Martial law and the urgency of remembering

Martial law and the urgency of remembering
"Never Again, Never Forget" rally held at the University of the Philippines Diliman last Sept 21, the 50th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. —PHOTO BY LYRA GARCELLANO

In the morning of Sept. 23, 1972 (Philippines), Edel shook me awake, his face looming above mine and his voice murmuring my name while I got my bearings. The radio’s dead, he said finally. I lurched out of bed, confirming in his eyes what we sensed the night before, when a colleague abruptly left a small dinner gathering of friends at the press club—after listening intently to someone who came to whisper something in his ear, and, getting up, fixing us with a knowing gaze.

Go now, Pete, our colleague, told us before leaving. Be careful. Words to that effect. We looked at one another and proceeded to do as we were told, leaving the binagoongang lechon, for which the press club restaurant was famous, practically untouched. 

Now in the bright light of the morning, I stumbled through getting dressed as Edel put some stuff together. He was himself already dressed, had briefly spoken with Tony next door, who confirmed that the television set was on the blink. We paused to catch our breath. Outside, we collected our child gurgling happily as she chased motes dancing in the sunlight with her devoted nursemaid, and we left our apartment. I would never see it again.

Martial law was imposed on the Philippines on that day by virtue of Ferdinand Marcos’ Proclamation No. 1081; the edict was supposedly signed on Sept. 21, a date divisible by the number 7 for which the man had a well-known fetish. The deed was eventually announced on TV and radio by Marcos himself and Francisco “Kit” Tatad, formally beginning what was to become a14-year dictatorship during which, as reported by Amnesty International, 70,000 were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured, and 3,240 were killed. The exact number of desaparecidos is unknown, but the depredations of martial law remain ever alive in the hearts and minds of those forced to endure them.


Who will keep memory from fading? Fifty years to the day, has that morning that launched martial rule—the kind of morning that, as recalled by the journalist Gemma Nemenzo, “songs are written for: bright sunshine, a slight breeze, birds chirping”—become a blur, a snapshot fraying at the edges, in grave peril, along with the physical and psychical violence of the dictatorship, of being throttled in online chatter and relentless efforts at erasure?

The process, indeed the duty, of remembering martial law is somewhat hampered by a profound exhaustion among survivors, even by an inability to talk about it, so painful it has been to those made orphans by it or who are forever marked by a particularly savage manifestation of it—in which case others are called upon to tell and retell their stories: loved ones taken away by armed men in the dead of night, as well as the terrors of rape and other unspeakable acts—the lighted cigarettes extinguished on the skin, the “San Juanico bridge,” the jolts of electricity to the genitals, the waterboarding, the perpetual light and constant darkness, the solitary confinement…

And, as cited by Luis V. Teodoro, journalism professor at the University of the Philippines, in remarks sent to CoverStory, the poverty rate that rose rather than ebbed; the crises that sent gas and electricity costs soaring and that compelled many Filipinos to mix corn with rice as stocks of the precious staple dwindled and prices doubled: and, by the 1980s, the average protein intake of Filipinos reduced to less than that of the average Bangladeshi’s… 

But to the task of storytelling in this digital age is added the element of well-funded troll armies with a singular reason for being: to airbrush martial law and—a clear and present danger—to attack and subvert those that would present, not imagined, but verified, reality. Add to that the constant challenge of banned access to independent news websites—and the terrain commands, more than ever, a clear head, a level of determination, and a spirit of informed resistance hopefully not lost in the advancing years.

In the days when digital was yet unheard-of, there was the yawning absence of space for conscientious reporters and commentators to work in—nothing along the likes of the Philippines Free Press or Graphic, weekly newsmagazines that, Teodoro said in a recent webinar sponsored by the Pinoy Media Center, epitomized the “golden age” of “peryodismo” before martial law shuttered them and the other known media of the time.

Related: Timely remembrance of martial law off the press, Film continues to help Filipinos remember the sins of martial law

Guards at the gates

When Nemenzo got to the ABS-CBN station early on Sept. 23, 1972, to shoot footage for the launch of the network’s nationwide simulcast, for which she, as scriptwriter, was to climb up the tower with the cameraman, she was “greeted by the blood-curdling sight of Metrocom soldiers guarding the closed gates.” 

“I rush home in a panic,” the now US-based Nemenzo wrote in Filipinas magazine in September 2000. “Dodong, my brother, and Princess, my sister-in-law, both known leftists, were still asleep when I left. … Dodong tells me to disappear for a few days while we assess the situation, and then he is gone. Princess is rousing the kids—Fidel, 11; Leonid, 10; Lian, 7—to take them to their grandma’s house. Auring, our house help, is already burning papers in the backyard and I grab armloads to help. But there’s just too many of them and I have to leave, too.”

Those arrested in the early hours and days of martial rule included not only opposition lawmakers such as Senators Benigno Aquino Jr.  and Jose W. Diokno but also journalists, student and labor activists, civic leaders, and members of the academe. As the months and years wore on, the arrests continued to include more civilians, dissenters to state diktat.

