Of Madonna and Martial Law

edsa nunsWe have been deluged by Martial Law articles and comments recently.  Part of this has to do with marking the 30th anniversary of EDSA, true.  But a greater part of it is the resurgence of Bongbong Marcos in the VP surveys. People (especially of a certain age) are genuinely aghast and distressed that the Philippines looks ready to put another Marcos en route to Malacanang.

Foaming in the mouth, many are blaming the reliable scapegoat, the stupid millenials. It has become a great generational divide–those who lived and remember what it was like during Marcos, and those who were born later or were too young to remember.  It is especially frustrating for the former group that the latter group outnumbers them, and will likely determine the outcome of these elections.

Like old codgers and curmudgeons starting a lecture with “In my time, I used to walk 10km to school without shoes, in waist-high floodwaters…”, we tend to belittle the young people.  After all, we are older, wiser and, hello?, WE WERE THERE.  These young whippersnappers with their broken english, they don’t know what the heck they are talking about.  They imagine a Golden Age under Marcos, not realizing that far from it, Dark Age is a more fitting monicker.

They are crazy stupid. Or are they?

The problem is the harder we push back, the more resistance we get in return. And the more shortcuts we take, the more younger people doubt we are telling the truth.  It is not a simple story of Marcos was evil and we threw him out i.e. the good guys won and that’s that.

Even bringing up the horrors of torture and salvagings (summary executions) in graphic detail do not produce the intended effect. After all, in a violent age where 4,000 people can be killed in an instant by terrorists flying a plane into a building, and where water torture is used by “the good guys” the United States, there is no more coin in shock value.  Young Filipinos saw and heard how the SAF 44 soldiers were massacred. It is hard to bring up an ancient bogeyman when equally scary or even more terrifying monsters like ISIS inhabit our present.

Insisting that everything and everyone associated with Marcos was evil, and sticking to this black and white paradigm is simplistic and injurious, not only to the way we recount history to our children, but also to the way we want our government and society to be organized. Marcos trauma and the fear of another dictator coming to take away our freedom have already had profound impact on our post-Martial Law life as a nation.

We must never ever be caught lying or fudging the data, which unfortunately, this administration has a penchant of doing. Young people can smell lies and they are smarter than you think in spotting data mining.  Just the other day, I was furious at the government’s Official Gazette for producing a GDP graph that supposedly compared the Marcos era economic performance with succeeding presidents’. Problem is, they only included the last 5 years of Marcos’s administraton from 1980-1985, conveniently when the depressed global economy and the political crisis caused by Ninoy Aquino’s assasination plunged the country into negative growth.

The temptation for historical revisionism, especially now that we are facing elections and many of the same players are running against the administration, has reportedly lately manifested itself again in the experiential museum set up as part of the EDSA 30 anniversary.  In the exhibits, the roles of the Aquinos are prominently displayed while the roles of other key players such as Binay, Honasan, Ramos and Enrile are downplayed or omitted altogether. Talk about the victors getting to write history.

So, yes show them the (correct) facts and context and then give your opinon.  But also recognize and acknowledge that the truth is– complicated.

For example, Bobi Tiglao had a column which put the Marcos dictatorship in historical context vis-a-vis the Asia region.  That is useful in understanding how Marcos came about and it is useful in coming up with a fair historical assessment. It was the age of the Asian strongman leader: Indonesia had Suharto; Korea had Park; Malaysia had Mahathir, etc.  All of them were dictators, and to an extent that was a reaction to the needs of the times.  There was a global threat of Communism and the Cold War was raging with spheres of influence being carved out by the US and Russia.  When Saigon fell to the communists, people expected the red wave to sweep down and spread across Southeast Asia, as in actual military invasion. This was the backdrop of Martial Law. In the Philippines, we cannot neglect to mention The First Quarter Storm, the almost daily student riots in the streets.  We should not omit the Oil Crisis of the early 70’s and the hyperinflatioin that resulted in even wealthy families foregoing meat.

Moreover, it is not enough to recount and pass on history as accurately as possible, we must also analyse in light of the past 30 years what exactly transpired and what it meant.  That has not been done enough and there is a multitude of underlying and related issues that millennials, knowingly or unknowingly, sense are not being articulated and being held back.

Vince Rafael pointed out one of the obvious take-away that everybody should recognize by now: that EDSA only amounted to political change, a rotation of elites, and no real societal change.  In fact, we fell back into the same system of corrupt patronage and oligarchs that Marcos sought to abolish and replace with the New Society. It is an unfinished revolution.  One of the difficult questions we have to ask is whether our current system better enables us to achieve that much needed inclusive growth.

Problem is some are unwilling to take off the rose colored glasses and debate the real underlying issues on why some people harken back to the old autocratic system. Some of the larger issues we should be debating with the youth are:

1) Are there any advantages to an authoritarian type regime?  Why are centrally planned economies like China and Vietnam able to rapidly mobilize their laws and resources to spur their economies? Why do they still have a controlled press in Singapore and how does that reconcile with our beliefs on censorship?  Is our own system, where the press is often bought or owned by the powers that be, much better?

Why were we among the first nations to overthrow a dictator?  What are the experiences of other countries that ousted dictators? What is the role of economics in social unrest and revolt against authoritarianism?  Where do we think the balance lies between the sublimation of individual rights to public rights?

2) Is the idea of a “benign dictator” realistic? We have always been told that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But then how to explain Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew? Although Lee did jail and persecute his political opponents, he was definitely more benign than Marcos.  Singapore is always cited by the loyalists and Duterte followers as an example of what could be, if only we changed the current system.

3) What were the circumstances behind the formulation and ratification of the 1987 Constitution? What was the role of the Left and the Church? Why did we choose to bring back a bicameral Congress?

In short, how did we get to where we are now.  Were the trade offs worth it?

It is questions and discussions like these that will ultimately convince the millenials, or not. Unless we go beyond the fairy tales and morality plays and start to argue the substantive and underyling issues, there can be no satisfactory closure.  Unless we recognize that it is the experience of the past 30 years, including the latter six years under Aquino, that brought us to this point then we will continue to curse blindly at the dark, devoid of illumination.

Unless we ourselves understand and come to grips with history, we will come off to millenials the same way as one of the pop icons of our generation, Madonna (who was incidentally in Manila around the same time as the EDSA commemoration) comes off to them–a bit baduy, nalipasan ng panahon, needing to shock to hold attention, a bit out of touch, insisting shrilly on our timeliness and relevance.


2 thoughts on “Of Madonna and Martial Law

  1. This is my take on things: there are those who say Marcos abused his mandate (Revolution from the Center) massively and I for the most part agree with them, there are those who say that the Fifth Republic abused the mandate given by the February Revolution, I partly agree that many players did. Even if the Fifth Republic is based on micromanagement, to be able to prevent mandates being abused, while the 1935 Constitution gave sweeping powers to the President in the assumption that he would use them judiciously. Finally I think that many Filipino leaders are simply irresponsible.

    Or: http://filipinogerman.blogsport.eu/leadership-as-service/ I wonder how Lee Kuan Yew would have fared in the Philippine setting. His leadership was quiet and competent, not loud. He might just have decided to build malls and avoided politics. Is the Philippines ready for any real leaders?


    • Both Marcos and Pnoy showed us how the grandest and noblest of plans and intentions are laid to waste by human failing and frailty: Marcos by his greed and illness, Pnoy by his incompetence and inability to articulate and empathize.


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