MANILA, Philippines — Former Sen. Francisco “Kit” Tatad still insists that President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972 because of the alarming “communist threat” in the country.
As he puts it, the communists, through armed struggle, were out to displace the democratic government. We were also in the midst of a “Cold War” and if we were to believe the “domino theory,” communists were out to take over Southeast Asia.
Kit, as he was popularly known even then, was also Mr. Marcos’ information minister during the martial law years. He says he learned that the President was serious in imposing martial law only a few days before Mr. Marcos indeed signed Proclamation 1081. The decision to proclaim martial law was then the sole authority of the commander-in-chief.
“It’s not that Marcos was planning (martial law). It’s the fact that the objective situation would require a solution and what was the solution available if you were studying the Constitution,” he says.
For one, Mr. Marcos had already suspended the privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus after the August 1971 Plaza Miranda bombing, which the regime blamed on the communists, although the grenade blasts targeted the opposition Liberal Party’s political rally. Three months later, the opposition won a majority of the Senate seats. Only two Marcos candidates were elected.
In early June 1971, a Constitutional Convention, or “Con-con,” was convened to replace the 1935 charter, which would have barred Mr. Marcos from seeking another four-year term.
Tatad is quite candid in his recollection.
“I was in the Cabinet, and who would oppose martial law — unless you are on the other side,” says Tatad, a diplomatic reporter for the Manila Bulletin, who at 29, was asked by Mr. Marcos to be his press secretary in 1969, the year he won a second term.
Tatad eventually resigned in 1981, the year Mr. Marcos lifted martial law while retaining its extra-legal and arbitrary powers, including the unwarranted arrests and continued detention of persons suspected of subversion or rebellion.
Tatad confides that it was a decision made by the strongman shortly before the Pope visited the country. By that time, there was already international outrage against Mr. Marcos’ strongman rule.
At first, Tatad maintained that being a journalist by training, he believed then that “we see things coming, so we write. “ And that was his analysis of the situation then.
Yet when prodded on why he eventually resigned, despite being the face that announced the promulgation of martial law, he later conceded that he felt there was, indeed, an abuse of power, not only by Mr. Marcos but more so by his subalterns.
‘Dramatic and sweeping’ changes
If one were to believe Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, then Mr. Marcos’ defense chief, martial law “brought sweeping and dramatic changes.”
As he later wrote in his memoir, “as soon as it became clear to the general public that the country was under martial rule, law and order was restored to a great extent. People became more disciplined, peaceful and orderly. Their neighborhood and streets were safe. The citizenry worked together to clean their communities.”
He added in his book: “Political noises and wrangling were dissipated. Rallies and demonstrations disappeared from the street. Congress was closed. Schools, colleges and universities were also initially closed right after the declaration of martial law but after a month, classes resumed except in a number of colleges and universities. The radio airlines and television broadcasts were cleared of the incendiary and bombastic attacks of commentators. They were silenced.”
Not long after martial law was imposed, Enrile claimed that the economy had stabilized and flourished. The crime rate, he said, was almost zero. He even cited a US report — which obviously provided Mr. Marcos the much-needed backing from Washington — as Sen. Mike Mansfield submitted a report to the US Senate that despite media censorship, martial law was maintained “through the tradition of and training in civilian supremacy that the President maintains control over the military.”
Indeed, the defense chief was a civilian and martial law was maintained by the regular armed services standing in reserve. The military was reportedly “directly and heavily engaged only in the southern islands against the Moros. These tribal Moslems provide the principal resistance to the edict calling for a turn-in of weapons.”
‘Ambush staged’ version later denied
But it was also Enrile who would later claim that his ambush, which triggered the imposition of martial law, was a staged one. He made the confession to the nation when he defected along with Ramos on the night of Feb. 22, 1986, four days before the Marcoses fled the country and Corazon Aquino was swept to power.
However, Enrile, in his recent memoir, retracted this, saying this was the “ridiculous and preposterous” handiwork of his political enemies. “What would I have faked my ambush for? When it happened, the military operation to impose martial law was already going on,” he wrote.
According to Enrile, Mr. Marcos waited for Congress to adjourn sine die on Friday, September 22 before he actually acted on his proclamation. He wanted to avoid any resistance from lawmakers.
On that day, Enrile had already delivered Proclamation 1081 and all the General Orders and Letters of Instructions to military leaders when, he claimed, unidentified gunmen fired at his convoy while driving through the posh Wack-Wack subdivision.
