Why did the military support the Marcos dictatorship?

First of two parts

“History is written by the victors,” philosopher and social critic Walter Benjamin famously wrote.

If the German philosopher is right, we have to posit that in the case of the Marcos’ 13-year one-man rule, the victors—or the vanguard of the victors—were that faction of the elite the Ilocano politician had oppressed, led by the Aquino-Cojuangco, Lopez and Osmena clans. Oops —of course it was People Power: After all, what radical regime change in history by a faction of the ruling class wasn’t undertaken using the people, and purportedly by the people.

The rough drafts of history are to a great extent written by media. The Lopezes, the epitome of the landlord class Marcos suppressed through martial law, set up immediately their ABS-CBN Network and the Manila Chronicle a few months after Marcos’ fall. Journalists imprisoned and made unemployed for more than a decade by the strongman, their careers and high-standing in society suddenly cut short in 1972, rushed back to the scene with a vengeance and set up what would be the mainstream newspapers today, which now largely form what people think.

The victors’ narrative is that Marcos knew the 1935 Constitution barred him from a third term so he had to step down from power in 1973. So he threw it to the dustbin and declared martial law to extend his term. This narrative of greed would be bolstered after Marcos fell when, with US help, his Swiss bank accounts, Manhattan properties, and his ownership of shares in Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. and other firms through dummies were uncovered.

Marcos purportedly parlayed for US support for martial law his assurances that there would be an orderly withdrawal of US investments after the Laurel-Langley Agreement ended in 1974, with American companies even given legal loopholes to hold on to their lands. Political fox that Marcos was, he knew the US would support his strongman rule, since the American military bases in Subic and Clark were so crucial to the US aggression in Vietnam, at its height at that time.

However, few remember that, unlike today, strongman rule was the norm in Southeast Asia at that time.  There would even be books in the 1980s  arguing that  dictatorships that put in check  unwieldy even anarchic democracies  were necessary to launch backward Asian countries to Tiger-Economy status: South Korea’s Park Chung-Hee was on his 10th year as dictator by 1972; Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek on his 22nd year; and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew on his 13th year. After Sukarno was deposed in 1967, the coup’s head Suharto was on to his 5th year.

The announcement on Sept. 23.
The announcement on Sept. 23.

Thailand had martial law – the real one in the classical sense of a country being ruled by the highest-ranking military commander  – from 1963 to 1973 under Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn.

In this age of reason, though, we can spot anomalies in the victors’ narrative to question some of its elements, hopefully to learn from history.

That most of the elites and their ideologues supported martial law– the Ayalas, Sorianos, Concepcions, the Chinese-Filipino businessmen, local and foreign chambers of commerce, the Opus Dei, the Catholic Church then headed by Cardinal Jaime Sin – is hardly mentioned in the current narratives. A prime example of this was the cover story of the October 1977 issue of Business Journal, the official publication of US companies in the country was headlined: “New Society Provides Positive Atmosphere for Foreign Investors.”

A symbol of elite support

One visible symbol of the business elite’s support for Marcos is the Asian Institute of Management, founded in 1968 by Washington SyCip. Funded by the richest tycoons a that time, its glory days were during martial law.  AIM trained an entire corps of military officers in management, not only improving the efficiency of Marcos’ apparatus for rule but giving these officers second lives – in top management positions in the private sector — after their mandatory retirement at 56, making military careers so attractive.

Opus Dei institutions that became first the Center for Research and Communications and then the University of Asia and the Pacific flourished with huge donations from three bankers who ran the corporations of the Imelda’s brother Kokoy Romualdez.

The Ayalas’ biggest push outside Makati, which energized it, was its development in 1980s of Ayala Alabang village and commercial complex, the pet project of Enrique Zobel, who had not kept secret his support for Marcos.

What made that area attractive to the rich, in a dusty place known to be in the general area of the Bilibid National Prison?

The South Superhighway, now known as SLEX, built in the 1970s which opened up Las Pinas, Laguna, and even Cavite to gated-village developers who are now the country’s richest property tycoons. It was the Ayalas with the Sorianos after all who sold at a premium over market prices in 1983 the country’s premiere industrial corporation to Eduardo Cojuangco, labeled by the anti-Marcos crowd as the dictator’ principal crony.

The ruling classes always are opportunists. The global economic crisis broke out in 1981 with Latin American countries’ default on its foreign loans. That resulted in our own debt-default in 1983 that triggered the country’s economic holocaust, so terrible that the elites started to dislike Marcos.

Ninoy Aquino’s assassination alone didn’t trigger the fall of Marcos. It was both that murder, which horrified American liberals, and the economic crisis.

Instead of the elite’s support for martial law, its biggest puzzle is this: Why did the military and police embrace Marcos’ one-man rule?

Why did they support him for 13 long years, and abandoned him only in 1986, when it joined the elite who saw the strongman’s fall as the only viable exit out of the steep economic recession, and after the US got worried that Marcos had become the communists “biggest recruiter”?

