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In his usual, sarcastic way, President Rodrigo Duterte caused the issuance of proclamation 319 suspending work today in government agencies and local governments to mark a “national day of protest.”

It is a strange suspension. No national holiday was declared. Today will be a holiday-less holiday, at least for workers in the executive branch and local governments.

Acting chief justice Antonio Carpio likewise ordered all courts closed today. No clear reason was provided for that order.

In remarks before the presidential proclamation was issued, Duterte called on citizens to protest whatever they wanted to protest about. He, for one, will protest low public sector pay, a fact he endures.

One senses he has his tongue firmly in his cheek. Suspending work to sympathize with those groups organizing protest actions today might seem serious – presidential proclamation and all. But all things considered, it seems Duterte is making light of the protest actions against him.

Proclamation 319 enjoins local governments to set aside standing requirements for municipal permits before rallies could be held.  This is a day for indulging in street protests without any inhibition.

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Street protests, however, have long fallen out of fashion. Rallies organized the past year have been remarkable for being undermanned. It is bad enough to leave home and run one’s errands, congested streets and all. The very thought of fighting traffic to march in the streets to cause more traffic blockages is exhausting in and of itself.

A few groups, protesting the killing that has accompanied the war on drugs, are organizing a demonstration at the Luneta Park. Other groups have chosen to stage their protests at the People Power Monument along monumentally congested EDSA. Pro-Duterte groups announced they will mass up at Mendiola, presumably to protest the protests.

The proclamation notwithstanding, it is not government that chose today as a “national day of protest.” Leftwing groups chose this day because this was the day former president Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Over the years, the political left consistently held rallies to mark this day.

In fact, it often seems only the leftwing groups bother to commemorate this day in their quaint underhanded way. They do so with some obsessiveness, using the imagery of dictatorship to condemn the actions of whatever government is in place. They do that even at the risk of making facile historical parallels or invoking false political comparisons.

It has been useful for purposes of propaganda to use the date dictatorship descended upon the nation as a means to discredit the acts or policies of those who currently govern. But, as historical distance from the original declaration increases, the risk of crude comparisons increases as well. 

The war on drugs may have its excesses. But it is not a regime.

The President may be prone to making regrettable threats. But that does not constitute dictatorship.

There may be flaws in the application of the rule of law. But the framework of such rule has not been scuttled.

Those who chose Sept. 21 as a day for protests against what they imagine as creeping tyranny are being cynical. Duterte’s sarcastic proclamation is deserved. It sets the stage for what could be a political dud.


I recall Sept. 21, 1972 vividly. For me, at least, it was a life-changing moment.

In the preceding days and weeks, I participated in large demonstrations denouncing the impending imposition of martial rule. While we marched against that possibility, few of us took seriously Marcos’ ability and audacity to do precisely what we feared. We underestimated the man’s cunning and willfulness.

As I did everyday, I waited for the day’s newspapers before leaving home. I waited and waited, not knowing the press has been shut down the night before. Radio and television fell silent. Confusion and fear gripped the streets.

We imagined that if Marcos made the mistake of declaring martial rule, he would be met with torrents of street protests and forced to roll back. We were mistaken. The torrents of street protests did not materialize as Marcos went about efficiently mounting a coup against his own government.

When Marcos actually padlocked Congress to prevent the legislative branch from convening, few mourned the disappearance of the politicians. Many welcomed the promise of discipline in a society that seemed destined for breakdown.

In the years succeeding the imposition of martial rule, the national economy grew at its fastest pace. It was driven by a massive build-up of infrastructure funded by cheap debt. A robust middle class born of the rapid growth was expectant for more progress.

Marcos’ unprecedented second term was due to end in 1973 without possibility of reelection. Prolonging his stay in power was undoubtedly a consideration in his decision to mount a coup against his own government.

But the depiction of martial rule as entirely a repressive response to political challenge that suspended civil rights is only half the equation. The rights-centered narrative of what the martial law years were plays down the fact that Marcos had a vision for rapid growth through decisive executive action. It was vision of reforming society and making it more functional.

That vision, to be sure, was undermined by the unrestrained greed that often accompanies unaccountable power. The state project Marcos embarked on, but eventually failed to complete, had its separate validity.

We need a strong state for modernizing our society. It is a state that evenly applies the rules and equitably disperses economic opportunity. That, contrary to the facile comparisons drawn, does not necessarily connote dictatorship.


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