By FORMER VICE PRESIDENT JEJOMAR C. BINAY
On September 21, 1972, the country was placed under martial law allegedly to stop the spread of the communist menace. Thousands were arrested. But they were not exclusively communists. They included journalists and conservative politicians who were critics of the regime. Those arrested were detained without charges and subjected to harsh interrogations. Hundreds were tortured and some of them were never seen again.
Media outlets were closed down and later allowed to operate under the strictest forms of State censorship. Journalists in what was previously Asia’s freest press worked under a climate of fear.
In the urban slums and the provinces, entire communities were subjected to unannounced house-to-house searches under the guise of weeding out criminals, communists, and misfits. Residents, mostly male, were made to line up or kneel while armed police and soldiers checked their identities. The dark alleys were the only witnesses to summary executions, or “salvagings.”
For those who belong to the generation that endured martial law, every passing year of its commemoration is a reminder both of suffering and resistance. Yet this year’s commemoration would have passed with hardly a ripple, had it not been for a multi-sectoral rally staged despite threats of inclement weather. But the dark clouds of September seems to be more symbolic of larger threats looming in the horizon.
The first is the threat of forgetting. Sadly, this dark period in our history seems to be fading from our collective memory. What’s worse are the incessant efforts to rehabilitate the image of martial law and obscure – even deny – its horrid legacy of mass arrests, killings, torture, and other violations of human rights.
The martial law period is replete with stories of struggle and sacrifice, and this should be told repeatedly to those who have not suffered, who have not lost their loved ones, and who have not felt the fear that can only come from an abusive regime.
The second threat is more imminent. To many observers, this threat is already at our doorsteps. I refer to the threat of a martial law restoration.
As before, those who undermine democracy feed on the people’s fear. Fear of a communist takeover was used to justify martial law. Today it is fear not only of communists but of criminals, drug lords, and terrorists. As before, the poor are being pitted against the rich, the oligarchs who profit from the misery of the poor.
And what’s discomforting is that a segment of the population appears to be willing to surrender their rights and freedoms in exchange for some amorphous promise of stability. Some sectors are even probably convinced that declaring martial law would be a more constitutional – thus legally acceptable – instrument for restoring order as compared to a revolutionary government. They forget that in both instances, certain rights and freedoms are forfeited. Perhaps they are also unaware of the probability that martial law could be a prelude to a revolutionary government. That once vested with the mantle of constitutionality, those in power could disregard completely the limits imposed on the exercise of martial law powers.
Some observers have gone to the extent of asserting that the slow death of our democracy – a state of undeclared martial law – began three years ago. It is a harsh indictment which they justify by citing the fact that traditionally independent institutions have become complicit in eroding democracy. The political opposition is vilified and vocal critics harassed. Human rights violations, particularly killings under questionable circumstances, persist. There is a climate of fear, especially in the poor communities. And all of these are happening even without a formal declaration of martial law.
The statement of a senior official extolling martial law as a tool to preserve democracy, while limiting its traumatic effects only to those who had direct experience with abuses, only reinforces the fear of a martial law resurgence. Martial law’s trauma is not selective, as the senior official claims. It is all-encompassing. It does not haunt only a certain segment of a generation; it haunts our collective psyche. The senior official’s statement glosses over one undeniable fact: One man promised to lead us into the light. What followed were more than 13 years of darkness.
Should martial law – or a variant of it – resurrect itself during our watch, and given the depth or shallowness of our nation’s appreciation of its lessons, will it take us another 13 years to free ourselves from its unfortunate effects?