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Remembering Martial Law

Article by: Crismhil S. Anselmo and Maria Sophia P. Senillo

Graphics by: Ma. Alyssa Therese S. Manalang


50 years ago, the late former President and dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, Sr. signed Proclamation No. 1081, marking the beginning of martial law and the prolonging of what would become more than two decades of regime.


Amidst widespread disinformation and blatant historical distortion, it is imperative that the truth be aggressively upheld to preserve the nation’s democracy and ensure that the atrocities of the era would never be forgotten. In commemoration of the declaration of martial law 50 years ago, The New Builder narrates the events that transpired in one of the darkest chapters of Philippine history.


The Law


Under several versions of the Philippine Constitution, the President is recognized as the commander-in-chief of all the armed forces of the country. In the event of lawless violence, invasion, insurrection, rebellion, or any imminent danger concerning public safety, the President may call on the armed forces to suppress and halt them as deemed necessary. In such cases, the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus—the right that protects the people from unlawful detention—may be suspended. This provision gives the executive power to place the Philippines or parts of it under martial law.


In his memoir, former Justice Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile revealed that he was instructed by Marcos Sr., in December 1969, to study the powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief, as provided in the 1935 Constitution. This request was anchored on the late dictator’s hunch that “violence and disorder may escalate” in the country, thereby compelling him to be aware of the full extent of his power. Enrile, along with the other advisors at the time, would continue to research and submit reports to Marcos regarding the implementation, legal nature, and consequences of martial law up to the early months of 1970.


Former Executive Secretary Jose Almonte said that their studies concluded that “the nation would be destroyed because, apart from the divisiveness it would cause, Martial Law would offer Marcos absolute power which would corrupt [him] absolutely.


The Onset


The declaration of martial law had been brewing even a few years prior to its proclamation. Marcos himself hinted at it from as early as May 1969 in an address to the Philippine Military Academy Alumni Association, wherein he talked about the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. “The same thing is true with the declaration of martial law […] It is a useful mental exercise to meet a problem before it happens,” he said.


It was also revealed that a series of bombings, including the 1971 Plaza Miranda bombing which was associated with the New People’s Army forces, would be used to justify the decree. David Wurfel, in his 1977 article for the Pacific Affairs Journal, argued the same, claiming that Marcos Sr. was concerned about an uprising to be instigated by the Maoist New People’s Army which allegedly had 1,028 armed forces in its command.


In the days leading up to the declaration, several articles, including historical records from the Official Gazette itself, argued that even a week before its proclamation, many had been made aware of Marcos Sr.’s plan to gain absolute rule. Additionally, on September 13, 1972, then-Senator Benigno S. Aquino Jr. exposed the alleged top-secret military plan, “Oplan Sagittarius,” which would place Metro Manila and surrounding areas under military control as a prelude to martial law.


On September 21, 1972, Marcos Sr. signed Proclamation No. 1081, which placed the Philippines under martial law. The declaration would be later made known to the public through then Press Secretary Francisco S. Tatad on September 23, 1972, two days later, via a nationwide television broadcast. Marcos Sr. himself went live to address the Filipino nation on the same day.


The Regime


Within the first day of the declaration of martial law, the late dictator assumed all powers of the government and immediately authorized the military to arrest individuals who were under suspicions of a “conspiracy” to overthrow the government. Among them were four senators: Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., Jose “Pepe” Diokno, Ramon Mitra Jr., and Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo; as well as 8,000 individuals which comprised the 1971 Constitutional Convention delegates, journalists, students, labor leaders, and members of elite families.


After the promulgation of Letter of Instruction No. 1, the media took a blow after seven major English dailies, four Chinese dailies, three Filipino dailies, and one English-Filipino and Spanish dailies were ordered to be shut down. Among the media outlets closed and seized by the government were 66 community newspapers, 11 English weekly magazines, seven television stations, and 292 radio stations. The only media outlets exempt from Martial Law were the Daily Express newspaper, TV Channel 9, and the Kanlaon Broadcasting System radio station.


Marcos Sr. also took over public utilities such as electric, water, railway, telephone, and airline companies. Among the companies shut down were the Manila Electric Company (Meralco), the National Waterworks and Sewerage Authority, Philippine National Railways (PNR), Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT), Philippine Airlines (PAL), Air Manila, and Filipinas Orient Airways.


