(Editor’s note: The author, formerly an editor of the Philippine News Service and contributing editor of Weekly Graphic Magazine, was one of the journalists arrested and detained immediately after the proclamation of martial law. The PNS was sequestered by the government, and the Graphic closed down. The author is also spokesperson of the Movement for Truth in History.)
We mark the 40th anniversary of the proclamation of martial law by President Ferdinand Marcos on Sept. 21, 1972. It is essential to remind present and future generations about its baneful consequences to avoid falling into the same trap again. The following are worth remembering:
Martial law did not give a better life to our people. According to H. W. Brands, professor of history at Texas A. & M. University, in his book, “Bound to Empire,” the dictatorship made Filipinos poorer, with 60 percent of the population in 1986 living in “absolute poverty.”
In 1972, rated poverty in the Philippines was just 24 percent, according to a World Bank study.
‘New Society’ dictatorship
The Philippines fell from No. 2, next to Japan, in economic development in Asia in the 1950s to near bottom after 14 years of despotism, having been left behind by the newly industrialized countries of China, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan and South Korea. We became the perennial “sick man” of Asia.
The “New Society” dictatorship did not reform society, as Marcos promised, but worsened its ugliest features. The dictatorship strengthened the economic and social oligarchy, widened the gap between rich and poor, and deepened corruption, cronyism and foreign dependency.
In his book, “In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines,” American journalist/historian Stanley Karnow observed that after Marcos fled, the Philippines “was still a feudal society dominated by an oligarchy of rich dynasties, which had evolved from one of the world’s longest continuous spans of Western imperial rule.”
Marcos and his cronies stole billions of pesos from the treasury, foreign aid and foreign borrowings, Karnow wrote.
Marcos and Imelda, he said, had stashed $640 million in a Swiss bank, enough money that could have paid for the fraud-ridden Bataan nuclear power plant, which never took off and which it took years for the Philippines to repay.
The government is still trying to recover much of the stolen wealth.
Civil and political rights were abolished, Congress was dissolved, one-man rule was imposed and human rights were violated with impunity.
Thousands of Filipinos, idealistic youths, workers and peasants, men and women, professionals and students, suffered unjust imprisonment, torture, loss of jobs and unrecoverable opportunities for a better life, not to mention the sacrifice of their very lives, in the struggle against political oppression and for the restoration of civil liberty.
The continued violations of human rights and the impunity of authority, legal or illegal, is an enduring legacy until today.
The power of Marcos to issue decrees with the force of law did not make our laws wiser.
Among the thousands of Marcos decrees that continue to be enforced is Presidential Decree No. 1177, which mandates the automatic appropriation for the repayment of foreign debt, which has ballooned to $60 billion as of 2010 (Wikipedia), comprising 31 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).
Marcos’ contribution to that debt, which continues to be paid by succeeding generations, is $30 billion, according to Brands. Total public debt, including domestic, is now P5.6 trillion, 40 percent of which is in foreign currency.
Servicing of the public debt eats up to more than half of our P2 trillion budget, cutting down by half expenditures for food production, schools, health services, infrastructure, economic development and employment generation.
Marcos abolished the two-party political system that had given our country political stability since the first Philippine election in 1907. He introduced a multiparty political system that was a crossbreed between the parliamentary and the presidential systems.
Amazingly, succeeding administrations had perpetuated this crossbreed, breaking the tradition of party responsibility and continuity, and installing in its place political dynasties, multifarious political parties and celebrity politics.
Nation of migrants
Our political system has been dysfunctional since 1972, as the political system remains volatile, unable to recover its moorings. This is shown by unremitting attempts to amend the Constitution.
An estimated 10-million Filipinos have fled abroad to seek a better life and support their families. Millions more are waiting at the gates of foreign embassies for their chance to escape.
Labor exportation was initiated by the Marcos autocracy to stem domestic protest and earn additional foreign exchange to support the corrupt and luxurious lifestyle of the first family and its cronies.
At home, the slums are expanding, hunger is growing and hopelessness is written in the emaciated faces of our men, women and children.
A study shows we are becoming a nation of pygmies, as the emerging generations are smaller and shorter because of undernourishment.
The dictatorship failed to eliminate the leftist insurgency led by the Communist Party of the Philippines and the National Democratic Front. The movement continues to wage a nationwide armed struggle through the New People’s Army.
The Marcos regime also failed to stop the Moro insurgency, which started as a secessionist movement and exploded into an armed revolt after martial law was declared.
Both insurgencies were the principal causes cited for the imposition of martial law by Marcos’s Proclamation No. 1081. Fear of their eventual victory, especially that of the Communists, eventually prompted the Reagan administration to withdraw support from Marcos.
The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) forced Marcos to sign the Tripoli Agreement brokered by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. In the treaty, the Marcos dictatorship succumbed to the MNLF demand for Moro autonomy over large swaths of Mindanao.
For 14 years, the US government supported martial law in the Philippines until the eruption of the spontaneous 1896 People Power Revolution. The first nongovernmental organization to formally pass a resolution lauding martial law was the American Chamber of Commerce.
From 1972 until 1983, the US government provided $2.5 billion in bilateral military and economic aid to the Marcos regime, and about $5.5 billion through multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank (Wikipedia). It maintained the aid to ensure the stay of the US military bases in the Philippines and the total obeisance by the Marcos government to US foreign policies.
That experience should instruct Filipinos that they should strengthen their country economically, socially and politically so they will not have to depend on foreign countries, and they will be able to pursue their national interests independently and vigorously.
Not way to prosperity
In brief, the bitter experience demonstrates that authoritarianism is not the way to national prosperity.
In the heyday of martial law, its adherents, beneficiaries and courtiers, including avowed technocrats, boasted that authoritarianism was the best political system because it allowed the government to move faster, more efficiently and more honestly.
Like a train out of control, the government did move faster but, blinded by the corruption and greed of the engineer at the controls, it ended in a tragic crash, killing tens of thousands and injuring millions of innocent passengers, the Filipinos.