Martial Law

[OPINION] Have Filipinos forgotten the biggest crime made against us?

Vivien Beduya
[OPINION] Have Filipinos forgotten the biggest crime made against us?

Passersby look at the Martial Law Memorial Wall at the Bonifacio Shrine in Manila on September 20, 2022, a day before the 50th anniversary of the declaration of military rule by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. Rappler

'It can feel hopeless, frustrating, and disempowering. But when we start to believe this narrative, this is how they win.'

Even if I now live 5,000 miles away from the Philippines, I shared in the loss and anger when Marcos Jr. won the presidency. My heart sank when I saw all the headlines: Marcos Jr., son of ex-dictator, wins by a landslide. 31 million votes. 98% of the total voter’s count. This must be a joke, I thought to myself. It left people across the globe shocked. All the international news media talked about was how we ousted these tyrants only to willingly vote them back into power. 

His win did not make sense to me. I remember thinking he didn’t stand a chance because his family were world-renowned plunderers and murderers. But no, he won, and I wanted to understand how. When we were young, school taught us that Martial Law was a bad time in Philippine history. Yet somehow, 50 years later, another Marcos is back in Malacañang. We have had decades of #NeverForget campaigns, so have we forgotten the biggest crime made against us in our post-colonial history? Did we even know enough to not forget? 

I think a lot about the Martial Law victims and survivors who have to watch the same abusers back in power. They fought hard for our freedom, and over 3,000 lives were lost. So, I interviewed three torture survivors of the regime. Three-month political detainee in Cebu, lawyer Democrito Barcenas, 82, was a leading human rights lawyer during the regime. Nine-month political detainee in Cebu, retired Judge Meinrado Paredes, 75, was an active officer of Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan. Nine-month political detainee in Baguio, University of the Philippines Anthropology professor Dr. Nestor Castro, 62, was imprisoned for alleged possession of subversive materials.

There seemed to be three commonalities in their arrests: 1) No arrest warrants, only “invitations that cannot be refused,” 2) The psychological (and in the case of Dr. Castro, physical) torture they endured, and 3) They were all released without charges. Both Barcenas and Paredes were arrested by Philippine Constabulary soldiers on the day of martial law implementation, September 23, 1972. They faced constant threats of the military tribunal which had no generally accepted principles of due process. They were also threatened to be transferred to the remote island of Corregidor, an old military base from WWII where access would only be through military aircrafts. Dr. Nestro, meanwhile, was taken captive by a group of men in civilian clothing towards the end of the regime, March 7, 1983. 

Other than the psychological torture and outright human rights violations they faced, it also came with physical torture. Dr. Castro was asked to squat in his cell for long hours, and when he got tired, the guards would lift him up, punch him in the stomach, bang his head against the wall, and burn cigarettes on his chest. Paredes’ brother, who was 19 at the time, was detained in Camp Dagohoy in Tagbilaran City. His brother was constantly beaten with firearms, which resulted in permanent damage to one ear. The soldiers would also cuff both his hands and feet, leave his food on the floor, and let him eat it like a dog. Other victims went through simulated drowning, heads flushed down dirty toilets, sexual abuse and rape, and women stripped naked to sit on blocks of ice.

Even in their old age, both Barcenas and Paredes still have the zeal to fight for Philippine democracy, but Dr. Castro was disheartened and tired after Marcos Jr.’s win. I believe both statements are valid, and I know everyone in this fight would swing between the pendulum. After all, $10 billion was plundered from the Filipino people, and the Marcoses continue to gaslight anyone who calls them out for it. Sometimes, the anger can even be redirected to the 31 million people who voted for him. And when I find myself feeling this, I remember the wisdom Judge Paredes imparted to me: “Do not blame the victims of oppression but blame the oppressor.” Which begs the question, even after all the evidence piled up against them, how did they manage to convince 31 million people to support them? 

SURVIVOR. Former political detainee and human rights lawyer Democrito Barcenas said the Philippines has
become a laughingstock of the entire world. Contributed photo

Analysts argued that his win was inevitable. The Marcos propaganda machinery had been in the works for decades – rebranding their name, revising history, and spreading disinformation. In 2020, Marcos Jr. even pushed for the revision of history textbooks because “it was teaching children lies” about his father’s regime. Among the supposed “lies” of the Marcos regime was the existence of political detainees. Marcos apologists insisted that those jailed were criminals, despite historical records proving otherwise. An older generation of Martial Law deniers have also been at the forefront of the conversation. Because of heavy media suppression and control under the dictatorship, “law-abiding citizens” were led to believe that it was a crime-free society. But little did they know that those fighting for their freedom were being tortured, raped, or killed in camps. And intellectuals, historians, and political cronies will continue to defend the Marcoses’ version of history in a bid to gain better positions in society.

And the culmination of the massive disinformation campaign was launched on social media during the election period. It rebranded the darkest years of post-colonial Philippines into the “golden era of peace and crime-free society.” This doesn’t come as a surprise since TikTok has been a breeding ground for misinformation campaigns, not just in the Philippines, but globally. In a recent NewsGuard review, 1 in 5 of the videos automatically suggested contained misinformation. While TikTok may be in the hot seat, other social media platforms are just as complicit. The algorithms are a whole new ball game that even millennials can barely keep up with. How much more the older generation who are using Facebook and YouTube to rely on for Martial Law information? 

After all the interviews and further Martial Law research, I learned so much about the regime that was never taught in school. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know the extent of its brutality. It made me realize our Martial Law education was limited and broad, if not non-existent. If we had better Martial Law education, could we have had a better fighting chance against the Marcos resurgence? I may never know the answer, especially when we’re fighting against oppressors who have the advantage of stolen wealth, power, and connections. It can feel hopeless, frustrating, and disempowering. But when we start to believe this narrative, this is how they win.

I remember the words of journalist Dr Sheila Coronel: “In the months and weeks before that night, the most erudite observers were telling us there was no way Marcos would go away. But in 1986, we proved them wrong.  Filipinos asserted their agency against the weight of power and the forces of history.”

So, I think of the fighting spirit of the two million Filipinos who marched the streets of EDSA, and cities around the country, to oust a tyrant in 1986. We should never forget. We have done the impossible once, and we can do it again. –

Vivien Beduya is a Cebuana post-graduate student journalist based in Aotearoa New Zealand. She is passionate about photography, travel, and storytelling, particularly on diversity reporting.

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