50 years on, the myths and memories of Martial Law remain

Story by A.E.

It was 1973 and Sharon Silva was 11 years old. Raised on Nutribuns and milk rations, she was a little girl who knew the words to “Martsa ng Bagong Lipunan” by heart. It was a song of hope, triumph and a brighter future and it was played every day at school. 

During her elementary years, she was a youth leader in Kabataang Barangay, a youth organization founded by Imee Marcos, then President Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s firstborn. 

At a conference, Sharon squeezed past the wall of bodyguards to approach the glamorous Imee, hoping to request funds for the projects they wanted to implement at their school. But the eldest Marcos child simply laughed demurely. 

“Naku, wala naman akong pera,” Imee said, covering her mouth with a perfectly manicured hand. 

A few years later in high school, Sharon learned how to load and assemble a rifle, pledge loyalty to the state and stay silent amid a culture of unflinching punishment.  

“If you must brawl or find fault, resign from your position; and when you are outside, damn to your heart’s content. But as long as you are part of this institution, do not condemn it,” the commander would warn Sharon and her classmates, who were too afraid to express dissent. 

Fifty years later, Martial Law survivors gathered in an online conference last February to share their stories of abuse, survival and resistance. Tanggol Kasaysayan, an alliance of scholars, educators and people against historical distortion, held a forum entitled “Martial Law @ 50: Kasaysayan at Alaala ng Pagbalikwas.” 

The panelists recalled the economic decline and gross human rights violations under the Marcos regime, as well as the resistance movement that resultingly emerged. Through the narratives of those who survived arrests and tortures, the conference attested that the victims’ recollections, both loud and quiet, are artifacts that defy a larger system of tyranny and suffering. 

The Philippines now faces the return to power of one of its most controversial political dynasties. Beyond debunking myths and retelling stories of survivors, the panelists left viewers with a resounding warning: unless the gaps in Martial Law education are addressed and citizens stand their ground against a system hellbent on turning history upside-down, then Filipinos will continue to fight a decades-long battle against myth and memory. 

Smoke and mirrors

Back in 1965, Bonifacio “Boni” Ilagan was a Grade 3 student. He recalled his father hanging a banner in front of their home in Los Baños that read, “Vote Marcos for President.” The banner gave the impression that Marcos was good — at least that’s what Boni believed. 

The young boy who loved collecting campaign flyers heard stories of Ferdinand, the bar top-notcher and supposedly decorated war hero. “Kampanyador ni Marcos ang tatay ko,” Boni reminisced. “Good si Marcos. Bad ang mga kalaban niya. Iyon ang aking introduksyon sa pulitika.” 

As a teenager, Boni outgrew his profound image of Ferdinand Marcos. Young, wide-eyed and on the cusp of his own political awakening, he looked on as a thieving government provoked the rise of a nationwide activist movement grounded in ideals of patriotism and democracy. 

When he left Los Baños to attend college at UP Diliman in 1969, Boni joined underground resistance organizations where students like him took to the streets and marched at the US Embassy, the Plaza Miranda and the Malacañang Palace. 

Behind each attempt to lunge at the police were devised calculations on the best way to run backward. 

Scared as he was, what fueled Boni’s cries was the belief that Marcos was malevolent. It was 1969. Marcos had just won a second presidential term in a contentious election. As he came of age, Boni discovered the veiled truth beneath the smoke and mirrors: that behind the Marcoses’ charm and allure were empty promises of a nation returned to greatness. 

He realized, “Ang karisma at mataginting na retorika [ni Marcos] ay hindi naman nauwi sa pagiging dakila muli ng bansa, at lalong hindi sa ikabubuti ng buhay ng karaniwang tao.”

In 1974, a year and seven months into Martial Law, 22-year-old Boni was marked as a public order violator. Locked up at Camp Crame as a political detainee, he was forced to endure sessions of manipulative tactical interrogation. 

When he wasn’t busy asking himself how much more pain he could take, he’d pray to God to render him senseless, just for a brief respite. But for all Boni’s pleas, not once did he lose consciousness. Instead, what remained was a bleak determination to outlast the prisoners questioned before him. 

