Regime of lies
The martial law regime of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos was built on a foundation of lies, wrapped in a scaffolding of deceit, surrounded by the barbed wire of half-truths. The official date which the dictatorship itself considered the start of the so-called New Society was, for instance, fabricated out of Marcos’ obsession with numerology. Because of his fascination with the number seven and its multiples, the sorry, sordid history of martial law began, deliberately, with a lie.
Martial law did not take effect on Sept. 21, 1972. Rather, it was late in the evening of the following day, a Friday, when the ambush of Juan Ponce Enrile, then Marcos’ defense secretary, was faked; when the actual order to execute Proclamation No. 1081 was issued; and when the first arrests, beginning with that of opposition leader Sen. Ninoy Aquino at a Senate committee meeting, were made.
Within a few hours, newspapers were shut down and TV and radio stations pulled off the air; hundreds of people the Marcoses considered dangerous were rounded up, and thousands of soldiers controlled the streets. In other words, the historical fact of Marcos’ seizure of absolute power took place in the last hours of Sept. 22 and the first hours of Sept. 23—but dictatorial caprice rewrote the history books.
Marcos invested himself in that original lie; he even decreed that Sept. 21 be commemorated every year as National Thanksgiving Day. But that, too, was a fabrication. He, his wife and family, his cronies, his favored military officers, had billions of reasons to feel grateful, but the nation itself had nothing to be thankful for.
Why is it important to emphasize that martial law was, in fact, imposed on another date? Because this founding lie symbolizes the infrastructure of deceit that the martial law regime, the entire Marcosian edifice of constitutional authoritarianism, was built on. Because the fact that too many Filipinos do not know the true date demonstrates the lasting legacy of martial law propaganda. And because that Marcos propaganda machine is revving up again.
There were other, more consequential lies. It simply wasn’t true, as Marcos apologist Teodoro M. Valencia once argued in an international publication, that ours was a “smiling Martial Law.” Thousands of people died extrajudicially, many more were tortured or savaged, and students who dared ask the dictator’s eldest daughter impertinent questions in public disappeared.
It simply wasn’t true, as the dictator’s namesake son once argued, that we were on our way to becoming another Singapore, when his father was forced to flee the presidential palace. By the early 1980s, the real effects of the systematic and large-scale plunder of the economy could no longer be obscured. In 1983, after Ninoy Aquino was assassinated by Marcos’ soldiers, the economy neared collapse.
And it simply wasn’t true, as the dictator himself argued over and over again, that the communist insurgency in 1972 was massive enough, had strength and momentum enough, to pose a clear and present national security threat to the Republic. American officials in both the US Embassy in Manila and at the State Department warned Philippine officials that the threat was highly exaggerated. But like the foreign debt incurred by Marcos, the communist insurgency during the martial law years grew dramatically, and by roughly the same proportion: about thirtyfold.
It has taken us over a generation to recover economically from the Marcos plunder, but the political and cultural costs of those dark years continue to be carried in our collective books of account. In part that is because the lies and deceits and half-truths propagated by the Marcoses were repeated so often, drummed into the national subconscious so relentlessly, that many Filipinos mistake them as real. And in part that is because the Marcoses never really left. Only the dictator died in consuming exile; everyone else returned. In 1992, Imelda even ran for president. Today she remains what she always was: a celebrity, famous for being famous, notorious for her notoriety. She acts as though her glamour, diminished as it is, can bury the unpleasant truth. We must set history right.
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