Martial Law, then and now
Life in the Philippines these days seems to unfold like a Shakespearean tragedy. There are farcical moments, for sure, but on the whole, the ongoing drama that is the Philippines is a particularly heartbreaking tragedy of epic proportions.
Take the possibility that martial law may be declared all over the country. The thought of a return to the darkest days of the Marcos dictatorship ought to be frightening enough to mobilize strident protests, yet even our rubber-stamp Congress takes its sweet time not convening, despite what our Constitution mandates. And considering that few of the members of the House and the Senate are actually qualified to be lawmakers, it’s pretty rich of them to berate concerned citizens for being “armchair constitutionalists” when they themselves clearly never mastered the Constitution, much less leafed through “Constitution for Dummies.” Which makes the current national tragedy exponentially more tragic.
I remember when Martial Law was declared in 1972. We had gone on a short holiday with family friends to a resort in Laguna known for its natural springs. We children, not even in our teens and lolling about in one of the rock pools, chanted “MARSH-MAL-LOW, MARSHMAL-LOW” followed by “Proclamation 1081!”
None of us knew what Martial Law meant then; all we knew is that it sounded so much like “marshmallow,” and therefore funny.
The years that unfolded were unfortunately far from funny. People thought it prudent to speak in whispers; those who didn’t suddenly disappeared. New words entered our vocabulary, becoming commonplace. Words like checkpoint and curfew and crony. There was terror, certainly, but there was also survival, which meant accepting that the way things were had become the new normal. This was a New Society indeed.
And there was farce. As opposition to the regime grew, first clandestinely then openly, the attempts to quell dissent by the authorities and their agents were often brutal, but just as often bumbling. I remember our phones being bugged, and the entire operation was so sloppily executed (excuse the pun) that one could hear the agents listening in, chatting among themselves even. My mother was followed around for weeks, her every move shadowed—not with subtlety, mind you, but with shouldershrugging obviousness. At one point, she turned around, faced her stalkers, and asked them what they wanted. They asked her if she was a certain woman, a well-born beauty queen who’d gone underground. While she and my mother did resemble each other in the way that “mestizas” all seem to be the same type, it was evident that the special agents had no concrete idea of whom exactly they were looking for. When they realized their mistake, they laughed it off, saying, “Pasensya nalang po.” The Marcos regime, a Shakespeare expert once said, lent itself rather easily to comparisons to Macbeth. This time around, with the specter of Martial Law looming before us, we seem to be living in an alternate reality version of Richard III, a play that Shakespeare wrote way back in the 1590s to address a particular problem, according to Stephen Greenblatt: “How could a great country wind up being governed by a sociopath?” Shakespeare, of course, was describing England under the House of York, ruled by the last king of the Plantagenet society. But there has always been a timelessness to Shakespeare’s work, and he could have just as well been describing the Richard III in our midst, and we, as in 16th century England, the complicit collaborators: “Unlike ‘Macbeth’ (which introduced into the English language the word ‘assassination’), ‘ Richard III’ does not depict a violent seizure of power. Instead there is the soliciting of popular votes, complete with a fraudulent display of religious piety, the slandering of opponents, and a grossly exaggerated threat to national security.” Sound familiar? There is no comfort in the familiarity of Martial Law here. The mere prospect of it should send chills down our collective spines. •