What’s the big deal about martial law? Why, after nearly half a century when it was first declared does it still polarize many Filipinos today? Is it really a big deal to know what happened during martial law? Was it a paradise then, as claimed by many Marcos loyalists today?
This is the disadvantage of those who were not born yet during those years. We are pessimistic and impatient of our democratic set up, and we romanticize what was in the past too much.
But if we continue with this line of thinking, as all other periods in Philippine history, we would be guilty of ignoring the nuances of the past, its complexity, and deem ourselves as having the higher ground to judge and divide the world in black and white.
But the world, the country, the people of the past cannot be divided into heroes and villains, because all have their dark sides, as we all are in the present.
But what we have to account for when it comes to seeing through the magnifying glass of historical inquiry is that, beyond our biases, we see people of the past in varying degree depending on the accounts and evidences they leave behind, and as such we can, no matter how imperfect that is, see their actions and judge it as either good or bad as it reverberates into the present.
And so, yes we can conclude, and be impartial, but we cannot also deny evidences that is presented to us, even when it is contrary to what we initially perceive them to be.
So before I begin this series of martial law posts, let us be true students of history, with an open mind. Like in a courtroom where we the jury see testimonies and evidences, pro or against the defendant, we must impartially see all sides so as to arrive at a sound and just conclusion.
Understandably so, what makes the topic very complicated in Philippine historiography is that the Marcos regime is still quite recent, with some of the actors that played their part in that event still alive today. This is also another disadvantage.
But I believe we have come to an appropriate distance to see the overall picture. We have been silent long enough that we risk leaving our generation to be swayed to and fro, away from truth.
As such, this is my appeal, let us be students of history. That means, not only for you reader to reshare these posts, but to do your own investigation yourself. The evidences abound—on the internet, in libraries, in numerous newspapers, etc.—and you have to be blind not to see them.
What was the Philippines like before martial law? Perhaps that should be our question first, as we cannot see what we have lost in Martial Law if we do not know what we had before.
The country before Martial Law had a vibrant, fiery but delicate democracy—one that saw Congress as an endless cycle of fiery debates of ideas, policies, and governance, whose senators and congressmen were of high caliber, and with sitting brainy presidents.
Educated and well-qualified to tackle on issues, elected officials were perceived, like today, as corrupt, but they clearly stood up for certain principles if only as pretend, and had brains to back it up.
In fact to watch TV or listen to radio for news then were education enough, as the majority were well-informed of the politics of the time thanks to the media whose writers were in the likes of Nick Joaquin, Napoleon Rama, Max Soliven, and Jose “Pete” Lacaba—great Filipino writers who animated that era.
Just reading the 60s editorials of the Philippines Free Press, the Manila Times, the Manila Chronicle, gives the reader a pulsating, breathing, and sometimes funny satires of the high and mighty.
Of course political parties then, as many social commentaries would agree, were the usual Filipino type, that were bonded not under an ideology or principle, but under alliances, political convenience and toxic family dynasties (thanks to our familial ties that date back to precolonial era, exacerbated by the Spanish Colonial Period).
This era, known in Philippine official history as the Third Republic, (the first one being that of Aguinaldo, the second one, that of Laurel, and the third, the one that was inaugurated on July 4, 1946), was a period rightly partitioned by many historians as a period in itself.
But with all its great rhetoric, the country then was also on the brink of chaos. The encroachment of Communism in Asia had influenced many Filipino students, as Philippine presidents of the time looked for ways to stop the rising tide, sometimes leaning too much on the United States for assistance.
And similar to the country’s counterparts in South America (countries also colonized by Spain in a not so distant past), the Philippines had become a hotbed for leftist movements. But as we would see in history, this insurgency was not the root of the problem at all, but a symptom of a deeper “social cancer” (to borrow Rizal’s words), a reaction to the rampant corruption that has plagued our politics since the nation became independent on July 4, 1946.
As such paranoia was rampant, student-led demonstrations became more widespread and more violent, if only in proportion to the corruption of the government bureaucracy.
Under the 1935 Constitution, which according to some historians, was one of the finest Philippine constitutions ever written, our presidents then had four years term with a chance of reelection.
