Martial Law- 50 years after : The Days of Living Dangerously

Toronto, Ontario

A “Martial Law Story”

By Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen

(I wrote the original piece some 20 years ago or so when revisionist viewpoints or fabrications were not yet on the horizon. It is in the interest of historical integrity that I resurrect this piece for publication on the 50th year anniversary of the declaration of martial law in the Philippines by Ferdinand E. Marcos.)

The Silence of the Radio

It was 50  years ago this week when Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law. Apparently, historians continue to quibble over the exact date when Proclamation # 1081–the instrument that placed the country under martial rule from 1972 till 1981 (or 1986)  was actually signed. 

It is generally believed that #1081 was signed on September 21, 1972 but publicly announced on September 23.  In was announced that by virtue of Proclamation No. 2045 martial law effectively ended on January 17, 1981. But the operative phrase at the time was  it was “the effects of martial law” that had been removed. Yet, realistically, Marcos’ authoritarian rule did not end in 1981 (after 8 years) but on February 25, 1986 when People Power or the EDSA Revolution ousted the dictator and forced the Marcoses out of the country. By then Marcos had been in power for some twenty-two years. 

Regardless, September 21-23 1972 was a weekend many of us who were students in Manila at the time would not easily forget. It was our three days of living dangerously.I had just enrolled for the first semester in what was then called De la Salle College, a skinny 16-year old high school graduate from Iligan in Mindanao, a city fast-becoming the most industrialized city outside Manila at the time.  With 26 other aspirants, I had also joined the 1972 batch of freshmen Scholastics, those undergoing formation to become members of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, more popularly  known as the La Salle Brothers.

The atmosphere on campus that summer was heavy with dissent and revolutionary rhetoric: anti-Marcos and anti-bourgeoisie graffiti on the walls and anti-Establishment slogans on streamers. Alongside these  pamphlets enjoining the youth to “serve the masses” circulated in the campuses. It was the 1970s, after all. As if red-inked writing on walls were not enough, the De La Salle campus on Taft Avenue also got unsightly with silt and debris that settled on the corridors and the grounds.  

In July and August that year, two successive tropical storms, locally code-named “Edeng” and “Gloring”—the most devastating since 1876– wrought great havoc not only in the Greater Manila area but also in Central Luzon. Torrential downpour inundated the city for 16 consecutive days from July 8 to July 23, flooding the “Leveriza” community of informal settlers which is just outside the walls of the Scholasticate. The Brothers provided haven to the residents of Leveriza, welcoming them to the safety and warmth of the Brother Athanasius gymnasium. The Scholastics aided a number of St. Scholastica’s College students who were herding children inside the gym or helping women and the elderly negotiate the crossing of Taft Avenue, by now a veritable river.  I  finally did my share and served the masses.

Hardly had the floods receded when classes were disrupted once more when September arrived. Many students had already left Manila to serve in the countryside. Hundreds had joined youth brigades working in the rehabilitation of Central Luzon in the aftermath of the typhoons. Those who stayed behind braced for more rallies that often caused disruption in classes at the time. Then on that fateful Thursday, September 21, the grapevine announced a mammoth rally was expected to take place in Plaza Miranda that afternoon. It would be the last major protest rally on the eve of martial law in the Philippines.

It was from hindsight that I learned it was Edicio de la Torre, possibly the most controversial priest-activist of the period, who had organized the multi-sectoral rally that drew thousands. His name would figure once more in my universe when I wrote my undergraduate thesis on “The Politicization of the Catholic Church in the Philippines During Martial Law”. The feeling of exhilaration at finally being able to join a student rally and be counted was tempered by the realization that I could be arrested by the police any time. It had only been a year since the infamous Bombing of Plaza Miranda had taken place.  In its aftermath, President Marcos suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. We were warned against spies within our ranks. We were to avoid getting photographed at all cost. We could be picked up by the military any time and never be seen again. Paranoia crept in.

