The Atenean facing martial law

'These are times when everything that can be shaken is being shaken, when institutions are being challenged to their very foundations, and basic ideas of decency and human dignity are being violated with great impunity,' Sereno says during commencement exercises at the Ateneo de Manila

Thirty seven years ago, dear Loyolans, I stood in your place, about to take a place of honor and privilege as a graduate of Ateneo.

Three years later, Ninoy Aquino would be assassinated; by 1986, the dictator Marcos would flee the country. But on my graduation day in 1980, it was difficult to be certain of a future outside of martial law. I was at once optimistic and fearful. Optimistic about my career prospects as any Atenean would be, but fearful lest the long nights of martial law overshadowing our country never end.

I had actually prepared to talk with you in a more lighthearted and general manner on themes of justice, democracy and what it means to be an Atenean, but the declaration of Martial Law and the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao this Tuesday impressed upon me a more urgent and specific subject matter. So yesterday I discarded my prepared speech and resolved that today I would try to address the questions that must be in your minds and those of your parents. I thought it behooved me to give you a lens through which you could view present events and make decisions regarding your participation in the making of Philippine history.

Allow me to guess at the questions in your mind: Will this Martial Law declaration bring back the human rights violations and the depredations that characterized the martial law regime of 1972? Will investors leave the country? Will young people still have enough good jobs? Will our labor force be squeezed into more painful contortions of diaspora? Will our voices still be heard? The answer, my dear graduates, is “It depends.”

Our hopes for the future depend on whether the Executive Department, led by the President, the leadership and the entirety of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, Department of Justice officials and prosecutors, the Chief Public Attorney and her public defenders will take sufficient care to abide by the Constitution and the laws even while Martial Law is in place. It depends on whether there will be abuse of the awesome powers that Martial Law gives the Armed Forces and the police.

It also depends on whether Congress and the Supreme Court will exercise their review powers appropriately over the declaration of Martial Law and the suspension of the privilege of writ of habeas corpus; and whether both houses of Congress and all courts will continue to function normally and well.

It also depends on whether certain independent constitutional bodies, namely the Ombudsman, the Commission on Human Rights, and the Commission on Audit will persist in discharging their proper functions.

Finally, it depends on whether you, my fellow Ateneans, together with the rest of the Filipino population, do your part to ensure that this declaration of Martial Law does not imperil your future.

Allow me to clarify that the powers to declare Martial Law and suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus are expressly granted President Duterte under the Constitution. When properly implemented, this should not by itself unduly burden our country. This power was granted to allow the President to resolve the situation “in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it.” There may be questions before the Supreme Court regarding whether this can be extended to encompass situations akin to invasion or rebellion, and what circumstances constitute rebellion, but we will not venture into that for now. Suffice it to say that the Martial Law power is an immense power that can be used for good, to solve defined emergencies; but all earthly powers when abused can result in oppression.

If the Martial Law power is expressly granted the President, why are there fears expressed in some quarters regarding the declaration of President Duterte?

You must understand the history of a previous declaration of martial law, which occurred over forty years ago at the height of President Marcos’ power. Former Chief Justice Claudio Teehankee in Dizon v Eduardo described September 22, 1972 – the night Marcos announced Martial Law – as a dark evening when military authorities moved throughout the city to arrest and detain journalists and members of the opposition, upon orders of the President-turned dictator. Over the next two decades, enemies of the Marcos regime “disappeared,” were tortured or summarily executed.

The fears stoked by the terms “Martial Law” and “suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus,” are therefore not surprising. But we must remember that these apprehensions were created by former President Marcos and the martial law that followed his 1972 declaration. If President Duterte and the aforementioned government authorities avoid the gross historical sins of Mister Marcos and his agents, then our country might reap the benefits of the legitimate use of the provisions on Martial Law in the 1987 Constitution.

You see, the 1987 Constitution in clear and unmistakable language rejects and absolutely prohibits the particular kind of martial law that began in our country in September of 1972. 

What do I mean by this? Allow me to refer to the decisions of our Supreme Court and other tribunals regarding the essential characteristics of the martial law dominating our country following its 1972 proclamation.

First, that period was characterized by widespread human rights violations in the form of murders, rape and other forms of torture, forced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and illegal detention, and forced isolation or hamletting of villages.