At the University of San Carlos in Cebu City the day after she heard Tatad announce the declaration of martial law, then senior student Minerva Generalao noticed “something new”: guards posted at every entrance when, earlier, anyone could freely enter the campus. “It was like a bad omen,” Generalao, former chief of Inquirer Research, told CoverStory. “I became more concerned when I could not find any of the activists I knew, like Rene of SDK (Samahan ng Demokratikong Kabataan) and Uriel of KM (Kabataang Makabayan), who had tried to recruit me, but I chose to join a new group, Makibaka.” 

Generalao found Iting and other friends, and “we agreed (in our innocence) to go from room to room on the fourth floor where our classes were mostly held, to share our thoughts on martial law.” She said she had attended a rally against the suspension in 1971 of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus—“an overreaction,” she pointed out, “against the civil liberties of many, when good intelligence could have solved whatever crime was committed by a few.” 

Around noon, tired from “warning about the dangers of martial law but still worried for our friends,” she and Iting and Iting’s boyfriend Mon chilled on a bench on the ground floor. Mon was holding a copy of the Free Press which had on the cover an illustration of “the mad bomber.” The report was about “fake bombings in the past months to create an image of a crisis situation,” she said.

“I remember Mon saying that the Free Press issue would be the last of its kind. He was speaking like a prophet,” Generalao said. Per her research in the ensuing years, the muzzled media included “eight national newspapers, four vernacular and Spanish-language newspapers, 14 English-language dailies, 60 community newspapers, 66 TV channels, 20 radio stations, and 292 provincial radio stations.” 

‘Martial law thingy’

In 2014 there was a kerfuffle about pictures posted online of a bunch of Ateneo de Manila University scholars with Imelda Marcos. The comments from Ateneo alumni and others were blistering; they demanded to know how martial law could be so forgotten that the former first lady could gleefully pose with students of the institution that produced such freedom fighters as Edgar Jopson.

But one could say that those students and many others had no memory of what someone so tellingly termed the “martial law thingy.” Mostly without benefit of crucial information, or simply indifferent, they regarded the “thingy” as a blip on the screen of time, nothing to remember with a catch in the throat or a twinge of fear—or forget.

In the afternoon of the momentous day, having sheltered at a friend’s house restless and clueless, Nemenzo decided to check on the family home: “My friend offers to drive. As we turn into our street, I almost die. Military trucks are in our driveway. Soldiers in full battle gear surround the house, their armalites pointed at the windows. Others are loading books and documents in the trucks.”

They turned back, she sliding down in the seat to avoid being seen. “The afternoon sun is still shining bright and the air is filled with the sweet aroma of jasmine and kalachuchi,” she wrote, “but I—and the rest of the nation—have lost our innocence.” 

The loss has been tremendous, conceivably like things lost in a fire but more ravaging, because continuing, always and ever marked by deep wonderment:  What could, for example, Archimedes Trajano have become if his life had not been snuffed out in the bloom of his youth? Or the young physician Bobby de la Paz, who was serving in rural Samar when he was killed by an unknown gunman?

Renewed struggle


Teodoro said that “In the book ghost-written for him in 1971, ‘Today’s Revolution: Democracy,’ Ferdinand Marcos Sr. claimed that he would wage a ‘revolution from the Center.’” 

“But that book, like Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf,’ was a blueprint for tyrannical rule,” Teodoro added. “It was also an attempt to appease reform- and even revolution-minded groups and individuals so as to counter the demand for fundamental change that had been echoing in the streets. He in fact declared martial law to stop that clamor for the democratization of governance and society, as well as to keep himself in power indefinitely. But he claimed that it was for the noble aim of saving the Republic and reforming society.”

To keep the memory of martial law alive, its survivors are compelled to embark on a renewed struggle to prevent its horrors from being eclipsed by the razzle-dazzle of the second Marcos coming. Filipinos, especially the young, must come to grips with the necessity of continuing education on what occurred during that period and the corresponding impact on the present . It takes a persevering student, even at an age past formal schooling, to learn about the past—tyranny and its targets, corruption, privilege and power, autocracy and even the “romance” of the monarchy that muddles the searing issues of class and empire—so that the past ceases to be “a foreign country” and serves as a guide to understanding what Filipinos have become, and why.

“Marcos could have made good on his promise of a government-led ‘revolution,’ given the powers at his disposal,” said Teodoro, who writes a weekly column for BusinessWorld. “But the poverty his regime exacerbated, plus the human rights violations, the social inequality and the systematic plundering of the economy, drove thousands into opposition and even rebellion despite the threat of arrest, indefinite detention, torture, enforced disappearance, and/or summary execution.” 

Half a century to the day, there are robust efforts to tell the stories of martial law. The efforts border on the heroic: Storytellers “threaten all champions of control,” said Chinua Achebe, “they frighten usurpers of the right to freedom of the human spirit—in state, in church or mosque, in party congress, in the university or wherever.”

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