He recalled, “Si Ernie nga, ginawang ash tray ang bunganga pero nakayanan niya. Naisip ko, nakakahiya naman kung hindi ko kayanin.” 

It is no secret that the Marcoses participated in decades of myth-making to craft an image of themselves as the Filipinos’ saviors and bearers of the Golden Age. With a massive disinformation campaign possibly on the move since 2016, the family was set on erasing the remnants of crimes committed during Marcos Sr.’s regime from the nation’s memory. 

To achieve this, they reached out to major tech companies to “rebrand” their reputation and crucify the opposition with a hate train fueled by fake news. Since then, legions of Filipinos adamantly insist on glorifying the Marcoses with religious fervor.

Further aggravating the Marcoses’ disinformation machinery is the Department of Education’s vague and negligent curriculum, which failed to properly integrate Martial Law history. As a result, there is much speculation on the Marcos regime, leaving room for myths and distortions to inevitably thrive. 

As a result, Martial Law survivors face people who cling to mythicized and idealized narratives of the Marcos family and deny them their traumatic pasts. Moreover, they are left scrambling to tell their stories to anyone who will listen. 

READ: For Martial Law victims’ children, the 2022 elex is the fight of their lifetime

Heart of militance 

By 1971, Karl Gaspar had just finished his graduate studies. Primarily based in Davao City and doing grassroots work all across Mindanao, Karl was a missionary who also put up street plays at political rallies. 

Young and fresh from school, he had a heart for the activist theater scene. He loved the idea of using the stage as a means not just for political education but also for bringing people together. 

On the evening of the Martial Law declaration, Karl’s apartment was raided by the Philippine Constabulary. After finding a copy of “The Rebel” by Albert Camus, the head sergeant ordered Karl and his companions to be brought to the barracks and interrogated as subversives. 

But thanks to the parish priest’s successful negotiations, they were let off with house arrest. 

Once his detention was over, Karl started doing subtler, more restrained political work for various non-government organizations. But in spite of the relentless red-tagging, the rising tensions against the government inspired him to veer on the side of recklessness.

Karl continued to actively resist, placing himself at the heart of militant work. “I was in my mid-twenties,” he said. “When you’re very young and full of enthusiasm about getting involved, you’re not afraid at all.”

In 1983, Karl was named one of the top members of the resistance movement in Mindanao. After being apprehended while carrying documentation on the recent mass arrests, he was air-freighted to Manila and held incommunicado in a cell with no windows for a week. While he was able to evade physical torture, the psychological fear was unbearable. The tension lay in not knowing what happens next, not knowing what’s already been done, not knowing if anyone would come in to save him.

Three years later, Filipinos marched the streets of EDSA to oust the Marcos family, but the nation has since never truly moved on from Martial Law. The absence of a truth commission and the feeble public condemnation from post-Marcos administrations is one of the many factors that enabled lies to spread.

Despite being banished to Guam, the Marcoses were permitted to return to the country in November 1991. Since being pardoned, they have slowly clawed their way back to power. 

In 2016, the dictator’s son and namesake Bongbong Marcos was a frontrunner for the vice presidency and now occupies the highest seat in public office. In the same year, then President Duterte allowed Marcos Sr. to be buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani

READ: From one dictator to another: Unearthing each other’s grave

Although compensation was granted to the victims of Martial Law decades since the family was ousted, no amount of money will make up for the lives stolen and blood spilled.

The Philippines can never truly move on from Martial Law unless the Marcoses are fully held accountable. But the grim reality remains: those in power are enablers of impunity, allowing the Marcoses to take advantage of the legal system to evade punishment and disqualification from office. 

While the restoration of democracy through EDSA did not fully deliver on its promise of social justice, commemorating Martial Law reminds us that tyranny will always provoke resistance. 

Opportunists and distortionists only thrive because the system makes spaces for them to thrive. And this cannot be combated by empty promises of change and reform. It can only be resolved by due punishment. 

For now, the nation continues to wage a war of myths and memories. And in a reprise of its darkest chapter where the country crashes and burns, Filipinos are left breathing in the smoke.