Never again, Martial Law!

This Tuesday, 21 September, as I try to do every year, I will bring my Constitutional Law students from the University of the Philippines (this year, it is Section I-C led by their president Mario Cerilles) to two places. First I will bring them to Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Monument of Heroes), a place where we remember those who fell in the dark night of Martial Law or, in the case of a few who survived that era, those who are recognized for their role in fighting the Marcos regime. Because they are future lawyers, I will particularly share with my students stories about two great human rights lawyers that I hope they would emulate – Jose W. Diokno and Haydee Yorac. From Bantayog ng Bayani, I will bring my students to the “heart of the beast” – to Malacanan Palace, to its museum, particularly to the Gallery of the Presidents. Among others, I will make them sit in the seat and desk of President Manuel L. Quezon where President Ferdinand E. Marcos first announced the declaration of Martial Law. I will also make them wave from the same balcony from where President Marcos waved goodbye to his supporters I 1986 as he and his family was about the leave for exile.

During the visit to Malacanan, I will also give a short lecture on the extraordinary powers – particularly Martial Law and other emergency powers – of the President of the Republic. Whenever it is possible, I also ask a Malacanan official to talk to my students about the challenge of working in the Palace. This year, we are lucky to have Assistant Executive Secretary Ronnie Geron, a long time friend and colleague and a contemporary of mine from the UP College of Law with whom I have worked with on human rights and environmental issues, to share with us his insights. But most of all, I will try very hard to convince my students to share with me a solemn vow: “Never again, Martial Law!”

Thirty-eight years ago, on this day in 1972, President Ferdinand E. Marcos issued Proclamation No. 1081, with which he imposed Martial Law on the Philippines. On this day, civil rights and civil courts were suspended, Congress was abolished, the Opposition detained, the media silenced, and the military given near absolute impunity. Marcos’ reasons for doing this purportedly were to bring stability to a country and its people rocked by lawlessness, economic instability, and insurgency; and on a larger scale, supposedly to reform Philippine society into a “Bagong Lipunan” (New Society). But soon enough, the true color of the new regime revealed itself.

Marcos used Martial Law to stay in power for another 14 years. We remember this dark chapter in Philippine history as having changed forever the direction, both of our democracy and of the lives of those who lived through that history, including for my generation. At the same time, a more sober and balanced assessment of this period of our history would show that the Marcos government did accomplish significant things for the country. Whenever I review the Cabinets of various administrations since Marcos, I still consider the Cabinet he appointed unparalleled in many aspects. I am still awed by the intellectual power and competence of those Marcos appointed (and wonder why very few in government today approximate their abilities) to help him run the country – giants like Rafael Salas, Onofre Corpuz, Geronimo Velasco, Cesar Virata, Juan Ponce Enrile, and Vicente Paterno. Many of our government institutions today were built by these men and the Marcos government and for that the country should also be grateful.

While recognizing the achievements of the Marcos era, on the balance though, I do not believe that giving up democracy and human rights could ever be justified. In the end, even the achievements of Marcos were not sustained as cronyism and autocracy reared its ugly heads. Benjamin Franklin once expressed that those who give up essential liberty to obtain temporary safety deserve neither. For this reason, on this day, I think we should all make a solemn promise, “Never again!”

But what does “Never again” mean? First, let’s be clear that it’s not about Imelda Marcos or the Marcos children. They have to be judged on their own merits. Personally, I like the two Marcos children who are in public life – Governor Imee Marcos and Senator Bongbong Marcos. I find them intelligent and engaged and I am glad that they are in politics.  “Never again” is a promise built into the present Constitution which emphasizes that any Martial Law declaration is always temporary, and subject to review by Congress and the Supreme Court. Even in the criticisms of how media handled the Quirino Grandstand hostage crisis, we see another important post-Marcos legacy; that of the Philippine press described as one of the freest in Asia. While our media is not immune to flaws, as was apparent last August 23, it doesn’t deserve veiled threats of additional regulatory legislation, even for the national interest. There are dangerous implications in this—a lesson of Martial Law.

The spirit of EDSA is also the lesson of Marcos’ regime, two sides of the same coin: people themselves must be able to “own” government, and take responsibility for their country. When people are actively involved in the public sphere, helping their country develop equitably, there are fewer avenues for autocrats to hijack government for their own benefit. Also, government will not find a need for drastic measures to ensure, on its own, Philippine stability and prosperity. Filipinos must help one another solve their problems of poverty, corruption, the peace process, climate change, and so forth, and not just leave it to the leadership or a messianic figure. We may have a messy democracy, but if we are not afraid to dirty our hands in it through participatory governance and social accountability, and not wait for government to act in our place, we all can build it to a democracy we can be proud of, and truly call ourselves with pride, Filipinos.

More than a remembrance of the past, today is a good time to remember that we are called to step up to the challenges our country faces, and help resolve them one day at a time, one contribution of ours at a time. Through this, we honor the victims of Martial Law, as well as the spirit of democracy. What the country must to is to reduce the need to depend on messianic figures to “save our country”; instead we must work to help the gods help us (to reverse the well-known adage). We can call ourselves Filipinos and democrats when we behave as such. This is the meaning of “Never Again.”

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