47 years ago, then President and soon to be all powerful dictator, Ferdinand E. Marcos, placed the Philippines under Martial Law. The next 14 years would be a nightmare of corruption, misgovernance, and brutality, as Marcos and his cronies ransacked the national economy, plundered billions from public coffers, and presided over the killing, torture, rape, and imprisonment of thousands of Filipinos.
Most stories of the horrors of the Martial Law period tend to dwell on the overt acts of abuse and oppression: How Marcos shut down Congress. How Marcos ordered the arrest and incarceration of the political opposition. How Marcos clamped down on the free press.
And while these details indeed accurately capture the most egregious sins of the Marcos regime, they also have the tendency to mislead us into thinking that rampant and sustained governmental abuse can only arise in an atmosphere of open repression. We start to think that mass killings, the widespread violation of rights, and blatant corruption can only happen if public institutions are first forcibly shut down and extraordinary powers are first formally granted to the President.
In other words, we start to believe that without an actual declaration of Martial Law, we cannot have the excesses of a Martial Law regime.
This belief is false. Worse, this belief is dangerous.
The excesses of the Marcos Martial Law regime became possible because the institutional checks to Executive power were removed, the truth about official abuse and poor governance was suppressed, and the rule of law was discarded. Marcos accomplished this through overt repression – padlocking Congress, shutting down the free media, and unleashing the police and military to crush any dissent. The declaration of Martial Law, supposedly to “save” the Republic from the threat of communist insurgency, provided the legal justification to take these unprecedented steps.
But this is not the only way to achieve these ends. And what we are experiencing right now is instructive in this regard.
Ensuring that Congress is dominated by a pliant and obedient “supermajority,” that will cater to Malacañang’s every whim, eliminates it as a check on Executive power as effectively as shutting it down. And if you still have doubts that this Congress has completely abandoned its Constitutional role to serve as a check and balance to the Executive, just look at how it has meekly acquiesced to placing the entire island of Mindanao under Martial Law for more than two years, and how it routinely appropriates billions in discretionary funds for use of the President.
In the same vein, bullying, coopting, and discrediting traditional media organizations, while maintaining a massive and continuing campaign of fake news on social media, is equally effective in drowning out the truth about government corruption and incompetence as outright censorship or closure of media establishments. The past few years have seen the most shocking acts of disloyalty in our dealings with China, the most scandalous instances of corruption (recall Faeldon and Aguirre as two examples), and massive displays of incompetence (dengue, measles, and, now, polio outbreaks all within this year to give just one instance), and yet these have all been largely suppressed, diverted, or forgotten thanks to the government’s massive propaganda machine.
And of course, what rule of law are we still talking about when the President himself routinely instigates police to “kill,” and even admitted to ordering an ambush on a local official? When a sitting Senator says, quite seriously, that the top corrections official should be “a killer?” When police use a Facebook video of the President as authority to shut down businesses? Make no mistake, we are now living in a society where even just the barest pretense of the rule of law is hanging on only by an exceedingly thin thread.
Today, as we observe the 47th anniversary of that dark day in 1972, when our own government became our worst oppressor, let us be mindful of the truth that our freedom is a fragile thing that demands constant care and protection. And that our vigilance against threats, and our continued defense of freedom, must extend not only to dramatic declarations of an emergent tyranny, but, perhaps more importantly, to the silent, gradual but no less fatal, erosion of our liberties.
It is not “Martial Law” that creates a tyranny. It is simply the submission to a tyrant.
Never again must we submit.