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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

above the law: the marcos regime

Circumstances have it that just before the Martial Law declaration, there was an upsurge in student activism, an organized rebel group was established, and acts of violence were on the rise. Students marched the streets of Manila and other key Philippine cities to denounce the country’s plights like notorious graft and corruption, human rights violations, astronomical tuition fees, militarization as well as military abuses, the staying power of the U.S. bases and the cooptation between the US and Marcos’ puppet government. Meanwhile, the same sentiments felt by the students caused the revival of and quest for reform by communist movement activities under the guerilla tag Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army. Meanwhile, terrorist incidents disturbed Metro Manila so frequently that the writ of habeas corpus was suspended, causing the arrest and detention of suspected insurgents among students, laborers and critics. These precedent events were working in Marcos’ favor, since a few months later he would be meting out Martial Law. It should not be lost on the Filipinos that some acts of violence were perpetrated by pro-Marcos groups, so could it be that Marcos was somehow manipulating the deplorable conditions prevailing in the metropolis less to justify Proclamation No. 1081 than to create the politically-beneficial Martial Law?
When Marcos placed the whole archipelago under military rule, his justifications included saving the Republic and reforming the society. He argued that the intensifying violence in the country generated by both the leftists and rightists had reached the proportions that necessitated Martial Law. Marcos seemed so deeply presidential in explaining the circumstances that required his proclamation. He was out to rescue the Republic being pestered by insurgents. Likewise, he was out to create social transformation. Of course, he was lying about the country’s state of emergency. Why did most people fall silent about the real reason that Marcos intended to prolong his reign over the country, hence the declaration? The Commonwealth Constitution provided for a presidential term limited to only eight consecutive years. Extended years could mean more things in store for Marcos.
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, or those who do otherwise would find themselves having affinity to the ranks of social rebels picked up and jailed for being critical to the dictator. After all, even the constitution was silent over how long Martial Law should last. It was Marcos’ own judgment that gave the voice to the silence of the constitution over Martial Law. What other voice except Marcos’ that lent its articulating quality in extending the Martial Law past the end of his term in 1973? He silenced the Congress of the Philippines and spoke the rules that had to be legislated. He censored journalists and took over media entities that worked against the regime. By speaking of himself as a dictator or a one-man ruler, his Martial Law administration took on the semblance of constitutional authoritarianism.
This term spelled nothing more than political massacre, with the chambers of the congress echoing with emptiness and the judges of all courts, from the Supreme Court to the grassroots level, turned into casuals. These judges might have stayed in the judiciary, except that they remained depending on the whims of the authoritarian Marcos. In the large-scale political play by Marcos, every willing citizen became the puppet while the unwilling were cast out, with the dictator himself as the resident manipulator. Will the farcical play ever end?
And great manipulator he was, for within the power vested upon him by Martial Law, he dismissed the all-encompassing constitution. He violated the stipulations in the Bill of Rights by issuing orders that arrested suspects of presidential subversion. Many of those tailed by security elements, wiretapped suspicious telephone owners, or labeled subversives and communists were held captive in military camps without trial, but if they got more unlucky, they became desaperacidos: vanishing forever, never to be found again. In effect, crime rate decreased dramatically because people became law abiders in the name of “national security.” Was this good gain a result of an effective peace and order measure, or a result of the scare conditioning of the Filipino people? The rise of lawlessness a year after Martial Law’s imposition did not point to the first option.
If there were people who were in favor of the Martial Law, these were the Filipinos who directly gained from the economic and social elites that served as Marcos’ cronies. How could they not support the declaration, when they benefited from the “smiling dictatorship?” Whenever troubles hounded the business of Marcos’ cronies, these were solved using the taxpayers’ funds. Investigations into monopolies and cartels were disallowed. His wife Imelda amassed billions worth of money and material possessions via corruption. The Marcoses as well as their cronies plundered the economy and yet, escaped the rule of law. The Martial Law only legitimized the activities leading to ill-gotten wealth by Marcos’ cronies. Practically, they were unassailable by the authorities as they enriched themselves all the more.
