Thoughts on democracy from a martial law baby

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Ferdinand Marcos salutes military during martial lawFerdinand Marcos had been Philippine president for seven years when martial law took effect on 21 September 21 1972 — 40 years ago today. It was a unilateral decision, made under the pretext of securing the state against communists and dissidents. It essentially kept Marcos in power far beyond his mandate.

When martial law was lifted nearly a decade later, the damage to democratic structures was thorough. Marcos had abolished Congress, made himself concurrent president and prime minister, politicised the military, detained political opponents and student activists, tightened control over the press, and sequestered corporations for distribution among his cronies.

The end of martial law was a mere technicality. There was no longer any need for legislation to keep people compliant since terror had become internalised. That is how dictatorships work: foment fear by demonstrating that it is well-founded.

According to historian Alfred McCoy, there were 3257 extrajudicial executions during the regime. Over 70 per cent of these involved the calculated dumping of mutilated bodies on roadsides and empty blocks. An estimated 35,000 were tortured and 70,000 imprisoned. More than 700 people 'disappeared' between 1975 and 1985.

It is a mark of the oppressiveness of the regime that the atrocities it perpetrated did not penetrate the bubble in which we grew up. I was born during this time, part of a generation dubbed 'martial law babies'. This generation, as well as those born from 1965 onwards, grew up not knowing any other president. By the time Marcos was deposed, he had been in power for 20 years.

His forced departure by unarmed civilians was an anomaly in 1986. Nothing like it had happened previously. The People Power revolution, which saw two million Filipinos converge at Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), corrected the dysfunction of martial law. It re-established civilian supremacy over the armed forces.

This became the template for subsequent upheavals elsewhere, from Berlin to Bucharest. We saw it reprised more recently in Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli. Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi were Marcos contemporaries who finally met a similar fate, more than two decades later.

As it turns out, there are no textbook outcomes from removing textbook dictators.

Toppling regimes is not simply the means to an end where people may breathe more freely. It is the segue to further tumult as power vacuums fill, competing narratives wrestle, reforms are delayed, and in many cases, perpetrators of abuse continue to walk the corridors of power with impunity.

It is a volatile phase, which countries that had jubilantly ushered the Arab Spring are now discovering.

The Philippine experience shows that it is not enough to be free. It is not enough to have a constitution that preserves democratic principles, or to have a free press. It is not enough even to hold elections, that hallowed signifier of civilised society. Democracy, it turns out, is a test of endurance and vigilance. It is a long game.

Cory Aquino, the beacon of EDSA, endured several coup attempts during her term. The next president, Fidel Ramos, saw his economic and social reforms squandered by his successor, Joseph Estrada — a shambolic former actor who was elected on a pro-poor platform. Estrada was deposed halfway through his term in a second revolution, after his allies in the senate aborted his impeachment trial. He is a convicted plunderer.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who completed the rest of his term, reneged on a commitment to eschew a full presidential term. She was found to have inappropriately contacted an electoral officer during the election that extended her presidency. She has been charged with electoral sabotage and is on bail.

It is not surprising then that many Filipinos look back on the Marcos era with nostalgia; a misguided longing for the certainty, stability and security the regime provided in its own dysfunctional fashion.

The hard realities of governance and complexity of reform can be disillusioning after the euphoria of liberation. And the truth is, democracy makes progress a messy and unpredictable affair, infuriatingly prone to setbacks. This disillusionment may already be playing out in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

According to Freedom House project director Vanessa Tucker, 'There are limits to citizens' patience with respect to political instability, economic disruption and physical insecurity.' She fears that the desire to return to a less chaotic environment may lead back to authoritarian rule. We can only hope that this is not the case, that the people who overthrew despots last year will see the long game.

Many of the anti-Marcos dissenters and activists stayed the course, long enough to construct what is now a stable and functional government under Benigno Aquino III. Some of them chose to work at the grassroots and established NGOs that have strengthened civil society.

As a result of these and other factors, the Philippines is enjoying a period of economic growth and social reform.

It took 26 years. But democracy, as Filipinos have found, is a game to be played for keeps. 


