Last Sept. 17 we had a “Kuwentuhan,” a story-telling session around martial law, one of several activities organized by the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. The activities revolve around the theme “Martial Law@40,” which is intended to bridge a growing generation gap between those who lived through martial law and experienced the worst of the dictatorship, and, since then, two generations of Filipinos.
The divide could not have been clearer at the symposium, which had a very young audience (most of the students being below 20 years of age, meaning they were born after the 1986 Edsa revolt that toppled the dictatorship). The faculty members present were also quite young, including Associate Dean Neil Marcial Santillan, literally a martial law baby born on Sept. 21, 1972. He recalls that the only “oppression” he experienced during those dark years was the banning of Voltes V, a popular Japanese cartoon, from local TV.
On the other side of the divide were the martial law story-tellers, including cultural activist Behn Cervantes and former senator Rene Saguisag, both in their 70s. Dr. Sylvia Ciocon de la Paz entered medical school in the 1970s, and anthropologist Nestor (Etoy) Castro was relieved to report he was the youngest in the panel, entering UP in 1976. The panel moderator was history professor Ferdinand Llanes, born before martial law and in fact named after a still greatly admired and charismatic senator, Ferdinand Marcos.
Throughout the day there were constant reminders of the martial law era fading into some kind of Paleolithic past. A history student referred to the exhibited martial law memorabilia as “artifacts” and thanked the people who had loaned the items, which she said would allow the young ones glimpses into the lives of our “ninuno” or ancestors.
But can we blame the student for thinking of martial law as part of a very distant past?
If we forget, it is because we are made to forget by a system that has devalued history as part of the school curricula, and has erased controversies from the few history books that we have. The likes of Macario Sakay, who rose to revolt against the Americans, if at all remembered are labeled as ladrones (thieves). Our own Palma Hall—the site of many rallies and protest actions from the First Quarter Storm of 1970 onward—is better known as the “AS” (Arts and Sciences) building, and if you do ask students who Palma is, they’d be hard pressed to answer that he was not just an academic but also a courageous writer who defied sedition laws.
Among the panelists’ stories, Etoy Castro’s was the most gripping because he talked about how he was arrested (“invited,” according to his military captors) and tortured during martial law—one of thousands who suffered. Yet, before the symposium he told me how his houseboy had seen the documents regarding the torture and had asked in Filipino: “Sir, who tortured you? The Japanese?”
I was jarred by that account, realizing that martial law shouldn’t be just about history, but about remembering a time when Filipinos tortured, maimed, and killed fellow Filipinos. At the symposium, Etoy said that even worse than the physical torture was the psychological torment, and again, I thought of how the entire nation was in fact constantly in mental torture, the worst being the way Filipinos could no longer trust fellow Filipinos. Dictatorships thrive by creating a psychological uneasiness, a sense of being constantly under watch, under surveillance. Even as a university student, I would wonder who among my classmates were “ajax” (government agents).
It wasn’t just activists who suffered. Senator Saguisag talked about how courtroom proceedings became a travesty, with judges silencing and sanctioning human rights lawyers. It was an era marked by the arbitrariness of law, which contributed to the people’s fear. In urban slums and even more so in rural areas, nights seemed so much longer whenever there were rumors that the military was about to conduct a raid and where anyone could be picked up on suspicion of being a subversive. I never forgot how, one night, a Kalinga mother tried to get a crying baby to sleep by knocking on the door and saying, “solchacho, solchacho” (soldiers, soldiers). Senator Saguisag was not exaggerating when he said that his son, born in October 1972, came into the world a slave.
People did resist, and found many creative ways for this resistance. Behn Cervantes talked about how, in contrast to Imelda Marcos’ grand cultural shows, groups like Gintong Silahis went around schools and communities, daring to protest through theater.
Sylvia de la Paz’s story was the most heartwarming, about how she, a politically naïve colegiala, was exposed to the realities of poverty in the Philippines, first as a psychology undergraduate in UP, and then later, in medical school, through a boyfriend and classmate, Bobby, who nearly dropped out of school, frustrated that their medical training was irrelevant to social needs. They did rural service together, married, and decided to stay on to serve in impoverished Samar, where one summer day in April 1982, an assassin gunned down Bobby.
History consists of many tapestries, and the one of martial law will need many weavers. We will need different voices, from all political sides, from all walks of life, but the stories must involve truth-telling, not a distortion of history as we are beginning to see in some of the accounts about martial law: such lines as Marcos being a good man and that it was his wife that did him in, or that given more time, Marcos and martial law could have worked out by disciplining the Filipino.
More time? Marcos had 21 years, seven as a democratically elected president and 14 as a dictator. Discipline has become a much-abused term, and Sylvia could not have framed it better by asking if we Filipinos want a discipline instilled through fear or a discipline of self, coming out of concern for others.
Martial law’s dark legacies linger today. Thousands of detainees and others who suffered during the regime still wait for justice even as we hear of more human rights abuses similar to those of martial law—for example, ongoing militarization in Bondoc peninsula, Quezon province, and many parts of Mindanao.
The martial law stories must be told, and soon.
Regarding other commemorative activities, film showings are scheduled on Sept. 20 at Room 400, Palma Hall: 8:30-11:30 a.m., “Sister Stella L” (directed by Mike de Leon, and not Lino Brocka, as I wrote last week), 1-3 p.m., “Dekada ’70,” and 3-5 p.m., “Ka Oryang.”
I wanted to plug in another activity for Sept. 20: from 7 p.m. onward there will be a tribute for human rights lawyer and anti-martial law activist Romy Capulong at the Church of the Risen Lord.
On Sept. 21, we will have a concert at 6 p.m. at the “AS steps” and the relaunch of “Tibak Rising,” a book of stories from martial law activists, edited by Ferdinand Llanes.