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Commentary

Ninoy’s arrest

On Sept. 22, 1972, the joint congressional committee on tariff reforms of the 7th Congress met for the last time at the executive suite of the Manila Hilton on Isaac Peral (now UN Avenue). Present were Senators Arturo Tolentino (majority leader), Lorenzo Teves (committee chair), and Jose Roy, John Osmeña and Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. (members).

I was 26 and technical assistant to Senator Osmeña—first, when he was a member of the House of Representatives in 1969, and later of the Senate in 1971. I backstopped him in the session halls of Congress on P. Burgos, Intramuros, and closely observed Ninoy: bright, robust and full of life. But that night at the Hilton he looked forlorn, tight-lipped and reserved. He lay flat on a bed in a private corner while his colleagues acted on every amendment for a new tariff code. When the item on an armored vehicle was called, Ninoy rose and registered a negative vote for its preferential levy. Teves asked him teasingly why he was now voting against it: “Bakit ayaw mo na? You presented a creditable position on this item to enhance security measures much earlier, di ba?” Ninoy simply smiled wryly and resumed resting.

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At around 9:30 p.m. the phone beside me rang and I lifted it. “Hello, this is Col. Romeo Gatan. Is Senator Aquino with you in the meeting?” said the voice at the other end. “Yes, sir,” I replied tartly. “Please advise him I’m coming up” was the abrupt message.

Osmeña inquired who the caller was and, having been told, scolded me: “You should have said [Ninoy] was not around.” I shot back: “I cannot lie, sir.”

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In less than a minute Gatan appeared, escorted by hotel staffers. Dressed in combat fatigue, he wore around his waist a leather belt with full cartridges of a .38 cal magnum revolver tucked in its holster. Dark-skinned and stocky, he cut a figure of a smart and cocky praetorian guard: “Sirs, I’m Colonel Gatan, presidential security. Martial law has been declared by President Marcos and I’m here to arrest Senator Aquino.”

“Do you have a warrant?” asked Roy. “None, sir, but I have my orders,” replied Gatan. “Do you have a copy of the proclamation? You must give us one,” Tolentino insisted. “It’s a long document, sir. I’m sorry I don’t have a copy now. Senator Aquino must come with me!” Gatan said.

Ninoy, who was presumably listening to the curt exchanges, rose. Pale-faced, he patted Gatan on the shoulder and told his colleagues: “Ah, Colonel Gatan! Provincial commander ito ng Tarlac.” Gatan said: “I have orders from President Marcos, sir, to arrest you. It’s martial law. Please come with me.” Ninoy turned to his fat and curly-haired karatista bodyguard and told him to stay put: “Wag ka susunod. Dito ka lang.”

Ninoy and Gatan exited and the staffers closed the door for the privacy of the senators. It was my last glimpse of Ninoy, who was subsequently tried and convicted by a military court of subversion and murder, and sentenced to death before a firing squad.

Teves asked Tolentino how long he thought martial law would last. Tolentino said it would probably take a while: “Palagay ko matatagalan.” Grumbled Osmeña: “Eh privilege speech ko ito sa plenary, p-ñeta!” Roy winced.

The next day, the media were dead—print, radio, TV. Congress was padlocked. Not a single open demurrer was heard in the armed forces. Members of the opposition were pinpointed and arrested en masse in a 24-hour period. The lengthy Proclamation 1081 and the completeness of its implementing decrees and instructions argue absolutely against weekend spontaneity. Ferdinand Marcos was a historical force; it was simply not in his character to act haphazardly or impulsively.

The people acquiesced, and remembered all: local warlords who stood arrogantly above the law, padded payrolls and manipulated public contracts, protected vice dens, smuggling activities and drugs; a Congress that refused to pass a budget unless its members were first assured of their personal interests and the reward of their protégés; an electorate who sold their birthrights for a job or a P20 bill for a vote; the absence of a civic spirit that refused to budge even if traffic was clogged for a day; and a sick society who lost all its senses, and well on the way to a terrible death.

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In response to a decree, loose guns and other weapons of death in the hands of the evil and irresponsible, came flooding into our safekeeping, people formed disciplined lines, and started paying their taxes. Jaywalkers disappeared. Government personnel came to work on time, became miraculously courteous and attentive. Crime dropped dramatically. Our international credit was restored, reserves went up, investments and tourists started coming in, and suddenly there was hope. The shock became that of a cold, clean bath after decades of sloppiness and dirt. I remember all this for my generation was there.

Martial law was the bridge that Marcos built to arrive at the rich and happy land our heroes envisioned. National salvation lies on a disciplined citizenry, civic-spirited and guided by a competent and self-effacing national leadership. A prescient student of history and law, Marcos knew historical judgment can come only from notable achievements of a strong state.

Only a mission of this vast scope could move a people to delegate their sovereign will to one man, and only history can reveal the validity of the people’s trust.

Marcos critics have insisted that the provision of martial law in the 1935 Constitution could not have comprehended both the restructuring of government and society. Marcos would agree with them, on the plausible conceptual basis that the primordial principle of self-preservation cannot logically allow an organism to contain contradictory principle for its own annihilation.

But a political system is a function of society. It exists solely as a social servomotor to be modified or replaced by it at its sole discretion. Per se, it has neither a life nor a claim to life as that of a tractor. Mere acceptance by society of a new political system is enough justification for the destruction of the old.

We make the assumption that there is a majority whose general obedience underlies the stability of a political system. It would be misleading to introduce quantification.

Seven strong provinces, united in common cause with the government, may bring to heel 70 weak ones. The point is, a government must have on its side enough of the body politic and its political subdivisions to quell any political challenge to its continued existence.

What defines “enough”? Success in maintaining its integrity defines “enough.” For a totalitarian political system, a preponderance of armed might may be its effective majority. For a representative political system, one extra vote is a majority.

Reynaldo V. Silvestre, a retired colonel and multiawarded writer, belongs to Class 1968 of UP Vanguard, Diliman. He was teaching political theory at UP Manila when called to active duty as first lieutenant in 1975. In 1969 he was a member of the technical panel of the Commission on Reorganization, chaired by Abelardo Samonte, vice president for academic affairs of the UP System. His report was the basis of General Order No. 1, reorganizing the government under martial law.

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TAGS: Ferdinand Marcos, martial law, Ninoy Aquino, Romeo Gatan
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