In the case of Mijares v. Ranada, the Supreme Court described the deep damage dealt to our institutions and the very fabric of our society as follows:

“Our martial law experience bore strange unwanted fruits, and we have yet to finish weeding out its bitter crop. While the restoration of freedom and the fundamental structures and processes of democracy have been much lauded, according to a significant number, the changes, however, have not sufficiently healed the colossal damage wrought under the oppressive conditions of the martial law period. The cries of justice for the tortured, the murdered, and the desaparecidos arouse outrage and sympathy in the hearts of the fair-minded, yet the dispensation of the appropriate relief due them cannot be extended through the same caprice or whim that characterized the ill-wind of martial rule. The damage done was not merely personal but institutional, and the proper rebuke to the iniquitous past has to involve the award of reparations due within the confines of the restored rule of law.”

Perhaps the most specific recount of the human rights atrocities during the Martial Law period beginning in 1972 can be found in a US Decision, specifically that of the Hawaiian District Court in the case of In Re: Estate Of Ferdinand E. Marcos Human Rights Litigation, Celsa Hilao, et. al v. Estate Of Ferdinand E. Marcos. The case was a class action brought by victims or victims’ family members against the Estate of Marcos, seeking compensation for torture, disappearance or summary execution. The court made findings of human rights violations including numerous forms of torture such as beatings while blindfolded, rape and sexual assault, electric shock, and solitary confinement. The court noted:

“All of these forms of torture were used during “tactical interrogation,” attempting to elicit information from detainees concerning opposition to the MARCOS government. The more the detainees resisted, whether purposefully or out of lack of knowledge, the more serious the torture used.”

Second, the period of martial law that began in September of 1972 was likewise characterized by its heretofore unprecedented scale of plunder.

The case of Presidential Commission on Good Government v. Peña described the rule of Marcos as a “well-entrenched plundering regime of twenty years,” with respect to  “the ill-gotten wealth which rightfully belongs to the Republic although pillaged and plundered in the name of dummy or front companies, in several known instances carried out with the bold and mercenary, if not reckless, cooperation and assistance of members of the bar as supposed nominees.” The Supreme Court in that case “noted the magnitude of the regime’s organized pillage and the ingenuity of the plunderers and pillagers with the assistance of experts and the best legal minds in the market.” The ill-gotten assets identified so far by both the Presidential Commission on Good Governance and the Solicitor General are valued at approximately $5 billion.

Third, the martial law following the proclamation of 1972 was extremely oppressive, concentrating power only in Mister Marcos and his group. At one point, the Supreme Court, quoting Chief Justice Teehankee, characterized the time as “a return to the lese majeste when the voice of the King was the voice of God so that those touched by his absolute powers could only pray that the King acted prudently and wisely.” The dictator amassed so much power as the Commander-in-Chief, that he was able to take “absolute command of the nation and… the people could only trust that he would not fail them.”

We know what happened. Marcos failed our people. Those of us who were alive at the time bore witness to the human rights atrocities and the corruption caused by such absolute power.

Fourth, the martial law period of 1972 put the Philippines in an economic tailspin that saw us go from the second most vibrant economy in Asia to its sick man. In Marcos v. Manglapus, the Supreme Court noted that excessive foreign borrowing during the Marcos regime stagnated development and became one of the root causes of widespread poverty, leaving the economy in a precarious state. In Republic v. Sandiganbayan, the Court described the economic havoc created by the authoritarian regime in this manner:

At the time that the government of former President Marcos was driven from power, the country’s debt was over $26 billion; and the indications were that “illegally acquired wealth” of the deposed president alone, not counting that of his relatives and cronies, was in the aggregate amount of from five to ten billion US dollars, the bulk of it being deposited and hidden abroad.”

​These are only a few excerpts from some of the many decisions of the highest court of the land that memorialize for all of history the atrocities committed during the era heralded by the 1972 declaration of martial law. They may not be the most heart-rending of accounts due to the necessary haste with which I compiled them, but I encourage you to do further reading on these and similar cases. These excerpts together with unrefuted historical accounts are a testament to our country’s resolve to never again allow ourselves to return to those dark and terrible times.

Thus the 1987 Constitution clearly says:

​A state of martial law does not suspend the operation of the Constitution, nor supplant the functioning of the civil courts or legislative assemblies, nor authorize the conferment of jurisdiction on military courts and agencies over civilians where civil courts are able to function, nor automatically suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus.

As we face the days following President Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao, it behooves us to ask what we can do in the present, with the time that is given to us, to ensure that the horrors of martial law that followed the 1972 declaration do not happen again.

