Monday, September 24, 2012

Twisting History

I was just barely nine years old in 1972 when Ferdinand Marcos placed the entire country under military rule and ushered in more than a decade of authoritarian rule.  I remember playing with other kids on the street outside our rented apartment in Cebu City late in the afternoon of September 23 of that year and being admonished by a frantic grownup neighbor to all go back home because "martial law" had been declared.  As the sirens wailed that night to announce the nightly curfew that was to become a daily fixture of the lives of all Filipinos of those times, I laid awake in bed wondering what in the hell was "martial law" and why was such a fuss being made about it.

On vacation in Lianga some months after, I not only noticed but felt the heavy military and police presence everywhere. Piles and mounds of old, rusted firearms, shotguns and rifles, all surrendered or confiscated (many of them of World War II vintage), dotted the front yards of police stations and military camps.  Every night, as curfew hour approached, policemen or constables of the Philippine Constabulary then would man checkpoints at strategic areas all over Lianga.  The sight of an elderly police officer in uniform sitting on a wooden chair with only the light of a kerosene lamp to drive away the darkness and dozing off, one hand on the butt of his holstered revolver, while manning a lonely street corner post near our house in Lianga would always be one of my enduring images of the early martial law years in this town.


I remember that most local Lianga residents then viewed the imposition of military rule as a positive development.  Lianga was at that time was like a frontier town in the days of the  Wild West in the United States.  Anyone who fancied himself as a person of some importance habitually carried and flaunted guns of all types.  Politicians and big time businessmen  had heavily armed private armies and both periodically warred on each other for dominance over their home turfs while a weak, corrupt and largely apathetic local government stood idly by.

The first, balmy years of Marco's New Society saw the local peace and order vastly improve as local governments backed up by a resurgent police and military infrastructure grew more stronger.  More attention was focused on basic infrastructure development particularly in Mindanao. In Surigao del Sur, what was a jungle network of logging trails became, for the first time, a dirt highway connecting once isolated coastal communities.  There was a sense of guarded optimism in the air and many towns like Lianga were riding on the crest of a growing logging industry and enjoying unprecedented growth.

Just a less than a decade later, however, I was already a university student in Cebu and the mood of the country was vastly different.  What had started out as being billed as an experiment in benign and paternalistic authoritarianism had become gradually revealed as actually a decadent dictatorship which was desperately clinging to power by whatever means possible.  The brutal crackdown on dissent and political opposition to the Marcos regime had become systematized and institutionalized.  The country was going to the dogs politically and economically.

Yet even then, there was a sizable number of Filipinos even then who still clung to the delusion that Marcos was saving the Philippines from anarchy and the Communist threat.  In Lianga where I always came home for   regular vacations, the slogans calling for national discipline, self-reliance and loyalty to the government that were the staple of the massive, state funded propaganda machinery that was constantly extolling the myth of the New Society still found resonance among many in the local community.

Nowadays, forty years after the declaration of martial law and twenty-six years after the EDSA people power revolt of 1986 that overthrew the Marcos dictatorship, there are still those who pine for "the good old days" of the martial law years and who continue to hold the view that Marcos was "not really a bad leader" and that his regime was "not all bad but had also done a lot of good for the Filipino nation."

I am not just talking about Senator Juan Ponce Enrile who in a recent media interview had expressed the view that the declaration of martial law in 1972 was, in his opinion, justified and that the Marcos regime had also its "bright side".  This from a man who was actually one of the architects and eventual administrators of the martial law regime and who was one of those who had benefited the most from his close association to Marcos until he turned his back on his benefactor and help set in motion the events that led to the pivotal events of 1986.