He also pointed out, “I honestly did not know why Marcos suddenly decided to cite my ambush in justifying the declaration of martial law when he made his public statement on September 23. There was absolutely no need for it.”
The ‘New Society’
While Enrile painted a rosy picture of the “New Society” in his memoir, retired Navy Captain Dan Vizmanos wrote in his “Martial Law Diary” that when he heard that the defense chief was ambushed, “it was already ominous and made me feel uneasy.”
Before this incident, he said he had “already arrived at the conclusion that the rash of bombings and ‘discovered bombs and explosives’ in Greater Manila Area were all stage-managed by the Marcos regime as a prelude to martial law.”
Vizmanos, one of the few military officers who later figured in mass anti-dictatorship rallies, noted how the police and military troops rounded up thousands of people — lawmakers, student activists, journalists and church personalities — “and just about anybody who had a mind of his own whose face was not particularly attractive to the martial law authorities.”
By January of 1973, he said that the New Year had already brought about a new way of life for the people and Mr. Marcos’ “New Society.”
Never in the country’s history, he recalled, “have there been so many decent Filipinos in confinement and behind bars.” Likewise, “never in our history” have fugitives been hunted by the PC and AFP intelligence and special units all over the country. “They have become fugitives because they dared express their conviction (a crime under the New Society!) at the risk of their lives.”
Vizmanos said he decided to publish his diary because today’s generation hardly knows anything about the Marcos dictatorship and what really happened during the martial law years.
“While many of them are now active in people’s organizations, the majority remains apolitical and concerned with an alarming revival of excesses and abuses of the ‘New Society’ that was supposed to have disappeared with the downfall of the ‘conjugal dictatorship’,” he said.
He also lamented how “acute amnesia” applied to former activists who had become active collaborators of a “decadent” system and establishment they struggled against once upon a time.
What communist threat?
Now looking back, veteran political activist Linggoy Alcuaz says he had doubted from the start that the communist threat was the reason behind Mr. Marcos’ move.
True, in 1968 Jose Maria Sison, the founding chairman of the Kabataang Makabayan, a militant student group, organized the Communist Party of the Philippines or CPP, as a breakaway group from the old Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP), whose leaders were already mostly in prison.
A year later, the CPP forged an alliance with remnants of the old Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan (HMB), the military arm of the PKP and renamed it the New People’s Army (NPA).
Mr. Marcos’ 1969 victory was by then also already tainted with alleged fraud, and his administration was being branded as corrupt.
By January 1970, radical and moderate student groups began a series of mass actions protesting the inclusion of politicians in the forthcoming Constitutional Convention; and more telling, a constitutional provision that was then being considered that would allow the incumbent President to run a third term. The so-called “Battle of Mendiola” was fought when students overran a military blockade and rammed a commandeered fire truck against the gates of the Malacanang Palace. The bloody episode triggered a wave of student protests known as the “first Quarter Storm.”
Alcuaz, who then belonged to the so-called “moderates,” says the communist rebels were small in number then, and putting order in the country wasn’t really the agenda of a President who was becoming unpopular to his people. Even if the Charter were amended to allow Mr. Marcos to seek another term, there was a strong possibility that he would lose.
In January 1972, Constitutional Convention delegate Eduardo Quintero exposed Mr. Marcos’ alleged bribery attempt of delegates. He alleged that the President had been giving other “Con-con” delegates money to vote against a resolution which would bar him from running for a third term and his relatives from seeking the presidency.
In fact, Alcuaz recalls that shortly before martial law was declared, he resigned as chair of the Kapisanan ng mga Sandigan ng Pilipinas (Kasapi) to focus on his work with the Kapisanan ng mga Anakpawis ng Pilipinas, which was actually a political party and a possible “third force” that would field — or support — a presidential candidate.
According to Alcuaz, they believed then that even Mr. Marcos was convinced that it would be difficult to field his wife Imelda Marcos as his possible successor if elections were held in 1973. Mr. Marcos’ arch nemesis then was the popular, but outspoken opposition Sen. Benigno Aquino, the one man who would remain a thorn in his side for years, even hounding him out of power three years after his assassination would unleash nonstop protests.
But while Mr. Marcos’ martial law plot was already topping the headlines, Alcuaz says he was one of those activists who never really took it seriously. The President used the communist bogey for his political offensive and no one was persuaded by this argument.
Weeks before imposing martial law, Mr. Marcos had begun chiding Aquino for his alleged unholy alliance with communist leaders and he used this to justify the opposition leader’s arrest during a crackdown on political dissenters.