For weeks Manila was rife with talk of President Marcos declaring Martial Law at any moment. Bombing in the metropolis had intensified, the Moros were up in arms in Mindanao, and the NPAs reportedly gaining more foothold and ready to surround the capital—just the very backdrop for the President to use as justification to invoke a draconian constitutional power. Marcos’ impending martial rule had been the running motif of Senator Ninoy Aquino’s privilege speeches, culminating in his last address to the Senate in the evening of September 21 itself.  I had left the rally just as Manila’s famous sunset started to turn amber, paranoia unabated and images of the bloody First Quarter Storm that happened only three years early flashing in my mind.

There was an eerie quiet on campus the following day, Friday,  September 22.  It was as if only the stragglers from the previous day’s rally showed up if only to swap stories of their experience from the day before. The Scholastics looked forward to an evening of socials because it was only on Fridays when house rules were relaxed like allowing us to stay up beyond the usual 10 pm lights out. But the flashing news on TV about an assassination attempt on the life of Defense Secretary Enrile dampened our fleeting Friday evening fun. Conversation turned serious, divining the repercussions of the shooting. Sleep didn’t come easy to me that evening so I tuned on to my radio just past midnight, only to find out not a single station was on the air. Thinking I was just having a bad reception, I knocked on the door at the next bedroom to see if my neighbor was listening to his radio, only to find out it was also silent. In my mind I knew something serious was afoot.

Following the conclusion of our early morning mass the following day, Saturday, our Formation Director announced in a soft almost nervous tone that martial law had been declared.  I don’t recall anyone asking how he came about the information. It was not until later in the day that Secretary Tatad would go on the air to announce that martial law had been declared; that the president was going to address the nation that evening of September 23.

Our first directive for the day was not to leave the premises until more information was available from the Provincialate–the headquarters of the La Salle Brothers located in La Salle Greenhills– as to what we will do as a community of Brothers. Secondly and probably more importantly, we were to burn any material in our closets that may be considered subversive. With this order we bade goodbye to our Mao and Che  Guevarra posters and any printed material that even remotely suggested anti-government sentiments or promoted Socialist ideas. 

There must have been quite a volume of these materials because someone started a bonfire just outside the Scholasticate building, now called the Brother William Hall. Inside, our ears were glued to a government controlled radio station awaiting updates. But the radio played only classical music. (One of my professors, Dr. Wilfrido Villacorta—a future member of the commission struck by Cory Aquino to draft the 1987 constitution—later told us that playing classical music right after a coup or placing a country under martial rule was a technique learned by a group of military officers Marcos had earlier fanned out to other countries to study “good practices” when imposing martial rule. It was meant to calm the frayed nerves of the population.)

Edgar Jopson (Image: Twitter)

Any subversive material lying about would have been leftover from the campus days of Chito Sta. Romana,  the La Sallite student activist emeritus. Chito was La Salle’s answer to Ateneo’s Edjop (Edgar Jopson).  I never met the man who had carved his niche in the pantheon of student leaders of the 1960s-1970s not only for being a major voice in the Movement for Democratic Philippines, an umbrella organization of progressive groups, but also by acting as leader of a small delegation of student leaders who composed the Philippine Youth delegation to China that left the country in 1971 on invitation of Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.

The suspension of the writ in August 1971 sealed the fate of Sto. Romana and a few others in the delegation. Fearing arrest if they returned, many decided to remain in China, not coming back to the Philippines until after Marcos had left the country courtesy of People Power. I would later learn firsthand from Jaime FlorCruz—who I met in Toronto — the difficult life these youthful exiles experienced in China,  as I did from Eric Baculinao, who represented UP in the group. At the time, Jaime was a student leader in the Philippine College of Commerce—hotbed of student activism– and president of the League of Editors for a Democratic Society (LEADS).

Meanwhile, La Salle was spic-and-span by Monday, September 25. The school’s famous neoclassical buildings had been scrubbed clean and its off-white paint restored. No graffiti…no placards…no streamers. But then there were no students either. Martial Law had padlocked Manila’s schools…and would remain so pretty much the balance of the year or until after Marcos had conveniently had the new constitution ratified in January 1973 and legitimized his authority. I joined my first act of civil disobedience when I did not register for the barangay level referendum that ratified the new constitution. 

