Tortured memories: Revisiting the dangers of Philippines martial law

Nearly 50 years since Ferdinand Marcos took hold of the Philippines, the continuing threat of political corruption haunts the island nation as it approaches another election next year

Joel F. Ariate Jr
September 23, 2021
Tortured memories: Revisiting the dangers of Philippines martial law
A protester touches a mural depicting former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos during a protest to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in Manila on September 21, 2018. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP

Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law 49 years ago this week, citing a “clear, present, and grave danger” posed to the republic by communist insurgents and Muslim separatists. 

The declaration via Proclamation 1081 was signed on September 21, 1972, as Marcos, a believer in numerology, wanted a date divisible by seven, his lucky number. The force of the  coup was felt by his political opponents at midnight of September 22 and in the early morning of the next day, when they were rounded up by the military and jailed without charge or due process. 

They almost filled a gymnasium in Camp Crame, one of the military camps in Metro Manila. Over the next 14 years, without a free press to challenge his lies and expose his venality, Marcos, his family and cronies crafted resilient propaganda to paper over their plunder and brutality. 

Today, the family legacy lives on as another Marcos may end up grabbing the presidency again in next year’s presidential election, scheduled for May 2022. The present-day Marcos family – led by Fredinand Jr, known as “Bongbong” – are believed to be awash in billions of dollars their parents bequeathed them through offshore bank accounts, and have shown savvy in using social media and the internet in the same way Ferdinand and his wife, Imelda, relied on mythmaking and outright lies to secure and preserve their conjugal dictatorship. 

In 1972, with the mass media silenced, the public learned of Marcos’ martial law imposition on the evening of September 23, when he made the announcement on television. Believing they could convene a special session to void Proclamation 1081, the detained opposition, which included members of Congress led by Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., made a last-ditch effort to counter Marcos’ martial law declaration. 

“Aquino’s cell was, of course, bugged,” Petronilo Bn. Daroy wrote in Dictatorship and Revolution: Roots of People’s Power. “The following day, soldiers secured the legislative building and dismantled the offices, carting away equipment, tables, and chairs. The legislative building was turned into the National Museum.” 

Pres. Ferdinand Marcos’ Declaration of Martial Law (9.23.1972). Video: supplied

The Old Congress Building to this day remains part of the National Museum complex in Manila. This act of repurposing a place of national importance to serve an arguably noble cause also functioned as an act to erase traces of opposition to the dictatorship. 

From 1972 to 1986, Marcos was keen to shape the people’s memory on what they must forget, or neglect, in order to draw attention to the authoritarian rule he wished them to glorify. Marcos then poured a tarry, corrosive layer of neglect over the places of memory the regime could not simply erase.

Rebranding his coup, Marcos declared in 1973 that the date would be a special public holiday, National Thanksgiving Day. He also concocted other holidays for his birthday and that of his wife, couching them as foundational events in the “New Society” to which he and Imelda gave birth. 

Dictators often mistake themselves as the embodiment of the nation, demanding obedience, if not outright worship, from the people they have terrified in order to rule. In 1977, for his 60th birthday, Marcos was presented with a monument in Batac, his hometown where it still stands today. 

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ rule was not only commemorated in stone. In commissioned portraits they asked to be portrayed as the mythical ancestors of all Filipinos, “Malakas” (Strength) and “Maganda” (Beauty). They were the mother and father of the New Society, the branding pilfered from US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society”. 

This New Society had its own hymn played in almost all public assemblies. Book-length, epic poems extolling their greatness were written by their coterie, while films were made about their lives as part of Marcos’ presidential campaign in 1965 and 1969. Journalists and writers who dared to write critically about the family faced harassment and censorship if they were not banned and hounded out of the country altogether.

As Marcos started losing his grip on power in 1983, activists countered his National Thanksgiving Day with the National Day of Sorrow to commemorate the 11th anniversary of the declaration of martial law and the first month since the assassination of Aquino, Marcos’ prime political rival. Marcos remains the prime suspect in Aquino’s death. 

When the melee was over, there were 11 dead and hundreds injured 

But Marcos was not one to tolerate a challenge, even in the realm of memory. When 5,000 demonstrators observing the National Day of Sorrow marched toward Mendiola, one of the main streets leading to the presidential Malacanang Palace, 400 anti-riot police met them. When the melee was over, there were 11 dead and hundreds injured. 

In the pre-martial law days, Mendiola, together with Plaza Miranda in Manila, were the traditional places of protest. But during the Marcos dictatorship, Mendiola was wrapped in razor wire and guarded by an armed sentry post and additional sniper nests when the dictator was in the vicinity. Plaza Miranda, the symbol of free speech and people seeking accountability from their leaders, was previously the foremost space for political rallies, but was allowed to rot and fester amidst the urban decay surrounding it. 

About 3,000 anti-war demonstrators rally at Plaza Miranda in Manila, 31 January 2003. Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP

In February 1986, after years of looting billions of dollars from the country, and egregious human rights violations against dissidents and activists, the Marcoses were deposed from Malacanang in a peaceful, popular revolt and exiled in Hawaii. By the early 1990s, with the dictator dead in a tomb in Hawaii, the Marcos family was allowed to return to the Philippines and began working their way back into the country’s sphere of political influence. 

Though the next generation of Marcoses failed at first to win election to national offices, they easily reclaimed their patriarch’s former political stronghold in the northern province of Ilocos Norte. They repurposed narratives from the martial law years glorifying the dictatorship in a softer, tourist-friendly light with Marcos Fiestas and Marcos Days. They refurbished Marcos museums and monuments – a new one was built in Sarrat, his birthplace, in 2015 – and a Marcos historical trail was offered for tourists to appreciate “the longest-running president of the Philippines”. 

The Marcoses also invested heavily in crafting new forms of digital propaganda they have unleashed on social media through an army of trolls and influencers. Ferdinand Jr. was elected senator in 2010 and narrowly lost the vice presidency in 2016. His elder sister, Imee, also secured a senate seat in 2019.

In November 2016, Marcos was buried at the Heroes’ Cemetery with full military honours after the Supreme Court ruled that his history of corruption and abuse shouldn’t bar him from a hero’s funeral. It was a fulfillment of a campaign promise by current president Rodrigo Duterte, a self-declared dictator himself who idolises Marcos and remains in a political alliance with the family. 

But with Duterte unable to run due to term limits and Ferdinand Jr. receiving the Partido Federale ng Pilipinas’ (PFP) presidential endorsement, next year’s presidential election could see a Marcos returning to the presidential palace at Malacanang. 

If the survival of a democracy relies on an informed and engaged citizenry, the Philippines is just stumbling along

The Marcos family, and now Duterte, represent the Filipinos’ twisted inclination toward strongman rule. Twisted in the sense it is a product of unrelenting propaganda not only favouring but extolling the deeds of autocrats, who are thieves and murderous egomaniacs, without learning from history.

There have been no mandatory Philippine history classes in high school since 2014, enabling social media to become a surrogate classroom; a classroom the Marcoses have corrupted so much through their digital campaigns that there is no critical view to pierce the glossy propaganda of those who have plunged the Philippines into untold depths of poverty and repression.

With the past unknown, a demand for justice is not possible. If the survival of a democracy relies on an informed and engaged citizenry, the Philippines is just stumbling along.

Joel F. Ariate Jr. is a researcher and member of the Marcos Regime Research Group at the Third World Studies Center, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman.

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