Martial law: A little story from a dark period
This week, we mark the 47th anniversary of Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law. It is incredible to think how long ago that was. Our eldest son, CP, who turns 50 next year, was barely 2 years old. I doubt if he remembers anything of that fateful day in September 1972.
A phone call from my sister-in-law Dudi woke us up just before dawn. She and RC, my wife Karina’s elder brother, lived next door. In hushed tones, she told us that there were some soldiers at their front gate looking for “Daddy.” Daddy was RC’s and Karina’s father, Renato Constantino, the historian and journalist — a staunch critic of Marcos. She said that RC would stall and try to talk to the head of the arresting party, a certain Colonel Aure, to give us time to decide what to do. We called a friend, who confirmed that martial law had been declared.
RC’s foremost concern was to divert the soldiers’ attention and keep them from breaking into the main house, where we were staying. My in-laws were elsewhere, on an extended vacation. RC was aware of Karina’s active involvement in the university teachers’ movement against Marcos. The arresting party might just decide to take her. After some discussion, he offered to go with the soldiers, confirming that his name indeed was Renato Constantino. The arrest list did not say whether the order was for a Sr. or Jr.
I have vivid memories of that day, Sept. 23. Radio and television had ceased broadcasting. The newspapers for the day were not delivered. The streets were deserted. While the telephone lines remained open, they were used sparingly as we assumed they were tapped. And, of course, there was no internet yet during those years.
But all of us knew that the day we anticipated had finally come. Interestingly, we were not afraid. In theory, we knew the meaning of martial law. It meant that the president was putting on his hat as commander in chief of the armed forces in order to handle an emergency situation. It meant that he was taking full control of the powers of the state, and suspending all civil and political rights without the usual checks on these powers. It meant that the president would be calling on the armed forces to prevent or quell lawless violence resulting from an invasion, an insurrection or rebellion.
But no one knew exactly how Marcos would actually carry out martial law and for how long. Unlike the present Constitution, the 1935 Charter was not very specific about the scope and limit of these powers. Its framers obviously expected the nation’s leaders to use these emergency tools of the state with great restraint. Marcos himself thought it was necessary to make clear that martial law did not mean that the military was taking over. He assured the public that civilian authority remained in control of government, and that the armed forces were to take their orders from him as president of the country.
What Marcos, perhaps, did not anticipate was that by giving the military the power to assume functions previously exercised only by the civilian bureaucracy and elected public officials, he was effectively creating the very conditions that would later embolden the armed forces to attempt to seize political power.
Strangely enough, it came almost as a relief when, in the early evening of that day, television screens lit up. In a grainy static-filled broadcast, Marcos gravely announced that he had signed Proclamation 1081, placing the entire country under martial law in order “to save the Republic” from a supposed conspiracy of leftist and rightist elements. The entire proclamation, read by then Press Secretary Francisco Tatad, was dated Sept. 21, 1972, or two days earlier.
In the days that followed, my father-in-law Renato Constantino was arrested. He was put on indefinite house arrest and ordered to report to the military every month. The detention centers quickly filled up, and feeding the detainees was becoming a problem. My brother-in-law, RC, was released a few weeks later.
Karina and I decided that it was no longer safe for us to stay in her parents’ house. Having returned just a few weeks earlier from graduate studies abroad, I assumed I was not yet on the military radar. But it was clear to me that my wife’s life was in danger. We had received reports, a few days before martial law, that military agents were looking for her at her office in the University of the Philippines.
Declining the invitation of well-meaning friends to stay with them in underground safe houses, we moved from one relative’s house to another until we could find a small apartment far away from the academic communities of UP Diliman. The frequent moving affected our 2-year-old toddler, who was with us throughout. He had trouble sleeping. The faintest distant barking of dogs would wake him up at once.
It was during those fugitive months that our daughter Kara was conceived. When UP reopened, Karina took a maternity leave to justify her continuing absence from the university, and I went back to teaching.
Decades later, on a Navy boat that she had hitched a ride on to do a documentary on Kalayaan Island, Kara came face-to-face with the intelligence officer who had been assigned during martial law to do surveillance work on her activist mother. The man kept looking at Kara, a spitting image of the young Karina, whom he had stalked as a military agent, wondering if he was being haunted by a ghost from the past. Only later was he able to summon enough nerve to ask if Kara was related to her. He proceeded to unburden himself, telling her what he knew about her mother, the dossier he compiled on her, and — in hindsight — the pointlessness of it all.
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