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Memories of a Martial Law minor

Note: this essay was commissioned for The Philippine Century: 1900-2000, published by the Philippines Free Press

Memories of a martial law minor
By Charlson Ong

I was twelve when Martial Law was declared. Too young for activism but old enough to have followed Ronnie Nathanieslz’ live updates on demonstrations in Plaza Miranda over radio; to have read Pete Lacaba’s scintillating reportage on the ‘Battle of Mendiola;’ to have been fascinated by my elder brother’s accounts of teach-ins at the Ateneo and the U.P.; to be intrigued by the presence of firearms and Maoist literature at our neighbor’s bodega; and be captivated by Ninoy’s eloquent put downs of Marcos on TV.

If I were older and in college, I too might have been caught up in the romance and rage of the times, gone to the hills when the time came to choose or settled down eventually to a comfortable mid-life with memories of the ‘First Quarter Storm’ and the ‘Diliman Commune.’ As it is I must contend myself with listening to the reminiscences of the ‘veterans’ of those days, feeling oddly that I had missed out on the most exciting period in this country’s post war history by a few years and increasingly convinced that our generation had been denied its place in history, had in fact become the subject of a most comprehensive, if not cynical, social experiment.

Still, I remember Damian Sotto, large and swarthy, cursing to high heavens, spewing venom, fouling up the airwaves with his diatribes against all and sundry. His every other adjective would likely be bleeped off today’s language sensitive primetime TV. We were never clear on his politics or advocacies, it was simply fascinating to listen to an adult using such language on TV that would have earned for us kids a dressing down from parents and teachers.

There was Soc Rodrigo and his Kuro Kuro, sober and thoughtful, his Tagalog sublime. There was Ninoy, clean cut and chubby, showing us scenes from a fast growing Taiwan, saying how this country could similarly take-off once his Liberal Party assumed power. There was Eddie Ilarde on Student Canteen, Orly Mercado on Radyo Patrol, Akong on Kwentong Kutsero. There was my father staying up to the wee hours hoping to catch the x-rated flicks that communists propagandists were supposedly broadcasting clandestinely as part of their destabilization campaign. There was Yvonne centerfolded in Pic magazine, another publication whose early demise we truly mourned. There was the Quintero expose and the Jabbidah Massacre. There was Rossana Ortiz, Jessica, Saging ni Pasing all at the mini-theatre along Recto. There was Bayside, Wells Fargo, the Flame, and other joints along Roxas Blvd. where my elder siblings and uncles went to for booze, roulette and slot machines. Rock was heavy and grass was cheap. It was crass, vulgar, decadent and exciting.

And then it ended. Not at once but sudden enough to catch the best of them off guard. I remember the tension that pervaded our household. The older people cautioned against discussing politics over the phone. School was suspended indefinitely and the streets, empty. Downtown Manila became a ghost town. The world had ended while we slept through the night of Sept. 22-23, 1972.
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The poet, the fighter, the Locsin of memory, February 5, 2000

The Poet, The Fighter, The Locsin of Memory

(Cover Story in the commemorative issue of the Philippines Free Press, February 5, 2000)

By Manuel L. Quezon III

In his library
Alone with dead men’s thoughts
Listen to him singing.

—“Solo,” Teodoro M. Locsin

IN the end, all he could communicate with were his eyes. There seemed little pain expressed in them but there was anger: indignation over being taken from his home, confined to a hospital bed, violated by a breathing tube, punctured by IV drips.

Anger at life: he had lived it well; he had no apologies to make; it was time to go —so why was he being detained? His heart would not let him go. It kept pumping life, refusing to surrender, refusing to let go.

Those eyes: piercing, probing, stoic. How they shone with a sardonic humor when he would be approached. You see me an old man and show me respect, they seemed to acknowledge. And yet, as you greeted him his eyes would seem to say —what? His eyes would communicate a message, a poem, his own:

Let me think of you
When you were young and without guile
And foolish
Not a wise old man
Waiting to die.

But how can one ever think of him as having ever had guile —or been foolish? He was a man who had no time or patience to waste on fools. He had nothing but contempt for guile, for deceit, the weapons of the weak. Only the frontal attack, the formal duel for him. In his last years, the contempt, the rage still smoldered. What have you done to my country? his eyes seemed to say.

An image: Teodoro M. Locsin Sr., sitting on a chair, scanning the newspapers, a glass of iced red wine on the table before him. A young writer, in awe, watches his every move. He looks up, gives the paper in his hand a little shake, and says, “God damn it!” His eyes flash.

God damn it, indeed. Reams and reams of paper, on them hundreds of thousands of words-half a century and more of words, angry words, eloquent words. Years of pounding them out on a typewriter to explain the wrong and convey the outrage, to educate the ignorant, to exhort the decent not to surrender to what was convenient and wrong. But for what?

