Living In Your Own Private Martial Law

ONCE again the issue of burying Ferdinand E. Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery)  dominates the social and political buzz in social media.

As a millennial-friendly backgrounder: Marcos was the president of the Philippines: elected in 1965, re-elected in 1969, declared martial law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1972, changed the constitution in 1973, declared martial law officially over in 1981 and was reelected in that same year, declared a snap presidential election in 1985, declared winner and was subsequently booted out of the Palace by People Power revolt in 1986. He passed away under exile in Hawaii in 1989.

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Now that’s the simplest, unbiased summary we could come up with, representing a statement of facts that probably – and I still say probably – both (or all) sides of the political spectrum will agree with. In between all those years mentioned there are many events and figures that are being contested by the highly charged and polarized factions attributed to the man personally and to his administration those 21 years. Things like military atrocities, warrantless arrests and jailing political enemies, war medals, economic performance, infrastructure development, hidden wealth, shopping sprees abroad amid massive poverty at home, the assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr…. a pretty heady list.

An interesting angle to the whole brouhaha is the emergence of criticism regarding the age of the iconic personalities representing those against and for the burial. On one hand you have Risa Hontiveros, newly elected Senator. On the other hand there is Marcos’ daughter Imee Marcos, current governor of Ilocos Norte.

Critics of Risa Hontiveros question the validity of her claims of Marcos’ dictator status, her statements that his strongman rule resulted in atrocities and violence against the people since she was supposed to be six years old when martial law was declared.

Imee Marcos, on the other hand, feigns knowledge of the atrocities since she and her siblings were too young at that time: “Kami ay nag-aaral pa noon at mga bata pa,” she wrote on her facebook account, segueing to the role of her uncle in those years. “Bakit nga ba hindi natin tanungin ang dating Philippine Constabulary Chief Fidel Ramos tungkol sa mga pagaresto at mga pangaabuso diumano?”  (We were still schoolchildren then. Why don’t we ask the former Philippine Constabulary Chief Fidel Ramos about the alleged arrests and abuses?)

I knew Risa in school in 1983 – college at the Ateneo – when she was a stunning freshman and I was – well – a senior. Already then she was active in the student government, which was how I met her. She was a tad nerdy, doing Candy, Candy voice impressions that used to freak me out (and I kid her about it to this day). Doing the math, yes, she must have been six when martial law was declared. But what followed was almost two decades of growing up within that era which, to my mind is enough to conscientize a young and impressionable mind.

That turbulent year post Ninoy assassination saw our involvement in the parliament of the streets. There were anti-Marcos marches, noise barrages, rallies. Even as Risa stayed on in school and I graduated in 1984 we would still encounter each other in the streets, her in solidarity with students’ clenched fists and I covering them for the Mr.&Ms. Special Edition. And in all the years that passed and I went deeper in journalism and political consulting she was always in the forefront in the fight for social justice. Granted that I didn’t totally agree with her methods or political alliances, I always knew that her heart was true.

Imee, on the other hand, I just knew about from her media exposure during all those years, especially from being forced to read and clip newspapers for social studies reports in school. It was only in 1985 that I actually met her, during the preparations of the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL) convention site at the Manila Hotel where her father would be nominated and declared official candidate for the snap presidential elections.

I was a 23 year old reporter for the very new Philippine Daily Inquirer then assigned to cover that side of the political spectrum. That night I (and a couple of others from the paper) decided to visit the site just to take a peek. We were recognized and invited for drinks by the jolly Aber Canlas, then deputy minister for public works, who was tasked to oversee the construction and physical preparation of the convention site in the hotel’s grand ballroom. He asked the waiter to whip out a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label and was pleasantly surprised that I liked my scotch neat (just a bit of iced water on the side) which inspired him to challenge me on a one-on-one glass-for-glass whisky bout.

As we were making our way to half the Black bottle Canlas’ aide came running to us and whispered something in his ear. “Imee’s here, come on,” he said, quickly springing up to his feet and walk-running to the ballroom. I followed, trying to keep pace. I didn’t realize how wobbly your legs got when you’ve been downing shot after shot of whisky.

And there she was, Imee Marcos: white Kabataan Barangay t-shirt tucked into designer jeans, impeccably made up and super big hair, like those girls in Duran Duran music videos.

