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Opinion

Images of martial law

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

Milan Kundera said that the spawn of dictators will do their best to erase what their fathers did. So let us remind ourselves about the Marcos Sr. dictatorship. We now have a shelf of novels about martial law, including my novel called “Riverrun,” which Penguin Random House published in 2020. I read this excerpt at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2018 – an anti-American chapter read before a stunned American audience. Life goes on.

Even when I was only ten years old, I was already an avid reader of the Philippines Free Press. My father would buy this magazine from the commissary every week. I read the poems and the feature articles, the essays and the stories, even if I could not understand all of them. But some things would remain with me, like grains of sugar left on the bottom of a cup.

One day in January, the President delivered his State of the Nation Address. We were watching him on TV. Sometimes, the camera would pan the crowd of student activists outside, then back to the majestic halls again, with its high ceiling and marble posts. This was where the President delivered his State of the Nation.

“But which nation?” The students massed in front of the old Congress building must have asked that question amongst themselves as the President’s words boomed from the huge speakers placed outside the Congress building.

They were all there, the students from Manila’s exclusive Catholic universities for the elite, the boys in thick eyeglasses, long-sleeved white cotton shirts, wide, psychedelic ties running down their chests. The girls also came, in their white blouses and blue dresses cut above the knees. For this “out-of-school activity,” they had asked their housemaids to fold and re-sew their hemlines the night before, so they could bare more legs.

There were also students from Manila’s boisterous diploma mills. Boys in their Beatles haircut, Vonnel V-necked shirts and tight double-knit pants. The girls came in bright minis that stopped a throb away from their knickers.

Above these young people bloomed the banners of protest, the boom of voices that began being raised five years earlier, when President Lyndon B. Johnson dropped by Manila en route to Saigon, to finalize plans to pulverize North Vietnam. They were only less than a hundred, then, my mother told me, students carrying banners with the words: “LBJ, LBJ, how many babies did you kill today?”

But now they numbered in the thousands, joined even by the laborers from the working-class districts of Quiapo, Santa Cruz and Tondo and by students from Southern Luzon. Ranged against them were the cops and soldiers, bristling with their wooden sticks, truncheons and shields.

As the President spoke of another country (less crime, more exports, a vibrant democracy), the young firebrands also worked the crowd. One leader of the nationalist Left, who needed no beer to unloosen his tongue, carped against the rich: “The rich wear perfumes that they store in gallons and have underwear of silk. We only have the detergent Tide and our underwear are recycled from cotton sacks that used to contain chicken feed.”

And then the doors of Congress opened. First came the secretaries, the undersecretaries, the assistant secretaries and their manifold assistants – the cockroaches, the crows and the centipedes. Then, there was the President, with eyes like a pig’s, his face turning greasy with the years.

And like Lady Macbeth, there was the First Lady, with her big and lacquered hair adorned with a diamond comb, her blue dress with its butterfly wings, her neck laced with a string of rubies the color of blood, her bosom heaving, overflowing with love for the wretched of the earth.

Then from the student’s ranks someone threw a crocodile made from carton, right into the First Couple’s direction. The President and the First Lady ducked just in time to avoid the crocodile’s teeth. Their military escorts shielded them and herded them past the crowd, and they soon vanished inside their stretch black limousine.

After this, the Free Press said, came the madness.

The police and the military put on their black masks and began to lob canisters of tear gas into the air. Then they swooped down on the students, their wooden sticks and trenches swinging wildly. They bashed heads, shattered arms and knees. You could hear the bones breaking.

In turn, the students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, a rain of curses on the cops and soldiers. The military retorted with snake-shaped cannons whose water came from Manila’s filthiest canals. Coils of brackish water were trained on the students’ ranks, who held forth, one arm linked to each other, forming a human shield. They only broke ranks and ran away when the military began to shoot with live bullets.

As dusk fell, shadows ran only to be mowed down by the bullets. Like a tangled net the screams rose in the hot and humid air. Some students managed to run all the way to Mendiola, cross the bridge and gather in front of Malacañang Palace. They commandeered a firetruck, drove it straight back up, once, twice, thrice – and then the tall, iron gate gave way, the students spilt over onto the grounds, jumping with jubilation, only to be cut down by a hail of bullets from the Marines. Their sharp eyes picked out their targets as in a shooting gallery on a cool Christmas Eve.

Those who did not fall began to run, with the Marines chasing them, driving the students toward the other direction, at street’s end, where barbed wires, row upon row of the rustiest wires, awaited them.

And so it was that the students who were running away saw before them the barbed wires arrayed like black teeth. Some of them did turn around and raise their hands. But the smell of gunpowder and blood was already thick in the air. The Marines cocked their rifles, took aim and then shot the students one by one. Seeing these, the other students just ran and ran in the direction of the barbed wires, then jumped blindly onto them, their elbows raised like wings.

MILAN KUNDERA
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