The question becomes puzzling when one considers that its officers’ corps, mostly from the lower-middle classes from all over the country, were steeped in democratic principles. This is because most of their leaders graduated from the US West Point Military Academy and the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. Our PMA, up to its inclusion of many liberal arts subjects in its curriculum, was patterned after West Point. This is unlike the officers’ corps in many old European and Asian countries, which emerged from the feudal, warrior elites.

“Rolex 12” or simply the AFP leadership?

The victors’ narrative was that a group they dubbed “Rolex 12” planned the imposition of martial law, because allegedly, Marcos gave them in gratitude gold Rolex watches on the eve of the historic event. The narrative’s intent was obviously to depict the group as a shadowy conspiratorial group, which Marcos lavished with luxury watches.

But according to a December 1974 cable which was among the thousands released in wikileaks.org, then US Ambassador to Manila William Sullivan reported that Marcos gifted the 12 with personally-inscribed Omega watches during a ceremony in 1973. “Marcos chose to decorate the twelve men of defense establishment whom he described as instrumental in deciding and implementing martial law,” Sullivan reported.

The other members of the group other than Enrile and Marcos’ confidante Eduardo Cojuangco, were AFP Chief of Staff Romeo Espino; Army Chief Rafael Zagala; PC chief Fidel Ramos; Air Force Chief Jose Rancudo; Navy Chief Hilario Ruiz; AFP Intelligence Chief Ignacio Paz; PC Metropolitan Command Alfredo Montoya; PC vice chief Tomas Diaz; National Intelligence Coordinating Authority chief Fabian Ver; and PC Rizal head Romeo Gatan.

That doesn’t look like a shadowy conspiratorial group, but the formal leadership —  the top brass of the military establishment —  of the country’s armed forces undertook a precision planning for martial law.

Contrary to the caricature of drunk military men torturing innocent civilians suspected to be going against Marcos, the military that ran martial law was led by officers of the highest integrity.

Name any respectable, patriotic and freedom-loving former military man you can think of, and he did the duty assigned to him in the operation that imposed martial law on the wee hours of September 23, and all other tasks assigned to him — for more than a decade until February 22, 1986, when the Armed Forces mutinied.

The head of the military establishment was AFP Chief of Staff Romeo Espino, who became the longest-serving AFP head, from January 1972 up to 1981, when he retired. Espino has remained as one of the most distinguished and most respected generals in AFP history, with not a single corruption or human-rights case brought against him.

Fidel Ramos, one of the country’s best presidents, headed almost during the entire period of Marcos’ dictatorship, practically half of the country’s armed forces that enforced martial law on the civilian population: the Philippine Constabulary, what’s now our Philippine National Police.

While Marcos appointed his cousin Fabian Ver as AFP Chief of Staff in 1981, Ramos at least was made AFP Vice Chief of Staff. It wasn’t Marcos who issued the now-infamous Arrest Seizure and Search Orders (ASSO) against his perceived enemies. It was Ramos – I still have mine with his signature. The most effective unit that captured leaders of the opposition and the Communist Party was the PC’s 5th Constabulary Security Unit, my captors.

Ramos’ counterpart in the Army was Fortunato Abat, commanding general from 1976 to 1981, famous for “saving Mindanao”, as is his book’s title, from the Malaysian-funded Muslim insurgents. He is a respected ex-military man to this day. One of Ramos’ most trusted deputies was the much–respected Renato de Villa who had been considered as the viable presidential candidate to succeed him as President.

Jose Almonte (Philippine Military Academy, Class of 1956); Eduardo Ermita (1957); Rodolfo Biazon, (‘61); Angelo Reyes (‘66), Reynaldo Wycoco, (’68) Voltaire Gazmin (’68); Hermogenes E. Ebdane (’68); Gregorio Honasan (’71); Panfilo Lacson (‘71); Edgar B. Aglipay (71); Jaime de los Santos (’73); Alexander B. Yano (’76) Delfin Bangit (’78). These are just some of the military men of unquestionable integrity that were in the armed forces in various levels of command that ran martial law. Most if not all of the generals who bravely signed that recent open letter to President Aquino explaining to him theat the Bangsamoro Basic Law will dismember the Republic were with the military that supported Marcos’ one-man rule.

Marcos had justified martial law on grounds that the Right (by which he mainly meant Aquino, the Lopezes and Osmenas) and the Left (the nascent Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines) had formed an alliance to topple the Republic. He was duty-bound, as his Proclamation 1081 itself put it, to save the Republic.

The reason why the military supported martial law was that it believed that justification by Marcos.

They had in fact valid reasons to believe so, which I’ll explain Wednesday. These can be put in two terms: The Jabidah Hoax and the Plaza Miranda Bombing. The author of the first was the Liberal Party and the second the Communist Party.

We have to learn from real history, and go beyond the victors’ narratives.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Rodrigo Comia

    Very good sir.

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