That there are many who do still hold similar views today not only strains my credulity but distresses me in no small degree.  One can excuse the young people of today who were born after EDSA 1986.  They grew up in a world where Ferdinand Marcos is merely a name in the history books and the martial law period in the Philippines as just a historical footnote in the contemporary history of this country.  But for those who are old enough to have memories of those dark years, I cannot imagine how one can be so blind and so deluded that he can say that the country needed martial law in 1972 and that Marcos could have saved this country if he had not been fortunately ousted and driven out of power.

Herein lies the reason, in my view, why many Filipinos are willing to accept the attempts by many Marcos apologists to rewrite history and paint a more favorable portrait of Marcos the man and his times.  It is a reason that lies at the heart of who we are as Filipinos and why as a nation we are still  in mortal danger of being condemned to relive the mistakes we have made in our political past.

We, as a people, have always looked for strong, paternalistic leaders for our country.  We want them to be firm and resolute individuals who will seize control of the government and its bureaucracy.   We want them to do everything for us, to tell us what to do,  to look after our needs and insure that the country will experience peace, stability and economic growth.  We vote for them, put them in power and then expect miracles to happen while we do nothing, like the proverbial Juan Tamad,. except lie on our backs and wait for the fruits of progress and prosperity fall from the tree into our gaping mouths.

That is not how a true democracy works.

A democratic system works because political leaders merely represent those who elected them to office.  They are morally accountable to the people and have to periodically dialogue with the body politic.  There are no political Messiahs in a democratic order, there is only a representative leadership, expendable and replaceable anytime, who actually exercises governmental power by popular consent.

The whole system works because everyone does their part.  The people, individually or collectively through political parties and other groupings, move the government and vigilantly monitors its performance.  Elected leaders and representatives do what they are supposed to do and report back to their constituents.  There is an interlocking system of checks and balances that is constantly in tension and operation at all times.

The whole thing can, of course, be chaotic, unwieldy and often slow to move.  But that is its nature and as time passes and the dynamics within the system evolve and mature, it becomes more efficient and effective.  Yet it is in always constant flux and development for like the human animal, it is never designed to be static but vigorously dynamic.  It hums along famously as long as the people it is suppose to serve DO THEIR THING and involve themselves totally and constantly in the business and politics of governance.

Even if we can accept, for the sake of argument, the contention that martial law was needed to quell unrest and disorder in 1972, it cannot be denied that the Filipino people allowed Ferdinand Marcos and his cohorts to subvert military rule and used it to cow all political opposition and then establish a dictatorship that nearly brought this country to bankruptcy and ruin.  We stood aside and let him have his way, either totally misled by his grand rhetoric and misguided sense of destiny or cowed by fear by his iron fist, and we paid for it very dearly in the aftermath of his rule.

It is said that it is easier for a flock of sheep to follow, like a docile herd, a maverick and charismatic leader rather than for all the sheep to agree on a common course of action and to follow it.  The idea of a strong national leader, a father figure to the nation who is powerful, omnipotent and hopefully incorruptible is a myth that we, as a nation, still foolishly clings to. Yet the record of thousands of years of human history is clear and unequivocal in one thing:  the wise and benevolent monarch is an extreme rarity among the innumerable despots and tyrants who have ruled over nations, kingdoms and empires.

Of course, the reign of autocrats and dictators all have their "bright" sides.  Look at Hitler's Third Reich, Mussolini's National Fascism or Suharto's New Order.  All initially brought political stability and economic progress to their nations only to collapse eventually as the excesses of their leaders either become exposed to public knowledge or when their flawed leadership brought their countries to the brink of total ruin and chaos.

So spare me the attempts to revise history and make Ferdinand Marcos the hero and national savior he never was.  He may have been a brilliant man and an astute politician but he misused his talents to virtually rob and enslaved a nation he claimed to be rescuing from anarchy and violence.  If there is one priceless lesson that the more than a decade of martial law this country has endured has taught us, one that we paid for in the blood and agony of heroes, it is the fact that we must never let another Marcos rise to power again or help propagate the myth that allowed one like him to lead the country once more.  One such mistake is more than enough.

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