This constitution, while overseen by the Americans during the American Colonial Period, was also the brain child of the great Filipino visionaries of the era: Claro M. Recto, Manuel Roxas, Conrado Benitez, etc.
As such, each congress lasts for four years with the midterm elections serving as referendum for the incumbent administration. This is where Marcos comes in, the first and only Filipino reelectionist president, who won an election plagued by electoral cheating. It was the dirtiest election yet.
It was not surprising that after Marcos delivered his first State of the Nation Address under his second term, it launched a violent protest that no one could have predicted, known as the First Quarter Storm of 1970.
Before I begin a series on the heroes of martial law (as promised), I think it would be wise to look at the man who set into motion the events that led to Martial Law. TED Education asked, “How did Adolf Hitler… rise to power in a democratic country?”
Of course, this is not to say Marcos was a Hitler. That is anachronism, and Hitler was something else entirely. But if we can learn from the rise of Hitler, it is that it was the people who produced a Hitler.
There is a truth in the saying that “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” I say, it also takes an entire country to raise a dictator. And it is the people who sometimes tolerate or even go so far as to support demagogues out of desperation for positive change, that produces a dictator. Jose Rizal was right when he said, through the mouth of Padre Florentino, “He who submits to tyranny, loves it!”
It is this series of posts on Martial Law, which I will try to lay out the best I can of how Ferdinand Marcos ingeniously planned to extend his rule beyond the two-term limit set by the 1935 Constitution.
It took meticulous planning, from the reshuffling of the military chain of command, to pressuring certain opposition in Congress to resign (legislature should and must be independent of the Executive), to creating chaos by implementing selected city bombings and accusing the Communists for it (thus legitimizing the need for martial law), to hijacking the Constitutional Convention tasked to amend the 1935 Constitution, and to even pressure the Judiciary to approve Malacañang’s version of the new Constitution.
This eventually led to the rounding up of all opposition in the House, the Senate, and the silencing of free media, activists, etc. at midnight. Marcos took great risks to make it work, and worked it did, if only because the country (even up to now) has weak political institutions to safeguard freedom.
If you’re watching the series House of Cards on Netflix, the fictional American President Frank Underwood would shudder at the genius of Marcos. Marcos was our very own Frank Underwood. Marcos was the real deal. If there is one thing history has taught us, it is to never underestimate or dismiss the threat of a tyrant-to-be.
Hence, this series of historical blog posts called the Road to Martial Law is scheduled to be posted throughout September, in time for the anniversary of the proclamation of Martial Law on the 23rd (not on the 21st as perpetuated by the Marcos myth).
I’m expecting a barrage of attacks soon on this webspace called tumblr, but as a historian I cannot be silent. It is a disservice to my discipline if a part of Philippine history is attacked by revisionists and yet I keep silent. In this specific series, I will also cite my sources (the first time I’d do it in this blog) to help open-minded people seek the truth for themselves.
I am confident: That truth doesn’t need defending. That like a lion, it can defend itself. We are after all, a byproduct of history. But while it doesn’t need defending, it should be taught clearly, unapologetically, and bravely, even if it is unpopular.
As the late Welsh poet Dylan Thomas wrote in a famous poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” These are haunting wise words that remain relevant to this day, even at this hour, in this beloved but forgetful country called Pilipinas.
Editor’s note: This 15-part series called the Road to Martial Law first appeared on the author’s Tumbler page. It documents the unprecedented rise of a Filipino dictator and the sudden death of Philippine democracy with the declaration of a nationwide Martial Law via live television on September 23, 1972. Minor edits have been made by SubSelfie.com editors.
Part 5: The GATHERING STORM: BEGINNINGS OF THE COMMUNIST INSURGENCY AND MORO SECESSIONISM IN THE ’60S
(up next) Part 14: The Final Blow: A compromised Supreme Court legitimized Martial Law
(up next) Part 15: Road to Martial Law Redux: A Conclusion to a Series
About the Author
Kristoffer Pasion the resident historian of Team SubSelfie.com. He is a public historian working for the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. He has been serving in government for almost a decade, having worked as cultural officer for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (2011-2013), and as history researcher for the Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines (2013-2016).
He runs the blog Indiohistorian, and does active history writing on social media. He is finishing his masteral studies in History at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, pursuing research on the history of government institutions.