Canlas introduced me and I shook her hand. Hers was a bit limp, her smile tentative, like she really liked my eau de 12 year old whisky scent. She then walked around with Canlas who gave her an update on the progress of the construction while I lingered about, smiling silly to myself trying to keep my balance.

So between that time when martial law was declared in 1972 and the revolt of 1986 we three had a lot of growing up to do, our eyes opened to the goings on around us. Yes, in 1972 Risa was six years old, Imee was 17 and I was 10.

At 10 years old I saw a bunch of guys from an organization called Kasapi – Jun Simon, Ric Manapat, Jojo Deles, Freddie Salanga, Linggoy Alcuaz and a number of other young activists, one of the youngest of which was my sister Veronica – get stuck in the house because martial law was declared. My mom worried, partly because of who they were and what they were doing at the house during those days, but mostly because she had to feed them all while they were stuck in our basement, especially the likes of the hefty Alcuaz and Salanga.

Suddenly we nine siblings were all on holiday, but there was no TV. My other sister, Micky found herself out of a job as they had closed down ABS-CBN. Later she would be working for Malacañang’s communications office. A little later Veronica would be picked up by the military on the way to school in the University of the Philippines (UP) campus. There was a huge bonfire in our backyard as my parents ordered the destruction of anything that could be construed as subversive material. She was released a while later.

My father, an alumnus of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) dutifully turned in his firearms – a shotgun, a collector’s item German Luger and a few others – but placed them under our handyman’s name in the receipts issued by Camp Crame. Papa kept the receipts, hoping that they would be returned to him one day. Our handyman’s name was Marcial.

Growing up in that household was a happy experience for me, even amid the political schizophrenia. We never discussed politics, although it was all around us with the anti-Marcos rhetoric, student activism and military and political social and professional connections floating about. We had the rare middleclass privilege of having a telephone (single line, not party line, mind you) the house would be the communications center between activist activities and the President’s study in Malacañang.

In the early ‘80s my other sister Jocelyn was picked up by the military during a huge student march from Quezon City to the Manila Cathedral. Halfway through the marchers were intercepted by the military and they were herded into buses to be brought to the new detention facility in Bicutan, Taguig (today known as Camp Bagng Diwa, a drug rehab and detention center).

By then I was a high school teenager and tagged along as members of the family, especially those connected with government, were mobilized to try to get my sister out. Calls to political and military connections were made, names were dropped.

The Bicutan place looked new, but not spanking new. It looked desolate as it was cleared of all green, bulldozed and leveled. From the distance of the entrance where we were allowed to wait you could see single story buildings surrounded by barbed wire and watch towers. A regular Stalag 17.

As always, amid the dust and raw earth my mom was in her proper self: dressed, in heels and hair coiffured. One of my Jesuit counselors, Fr. Joey Cruz, tried to reassure my mom that the family trials would pay off, but all that fell on deaf ears when he gave me a pat on the back and said: “Here’s another one who will make a dent.” A mother’s dagger look.

My sister was eventually released with others, trucked out in military six-by-sixes to where we were waiting. According to her they were jailed, interrogated and released only if they agreed to probation, reporting to headquarters at Camp Aguinaldo weekly.

After some time it seemed she just got tired with complying with her probation and disappeared into the hills. By this time I had a driver’s license so I had to drive my mom to the Jesuit’s La Ignaciana Center in Sta. Ana, Manila where she could pick up a letter from somebody named “Monica” and in turn leave her own letter. That was our only communication with my sister for some time, although I did not know it then for I was made to wait in the car at the parking lot.

While I was in college Ninoy was assassinated, and I found myself writing for Mr&Ms. Among my first assignments was a coverage in a remote mountain village in Basey, Samar. The military had razed the whole town to the ground, killed some folk in the process, confiscated their food supply and grabbed some children and teenagers to carry the stuff across the mountains to their detachment. It was said that the act was payback for the town’s sympathy and supply for the New People’s Army (NPA).

And thus my own private martial law history, intersecting at some points with Risa’s and Imee’s, 21 years in the making. All these recalled after 27 years since Marcos died, preserved in Ilocos Norte, and his family and friends still seeking a hero’s burial while the rest who barely survived his rule rejecting it, seeing him a heel.

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