The Explainer: Remembering Martial Law

The young, dynamic, glamorous image of the Marcoses, seen here in the film “Iginuhit sa Tadhana,” seems so long ago. That image was eventually tarnished by martial law. They say, it could never happen again. Marcos wore pomade, today our president wears Prada. What was martial law? Why was it welcomed, then rejected?


I’m Manolo Quezon, The Explainer.


I. No one would dare


When it was still in force, the 1935 Constitution was held to contain two major flaws. The first was the broad definition of the conditions that justified the imposition of martial law, which did not specify any limitations as to its duration or extent.


Section 10. (2) The President shall be commander-in-chief of all armed forces of the Philippines, and, whenever it becomes necessary, he may call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion, insurrection, or rebellion. In case of invasion, insurrection, or rebellion or imminent danger thereof, when the public safety requires it, he may suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, or place the Philippines or any part thereof under Martial Law.

-1935 Constitution


In general, the understand of this provisions seemed to be, that it was a list of options a president could use depending on the circumstance. Furthermore, the assumption seemed to be, that the options stemmed from the local, with the national as a last resort.

Others argued that these options were too vague, and too tempting for a president not to use whole hog.

The late journalist Vicente Albano Pacis, believed this provision on martial law was copied word for word from the Jones Law (which served as our constitution from 1916 to 1935), but minus the Jones Law’s provision requiring the governor general to submit, for approval or disapproval, his action to the president of the United States.

According to Pacis, this was done deliberately, precisely to offer presidents a means to establish absolute power.

Pacis, among others, were convinced that was what Filipino presidents wanted, in their heart of hearts, since the 1930s.

And while only President Jose P. Laurel, under different circumstances and another constitution, proclaimed martial law in 1944, that didn’t mean that postwar presidents weren’t suspected of harboring the same instincts.

President Quirino, for one, argued, in 1949, that he still possessed controversial special powers granted his predecessors on the eve of World War II. The Supreme Court said no. That didn’t stop Quirino from sending a tank to chase Manila Mayor Arsenio Lacson.

And it didn’t stop Ramon Magsaysay, seen here with a young congressman Marcos, from being accused of dictatorial tendencies.

Claro M. Recto did make a speech in the 1950s, cautioning the public on how susceptible to abuse the provision on martial law was; that no one bothered to amend the provision, despite Recto’s warning, revealed how it never occurred to the people that such an abuse was likely to happen.

After all, there was no sense worrying about incipient dictators when no incumbent president was ever able to secure a second term in the first place. Though had Manuel Roxas  and Ramon Magsaysay lived beyond their first term, they almost surely would have been re-elected).

But then Ferdinand Marcos defeated Diosdado Macapagal and Raul Manglapus in 1965. And then in 1969, he defeated Sergio Osmena, Jr. and made history.

Marcos became only the second president to re-elected. And the first, ever, to be elected to a full second term.

He also achieved the third-biggest landslide in our electoral history, coming close to the 1935 winning percentage of and the 1953 winning percentage of .

However, by 1970, things had turned ugly. That year saw the First Quarter Storm where students got as far as ramming a firetruck into the Palace gates. President Marcos warned the country that he would be forced to consider suspending the Writ of Habeas Corpus and if necessary, proclaiming martial law. Vice-President Fernando Lopez resigned from the cabinet the next day.

The next year saw the Plaza Miranda bombing. On  August 23, 1971, the Writ of Habeas Corpus was suspended, and 20 people arrested. The last time the Writ had been suspended was during the Quirino administration.

Martial law as a possibility increasingly became an inevitability, as the years went by. Two things offered hope.

In 1967, the Filipino people rejected, in a referendum, the proposal that Congress amend the Constitution. In June of 1971, a Constitutional Convention convened: people hoped it might offer a way out of the increasingly toxic political situation. And others hoped that Marcos’s term would be up by 1973, and that a new president could change things.