Fools stayed fools. The crooked got clever and completely unscrupulous. “It was different in my time,” he tells his daughter-in-law. “Even the crooks were decent, knew limits. Now they are just plain shits. They observe no rules, no rules should be observed them.”

The good and the well-meaning caved in to tyranny and shrugged off injustice, feigning contempt when what they felt was abject fear. He saw this. Tried to shrug it off as life. Hadn’t he written that the just deserts of slaves is slavery? Let them be slaves. He would not, And yet —“God damn it!” They did not have to be. And the anger boiled over again.

The Jesuits, under whom he had been educated, and who produced a man in the mold of Rizal -a man who valued his conscience above the easy consolations of a facile faith and the rewards of a material society- would have called it righteous anger. The faith of his teachers taught that God reserved his most awesome wrath and retribution for those sins that cried out for vengeance: the oppression of widows and orphans, the weak, defenseless and meek.

But Teodoro M. Locsin Sr. would not leave to heaven the justice we can mete out here and now if we but had the fortitude. And what was faith most of the time but pious words? He had better: fighting words. Indignant words. Wounding, merciless words that humbled the proud, drove back the oppressor, exposed crime to retribution and pointed out with embarrassing clarity what was lacking and what needed to be done.

At what point in his life did Teodoro M. Locsin, privileged lover of books, a man with a gift for writing, who had been to the manor born, decide that submission would never be his condition, that slavery would never be his lot? His own words give us a clue.

His journal entry for December 23, 1941:

“The war reveals the parasite, the nonessential man self-confessed. He who does not produce is regarded, with suddenly clear eyes, as an enemy. In peacetime he often occupies an honored position, being then only a thief who lives lawfully on what his neighbor makes.

“The war leaves us with only human values to go by. It is not very comfortable. It either shoes a man or shows him up. Out of this new revelation may come a new society, a true society.

“There are economic problems because there are rich men and poor men. There are wars because there are economic problems. Let us, simply, eliminate the rich men?”

He answers his own questions in his entry for December 29, 1941:

“The rich and the influential are the pitiful ones. They have so much to lose! They shake for their lives, they shake for their office, they shake for their bank accounts. They read all the literature on the established methods of avoiding death and damage by bomb, bullet and gas. They sit in a circle all day and worry over every rumor and report of disaster. They scan every threat to their security with the passion of scholars poring over a newly recovered line from the Greek Anthology.

“The war freshly illumines a paradox:

“One may be casual about one’s life but rarely over one’s property.

“In high good humor the people are compiling a list of dishonor. With infinite malice they treasure each new story of how their lords and masters have disgraced themselves.”

Though he came from the class of “lords and masters,” he also belonged to the elite of intellectuals. He would not disgrace himself. His thought is not unique. Throughout Europe, in farm houses and attics, basements and empty warehouses where the resistance met, men placed their hopes of a corrupt society’s self-destruction on the elite’s betrayal of their countries. There would be no need for a revolution from the streets to overturn the established order. That would self-destruct in shame. When Europe was finally free of the Nazis-the Philippines of the Japanese-they would also be free from their corrupt and compromised elites. It would not happen.

In the same journal he marveled at the coming of war, giving him time to catch up with his reading, even as he noticed his reading being drawn to the philosophers instead of the crime writers he had favored in the past. Yet this was no longer the time for sitting down to read or even worrying about the fate of his library.

“To everything there is a season.” He read that in a fine edition of Ecclesiastes he would keep through the war. It was the time to fight. He joined the resistance.

Besides what else was there to do? The Free Press had been shut down. Writing for the pro-Japanese Philippine media was out of the question.

Writing shortly after the war, he would explain with the exceptional clarity that would always be his hallmark, what the choice he had made-to fight-had been all about. It was not a romantic choice; it was a choice rationally made.

“Collaboration or resistance -all of us were captives of war. War was a prison; some cells were bigger than the others but the walls were there. We were all hemmed in -those in the cities and towns, and those in the jungles. In the ‘free’ areas, communication was possible with the outside world, and breaks from the prison for a few by submarine; that was all. The resistance may be compared to rioting in  prison…

“No, that is not quite accurate. The resistance undermined the power and authority of the warden; even if it did not succeed in taking him prisoner, it made the opening of the prison and the release of the prisoners easier, the liberators did not lose so many men. When the resistance in Negros flashed the move of the Japanese fleet before a battle, that was more helpful, surely, to the cause of freedom than collaboration.”

He had nothing but contempt for the collaborators. Even before he joined the Free Press, he had returned to being a journalist, founding Free Philippines with, among other writers, Philip Buencamino. (He would turn his back on his communist comrades in arms in the anti-Japanese resistance when they ambushed the Quezon family and killed Buencamino, and join Magsaysay for the final solution to the Huk challenge.) He said of himself, during the time, that “I thundered and shrilled —that is, I wrote editorials.” Journalism during the heady —and for many, vengeful— days of liberation involved “jumping on a man,” as Locsin described it. Sobriety and balance were for other practitioners of the craft.