Privately owned aircraft and watercraft bearing the Philippine registry were similarly seized by the military. The Department of Foreign Affairs as well as the Department of Justice were instructed not to issue travel documents and immigration clearance to any citizen who wished to leave the country.


These arrests, casualties, and seizure of power and properties all happened within just one day, on September 23, the first day of Martial Law. Twelve security guards were also reportedly killed that day.


Following its imposition, the constitutionality of martial law was challenged. Many were arrested and consequently filed petitions against the writ of habeas corpus. However, the replacement of the 1935 Constitution with the 1973 Constitution legitimized the constitutionality of Martial Law, thereby dismissing the appeals. Martial Law officially ended on January 13, 1981, by virtue of Proclamation No. 2045. However, Marcos Sr. reserved decree-making powers for himself.


Despite being painted as the “golden age” of the Philippines, the country suffered severe economic strain during the Marcos regime. Later dubbed as the “Sick Man of Asia,” the Marcos administration’s “debt-driven growth” had masked corruption and crises with infrastructure projects.


Inefficient agricultural policies brought forth famine and malnutrition during the period, prompting the distribution of Nutribuns in schools, as initiated by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). However, it was later relabeled as a program of then-first lady Imelda Marcos.


In a discussion paper on martial law and the Philippine economy by the University of the Philippines – Diliman School of Economics, Emmanuel S. de Dios, Maria Socorro Gochoco-Bautista, and Jan Carlo Punongbayan argued that the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was at its highest at 3.6% from 1950 – 1960 which was prior to Marcos Sr.’s presidency. Data also suggests that the Philippines became the slowest growing country in Southeast Asia with its rising poverty estimates, underemployment rates, and unemployment rates.

By the end of Marcos Sr.’s authoritarian rule, foreign loans amounting to 28.3 billion dollars were left. Profits from programs mostly went to the wealthy and associates of the late dictator.


Meanwhile, data from Amnesty International claims that 107,240 people suffered from human rights violations by the end of Marcos Sr.’s reign. Of these, only 11,103 have acquired approved claims for compensation as per the Human Rights Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013. Moreover, approximately 70,000 people were illegally arrested, 34,000 were tortured, and 3,240 were killed.


The Marcos regime went on until 1986, officially ending after his ouster by the Filipino people in the historical EDSA People Power Revolution.


The Reclamation


The Marcos regime had been regularly met with dissent but the dictator’s authoritarian rule managed to keep its critics at bay. However, the assassination of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino Jr. on August 21, 1983 further fueled the opposition to finally oust Marcos from office.


In his attempt to cling to power, Marcos called for a snap election on February 7, 1986 in order to prove the legitimacy of his rule. He claimed victory over Ninoy Aquino’s widow and the new figurehead of the opposition, Corazon “Cory” Aquino, by over 1.5 million votes.


Despite this, the people refused to recognize Marcos’ victory.


Days later, millions of people gathered on Epifanio De Los Santos Avenue (EDSA) from February 22 – 25, 1986. The historic event, which later became known as the EDSA People Power Revolution, was marked with peaceful protest, prayer, and solidarity by civilians, political figures, and the military alike.


Losing the grip of his authoritarian rule, it was reported that Marcos gave kill orders to the protesters at Camp Crame but the military defected, making him lose control of the armed forces. In a last attempt to save grace, Marcos Sr. conducted his inauguration from the snap elections on February 25th via a televised nationwide broadcast but it was shut down across the country. His family fled to Hawaii soon after then-US President Ronald Raegan offered him refuge amidst the political unrest. Cory Aquino took over the presidency, marking the end of Marcos Sr.’s two-decade totalitarian rule.


The Marcoses were charged with several crimes thereafter but would only be convicted years after. To date, final court decisions are yet to be done on some of the cases brought about by the atrocities of their regime.


The Legacy


In light of the horrific martial law period, the 1987 Constitution has since included provisions that safeguard institutions from a repeat of what transpired during this dark era. The Supreme Court now has the power to review the legitimacy of the proclamation of martial law upon the petition of any citizen. Additionally, the imposition of martial law no longer automatically suspends the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus and is limited in duration and effects. It also protects the effectiveness of the Constitution and the functioning of civil courts and legislative assemblies during such declarations.


In the face of historical distortion today, it is important that the truth remain untainted. The atrocities of the martial law, though dark and ghastly, must never be erased to prevent a repeat of the past. In the spirit of justice, the preservation of democracy, and freedom, The New Builder remembers.



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