The tragedy of Martial Law

Economic hardships

But then the bubble burst. Commodity prices for agricultural export crops suddenly plummeted. Oil prices spiraled out of control, raising the prices of basic goods as well as transportation. These economic hardships only underscored the contradictions of the Marcos regime and its vulnerability.

Take for example the case of land reform. One of the first decrees Marcos promulgated after the declaration of Martial Law was the emancipation of farmers from the bondage of the soil.

A few weeks later, Presidential Decree 27 took effect. It would finally make farmers owners of the land they tilled. Never mind if the law covered only tenanted rice and corn lands, that the retention limit was 7 hectares, later revised to 5 hectares if non-irrigated and 3 hectares if irrigated, that dispossessed land owners were paid in full by the farmers, and the titling process was tedious. The change from share cropping and leasehold systems to ownership was, in itself, a milestone. 

But by the late 70s, the contradictions were becoming apparent. The high-yield varieties introduced by the Masagana 99 program were highly dependent on fertilizers and pesticides (derived from both petroleum and chemical derivatives and manufactured by mostly multinational companies and marketed by Filipino partners), so much so that when oil prices spiraled, the cost of production was so high that farming no longer became a profitable enterprise. 

The Marcos regime also introduced a cooperative system called the Samahang Nayon, a prerequisite for becoming a beneficiary of land reform. Similar to the Saemaul Undong movement in South Korea, collective action on farming activities was seen as desirable and also necessary for borrowing money from a rural bank, for example.

But a good number of peasants backed out of the program when they learned that each member had to assume the payments of a defaulting member. Soon they realized that while the Samahang Nayon had good intentions, the real objective was to ensure loan payments to banks. 

Philippines: 'devastated, bankrupt'

It may be argued that these are design flaws which could not be blamed on Marcos. But then in 1974, Marcos signed into law General Order 47 and PD 472 which promoted corporate farming. Under the guise of self-sufficiency in rice and corn, big business companies could now involve themselves in farming to feed their employees.

Consequently, they competed for arable lands with farmers and undermined the land reform program. As it turned out, rice and corn farmers were in a better situation than those outside the coverage of land reform. From 1971 until 1982, coconut farmers were taxed 4 types of levies, all with the intent of improving the copra industry.

The levies were however used by Marcos' cronies to purchase holdings in some of the most profitable companies in the Philippines. Bowing to the sugar barons' argument that their lands could not be covered by land reform due to the country's obligation to meet its quota in the international market, the Marcos regime turned a blind eye to the plight of sugar workers. The images of sacadas when sugar prices plummeted became one of the most effective leitmotif against the Martial Law regime. 

PD 27 may have ameliorated the plight of peasants in Central Luzon, long the hotbed of peasant revolts. But Marcos' governance saw the intensification of agrarian unrest in other areas – the coconut producing provinces in Southern Luzon and sugarlands in Negros. These examples point to failures not of design but to the depravity of crony capitalism.     

By the time Marcos left Malacañang in 1986, the Philippines was devastated and bankrupt. The legacies that Martial Law left behind still reverberates today. It was not too long ago that a huge chunk of the government's budget had to be allotted for debt repayment than on needed infrastructure and basic services.

Kleptocracy became the new norm in government service, and when you steal, steal big so you can turn the law in your favor. Extrajudicial killings also became the preferred mode of settling disputes.     

In the end, this development plan could have made us an economic tiger. For this was the order of the day and Marcos, with his vast array of powers and resources, was the one leader who could have pulled it off.

We paid a heavy price, and after all the sacrifices, we found ourselves consigned to the dustbin. The Koreans sacrificed a lot too in this quest, paid a heavy price and in so doing, attained First World status.

This is the tragedy of Martial Law. –

Roy P. Mendoza is a former History teacher and is now an independent historian. (Mendoza's profile photo courtesy of