Life during Martial Law was not easy for those in the religious sector. There was much expectation for it to be the last recourse for people victimized by the abuses of martial rule. The radios may have been silenced (there were a reported 52 radio stations and 7 TV stations before martial law but after September 23 only 33 radio and 5 TV stations were allowed to operate) but not the men and women in white.

A Sister Act

In the early weeks of the new regime, I attended a symposium at the San Miguel Corporation auditorium in Makati to listen to an ailing Father Horacio de la Costa, noted Jesuit historian. He eloquently captured the prevailing political milieu as he deadpanned  “Before martial law….our politicians would talk and talk without thinking; now they can only think and think….”

Father de la Costa was not alone in the Jesuit community to bravely question Martial Law. No less than the Father Provincial in the 1970s, Fr Benigno Mayo, labored for greater Church involvement in fighting  political oppression.

One day (this could have been in late 1975) we Senior Scholastics gathered in the provincial house of the Religious of the Good Shepherd to listen to Sr. Christine Tan (a giant in the opposition to martial rule) share her experience of working among the slum dwellers of Tondo. I did not know that at this gathering we would meet the courageous leader of Z.O.T.O. or Zone One Tondo Organization, “Inday” Trining Herrera. ZOTO was the first major urban poor movement organized in the country. ZOTO had opposed the rezoning of Manila’s shoreline to accommodate big business.  “Inday”, like many of her counterparts, would later be incarcerated and tortured by the military. Father Ben, who headed the Association of Major Religious Superiors for Men (AMRSM) at the time, was supposed to be our keynote speaker that day. But he never showed up. We soon found out that the military had arrested him while en route to our forum.

I found many nuns of the different congregations particularly brave.  One day, in the wee hours of the morning, we heard rapping on the steel gate of the De la Salle  Scholasticate which had recently relocated to a sprawling property on Congressman Francisco Street which intersects with Leon Guinto. It was only 2 blocks away from St. Scholastica’s College where the Benedictine nuns also had their priory. I was among the first to run to the gate to check on the noise. Two nuns were outside, introducing themselves as from “St. Scho”. They brought with them a typewritten sheet with lines for signatures at the bottom. One Scholastic asked what the sheet was all about (we could barely read with only one fluorescent lamp lit high above the gate). One of the nuns said “Basta pumirma na lang kayo, Brother….” I wouldn’t be surprised if that nun is the famous Sister Mary John Mananzan, OSB, co-founder of GABRIELA, thorn in the neck of red-tagging administrations.

Benedictine nun Mary John Mananzan speaks during a protest rally in Manila on Feb. 25, 2020. (File photo by Jimmy Domingo) Licas News

The other nun quickly explained that union members of La Tondena would be going on strike and the sheet contains the statement of support emanating from the Association of Major Religious Superiors for Women.  I signed the statement in awe of the courage and industry of these nuns who were unafraid of dark alleys like Congressman Francisco Street, definitely not afraid of the long arm of martial law. 

Later a story made the rounds within the religious community in Manila…that a nun had jumped onto a moving bus when strikers were loaded to be brought to Camp Crame, precariously holding on to the handle bar while a soldier begged for her to get off the bus saying “hindi ho namin kayo hinuhuli, Sister…”. But the nun clung on with tenacity telling the military man she was going with the strike leaders wherever they would be taken. The La Tondena strike was historic.  It was the first major act of defiance  to take place in the martial law setting.

The Religious of the Virgin Mary (RVM) were just as involved. In the last rally I participated in (December 1975 on the march to Malacanang during the state dinner President Marcos hosted in honor of visiting President Gerald Ford) some of the RVMs I met on Mendiola Street were the first to grab my hands for the “kapit-bisig”. In this formation, we hoped that the presence of men and women in their religious habit would be a deterrence to the Metro Discom police arbitrarily arresting fishermen, farmers, and factory workers who were inside the formation.

