned the democracy formally enshrined in our constitution, which, in their view, was a system rigged to favor only those who had the economic means and the education to make use of the freedoms it guarantees. The poor, they argued, needed to be emancipated from their economic wants if they were to enjoy the blessing of these political freedoms. They bemoaned the fact that while the rest of our neighbors were reinventing their economies and seizing opportunities for their peoples in the world economy, our politicians were stuck in interminable debates and investigations that prevented the country from forging ahead.

Marcos appeared to them as the only leader of his generation who understood the basic problems of the country, and had the vision and boldness to carry out a comprehensive program of change. But I doubt if they were morally prepared for the kinds of abuse that accompanied the implementation of this program. It must have bothered them that the security forces of the regime were rounding up and torturing young people in the course of suppressing all opposition to martial law. They must have known some of the victims; they could have been their former students, or friends of their own children. They might have wondered on more than one occasion if it was not they, rather than these young people, who were on the wrong side of history. I would assume that these apprehensions were repeatedly communicated to Marcos who, himself, was obsessed with concealing the arbitrariness of his actions by cloaking them in law.

We called them “technocrats”—a derisive term that was meant to convey the charge that they had betrayed their academic calling by selling their minds to a dictatorship. They called us “communists” who, given the chance, might not hesitate to impose a dictatorship of our own in the pursuit of a vision of a communist society. That retort made me think. Indeed, there was no country in the socialist horizon we could point to that was not hounded by similar human rights abuses. Still, we refused to hold back our criticisms just because we had no clear alternatives to offer.

In the limited discursive space that UP enjoyed during that period, we wondered if it was ever possible to effect urgent change in a society like ours without resorting to repression of some form or other.

For a number of us in UP at that time, the Third World Studies Center at the College of Arts and Sciences, where the Marxist intellectual, Dodong Nemenzo, had been elected dean right after his release from prison, was the laboratory for new and radical ideas. We drew as much inspiration from Latin American “dependencia” theory as from the creative mix of theological and ideological themes that animated the continent’s popular movements.

Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, in particular, appealed to us because of the commitment to grassroots democracy that seemed to animate its beginnings. We examined its comprehensive plans for the economy, education, culture and the arts, health and local governance. We thought that, instead of merely opposing Marcos, we should begin crafting a similar program for alternative development that would avoid the pitfalls of elite-led democracy as well as of political authoritarianism. We saw the key to this in the empowerment of local communities, a slow painstaking process that hearkened back to the classical meaning of politics, with freedom at its center. But, it was only later that it became clear to me why this was a superior path.

The Marcos project was operating on a different conception of politics. He and his technocrats believed that the preeminent role of the modern state was the pursuit of development as a precondition for the enjoyment of social freedom. Accordingly, they expected to perform the work of government with the help of experts, unmolested by a watchful public. Having planted the seed of totalitarianism, they became unsure how far they should go in the use of violence.

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