EDITORIAL - Martial law, 49 years after

The Philippine Star
EDITORIAL - Martial law, 49 years after

A half century ago this month, Ferdinand Marcos used an ambush on the convoy of his defense secretary, Juan Ponce Enrile, as a pretext to place the country under martial law. Enrile keeps changing his mind on whether the ambush was real or staged. But the move effectively installed Marcos as dictator and allowed him to skirt his two-term constitutional limit as president.

The Constitution was scrapped and a new one drawn up. The legislature and judiciary were emasculated, independent media organizations were shut down and civil liberties suspended. Critics of the Marcos regime were rounded up together with opposition politicians, many taken literally in the dead of night by virtue of ASSOs – Arrest, Search and Seizure Orders signed by Enrile – and detained without formal charges. Torture became systematic; many desaparecidos during the dictatorship remain unaccounted for.

The Marcos regime sought to control even the way people looked and the music they listened to: long hair was prohibited for men and mini skirts for women; rock music went off the airwaves.

Wielding absolute power, the conjugal dictatorship also gained global notoriety for large-scale plunder. Thirty-five years after the dictatorship was toppled by people power, the country is still trying to recover much of the ill-gotten wealth, including priceless artwork of the masters in possession of Imelda Marcos. The wealth is suspected to be fueling the impressive legal victories of the Marcoses in Philippine courts.

Today, 50 years since the official date of the proclamation of martial law, Ferdinand Marcos is buried in the heroes’ cemetery, courtesy of one of his admirers who is also maneuvering to skirt a single-term constitutional limit on the presidency. And the International Criminal Court is looking into possible crimes against humanity committed in the course of a brutal war on illegal drugs that has claimed the lives of thousands.

Marcos’ only son and namesake is reported to be eyeing the presidency in 2022. The dictator’s heirs are revising history and urging people to forget if not forgive, and to move on.

Something positive that has been sustained in the past half-century is that many Filipinos are refusing to forget; authoritarian rule has not made a comeback. Democracy and its institutions remain fragile and need strengthening, but nation-building in a democratic setting is never easy. There are still enough people who remember, from the painful experience of the Marcos dictatorship, that freedom is like air: you realize how precious it is when it disappears.

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