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Journey of a conscience

I was 13 when martial law was declared. I was in the car with the guys I played basketball with when someone said that we were under martial law. It was my first encounter with the ominous-sounding term.

During the next few days, word spread about people being placed in stockade. Long hair was banned. A midnight curfew was imposed. Television and radio stations were muted; newspapers closed down. We soon heard martial strains of music extolling the so-called “New Society.” “Discipline” became a catchword.

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Some time later, I won our high school essay writing contest with a piece titled, “A Year After Martial Law.” I wrote about a sense of order and discipline, some infrastructure work, the continuing Green Revolution, etc. We were a nation on the way to greatness, I wrote. Or so I thought. I had no way of knowing the other side of the picture.

My earliest memory of President Marcos was during one of his re-election sorties in the south in 1968 with his wife and her Blue Ladies. My parents were in one such event. When they got home, my mother gushed with admiration, “How beautiful Imelda is!”

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My siblings and I were insulated from the student activism of the late ’60s and early ’70s as we were too young and seldom discussed politics at home. I just felt that something chaotic was brewing and that young people were in the thick of things. Two political incidents remain etched in my memory: the Plaza Miranda bombing in August 1971 and the May 1972 exposé of bribery during the 1971 Constitutional Convention. I sympathized with the whistleblower who implicated former first lady Imelda Marcos because he wanted “to do the right thing.”

The martial law years went by quickly. By then, my conscience was certain that the era, especially the first four years, was good. My siblings and I had little opportunity to see the other side. One such opportunity was through my mother’s older brother. Every time we were in Cebu, we would visit him, and he would start his long monologue on the evils of Marcos and martial law. We soon learned to distract ourselves while he talked. Our minds were closed.

I was already working in 1981 when news spread of the tragic accident during the construction of the Manila Film Center. I recoiled with horror and anger upon hearing that many workers, some of whom were still alive, were allegedly buried in quick-hardening cement just to satisfy someone’s whims. It dawned on me that the people in power had no regard for human life, and that such “edifice complex” was symptomatic of a naked thirst for power and of untrammeled corruption.

My departure for the United States was postponed for two days because the plane that was supposed to fly me out was the same one taken by Sen. Ninoy Aquino, who was shot dead on the tarmac, when the plane landed in Manila on Aug. 21, 1983. I was not in the country during the resulting political turmoil. Television was my only access to the peaceful turnover of power in 1986. Two of my siblings were part of the crowd that ousted the Marcoses in Edsa I.

It was in the US, while doing research for further studies on political science, when I started seeing a clearer picture of martial law. Martial law was actually a power grab to perpetuate the rule of one family in power. The dictatorship, notwithstanding improvements in infrastructure and other areas, had actually created and exacerbated economic and political woes.

The formation of conscience and discernment is a never-ending process since new realities emerge, and evil often disguises itself as good. “Error, indeed, is never set forth in its naked deformity, lest, being thus exposed, it should at once be detected. But it is craftily decked out in an attractive dress, so as, by its outward form, to make it appear to the inexperienced … more true than the truth itself.” (St. Irenaeus).

The passage of the years has allowed me to be in touch with victims of martial law, either because they were targeted or found themselves haplessly in the middle of warring forces, or were burdened with exercising power without reference to conscience. We are all still in need of healing.

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But healing requires that we do not forget the past. To forgive and forget lead to social and political dysfunction. The May 2022 elections posed challenges not faced in the 1986 elections. Pope Francis has warned us that the current “information-driven society … [often] leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment.”

May God have mercy on us.

* * *

Fr. Victor Carmelo O. Diola is a politically engaged priest and a Filipino citizen.

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TAGS: Commentary, Marcos martial law, martial law baby, Victor Carmelo O. Diola
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