Speak, memory
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - September 21, 2019 - 12:00am

“It is a useful mental exercise to meet a problem before it happens,” the late President Ferdinand Marcos told alumni of the Philippine Military Academy in May 1969. He was referring to declaring martial law more than two years before he actually did it.

Every year on this infamous anniversary I hit the history books, this time I have a new-ish edition of Primitive “Tibo” Mijares’ extraordinary memoir “The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos” to leaf through, as well as the late President’s own diary. It’s my way of answering the call from the past to dialogue with the present and rehabilitate the truth about what happened to the Philippines back then for the sake of what is now.

It’s been 47 years since Marcos and his Secretary of National Defense Juan Ponce Enrile debated the finishing touches of the proclamation. “While we were working on the list of target personalities, (US) Amb. Byroade called to see me,” he wrote later in his diary, revealing in a brief phrase how deftly he would manipulate enemies and allies, with one hand conducting the persecution of domestic political foes while holding a mirror to the Philippines’ closest foreign ally with the other.

President Marcos always seemed a rather small unreal figure, already looking bloated and ill by the time I was old enough to notice as I grew up in exile. I’ve restlessly and voraciously read and interviewed people to try to find out as much as I could about him as well as his wife and “partner in crime.” The moment of martial law’s declaration has taken on mythic proportions. It’s a kind of fixed pivotal moment around which convenient and expedient narratives have been purpose built. Even though it has been far longer since its imposition than the duration of martial law itself, Marcos’ methods of gleefully manipulating the system and recklessly ransacking the law and civil rights from individuals and society as a whole have indelibly shaped political culture.

Marcos’ diary entries detail the way he set things up, carefully and proudly backing up his points with attached documents.  But what he lists are a series of cheats and lies achieved by coercion and greed that have nothing to do with the responsibility of governing in a democracy. He seems to have genuinely missed the point of leadership.

Take his entry for Sept. 19, 1972:

“Released the report of Sec. Ponce Enrile of Sept. 8, 1972 wherein he reported that Sen Aquino had met with Jose Maria Sison of the Communist Party and had talked about a link-up of the Liberal Party and the Communist Party.

I attach copy of the report.

Sen. Roxas had written that they were not attending the meeting.

I attach copy of the letter.

We also prepared affidavits of the NPA surrenderees and captured personnel implicating Sen. Aquino.

I also attach all these papers.

The tension and apprehension are still high.”

The declaration of martial law was stage managed in every detail.

Reading the pages, I look for moments of insight into the man behind Proclamation 1081. The diary is clearly written with the aim of not just leaving a legacy but commenting on it too. This is a man who seems to be revisiting the role he played in his early 20s as a lawyer defending himself in the appeal against his conviction and death sentence for the killing of his father’s political rival, using all his guile to beat the rap. His acquittal in 1940 by the Supreme Court of the Philippines is a textbook case of impunity: how to get away with murder.

On Sept. 21, 1972 the first three sentences of Marcos’ entry are breathtakingly frank.

“Delayed by the hurried visit of Joe Aspiras and Meling Barbero who came from the Northern bloc of congressmen and senators who want to know if there is going to be Martial Law  in 48 hours as predicted by Ninoy Aquino.

Of course Imelda and I denied it.

But Johnny Ponce Enrile, Gen. Paz, Gen Nanadiego, Kits Tatad and I with Piciong Tagmani doing the typing finished all the papers, (the proclamation and the orders) today at 8 PM.”

Marcos thinks nothing of lying with his wife about their intent to political rivals and “allies” (the late President also meets the US Ambassador the same morning, avoiding mentioning the order would be signed that day).

By October 1973, Marcos is more keen that prosperity understand his “sacrifice,” but his words show he knew exactly what he was doing:

“Our people will never know the gamble that I have taken when I proclaimed martial law.

For I deliberately diverted the possible enemy fire to myself so as to save our people.

Martial law is a limitation of freedom and, therefore, generally objectionable. There were too many factors that were imponderable. How would the people react? Would they take up arms against us?”

Reading and analysing the diaries are a constructive exercise all these years later in the era of so-called “fake news” and social media. Compare Marcos’ diary account with Mijares’ testimony before a US Congressional committee in 1975:

President Marcos announced formally at about 8pm on Sept. 23, 1972, that he had placed the entire Philippines under martial law as of 9pm Sept. 22, 1972 by way of effective implementation of a martial law edict (Proclamation No. 1081) which he had signed on Sept. 21, 1972. Two months later, he told a convention of historians that he really signed the proclamation on Sept. 17, 1972.

To Mijares, who was to disappear in mysterious circumstances shortly after writing these words, “the deceitful manner by which martial law was imposed on the Philippines by Marcos was so characteristic of the man who has learned to live by a gunslingers’s cred of “shoot first, explain later… In short, any type of dissimulation or chicanery or bribery or coercion is applicable.”

If the past is to speak to the present the hardest question to be asked of political leaders is: what has really changed?

(I look forward to engaging with readers on Twitter @vpedrosa)

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