Martial law, baby

Forty years after Proclamation 1081 plunged the country into the abyss of military rule, a new legacy of the dictatorship has come into focus: the startling reality that a new generation of “martial law babies” was born many years after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos.

The original martial law babies were children who grew up in the 1970s, unaware of the true nature of the dictatorship but accustomed over time to certain arrangements—the new normal—of the so-called New Society.

The members of the new generation were likely born in the last two decades, well after democracy was restored in 1986 or after Marcos died in 1989. But they share the same characteristics as the members of the old: a general lack of awareness of the true nature of the Marcos years, and an acceptance of martial law legacies as part of the norm.

It may be useful, then, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of martial law—the proclamation was dated Sept. 21, 1972, but it took effect, swiftly, staggeringly, on Sept. 23—by pointing out the continuing effects of Marcos misrule to the new generation.

The most pernicious of these legacies is the politicization of the Philippine military. Through martial law, the armed services were transformed from a complement of the government to a co-governor; graduates of the Philippine Military Academy began to see national leadership positions as a natural stop on their career path; the overarching principle of national security started to dictate all sorts of government policy. To an extent perhaps unimaginable by today’s generation, the military was in charge.

That was precisely what was at stake during the coup attempts of the 1980s, after the Marcoses fled the country; a newly restored democracy was struggling for its very existence against elements of the military who felt entitled to run government itself.

While the Armed Forces has since “returned to barracks,” as the phrase goes, the effects of Marcos-era politicization continue to linger: the bloated ranks of generals, the dizzying use of the revolving door to turn ex-generals into civilian officials or elected politicians, the still-wide lifestyle divide between officers and the rank and file, the repeated invocation of national security to cover a multitude of sins and, not least, the continuing prominence of military-police-security issues in the national agenda.

There are many other martial law legacies that the new martial law babies may take for granted. The notion, for example, of an exceptionally powerful presidency. While this understanding has a long history, beginning with the special powers enjoyed by Spanish governors-general and including the experiments in executive expansion conducted by Manuel Quezon, it was Marcos who centralized all available power in the presidency. To an extent perhaps unimaginable by today’s generation, the Marcos presidency was the be-all and end-all of Philippine politics.

But even today, even under a Constitution that has curtailed the powers of the presidency, raised the office of the Ombudsman to a new level of power and independence, and empowered local governments, Malacañang continues to dominate the policy agenda.

Still another legacy is the economy. While GDP growth has been continuous for about a dozen years, and the Philippines’ debt-paying capacity has increased dramatically, the country is still playing catch up with its potential—a promise that 20 years of Marcos rule had blithely thrown away. Incurring billions of dollars in foreign debt, indulging cronies as they divided the spoils of business among themselves, spending lavish amounts of money on unnecessary projects: To an extent perhaps unimaginable by today’s generation, the government then was breathtakingly irresponsible.

But we must confess: It isn’t just the new generation of martial law babies who have come to accept these and other martial law legacies as the new normal. Even those who survived the trauma of those tragic years can sometimes forget that things didn’t have to be this way—that the proper role for the military in a democracy is subsidiary, that real power may be exercised away from Malacañang.

It may be the role of the members of the new generation to help turn things around. They can take heart from the example of many of their counterparts, who grew up to fight the dictator.

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Tags: editorial , Ferdinand Marcos , martial law , Military , ``martial law babies’’

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