Then the Free Press resumed publication, and star writer of the publication was he. A division of labor became evident: Filemon Tutay and Leon O. Ty were to prowl about and keep their ears to the ground; theirs were the scoops and big exposés. To Locsin was given the task of the probing interview, the devastating revelation of his subject’s hubris and idiocy. And the serious, reflective pieces, the essays on society, sovereignty and liberty: those were reserved for Locsin.

Were these early days the days of “foolishness” and “lack of guile” that he alludes to in his poem? Heady days, indeed: and perhaps, to him, in looking back, days of naiveté. If they were, they were not to last long.

Days of Liberation flowed into the early days of Independence, then a new war, against the Huks, and though he always gave them their due for their bravery against the Japanese, he saw little romance in what they were doing to a country crying to recover from an earlier war. Then they crossed the line and murdered his friend.

The Fifties were years of exposing the cruelty of the military and the communists both, though his words were particularly harsh against the communists. Not just because of what they had done to his friend, but because he knew, from their implacability, what they held in store for his country if they triumphed. Once again, the freedom of the prison yard, the security of the barbed-wire fence.

And hadn’t he resolved never to be a slave?

Then came the Sixties. His time to be at the helm had come. The passing of “Mr. Dick,” founder of the Free Press, who had made Locsin his heir, saw the transformation of Locsin from staff member to publisher and editor in chief. He was in command now. He built the Free Press up, made it bigger, richer and far better equipped, giving it the most modern printing facilities in the country. The Free Press had become a battleship with only one mission: putting out a single issue a week to perfection. He would not allow the Free Press facilities to be used for any ancillary business, even printing comic books like his friend Don Ramon Roces had started to do, just in case newspapering became too dangerous. His machines were so fast they turned out the second-biggest print run in the industry in a few hours. The rest of the week was devoted to cleaning the machines, oiling them, buffing them to a sparkling finish, like a dreadnought.

It would be 20 years of steady, relentless campaigning: for land reform, against logging, against the criminal and exponential growth of the population, against a supine foreign policy that would involve us, “the showcase of democracy in Asia,” in an unjust colonial war in Vietnam, against creeping militarism, the coming of martial law.

This is how he would conduct his campaigns. He would call in his editors and writers, he would farm out the different aspects of the campaign, and then he would relentlessly pursue it. Giving them their cue in his editorials. His fingers would pound away at the keys of his typewriter; the Free Press would pound away at the enemy.

Against landlords and for real, not naive, solutions: “A sentimental approach will not do; hearts bleeding for the poor are not enough. Too many congressmen and landlords or tools of landlords -from whom they get campaign funds, retainers, etc.- for emotion to prevail in the Senate and the House. And the Mexican experience has shown that it is not enough to give land to the landless if they do not know what to do with it, if they are not provided with the necessary credit facilities for increasing production. A poor landowner is still a poor man.”

And against “tutas” — whether of the Americans or Malacañang, whether by omission or commission:

“Dogs are dogs. Their canine behavior should surprise no one; for them to act with the dignity of human beings would be unnatural. But there are parliamentarists who are so from conviction. Their arguments in favor of the parliamentary system are, however, arguments articulated in a vacuum. Without the adoption of a Ban-Marcos or Ban-the-Marcoses provision in the new charter, they would be acting-objectively, judging from the results of their action, not their intention-no differently from the professional tuta of Malacañang… Parliamentarists would be the same dog, with a different collar. Whatever the intentions, they would be paving the road to hell.

“By their fruits should you judge them.”

And the Free Press would pound away against loggers and reactionary princes of the Church.

For 20 years he led the fight; he would deny his countrymen the privilege of pleading ignorance to their eventual enslavement.

There would be a bitter interlude before the climax of the fight: a rebellion within the walls. Society —the same society whose defects he had so clearly seen, so eloquently pointed out, so vehemently condemned— and its evils were projected on his person by his own people in the Free Press —supported by his enemies in the Palace. He was called an oligarch; oppressor of the working man who gave 14th-to 16th-month bonuses because he believed that a company he kept completely free from debt should distribute its excess wealth —a throwback to his days in the anti-Japanese communist resistance. His comrades in arms tried to seize control of the Free Press, he showed them the door: leave. They left. All his old friends, his drinking companions, the men whose talents he had encouraged, whose reputations he had built up with more care than his own.

He would continue to fight, harder than ever with a handful of his former complement. The Free Press was now in the trenches against the coming dictatorship and soon it was over the top. Challenging the Palace to do its worst. And it did.