Spare No Underwear

On our third year of formation we  Scholastics became Novices.   One time, we joined a shortened Ignatian retreat at the Jesuit Novitiate in Novaliches, Quezon City. A group of Jesuits—known as Tertians (those in the final stage of their formation prior to taking perpetual vows) were also doing the 30-day silent Ignatian retreat. In this group were Fr Joaquin Bernas (later president of Ateneo de Manila U and also a member of the 1986 Constitutional Commission) and Fr William “Bill” Kreutz, later president of Ateneo de Zamboanga University. During a break in the retreat (we joined the Jesuits at meal times and religious services) we learned that we had just barely missed a recent military raid of the novitiate, which also doubles as home for aged Jesuits. 

 The Jesuits had lent a wing of the property to be used by visiting nuns from various parts of Southeast Asia attending a pastoral training program at the time.  One evening, helicopters descended upon the property and military jeeps came screeching at the gates. At first the Jesuits thought the mother of the president, Mrs. Josefa Edralin Marcos, came visiting her brother, Father Isaias Edralin, who once headed the Jesuit community in Cagayan de Oro City during the Japanese Occupation but was now long retired. It turned out to be a raid, the military suspecting that the pastoral training was a smokescreen for a gathering of activists. Despite the pleadings of nuns, the soldiers went about ransacking even drawers in the bedrooms looking for subversive materials in between underwear and pajamas of the poor nuns.

A Few Brave Men…and Women

Back in De la Salle, opposition to martial law gained new recruits like the esteemed Math professor Salvador Roxas Gonzales who quite closely resembled his mentor, Bertrand Russell, the noted 20th century British philosopher and mathematician. We (History/Political Science majors) had organized a forum inviting the likes of Senator Soc Rodrigo to speak on the state of the nation. Professor Gonzales would break his serious tirade against Marcos by interjecting humour saying he always carried with him in his trousers (3) items in case he gets picked up the military: a face towel, a toothbrush, and of course his ubiquitous pipe. Later, Prof. Gonzales would indeed be arrested by the Metro Discom  together with Senator Rodrigo and the editorial staff of a brave new publication—WE Forum. I cannot fail to mention my own mentor, Dr. Wilfrido Villacorta, as among the De la Salle faculty vocal against the Marcos government.

I returned to Iligan City after graduation in 1977 to teach History and Politics in the next 15 years. Early in my career, an uncle (who was city fiscal at the time) had asked me to scale down my rhetoric against the regime, saying that his military friends informed him that I was number 20 in the order of battle in Iligan.  I thought this was hilarious. All I had done so far was criticize Imelda Marcos and her frivolous lifestyle and I was a suspected communist already.  Thus was the state of military intelligence gathering at the time.

Student activism was very much alive in MSU-Iligan Institute of Technology where some of my students were spoken of in whispers as agents provocateurs. To the credit of brave student leaders and an enlightened school management, the Institute had one of the very first student councils—KASAMA—to be organized in the country since the imposition of martial law. At least two of the student leaders from this period were reported to have been abducted by the military—salvaged, to use the popular term—never to be seen again.

A handful of faculty members were also vocal against martial rule but most notable was Ester Resabal Kintanar (whom we fondly called Teray) who would later serve as editor of Mindanaw, an underground protest publication. She was among the 200 passengers who perished in the Dona Cassandra drowning incident of 1983. Together with Venerando “Benny” Villacillo, the two of them who are from my hometown of Iligan are honored in the Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Wall of Remembrance), a shrine in Diliman, Quezon City, dedicated to those who suffered in their crusade for political and human rights during martial law and onwards. (As I resubmit this piece, another Lanao personality had been honored with recognition from Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation, Inc. last November 30, 2021 for his contribution in the fight against the Marcos tyranny especially in the Muslim communities in Mindanao—Datu Masiding A. Alonto, Sr.)

I write this piece to honor the memory of the many thousands—most of whom will remain unknown and their involvement unpublicized—who chose to break the silence even at the expense of life and limb when this was most needed during a dark chapter in our nation’s history.

(N.B. Any factual inaccuracies are solely those of the author’s.)

About the author: Ricardo Jorge S. Caluen obtained bachelor’s degree in History-Political Science at De la Salle University, Manila. He took graduate courses in History and International Relations as scholar of Rotary Foundation at the University of Toronto. Former Chair, Dept. of Political Science, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, he recently retired from government service with the City of Toronto and writes as freelancer. He recently returned from several months vacation in the Philippines.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: