Penman No. 13: Random Reflections on Martial Law


Penman for Monday, Sept. 24, 2012

LAST FRIDAY marked the 40th anniversary of the imposition of martial law in the Philippines by Ferdinand Marcos, and the occasion gave rise to much reminiscing among those of us who went through that dark period. I myself was interviewed by a TV station and asked to speak at a forum at the University of the Philippines about my experience with martial law, which I fictionalized in my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil, 1992).

Of course I’ve never really stopped thinking about martial law all these years, but not until this anniversary did I force myself to sit down and write what martial law really meant to me and what it taught me—the “me” being no longer the 18-year-old boy who was arrested for “subversion” and detained for seven months in Fort Bonifacio, but the 58-year-old man who managed to live far longer and to see more things than he expected.

What I will write down here are entirely my own impressions and conclusions as a private citizen. I am not a political scientist or an ideologue, although I did work as a journalist, and, ironically, as a government PR man in the late 1970s, when there were few other jobs to be had, after my release from detention. I’m sure that some readers and even my friends will find something to quarrel with in these observations, which will be good, because I don’t think we ever really sat down and summed up what that period meant to us, beyond saying—as we should—“Never again!” So, herewith, my random reflections on martial law:

1. It wasn’t as bad as what the Argentines and Chileans went through in their darkest days of state terror. But that comparison’s pointless and even cruel when it’s your body or that of someone you love being laid out in the interrogation room, when it’s your family desperately seeking an abductee, running from prison to prison. The government called it “smiling martial law,” but don’t be fooled—horrific things happened to ordinary citizens in those camps and prisons. It may have been good for business—at least at first—but it was an unmitigated nightmare for designated enemies of the state.

2. An armed forces cannot be at war with its own people. Martial law irreversibly politicized if not corrupted the military, so that it has had to be re-indoctrinated to support the people rather than the ruling elite. I don’t know how far it’s come along in this respect.

3. America can be a great friend, but it will always look out for its own interests first, and those interests don’t always coincide with ours. American politics is coldly opportunistic; the rhetoric of freedom and democracy can easily be used as window dressing for American commercial policy. Ferdinand Marcos and martial law wouldn’t have lasted that long without America’s imprimatur; even though some insist that it was the Americans themselves who took him out—that EDSA was a CIA plot—it was American support that entrenched him in the first place.

4. It takes a people to build a nation—not one leader, certainly not one despot and his cohort. Martial law turned us into blind followers, trusting the leader to make crucial decisions for the rest of us. Except for those who resisted the dictatorship, the rest of us were complicit in it; we wanted it to work and gave it our tacit approval, because it seemed to offer a simple and efficient solution to age-old problems. It also takes a thorough process—not quick fixes like martial law, street revolts, or coups—to secure deep and enduring change.

5. The Church can be a potent and progressive political force when it wants to. Much as I may be dismayed by the intransigence of the Church on social issues such as the RH bill—and indeed I no longer consider myself a practicing Catholic because of this—I acknowledge the contributions and sacrifices of many religious workers to the fight for freedom.

6. We all have our weaknesses and our limits. I saw how people who spoke big words could fall silent at the merest hint of torture, and how even the toughest ones could break at the edge of the unendurable. I have since learned not to demand of others what I could not demand of myself. At the same time, I saw that ordinary people can also be capable of extraordinary courage. Their heroism has made me wonder if I who survived was worthy of it.

7. On a purely personal level, one of post-martial law life’s most awful discoveries was that, incredibly, there were worse things than martial law, worse pains that one could receive, or inflict on oneself and on other people. A government can do only so much evil; the rest you can do yourself. But redemption is always possible for the self-aware, and I suppose that’s what many of us have been striving for these past 40 years.

* * * * *

SPEAKING OF September 21, that was also the day last week when I failed to attend an important book launching in Makati because I was teaching my graduate class in Diliman at that same time. The book was Marites Danguilan Vitug’s Hour Before Dawn: The Fall and Uncertain Rise of the Philippine Supreme Court (Clever Heads Publishing, 2012), which I copyedited, along with its predecessor, the acclaimed and bestselling Shadow of Doubt: Probing the Supreme Court (Newsbreak, 2010).

It’s a copyeditor’s great privilege to read a book—and even reshape it to some extent—before anyone else does, aside from the author and the book designer. With Marites—with whom I worked for many years on Newsbreak—I always know that I’m in for a political junkie’s treat, as she will patiently go behind the scenes to reveal the inner workings of our most important yet also most inscrutable institutions, like the Supreme Court.

Without spoiling the suspense, here’s what I can say about Hour Before Dawn and why you should grab it before they run out of copies: if you’ve ever really wondered why Chief Justice Renato Corona had to be impeached and what the Supreme Court was like under his watch, read this book. If you’ve also wondered what Lourdes Sereno is really like and what kind of Chief Justice she’s going to be, read this book.

As its full title suggests, Hour Before Dawn offers both darkness and light, ample cause for both dismay and hope. It demystifies the Supreme Court and the Justices who preside over our fates, showing them to be as fallibly human as the rest of us, and yet also mindful of the higher judgment of history.

I don’t know if this book is going to earn its author another slew of death threats and libel suits, but I think it should be required reading for every law student, lawyer, and judge in this country—make that every citizen-at-large who hasn’t given up hoping for impartial justice.

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