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Martial Law Seen Through Time

Try as I will, I just cannot draw up any clear and definitive memories of my own personal circumstance when Ferdinand Edralin Marcos declared Martial Law in the country almost 39 years ago today. I can recall the widespread protests and rallies that preceded the declaration; not dissimilar to protests that occupy the attention of the media in the present day, just more severe.

By that time, we had already moved out of the Air Force base where I grew up. Still, I remember hearing from where we had moved the repeated wailings of the base’s sirens to signal a call to all service men assigned to the base that it had just assumed the highest level of military alert. It was as stark as a message could possibly get to all and sundry inside the base that there was something out of the ordinary afoot.

I recall every one of us in the family being forbidden to leave the household. These were uncertain times. The writ of habeas corpus, the citizens’ protection against unlawful arrest and detention, had been suspended. Mom was concerned that, although Dad was a retired Air Force officer, we would still be mistakenly picked up by members of the police force or the military.

Classes were suspended indefinitely; and while under normal circumstances, such news would have been welcomed by students like me, this time the reason for the suspension was one that filled the whole nation with unparalleled anxiety. There was no reason to celebrate when one was going to be cooped up inside the house all day long staring at the ceiling for days on end and uncertain about what the future would bring.

Government had shut down all television stations but its own. There was little relief from the enforced monotony in listening to Marcos expound over and over in his theatrical way over our black and white television set the reasons behind Proclamation 1081, with which he rapidly turned the nation into a police state.

Beyond this hazy reminiscing, everything else is – in fact – hazier. Four decades is a long time to remember a moment; and many more moments more jubilant have superseded this grey day back in 1972.

Eventually, life returned to a semblance of normalcy – if the curtailment of the freedom of speech and government’s attempts to control just about every aspect of life could even be called such.

I do recall that, contrary to widespread belief these days, Martial Law did have its moments. The enforced 12 midnight to 4 AM curfew meant that people were forced to retire to their homes; if it meant a mad scramble ala Cinderella if the dreaded hour was getting dangerously close. By people, I mean everyone except for those tasked with enforcing the curfew – including crooks.

Because the arm of the law was on steroids, justice – or, perhaps, retribution is a more appropriate term – was swiftly and some would say even brutally served upon those who erred on the wrong side of it. For all the heartache that Martial Law caused, the peace and order on the streets – or, at least, in the early years – was better than it had ever been up to that point.

The problem with Draconian methods to enforce law always is that fear is the motivation for citizens to stay in line; not ownership of the community or a desire to keep it safe. Although the streets had become reasonably safe during Martial Law, for how long it would be was always dependent on how long the police state would remain.

And it was, make no mistake about it! It was whispered quietly between close friends that one should never speak ill in public or in public vehicles about the incumbent government. There was always the probability that there was a plainsclothed military or policeman within hearing distance – and there were allegedly people who had been suddenly picked up and never heard from again for simply being brazen.

If Martial Law revealed anything about the collective psyche of the Filipino people at all, it is that we have a long wick that enables us to bear what to other cultures are things that are simply unacceptable. In colourful lingo, that we are capable of taking a lot of crap from our own governments.

Martial Law was, likewise, declared in South Korea on the same week it was here in the country. A month later, it was lifted by the South Korean President. Marcos did not lift it until January of 1981 – more than nine years later. Even then, it was no more than talcum powder on the face. The farcical democracy was just a cloak over what was still, for all intents and purposes, Martial Law. The farce was not really put to an end until Marcos’ health started to fail and he and his family were sent packing and shipped out to Hawaii.

Some political scientists suggest – and not in reference to the Philippines alone but in a general sense to Third World countries – that iron hand governance actually suits countries who underwent the colonial experience during which peoples were told what to do by their colonizers. To this day, there are still countries around the world with experiences of history similar to ours who have still to free themselves from the bondage of dictatorship.

Implicit to the suggestion is that democracy, as an ideology for governance, is best earned rather than served on a platter – as the Americans tried to do. Keeping this in mind, though, perhaps Martial Law’s most profound legacy and consequence if seen through the timeline of history is that it catalyzed the people of this nation to want to earn the very democracy that was probably misunderstood an unappreciated after it was handed down by the colonial master.

In other words, Martial Law had to happen. Without Martial Law, there would be no People Power; and without People Power, I would not even be writing this blog post for fear of being accosted by some unseen sinister guy in the vicinity. As a people, we may have a long wick in terms of taking government’s crap; but now we know how to throw the crap right back at government if it oversteps the line.

Current and future governments be forewarned.

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