Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Best of 2012: Thoughts on democracy from a martial law baby

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, and tweeter


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



submit a comment

Similar Articles

Best of 2012: Fear the politicians of the future

  • Ellena Savage
  • 11 January 2013

If my short tenure in university politics gave me anything, it is an appreciation for non-politicians. Not only did Barbara Ramjan's allegations against Tony Abbott not surprise me, the honest brutality of the act sounds preferable to the slow, steady harassment that sustains student politicians these days. Friday 28 September 


Best of 2012: If Clive Palmer was a High Court judge

  • Patrick McCabe
  • 11 January 2013

Imagine Attorney-General Nicola Roxon appoints Palmer as the newest High Court judge. Justice Palmer sets about rewriting the law in radical ways, freeing mining companies from regulation and approving disbanding the Australian Greens. Surely such an appointment could be challenged? Actually, no. Monday 21 May