‘Marcos had lied from the start’
For veteran journalist-lawyer Manuel F. Almario, Marcos had lied to the people since the day he became president. As he puts it, “He was very ambitious, wanting to be president forever. That’s how he went wrong. He had no idea on how to run this country and where he was going.”
When Marcos defeated then President Diosdado Macapagal in the 1965 election, the country’s foreign debt was merely US7 billion. But when he fled the country after 21 years in power, including 14 year of strongman rule, on widespread allegations of plundering the national coffers, the country’s foreign debt had ballooned to US$25 billion.
“The economy appeared to have improved because he was borrowing from the World Bank so he had money to show, “says Almario, editor of the independent Philippine News Service when the strongman clamped down on all media networks in 1972. He was arrested after military authorities sequestered the PNS, which was later renamed Philippine News Agency to become part of the government information network.
In 1969, Mr. Marcos was the first Philippine president to win with a great majority of votes for a second term, but amid charges by the opposition that he was reelected because he spent government money for his campaign.
His inauguration in January the next year was marred by the first massive student demonstration in front of the old Congress building. As an emerging fiscal crisis cast a shadow on the country, Mr. Marcos was accused of having bankrupted the government. Prices were soaring and there was trouble in the streets.
Two months before the declaration of martial law in 1972, Almario wrote the cover story for the special edition of Weekly Graphic, a hard-hitting magazine, warning that if Marcos declared martial law he would be going against the Constitution.
The 1935 Constitution states that the President can declare martial law only in cases of rebellion, insurrection or invasion or imminent danger thereof.
But as early as February 1972, Manila Chronicle editor Amante Paredes had already come out with a front-page story quoting high-level sources on Marcos’ plan to impose martial rule to perpetuate himself in power.
That was also the time when Marcos heightened his anti-communist propaganda, accusing his opponents of conniving with the underground rebels to oust his government.
“But he (Mr. Marcos) was a smart lawyer and he said the country is facing a communist rebellion and a Muslim armed secession in the south,” says Almario. “When you want to impose dictatorship, you’re going to lie to the people and tell them that they are going to get peace and order, justice, economic progress.”
Marcos arrested alleged warlords, and Almario recalled having joined in his cell at Camp Crame, the strongman’s influential provincemate Roque Ablan and Moises Espinosa of Masbate.
“But that’s [arrest of warlords and strong local leaders] only for show, and he freed them afterwards when people believed that he was sincere,” he says. The two men, Roque and Espinosa, became his trusted political allies in the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan, the monolithic party that he organized after the Charter was amended, allowing him to run in a new parliamentary system of government.
Martial law is gone, long live its legacy
What puzzles — and bothers — Almario is the way his successors continued to enforce Mr. Marcos’ repressive decrees and order despite his “totally destructive” legacy to the country, and all the while denouncing martial law with vows of “Never again.” How, indeed, can a proclamation be disowned yet its legacy and trappings embraced?
For instance, Almario notes that it was Mr. Marcos who organized the barangays so that he could launch a fake plebiscite to approve the new Constitution. “There was no more freedom at the [constitutional] convention to do what they wanted because Marcos had already declared martial law,” says Almario.
Ironically, the convention was headed by Macapagal, the former president he defeated. Macapagal would later submit the newly approved charter to Mr. Marcos, who then called for the mandated plebiscite for its ratification in January 1973.
There was no secret balloting held. Instead Mr. Marcos organized assemblies that he called “barangays” to ratify the new charter.
Only 3 percent of the barangays reportedly opposed the new charter, which also contained a provision allowing Mr. Marcos to rule by decrees. It was a transitory provision Mr. Marcos enforced until 1981, the year he supposedly lifted martial law.
Apart from The barangay system, Almario notes how Mr. Marcos’ Presidential Decree 1877 — or the Budget Reform Act of 1977, continues to hound the bureaucratic system.
From being mere line item budgeting under the old Commonwealth Act, PD 1877 included “lump sum allocation in the budget for the different branches of government. His successors maintained such system, which now justified the controversial practice of the “pork barrel” scheme in the national budget.
“It is already included there what would be given lump sum to each lawmaker. But if you are not doing what he wants you to do, he will withhold the lump sum,” says Almario. In that way, the President held control over the country’s lawmakers. It’s a legacy continued, and refined by predecessors up until the present.
Besides controlling Congress by impounding budgets, Mr. Marcos could arrest anybody without any warrant.
