WHY DO those who are old enough to remember martial law make great effort today to mark its 40th anniversary? Because many of us are worried that the next generation seems blasé about a return to dictatorship and some even sound like they would relish it.
I have in the past looked at the pedagogical challenges to remembering that era. The kids’ minds today are wired differently. They are more attuned to specific issues (think environment), not grand causes (think liberalism). We tell them about the systemic roots of a problem but they are more moved by the human drama. And yes, they want the rawness of that drama because they suspect anything edited to have been scripted or manipulated. Finally, they are impatient for real solutions in the here and now. Preach to them “protracted struggle,” and they say, “You mean it will take more than one sem?”
But even for us oldies, there is actually a fundamental problem. We downplay the role of ideology in the proclamation of martial law, and portray it as nothing more than a power grab by Ferdinand Marcos and his cohorts—Marcos for love of power, the cohorts for love of money—and aided by the United States.
The result is that, until the present, we disregard the place of the Left in the martial law story. Remember that martial law was Marcos’ response to the communist threat, that he blamed the communists for the Plaza Miranda bombing (and he was telling the truth, ex-communists now tell us!), that his human rights victims were mostly leftists, and that until the death of Ninoy Aquino, the campus and religious Left (and of course the armed underground component) were the only ones who dared oppose Marcos. Finally, the whole Bagong Lipunan ideology and the Marcos trilogy of books on his “revolution from the center” were needed to counter the Left’s comprehensive vision.
In the foreword to the book “Subversive Lives” (on the saga of the Quimpo family of activists), Filipino-American historian Vicente Rafael asks why “there are no monuments to communism in the Philippines” and why, for instance, even the Bantayog ng mga Bayani dedicated to martial law victims honors them as “nationalist martyrs” rather than as communist cadres.
He replies: “[It means] that there is something about [communism] that defies commemoration and mourning [that the role of the Left] remains unassimilated into the dominant narrative [and] seems peripheral to nationalist consciousness.” He explains: “Monuments act as tombs that bury and so keep in place the ghosts of the past. They allow those in the present to commemorate the dead and thereby overcome their absence. [Communism] haunts the nation in ways that cannot be fully accounted for, much less entombed by the historical narrative of nationalism.”
Just consider the weeklong homage to the martyred youth leader, Lean Alejandro, who was assassinated 25 years ago as a prelude to a coup attempt against Cory Aquino. How many of the published tributes openly acknowledge that he was leftist? Why is it that, long after RA 1700 (Anti-Subversion Law) had been repealed, we continue to sanitize his leftist roots and highlight instead the altruism and spirit of self-sacrifice that indeed the Left embodied then?
My answer is that, once upon a time, it made good strategy to downplay ideology and find common cause with all groups. Indeed if Ninoy’s death was the beginning of the end for Marcos, it was because it mainstreamed the anti-Marcos opposition, from the underground Left to the parliament of the streets. Until then, the opposition to martial law came from the periphery, but with Ninoy’s murder, it arrived literally at Ayala Avenue’s confetti-strewn marches.
But if it made sense to hush the Marxist jargon then, why does it persist to the present? There are several possibilities. One, maybe we should confront the obvious. Cold War propaganda is so effective that, long after the USSR has crumbled and Communist China has become capitalist, Filipinos still look askance at communism. Do leftist party-list groups openly declare themselves communist, I wonder?
Two, maybe that isn’t just the fault of the running dogs of US imperialism. After all, the communists had their own killing fields and their revolution had begun to devour its own proverbial children. They have also degenerated into brigands who extort revolutionary taxes from legitimate businesses. For instance, they sabotage cell sites and cause the delayed transmission of our text messages. That certainly can’t endear them to the Filipino public. And contrast that to the Marcos children today: bright, sophisticated and articulate. Even without the Marcos mystique, they can give any politician a run for his money.
It is time to discard the notion that the communist threat was merely a convenient excuse for martial law. Perhaps the threat was bloated but it was there, and it was just a matter of time. Martial law thrived for the first few years because Marcos offered a vision of a New Society that Filipinos craved then and still seek today, and our hope is that we can find it without the pain and agony that the martial law nightmare wrought upon countless innocent lives.