What I found out about Martial Law did not lead to the New Society Marcos claimed to be pursuing in imposing his authoritarian rule. The new sets of social and political values that were supposed to be filled with increased nationalism and devoid of colonial mentality were, instead, traits of fear, paranoia, fury, and repression. He used his so-called national leadership to realize his naked interests that included enriching his family through corruptive means, giving friends substantial economic and political favors, silencing his enemies and, most importantly, prolonging his rule. He must have succeeded in proclaiming constitutional authoritarianism, but the fact that it did not last forever begs for the implication that power, however far-reaching, is ephemeral. Destiny will find itself curtailing corruptive power because of popular demand, as may be gleaned in the phenomenal EDSA Revolution that toppled Marcos the dictator.
To get a glimpse of how Martial Law was seen in the eyes of an artist, I viewed a film about a feudal conflict in Bacolod during the mid-70’s. The film Sakada by Behn Cervantes, a progressive artist associated with the University of the Philippines , emerged from the culturally fermented era of Marcos dictatorship. Having been seen as a grave social commentary by the government watchdogs, the film had a short life in the theaters before it got confiscated by Marcos’ armies in the midst of its presentation. Just what was in the film that infuriated the dictator so much that he had to ban its showing? Imagine being transported in the sugar-rich haciendas in Negros where the landlords become sinfully wealthy at the expense of the back-breaking work of laborers called sakadas. A fair compensation is what a labor union leader fights for, but in answer to his picketing, he gets riddled with bullets. To shut up the sakada’s family and to earn good media mileage for his staged charity, the haciendero pays the dead man’s family with a few thousand pesos. Despite the blood money, the family remains trapped in the web of poverty, and no amount of protests and social conscientization ever gets all sakadas out of the impoverishing sugarcane plantation.
It was not difficult to perceive Marcos being alluded to as the omnipotent haciendero who resorts to armed forces if need be, just to see things through. He works side by side his glamorous-looking yet empty-feeling wife in manning the plantation, and has a son given to excesses like women and parties. The landlord is revealed to have clawed his way up the social ladder, and will not let anything or anyone wrest his hard-earned power from him, not even justice-seeking union people out to be nuisances to his smoothed-over management.
The film got Marcos’ goat precisely because of these allusions meant to expose the ills of his imposed authoritarian rule. Indeed, he has an elegant marital partner whom he conspired in perpetuating crimes against the people, and has offspring-like cronies he pampered with financial, social and political opportunities. He earned his presidency the hard way, shedding political allegiances and tapping the right connections if needed be, so he could not just allow student activists, insurgent movements or political critics to annoy him out of the highest executive post in the land. Not even a film like Sakada should be permitted to spoil Marcos’ field day.
And so it happened: the film was forced out of the theaters, falling victim to the tyrant’s crimes against humanity. By purging Sakada out of the cinematic consciousness of people, Marcos took away Cervantes’ and, by extension, all artists’ rights of creative self-expression. In the same vein, Marcos denied the public’s right to information. The dictator reenacted the very suppression the landlord character did to his valiant oppositional laborers, and seemed to have won by silencing the film for thirty-seven years hence.
Until its recent showing to mark a mounting protest by indie (independent) filmmakers against the repressive, Marcos-like regime of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Cervantes’ classic has now returned to the Filipino sensibility, outliving both Marcos and his Martial Law. Sakada has turned the table against its repression by being shown at a time that is mimicking the film’s contextual origin. More importantly, its non-propaganda manner of paralyzing the characters into perpetual desperation has the capacity to move people out of complacency and into the necessary action of freeing the society. True to its form, the film continues to reflect life and the society as well as the unceasing struggle of the working class and the nationalist movement against social injustices such as the Martial Law period in general.

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