But it was not to be. The Constitutional Convention as safety valve wasn’t working. There was a “ban Marcos” resolution, closing the possibility to lifting the President’s term limits, allowing him to serve as prime minister, or running his wife as a candidate to succeed him. And of course Ninoy Aquino, one of those widely assumed to be a contender for the presidency, revealed in a privilege speech that a plan for martial law existed.

Finally, an assassination attempt on Defence Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile –which he said, in 1986, was faked- took place. On September 23, people woke up to find no newspapers, and the radio and TV off the air. Press Secretary Kit Tatad appeared that evening, followed by Marcos himself, to announce martial law had been imposed.


8,000 people had been rounded up early that morning.

The public hailed Marcos. Foreign investors hailed, him too. The American Chamber of Commerce sent this telegram:


[The AmCham] wishes you every success in your endeavors to restore peace and order, business confidence economic growth and the well being of the Filipino people and nation. We assure you of our confidence and cooperation in acheiving these objectives. We are communicating these feelings to our associates and affiliates in the United States.


Eight years later, Vice-President George Bush was still singing the same tune: “We just love your adherence to democratic processes,” he said in a Malacanang banquet.

But was Marcos really expecting to be hailed? What was the secret behind the seeming public acceptance of martial law? More on that, when we return.


II. Marcosian Jujitsu


That was President Marcos explaining why he proclaimed Martial Law.

When Ferdinand Marcos became president but before he made himself dictator, he perfected the juggling of congressional appropriations and the use of pork barrel funds as a means for congressional control. In short, it was a kind of judo where he used the very power of his office’s traditional opponent, against itself. In short, he was buying the politicians with their own money, if Congress may be said to own the taxes that people pay—which is pretty much how they treat them.

But once Marcos’s second term began to wind down, not even the bought would stay bought. On August 10, 1972, Congress removed from Marcos a power enjoyed by every previous president –to transfer funds from item to item. This legal blow came after two years of fighting with Congress over the national budget.

It got easy again –because it’s easy when you don’t have to share- when Marcos declared martial law and constituted himself as a government of one, combining the executive and legislative powers in his person, while adopting the Supreme Court as his new rubberstamp. He abolished all limits on appropriations and spending, basically giving himself the authority to spend on whatever he pleased and as much as he wanted—an authority he exercised to the hilt. Martial law gave Marcos total control over pork, and the local governments now guaranteed no elections a financial lifeline.

Although frequently outmaneuvered by the executive, an appropriate deference was always paid to the Senate before martial law. But never had the senatorial class been humiliated as it was with Marcos when he sent soldiers to simply nail its doors shut and then proceeded to arrest—not all the senators for he knew their quality or lack of it—but only two: Jose Diokno and Ninoy Aquino. It was a master psychological stroke, striking individual terror and collective insult to the rest of the chamber.

The House of Representatives was simply not heard from again, though the Speaker of the House, Jose Laurel, went home to pack his bags in readiness to be taken away to detention. No one came for him. Another masterstroke.

Marcos then proceeded to threaten though mostly to cajole and corrupt the members of a sitting constitutional convention into drafting a new constitution that he had  already written down and which imparted to him absolute power while granting to the legislature the handsomest perks for offices stripped of any real role in political life.

He promised that those who voted for the Palace-dictated constitution would be automatic members of the legislature it created in caricature. October 20, 1972, a cowed and bribed convention voted to approve the Malacanang draft for a Constitution.

Yet, when the vast majority did just that, he abolished it with the most expressive show of contempt and called for elections to a new but still rubberstamp parliament. That would be in 1978. Prior to that, in 1976, he amended the constitution –the infamous Amendment no. 6- which gave him the power, as President, to legislate. In case the national assembly made laws he didn’t like, or didn’t pass the laws he wanted fast enough –why he could make the laws, too.