Darkness fell and then the morning came when he was taken away by the military. The heir of the editor in chief arrested by the Japanese was under arrest by order of the president he had helped get elected because it was preferable to have a murderer from the Ilocos who had feigned resistance to the Japanese to an enthusiastic collaborator from Cebu.

When Ferdinand Marcos, in gratitude for his support, offered him the portfolio of the Department of National Defense, Locsin declined, joking, “It isn’t right for the secretary of defense to limp in review past the troops because he has gout. He would really look like a lame duck.” The position, in a few years, would go instead to Locsin’s jailer. Locsin had no regrets for, had he accepted, he would have been arrested anyway or he would have to arrest his best friends— Soc Rodrigo, Ninoy Aquino, Chino Roces, the others.

The sons of the soldiers by whose he had fought to liberate the Republic from the Japanese and then to save it from the communists, now padlocked the Free Press. Philippine Marines took on the role last taken up by Japanese imperial troops. Locsin was kept in detention in Fort Bonifacio, and given a choice.

He had written the response to the choice he was given a decade before: journalism without freedom was not journalism. Marcos, thinking he had in his hand all the aces, gave him the devil’s option: keep what you have, only publish.

Publish, under such circumstances? Never. He would not even deign to bid on Marcos’s hand. Very well then, if Locsin would not play his game, Marcos would take everything. And he did: a forced sale-confiscation. If Locsin would not publish the Free Press, the Marcos would take it away. The physical plant, the assets —they  would go to a crony, for a song. The most modern printing plant in the country.

Locsin’s own son would recall what that crony told Marcos: it is better to kill him than take his life’s work away. But that was what Marcos was all about: he knew how to hit a man where it hurt.

Years of seclusion followed. The betrayal of his own people in the Free Press was nothing to the cavalier way his countrymen took the loss of their liberties. Locsin had done his part, his countrymen now had to do theirs. Few cared about the silencing of the Free Press -very well, he would be silent since anyway he could not be heard.

Years spent writing stories and poems—things dear to his heart, which had been set aside because there were more mundane but pressing things to attend to. Now, as in the first weeks of the war, he had time to be with his books, a respite from journalism in a hurry. Years in which to attend to his craft. Years of rest, though still of rage. The slave deserves slavery. But what man can abide slavery?

He took up his journalistic pen when his countrymen showed they were ready to break their chains. The Free Press returned; the byline of Teodoro M. Locsin was back. From him, however, flowed no words of congratulation, essays to encourage the smugness felt by those to whom democracy had been given back on a silver platter, for not a drop of blood had been shed except that of his friend, Ninoy Aquino.

Locsin was back, on his own terms, and with a mission still left to fulfill. He began where he had left off: it would be the same causes, the same warnings, the same criticism, the same lack of pity for the foolish and the same intolerance of crooks and tyrants, petty or big, fascist or left-leaning.

As for the Free Press, did he get it back? He had it for the asking from Mrs. Aquino. But that would have been the height of bad taste. In a sense he was in power, which he had never been: his son was in Malacañang. He chose to file a lawsuit to recover what had been taken from him only after Mrs. Aquino had stepped down. The result, thus far, has been predictably grim.

He was in the field again, fighting. Would his causes be defeated again? Would his words be again in vain? From 1985 to 1994, he would write and publish. But for what?

In 1986 he wrote, “Defeat it usually termed ignominious unless one fights to the end, against overwhelming odds, then it is called honorable. Thus, Spartan mothers told their sons setting forth to war to return with their shields or on them.

“But there is another kind of defeat, and it’s a rare one. Rare in history and most rare in political history, for politics seems to bring out only the worst, the meanest in men. It’s more than just honorable, it’s glorious, and that is defeat from self-denial: to lose when one might have won, out of a sense of high purpose.”

Was there such a thing as victory for a man who fought with words?

If in politics, which he keenly observed throughout his life, victory was only the pretext for a new round of corruption, did Locsin ever seek a victory? Or simply to state the case for right?

He wrote for hopeless causes -hopeless in that even the victory of his causes meant their distortion, their rhetorical triumph and substantive defeat. He would get an award for his singular championship of land reform from the man who buried it in a flood of rhetoric and empty promises —Ferdinand Marcos.

His words were the raging of the just, of the righteous. And yet if justice was finally achieved it had still to be maintained. The struggle would never end.

Teodoro M. Locsin as Sisyphus —condemned, not by the gods but his own heart —a heart that would not give up.

The enigma of a life. What is left but to find solace in a poem, his own, “Past Midnight”:

The music is ended
The hall is deserted
all the dancers are gone
Drink to the empty chairs.

He had called his column “The Uneasy Chair.” To the end, he was restless: he could not come to terms with the causes of his anger. And so, anger never left him. You could see it in his eyes.

He left behind his books, and the words he wrote. He left behind his anger, too —for others to feel. And having felt, perhaps to do as he did —fight.