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. •

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