Sunday, September 20, 2009

Remembering martial law

Martial law was imposed in the Philippines twice, proclaimed on the same day of the month but 28 years apart by two presidents whose lives, by a stroke of fate, would seem intertwined by an eerie similarity of intervening events in their respective lives.

Jose P. Laurel, president of the Second Philippine Republic, puppet-government under Japan, proclaimed martial law on September 21, 1944, on account of the state of war between the Philippines and the United States with Japan. Twenty-eight years later, on September 21, 1972, Ferdinand Marcos placed the Philippines under martial on the pretext of suppressing the threat of a growing insurgency and imminent Communist takeover.

During his teens, Laurel was indicted for attempted murder when he almost killed a rival suitor of his girlfriend. While studying and finishing law school, Laurel defended himself and was acquitted. In December 1938, Ferdinand Marcos was accused and prosecuted for the murder of Julio Nalundasan, his father’s political rival. After being convicted and sentenced to death for premeditated murder, Marcos appealed and argued his defence before the Supreme Court. Marcos graduated with a law degree during his incarceration and studied and passed the bar examination while he was in detention. In the Supreme Court, Marcos was acquitted and the justice who wrote the decision in his favour was Jose P. Laurel.

Almost parallel incidents in their early manhood while completing their law degrees from the University of the Philippines, both charged with serious criminal offences and later acquitted, the older one presiding as judge in the exoneration of the younger one, both becoming presidents of their countries – the former as puppet surrogate leader of an invading foreign army and the latter as dictator propped-up by a former colonial master, and each proclaiming martial law on the same day of the month 28 years apart. Coincidences that would fascinate history trivia buffs. Of course, the resemblances would end there for the younger one would rule for almost twenty years, during the tumultuous period of communist uprisings in the Southeast Asia region after the end of the Second World War.

Was Ferdinand Marcos aware of the choice of his own day to state publicly the genesis of his long years of repressive rule? Or was it history repeating itself?

This trivial fact never crossed my mind that morning Ferdinand Marcos went into the airwaves to deliver the infamous Proclamation 1081, declaring the imposition of martial rule throughout the land. I wasn’t born then when Jose P. Laurel would make his own proclamation of martial law over the country during the Japanese occupation.

But it was rather strangely quiet the day Marcos went on air. Not many vehicles were running on the road, a bit surprising because people were supposed to be at work. I had classes to teach in one of the schools in the city during the week but someone in the family, a relative on my mother’s side had fortuitously sent word that I should not report for school because soldiers had locked up the school gates and were rounding up faculty members suspected of subversive activities. One of the subjects I taught was history, about nationalism and the Philippine revolution. Naturally, my lectures were about the motivations behind the staging of the revolution by the Katipunan. So I was a logical target of suspicion, that I could be subverting the minds of young students even though the course was about events that occurred almost a century ago. In hindsight, I could have been out of harm’s way in a foreign school during the time had I accepted a scholarship and study grant, but the thought of separation from my young wife was too heavy to bear.

Besides, I was deeply involved in the struggle for a free and truly democratic Philippines at the time. But being small fry, I was not on the hit list of the army. The proclamation of martial law by Ferdinand Marcos did not dissuade me from doing my tasks that almost solitary morning. I had a more important date with destiny, a meeting with a group outside the city so I left the house very early and took a jeepney ride to our appointment along with another member of my group. We were carrying bags full of information materials against the repressive tactics and abuses of the current regime which we hid under our legs while the news of martial rule was being broadcast on radio. A passenger asked the driver to increase the radio’s volume so we could hear what Marcos was saying on air. I looked at my companion and we just stared at each other in silence, almost in complete agreement about our appreciation of what was happening. We knew martial law was coming, and it was only a matter of time before it would be proclaimed. We were more concerned with the materials in our possession, and worried that the other passengers might discover them. But we soon came to our destination. We got off the jeepney with utmost care so as not to raise suspicion among the other passengers that we were actually carrying materials that could land us spending years in a detention camp.

I didn’t report to teach that week and for the rest of the semester and for the entire year. In fact, I never returned to teaching anymore. My wife had just had our first child who was a little over a month old. We would rely on her maternity benefits from work for the next three or more months until she was back to work full-time again. Without a job and so much time in my hands, I worked on completing the drafts of two plays I had almost abandoned to gather dust underneath the files of books in our small bedroom. A year later, I would find a job and struggled in a few more. One of my plays was staged by a fledgling group of thespians, and the other won an award and later staged by PETA Theatre in Intramuros. Soon, I settled in on another job that paid well and provided more benefits for our growing family; we had another child at the time. I began to dwell on a career that would help me raise my family in comfort. I stopped writing and relegated the task of continuing the love affair with the pen to my wife, who was the natural writer in the house.

Martial law, a temporary superimposition of military government over civil government, could be justified: one, in the event of war, and second, during serious national emergencies. Jose P. Laurel had no choice; it was dropped in his hands by the Japanese army who had control over the whole country. Ferdinand Marcos chose his destiny – to declare martial law on false pretext in order to continue his reign as ruler of his country.

So, on September 21, 1972, Ferdinand Edralin Marcos, 10th President of the Philippines, 6th President of the 3rd Republic, and 1st President of 4th Republic, by his Proclamation No, 1081, would change the course of Philippine history forever. On that fateful day, Marcos signalled the start of a new fight for freedom, not against a foreign invader, but a mad dictator blinded by absolute power.

Proclamation 1081 was littered with false allegations of insurrection, of several bogus ambushes on members of the President’s cabinet which Marcos manipulated and manufactured to justify the imposition of martial law. Marcos cited rebel factions, seditious Communist elements and Muslim extremists as reasons from his decision. In truth, many of the said elements were disgruntled citizens who were fed up with the corruption under the Marcos government and decided to take matters in their own hands.

Those who lived during the martial law years can tell that those times were the darkest period in Philippine history. Common citizens were at the mercy of a man who had every intention of holding on to power as if it was life itself. The writ of habeas corpus was suspended; the military picked up and detained innocent civilians on trumped-up charges of sedition. More often than not, these people were convicted without trial, and denied due process of law. Curfew was imposed leaving many stranded in their offices, unable to return to the refuge of their homes.

Militant student organizations and labour unions went underground as the right to assembly was withheld. The government controlled the media, the right to freedom of speech was non-existent. The law as it was intended simply ceased to be. All that reigned was the iron law of a dictator who had the entire nation in his grasp.

All my children were born between 1972 and 1981, during the dark period of martial rule. In a sense, they were all “martial law babies,” but not children of the New Society under Ferdinand Marcos, for we would all leave the country afterwards to live in Toronto where we found freedom is alive. They have no faint idea of these dark moments in our history. Perhaps, it is better that way rather than re-visit the gloomy past every year and be reminded of the repressive years their parents had gone through.

But the future of the Philippines still remains very dark. History could repeat itself. Rumours continue that current President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has not fully given up hopes of staying in power. She has already toyed with a “State of National Emergency” to crush a coup plot against her and deal with her vehement protesters from February 24 to March 3, 2006. In 2010, close to stepping down from power before June, Arroyo could just do the unthinkable: impose martial law again, 38 years after Marcos plunged the whole country in darkness, just 10 years more than what could have been a 28-year cycle of martial law in the Philippines.

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