The autumn of the Marcos dictatorship

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

I grew up in a military base, safely tucked away from the horrors of Marcos’ martial law. I would only read about it later, when I was already at the university. One of the vivid books about that era includes Jose F. Lacaba’s Days of Disquiet, Nights of Rage. That journalistic account led me to write about martial law, which flits into my mind like a black butterfly.

I was already an avid reader of the Philippines Free Press magazine even when I was just 11 years old. 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. However, things would remain with me, like grains of sugar that have settled at 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, white ceiling and smooth, 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 among themselves as the president’s words boomed from the huge speakers outside the 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, 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?”

However, now they numbered in the thousands, their ranks swelling with 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 in khaki uniforms and the soldiers in green, bristling with 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.”

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. They were followed by 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 neck laced with an intricate 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 at the direction of the First Couple. The President and the First Lady ducked just in time to avoid being grazed by 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, in the direction of the protesters. Then they swooped down on the students, their wooden sticks and trenches swinging wildly. They bashed heads; they shattered arms and knees. You could hear the bones breaking. In turn, the students threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, heaping a rain of curses on the cops and the soldiers. The police then retorted with snake-shaped cannons whose water came from Manila’s filthy canals. Coils of brackish water were trained on the students’ ranks, who held forth, one arm linked to each other, forming a seemingly impregnable human shield. In time the shield cracked. The students broke ranks and only 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 Street, cross the bridge and gather in front of the president’s Malacañang Palace. They commandeered a fire truck, 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 if they were in a shooting gallery during a Christmas fair. 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. The smell of gunpowder and blood was already 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 on to them, their elbows raised like wings.

*      *      *

Email: [email protected] Danton Remoto’s novel, “Riverrun,” was published by Penguin Random House. His translation of Lope K. Santos’ “Banaag at Sikat (Radiance and Sunrise)” will be published by Penguin this December.

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