Essentially Marcos wiped the floor with Congress, using it as a dishrag while he took upon himself the serious work of lawmaking, particularly for his, his wife’s and their cronies’ benefit. To this day, the republic’s finances continue to be compromised by the obligation to repay what they stole and wasted.

That left, from 1972 onwards, only the Supreme Court as the lone self-respecting institution separate from an executive with no sense of limits or of shame.

Although described by one US authority as “the least dangerous branch,” because it cannot act on its own initiative nor does it the physical power to effect change, the highest court can stop the other two branches dead in their legitimate tracks if it chose. They could ignore the Court, of course, but they would proceed thenceforth with little or no legitimacy—and legitimacy is what government is all about.

In the world’s most populous democracy, a chief executive had declared emergency government and given herself extraordinary powers—in effect, martial law—but the Indian Supreme Court ruled, in a decision dripping with legal erudition, that it was unconstitutional. Indira Gandhi backed off and restored democracy. Just as Quirino had backed off, when his assertion of emergency powers had been slapped down by our Supreme Court in 1949.

But in 1974, the Philippine Supreme Court did the opposite. It could have, at the very least, refused to rule on the issue of martial law, on the basis of the old saying that when the guns speak, the laws fall silent—which was true but did not absolve the Court from doing its duty to issue a ruling. Instead, it went a step further and validated martial law. And it would do so repeatedly so that, as one jurist put it, martial law was erected stone by stone by the decisions of a craven Supreme Court. Marcos declared martial law but it was the Court that said it was right.

There had been signs that the Court would rule in that fashion, not least its complete lack of fortitude in upholding the president’s suspension of the writ of habeas corpus after the Plaza Miranda bombing of which he was, at the time, believed to be the author. Like the proverbial first kiss on a first date, which has been compared to the first olive out of a tight bottle, once gotten, the rest follow first with increasing ease and then with total abandon.


He did other things, too.


In December 1972, drug dealer Lim Seng executed in Fort Bonifacio. The execution was stage-managed in the slick style typical of Marcos’ propaganda machine. It took place at the Luneta, the whole thing broadcast on national television, an unprecedented event given unprecedented coverage. The man had been sentenced to die by a military tribunal, demonstrating the preeminent role military justice, in contrast to the agonizingly slow civilian tribunals which existed before martial law,  would play in the New Society. That Lim Seng was to die, not in the hushed privacy of a national penitentiary, but out in the open, at the hands of soldiers, made it clear what martial law really meant.

A volley of rifle fire rang out, and Lim Seng fell to the ground, but he was not dead. Traditionally after a prisoner is shot, an officer administers the coup de grace, discharging a rivolver at point-blank range into the skull of the condemned man. According to one account, this did not occur. It was determined that another volley was necessary to finish the job, but the soldiers had not been provided with another round of bullets. Orders were given for ammunition to be secured; but by the time the bullets had arrived, Lim Seng was dead. He had bled to death.

Marcos was not a guy to mess with. The message would stick until Marcos started getting sick in the late 70s.

But what was martial law really like? Why remember it with regret? Our guest will discuss why, when we return.




Ferdinand Marcos taught two generations of Filipinos that nice guys finish last, and that the law is something to be used tactically, and not viewed as possessing integrity. He also reduced politics to an exercise in the voracious accumulation of wealth, without regard for either actually helping posterity or recognizing the responsibility of leaders to leave a country at least marginally better off than before they entered the scene. If you view politics, as I do, as being as much about self-restraint in exercising power, as it is about achieving power and holding on to it, then Marcos’s legacy was truly politically corrosive.

So corrosive, indeed, that at the heart of the martial law anniversary remains a lie. That lie is, that martial law was proclaimed on September 21, 1972. It was not. The proclamation was signed on September 22. And it was enforced on September 23. Marcos wanted September 21, because the date was divisible by 7, his lucky number. And so, even as the nation protests martial law, it continues to pay homage to Marcos’s myth-making.



Manuel L. Quezon III.

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