For if being an Atenean means anything, it is that each of us – individually, and as a member of the Ateneo as an institution and a community – bears a great deal of responsibility for the well-being of this country. And this responsibility entails leading not by possessing power for power’s sake, but by sacrificial example, by dying to ourselves and taking up our crosses daily. If power is to be granted to an Atenean, then such power must be exercised the way Christ exercised his leadership, by being a servant first, to the Father, and to His brothers and sisters.

These are times when everything that can be shaken is being shaken, when institutions are being challenged to their very foundations, and basic ideas of decency and human dignity are being violated with great impunity. These are times more than any other that will sorely test the Atenean’s capacity to distinguish right from wrong and the Atenean’s ability to act in service of what is right, and true, and good.

Do not be discouraged, for you are well-equipped for the challenges of these times. You only need to look within and around you and reflect on the Atenean principles inculcated in you over the years – Magis, or the constant pursuit of improvement and excellence, for difficult times require extraordinary people.

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, AMDG! All for the greater glory of God – for these are times when our faith will be tested, our paths will be dark and full of shadows, and only by surrendering all our actions to God may we continue towards the light.

One Big Fight! More than a cheer used in our basketball games, One Big Fight embodies the wholehearted passion and dedication that must fuel all our actions.

But the most fundamental Atenean value today is that of being a person for others. To be an Atenean is to serve – compassionately, selflessly, with unceasing dedication. To be an Atenean is to constantly continue the work of addressing others’ needs; to think broadly, not merely in terms of impact on one’s self, but impact on one’s community and country. 

To be an Atenean is to deeply and completely understand that it is in service to others that our lives take on their full meaning. To be an Atenean is to forsake a life of self-centered safety for a life of service.

To be a person for others is to commit to a just and noble cause greater than oneself.

Given the present day, when the possibility of history repeating itself looms imminent, no cause requires your commitment as much as the cause of human rights, justice, and democracy, themes you have aptly chosen.

For today, people’s fundamental human rights and freedoms, the core of our democracy, face grave and blatant threats. The culture of impunity is on the rise. People are pressured to favor the easy choice over the right choice: expediency over due process; convenient labeling over fairness; the unlawful termination of human life over rehabilitation.

You need to make a stand, dear Ateneans. And to make a stand you must act. More than merely ruminating on the idea of justice, I call on each of you to confront the common injustices of our society and seek to address them. I urge you to speak out with truth even against the overwhelming tide of popular opinion and reach out to the oppressed and disenfranchised. When you face threats to the sanctity of human rights or the stability of our democracy, give your all to protect these freedoms. Give your all to protect our nation and our people.

Stand up and give One Big Fight!

As I stated in my speech to the lawyers in the Integrated Bar of the Philippines National Convention last March 23, we are not fighting a person or an establishment but a culture, a pattern that pervades our society today. It is a pattern of apathy, rage, and despair: one that began when people learned to tolerate wrong, stopped hoping, and ceased caring.

I understand that the task before you is immense, but I have no doubt you are more than up to the challenge. For you have been honed over your years in the Ateneo to fulfill your calling in extraordinary ways.

That is why I do not feel only hope when I look at you – my heart is filled with grateful gladness. Throughout the countless calamities that have struck the country, Ateneans have always been among the first to respond and help. Unstintingly and without hesitation, Ateneans have reached out, time and time again, to complete strangers – giving of themselves to people they may never even meet.

Last year, when the history of our nation was subjected to attempts at revision, you were among the first to speak up. I saw young men and women from the Ateneo spill out into the streets, furious and indignant, speaking up against this distortion of our history and reaching out to show fellow Filipinos that they were not alone. As a fellow Atenean, I understood that this passionate outpouring of righteous anger sprang from a deep understanding of what it means to be a person for others.

Know that being a person for others and standing for human rights, justice, and democracy are one and the same. To stand for human rights is to value others’ freedoms as much as you value your own. To stand for justice is to oppose any attempts to value one group’s freedoms more than those of others. To stand for democracy is to love your country and your people so fully that you will act to ensure democratic processes are followed despite great personal cost. To stand for all of these is to sacrifice yourself so that others may know freedom, safety, and all the fullness of life.

Know that you are not alone. You will not be alone. Have the courage to stand.

My prayers are with you, young Ateneans. As you face this crossroad and move on to a new chapter of your lives, may the Lord bless and keep you; may He make His face shine on you and be gracious to you; may the Lord turn His face towards you and give you peace.

Mabuhay kayo, class of 2017! Make us proud! –


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