FOR SEVERAL weeks now, some friends from way back—more than 40 years back—have been getting private messages from me, inviting them to take part in what could be an important historical project—important not only to our generation, but more especially to those who have come after us, who know so little about their past.
I’ve just begun what I consider to be my lifelong dream project: The First Quarter Storm: An Oral History. It’s not as if I don’t have enough books to write; at the moment, I’m working on five books in various stages (two nearly done, two halfway through, and this one just started), not to my mention my third novel, which has had to sit on the back burner. I’m no Superman, but I write books for a living, and take on every engagement as a privilege and a responsibility. Still, this one’s a special self-assignment.
After writing biographies and histories for such varied personalities as the Lava brothers, the business icon Washington SyCip, and the former Marcos associate Rudy Cuenca, I felt the time had come for me to do something for my own generation, whose political awakening came about in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
That was one of the most politically charged periods in recent Philippine history, a time many Filipinos my age call the “First Quarter Storm” or FQS, referring to the tumultuous years just before and after the declaration of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos on September 21, 1972.
Those few months around martial law were both frightening and exhilarating, murderous and ennobling, challenging a generation of young Filipinos to offer themselves up to the altar of revolutionary resistance. The martial law regime would last for 14 years and claim thousands of lives, and cause deep damage to Philippine democratic institutions. By the time a peaceful street revolt restored democracy in 1986, the course of Philippine history and the complexion of that FQS generation had been irreversibly changed.
And yet today, 40 years later, many principals from the martial law regime remain entrenched in power along with pretty much the same ruling elite that prospered under martial law. Despite more democratic space, the same deep-seated problems of poverty and injustice remain. It is as if nothing has been learned—most Filipinos born after 1986 have no inkling of what happened before them—which is not surprising, because a definitive history of martial law and the FQS has yet to be written.
I’d like to help in redressing that amnesia by writing an oral history of the First Quarter Storm, a project that will involve conducting in-depth interviews with many of the surviving principals from that period—from the resistance, the government, the military, the religious, and ordinary citizens—while they are still alive and accessible. My interest in the subject is both personal and professional. As many readers know, I myself was imprisoned for seven months as an 18-year-old student activist in 1973, an experience that became the basis for my first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place (Anvil Publishing, 1992).
I’ll focus less on the broad sweep of policy than on personal narratives, contextualizing these against particular flash points of the FQS. These personal accounts, I think, will reach deeper into the consciousness of Filipinos today and allow them to grasp the realities and implications of martial law more effectively than an academic paper could.
I’ll be looking for personal stories—including but not limited to or focused on the most harrowing cases of torture and imprisonment (although we’ll certainly have those, unavoidably and necessarily). I’ll be looking for stories of everyday life both aboveground and in the underground; of people preparing for demonstrations and for war, of dealing with separation from family and loved ones, of watching from the sidelines (or even the other side of the barricades), of trying to live an ordinary life amid the chaos, of achieving some kind of balance between the personal and the political. I want stories of courage, of doubt, of heroism, of betrayal, of commitment, of guilt, of loss, of survival. I’ll also be looking for funny, poignant, ironic stories. And then I’ll have an update on everyone interviewed—what they did and what they became after the FQS—for a brief epilogue.
I have no overarching agenda for this book, just an honest recording of people’s memories (as flawed or as self-serving as they may turn out to be), before those participants in and witnesses to history vanish. I don’t mean for this book to be a manifesto or an indictment or any kind of political treatise; I will maintain strict journalistic and scholarly neutrality, endeavoring to gather a multitude and a variety of voices. I will be contextualizing what people say with some factual background, but I will not editorialize or romanticize or make judgmental commentary. Rather than take an obvious stance, I will let the book’s stories speak for themselves, and will leave it to the professional historians and political scientists to use the book as material for their critical evaluations. (In the interest of full disclosure, let me acknowledge a grant from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, which kindly offered their assistance after hearing about my project, as part of their own project for the documentation of the martial-law period.)
I’ve begun with a small group of people I know, which I expect to enlarge over the next year that I will devote to this project. (So far, they’ve included former SDK and later GMA spokesman Gary Olivar; former UP Vanguard and UPSCAn Ed Maranan; UP activist stalwart Rey Vea; former Makibaka member Sylvia Mesina; Cebu firebrand and now Judge Meinrado Paredes; colegiala-turned-activist Joy Jopson Kintanar; former UP Student Council Chairman and Upsilonian Manny Ortega; and Jesus Christ Superstar and Afterbirth mainstay Boy Camara, among others.) Of course, I’ll remain open to suggestions about whom else to reach out to. I’m particularly interested in stories from the military and the police, as well as from government officials, businessmen and ordinary citizens who may have vivid memories of that period. I’m interviewing people who were active in the Visayas and Mindanao. Sometime next year, on a visit to the US, I will also be interviewing US-based former activists and other principals.
If you think you have an interesting first-person story from that period that you can share with others—whatever your political position was then, or may be now—send me a message at my email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (I’m not surprised—I do feel doubly responsible—when some interviewees tell me that “I’m telling you my story so my children will know what really happened and what I did.”) I can’t promise to include everyone’s story in the final manuscript, which will be subject to space and other editorial limitations (I’ll be sending everyone whose story will be included a copy of the text, for their final revisions and approval); but I can promise to be fair, and to render what people tell me as faithfully as possible.
By so doing, I hope that this book can contribute to a deeper understanding of how democracy has been challenged and has survived in the Philippines, and to continuing efforts at national reconciliation, by bringing out the human and more personal aspects of a nation in crisis and a society under stress. This way, it might also provide guideposts for the thinking and behavior of young 21st century Filipinos facing their own choices and challenges as individuals and as citizens. Wish me luck!