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer, blogger and tweeter

 


Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, Arab Spring


 

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one would see that in most written accounts of what happened during the Martial Law, there's a substantial amount of bias against it. This is I don't understand. For example, deaths, abducted, missing individuals are almost always attributed to be the wrongdoing of the government forces. This is ridiculous because the rebels had their share of atrocities against innocent civilians during that time. In fact, based from what I've heard from my grandparents, they said that they were more afraid to the rebels than to the military because the rebels imposes their authority to do anything at will.
John Ultra | 21 September 2012


well said. at least democracy gives people chance to get merit for own work.
aj cab | 21 September 2012


"It is not surprising then that many Filipinos look back on the Marcos era with nostalgia; a misguided longing for the certainty, stability and security the regime provided in its own dysfunctional fashion." Sounds like those who would take us back to pre-Vatican II, when things were certain and the priest told you what to do, think and say.
ErikH | 21 September 2012


John, when you say rebels, who do you mean? The New People's Army? The Moro Islamic Liberation front? The resistance to Marcos was complex but I don't see how your grandparents' recollection invalidates the bigger picture of state-sanctioned terror. I also don't follow your point about bias. Many who disappeared, were tortured, imprisoned or killed were dissidents and activists. This is a matter of public record.
Fatima Measham | 21 September 2012


ERIKH: Nostalgia... "Sounds like those who would take us back to pre-Vatican II, when things were certain and the priest told you what to do, think and say". Exactly. This was a hangover from the times when the clergy belonged to a minority group who received an education, and the majority of people were illiterate and dependent on what they were told. Unfortunately many of the Hierarchy act as if this is still the case, and having achieved Visions of Ideals, want to present them as "fiats" instead of leading by encouragement,persuasion, and example. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Robert Liddy | 21 September 2012


Below is a comment from the Philippines after I shared your article with him.

"this writer is out-of-touch with history and with current temper here in the Phils.

It is not surprising then that many Filipinos look back on the Marcos era with nostalgia; a misguided longing for the certainty, stability and security the regime provided in its own dysfunctional fashion.


Many of the anti-Marcos dissenters and activists stayed the course, long enough to construct what is now a stable and functional government under Benigno Aquino III. Some of them chose to work at the grassroots and established NGOs that have strengthened civil society.

Ang layo .... the vestiges of Martial law - dynasty, impunity, kleptocracy, just-tiis system, corrupt gov't institutions - remain just as prevalent. Who's our senate president ... how many Marcoses are in power?

The rot that Marcos spread in Phil society continue to operate."
Jan | 21 September 2012


Just read an article in The Inquirer (Philippines) narrating a story of Marcos, while talking to a political ally shortly after taking power, blaming the Americans for his action. He is reputed to have said that the Americans preferred a dictatorship to a communist takeover of the Philippines.

In the early 1970s, the communist insurgency was a serious threat and the Americans were embroiled in the Vietnam war. This story, unverified as it is, sits well with American geopolitical actions during this period of history.
Peter Bachelor | 22 September 2012


Peter, the US' propping up of Marcos regime is verified quite widely, along with Nicaragua, Chile, etc etc
AURELIUS | 22 September 2012


Thank you for writing your article,"Thoughts on Democracy from a Martial Law Baby". Your article should inspire others especially the children of your age group and beyond to be good citizens and live by the rules that will prevent martial law in their time.
Steve Racilis | 22 September 2012


Jan, thanks for sharing that comment. I concede that the Marcos regime casts a very long shadow. I had not meant to be dismissive of daily realities. But I did mean that the 'game' is not over - perhaps 'struggle' is a better word. In any case, the negative aspects bear closer analysis for another time.

For instance, while I think Marcos wrecked the political culture, the feudal system pre-existed his regime. I had a conversation about this with a Manila-based friend recently; he said that Filipinos have a dysfunctional relationship with authority and a disconnection from ideas about the common good. That's not just due to Marcos. It may be traceable to nearly 400 years of Spanish colonisation followed immediately by almost half a century of American administration, then the disruption of WWII. Marcos became president only 20 years after that war, then held office for the next 20 years. 

In many ways, the Philippine experience is unique. At some point, I couldn't reasonably draw parallels to the Arab Spring. 
Fatima Measham | 23 September 2012


As one who lived and studied at a hot-house of anti marcos revolutionaries in mid '80s[viz Ateneo de Manila University-Cory dropped in for theol lectures], It is hard to read of "nostalgia" for Marcos era,bit like nostalgia for order within the 3rd Reich.
Father John Michael George | 28 September 2012


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