Ninoy Aquino exposed Oplan Sagittarius, the alleged master plan of a “multi-faceted” operation for the declaration of martial law. It allegedly provided the legal basis for Proclamation 1081 by enumerating the conditions and situations that made martial law necessary. That expose, which made the cover story of the Philippines Free Press, put Ninoy even more surely in the crosshairs of the dictator’s minions.
Using the information leaked to him by friends in the senate, Aquino disclosed in a privilege speech on September 13, 1972 that he received a top-secret military plan given by Mr. Marcos himself to place Metro Manila and outlying areas under control of the Philippine Constabulary as a prelude to martial law.
Mr. Marcos was going to use the bombings, including the Plaza Miranda incident, as a justification for this takeover and eventual authoritarian rule.
Primitivo Mijares, a journalist and one-time trusted Marcos aide, later wrote in his book “The Conjugal Dictatorship” that when the plan to impose martial law was finalized he distributed copies to high ranking military officials and heads of the intelligence community in sealed envelopes. As a security precaution, he assigned different zodiac code-names to the copies he handed to each of the would-be martial law enforcers.
The copy code-named “Sagittarius” reportedly went to Gen. Marcos Soliman, the chief of the National Intelligence Agency. It turned out that the military officers were not aware of the zodiac codes so it was “easy and convenient” then to pinpoint Soliman as Aquino’s source, he said.
Mijares also cited a tragic postscript to the leakage of Soliman’s copy to the opposition senator. A few days after the declaration of martial law, Soliman was reported to the media as having died of a heart attack. But according to Mijares, “the truth is that he was shot dead by Metrocom troopers personally dispatched by President Marcos to arrest and detain him at Camp Crame for ‘tactical interrogation’ for the leakage of ‘Oplan Sagittarius.’”
He said that Mr. Marcos never issued a message of condolence to the family of General Soliman, who was denied military honors.
Mijares himself later fled the country and sought political asylum in the United States after a falling out with the strongman. After writing his book, he disappeared and was believed killed by military agents, with one version saying he was thrown out from an airplane.
A logical conclusion
Today, it is not surprising that many political leaders continue to capitalize on or hype the political stigma of Mr. Marcos, even if they were never involved in the political struggle during the martial law years.
For instance, Senate President Franklin Drilon says that after he passed the Bar in 1970, he concentrated on his law practice all through the years the country was under martial law. He also never thought of entering politics under an authoritarian regime.
But after seeing the ills of martial law, he agrees that “never again” should political leaders impose it.
Tatad, on the other hand, doubts if martial law can still be imposed by a president, given that the 1987 Constitution, with its strong Bill of Rights, allows Congress to stop any authoritarian attempt at government by declaring martial law.
Satur Ocampo, a business journalist who went underground during martial law, was arrested and tortured, then became lawmaker post-EDSA, stresses that with its repressive character, martial law cannot be used as excuse for political changes.
He decries Marcos’s failure to carry out long-term reforms, whether in economic policies or governance, as he had promised in his “New Society.”
“[The] net effect [of this is that he gave] authority over life and death [to the] military and the police. They could pick up people, detain them, torture them and nobody was made to account for it,” he says. Ocampo laments that military and police impunity exists until now that the government has restored our basic rights.
Like Alcuaz and Almario, Ocampo is certain the communist threat could not have been an excuse for declaring martial law, since the communist movement was still in the organizing stages in some areas in the country when martial law was declared.
Ocampo admits that he was already “semi-underground” after he quit his job as business editor of the Manila Bulletin and joined the underground movement with his wife, journalist Carolina Malay, right after Marcos suspended the Writ.
He says like most militant activists, they feared that Marcos would use the suspension of the privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus to start cracking down on political dissenters. They were not mistaken.
He says that while there was a seeming political lull during the martial law years, it was the underground movement’s network and the countryside resistance that sustained the anti-dictatorship struggle.
Ocampo asserts that it was the political Left that played a key role in the political resistance against Marcos’s strongman rule even before the 1983 Benigno Aquino assassination which triggered public outrage that led to the strongman’s downfall three years later.
Nevertheless, Ocampo says it remains on record that over 70,000 people experienced being arrested and the strongman regime was marked by unabated human rights abuses during the dark days of martial law. “So for those who have experienced martial law, I don’t think they can forget what had happened,” he says.
The brutal heel and the iron fist of martial law may indeed never be forgotten, but its other legacies, and its crucial lessons of governance are obviously very much around, seamlessly woven into the national fabric like some plague. One only has to recall how every branch of government can be easily corrupted, as seen in the pork barrel imbroglio, to know this to be true. Martial law as a proclamation is dead, but after 41 years, its legacy lives.