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Demystifying Marcos’ martial law regime

Thirty-nine years ago, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, allowing him to rule the country for 13  years.

I was then a 19-year-old Ateneo college dropout heading the Manila and Rizal organization of the Communist Party of the Philippines, then a rag-tag band of dreamy-eyed baby-boomers (founder Jose Sison was then 33 years old, the legendary Kumander Dante, 29).   The party’s analysis was that the Plaza Miranda bombing of the opposition rally a year earlier had intensified “the split within the ruling class,” so much so that Marcos would soon declare a hated martial law—and create a revolutionary situation chaotic enough for the communists to take over power.

The party though was caught flat-footed when martial law came. Many of its top leaders were arrested or killed in a few months’ time. After romanticizing urban guerilla warfare, we found ourselves armed exactly with one rusty Thompson and two carbines of World War II vintage.  With my late wife Raquel, our 18-month-old daughter Andrea, I was captured six months later in a dawn raid by the Philippine Constabulary’s 5th Security Unit, to spend two years in Marcos’ prisons.

That expectation of a “split within the ruling class” turned out to be monumentally inaccurate.  Its conceptual cousin though has been propagated by the Philippine ruling elite and is now the dominant narrative of that period: that the martial law period was the darkest days of the Republic, when the Marcos-Romualdez “conjugal dictatorship,” with tanks and soldiers in the streets, rode roughshod over the nation.

There was no split at all among the ruling class.  Marcos suppressed only a small faction of it that was his avowed enemy, consisting mainly of the powerful Lopez, Osmeña and Roxas-Araneta political and economic elite.  Few among the elite sympathized with the Lopezes, which owned the Meralco monopoly, and arrogantly wielded the two deadly weapons of media (The Manila Chronicle and ABS-CBN Network) and political power (Fernando was Marcos’ vice president).  Even the big guns of the Cojuangco clan were Marcos’ pillars of support:  Ramon who took over the American-owned telephone monopoly in 1967 and Eduardo who bought San Miguel in 1981.

Much of the Philippine elite embraced and supported Marcos’ “constitutional authoritarianism” for nearly a decade, unsurprisingly, since the economy grew at a respectable average of 6 percent annually from 1972 to 1980.  The elite junked him only when the economy collapsed—and their wealth shrank—first as a result of the banking crisis of 1981 when textile tycoon Dewey Dee absconded on his loans, and second, because of the 1983 debt default that led to an economic conflagration that had the GDP shrinking by an unprecedented 7 percent annually.

Vicente Paterno, chair of the Board of Investments, then trade and industry secretary and finally public works secretary, was at the forefront in rallying the support of ethnic Filipino big-business groups for Marcos. The revered Carlos Romulo, the only Filipino United Nations General Assembly president, was Marcos’ foreign secretary until his retirement in 1984.  His two sons Ricardo and Roberto, mainstays now of the politically noisy Makati Business Club organized in 1981, would become legal and business luminaries during martial law.  Many of the Supreme Court justices since 1980 had their legal careers jump-started during martial law.

Marcos plucked from the UP academe Finance Secretary Cesar Virata and Budget Secretary Jaime Laya, who would create a corps of technocrats in the bureaucracy, to the delight of the business sector.  Marcos recruited a core of ideologues and eminent writers—respected academicians and columnists now—who fleshed out his vision of a “New Society” and wrote his speeches as well as his history of the Philippines, “Iginuhit ng Tadhana.”   Fr. Jose Cruz, S.J., president of the Ateneo for most of martial law, was Marcos’ spiritual adviser.  UP president Onofre D. Corpuz got poorly paid academics fat paychecks working for Marcos’ think-tanks such as the Development Academy of the Philippines.

For the Castillian-descended elites, Marcos reminded them of a dictator they admired: Generalissimo Francisco Franco who defeated the Spanish communists. The Sorianos’ and Ayalas’ conglomerates grew by leaps and bounds during martial law.  Philippine businessmen’s revered Yoda, Washington SyCip, recommended to Marcos his protégé, Roberto V. Ongpin, who would be the dictator’s very effective trade and industry head. It was during martial law when SyCip’s brainchild, the Asian Institute of Management, established in 1968, grew as a center for world-class technocrats.

If not for Marcos, there most probably wouldn’t be the wealth now and contribution to the economy of the Chinese-Filipino businessmen. Before martial law, acquiring Filipino citizenship had required substantial bribes, political connections, and years of tedious legal procedures.   Marcos’ Letter of Instructions No. 270 of 1975 changed all that. It allowed droves of ethnic Chinese to become citizens in a few months’ time, simply upon the dictator’s signature, empowering them to own lands and enter industries constitutionally banned to foreigners, thereby releasing their entrepreneurial energies.

It was our economic and ideological elite that embraced and supported the martial law regime, and made up its main pillar—more than the military.  It was clever enough though to shift its loyalties swiftly when the House of Marcos started to fall in the 1980s.  No wonder that the House is being easily rebuilt, that there is even talk that Ferdinand Jr. could in a few years time order his father’s interment at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.