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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.

I remember seeing some animation on TV later that morning broadcast over RPN 9—it would become the most influential network through the next decade. Sometime in the afternoon, then Presidential spokesperson Kit Tatad announced what everyone already surmised: Martial Law had been declared. When the president came on air, he was quick to assure the public that civilian authority remained paramount. Our world, we were told, remained safe and secure but we knew even then, in our pre-adolescent hearts and loins, that it would never again be the same.

Curfew was imposed from 12 midnight to 4 a.m. which meant my elder brother had to speed home in the eight-cylinder Mustang at 11:55 and be bawled out by my old man. Casinos and cathouses were closed down, slot machines loaded on trucks and smashed up or deposited God-knows-where, smut mags were burned, criminals hunted down, guys wearing long hair had their looks snipped off by roving constabulary men, jaywalkers were apprehended, curfew violators made to cut grass in Camp Crame. Discipline was the order of the day “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan!” became the official motto whose ridiculing would allegedly earn a TV host several hours of cycling around military camp premises.

The first things that appeared on TV were the regime’s propaganda material that pieced together newsreel clips of violent demos, Mao portraits, burning buses, which seque into now peaceful and orderly streets, students attending class and greeting their professors properly, people lining up for bus rides, police respectful and without potbellies. A regular TV infomercial showed a young man out on the streets past curfew. “Ginagabi ka ata, pare?” a PC soldier asks him nicely before giving the guy a lift home. Only years later would we realize how idealized such scenes were.

The Bagong Lipunan march would fill the air waves by early ’73 and become the anthem of our youth. It was drummed into our souls and we marched to its beat. Each of us became a card carrying member of the Kabataang Barangay and read Marcos’ Today’s Revolution: Democracy. Marcos was a war hero, a bar topnotcher who defended himself in court and beat a murder rap, a superb athlete, a great lover, he wrote tomes of scholarly books, he had a magical birthing and was the nation’s savior. September became the month of months and K the revered letter. It was said all these had to do with the mystical powers giving strength to the nation’s ‘Father.’ How we lapped it all up.

Even as the tag Martial Law Babies came later to be derisive of the young people born during the seventies, I often wonder whether it is in fact they who were most affected by the declaration of Martial Law or us, the pre-teens and early teeners of that period, the Martial Law Minors, who bore the brunt of the regime’s attempt at politico-cultural engineering?

By the time the M.L. babies came of age, the regime had more or less “normalized” and its propaganda machinery had lost its edge. Having known no other president save Marcos, the man became just another fact of life for most M.L. babies. They never had to go through the rounds of referenda, plebiscites, uncontested elections that were our initiation into electoral politics. They simply had to accept the fact of Marcos, we were asked, made, to believe in him. It isn’t surprising then that many of the remaining Marcos loyalists come from the ranks of the M.L. minors.

By the early 80’s when the M.L. babies were beginning to take interest in social issues, the media environment, at least in Manila, had began to loosen. Alternative media were expanding and after the Ninoy assassination, the floodgates would burst. We, on the other hand, were products and victims of strict censorship. We were completely susceptible to the regime’s controlled media, and Doroy Valencia’s spiked coffee, during our impressionable years and would only gain access to oppositionists views in college. We were deprived of any appreciation of dissent.

At twelve, we were already starting to be influenced by teachers, newspapers, magazines, radio, television. We were told our society was mired in poverty and corruption; that evils such as imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat-capitalism dogged our country, that politics was dirty and politicians, mostly despicable. We were told that drastic change was needed, inevitable. When Marcos declared Martial Law and promised to clean up society, when he railed against the ‘oligarchs’ and jailed them we cheered as though watching a movie wherein the bad guys are finally rounded up. He spoke of ‘revolution from the center,’ and we sang his anthem, wore Kabataang Barangay T-shirts, and planted trees. Our epiphany would come much later, gradually and painfully. We were children of the New Society who never saw the emperor without clothes.

In college we sat beside forty year-old ‘classmates’ with potbellies and sinister looking clutch bags. Police roamed the campus and schoolmates were picked up after class. Everywhere, middle-aged men stood in corners and whispered into their two-way radios. Coercion was slow and subtle. Because it was never directed at you personally, unless you spoke up too much, but part of the landscape of one’s daily existence, intimidation became as natural as terror teachers and smoke belching jeepneys.

Those older and wiser did not perhaps have too many illusions about the motives behind Martial Law even as many were initially willing to give Marcos a chance to prove true to his rhetoric. When the regime began to unravel the older people simply shrugged. We knew it from the start. Our awakenings were much ruder. It took us years to realize that we had been victims of an old and terrible lie, that our youthful anthem would become the song of a despised era, that the trees we planted may never provide shade for our own children.

And now, the old and new societies seem to have meshed into a surreal movie scripted by a mad poet. One many-jeweled seventy year-old widow, boasting tons of gold, celebrates her birthday four nights in a row in Manila’s plushest joints even as the corpse of her husband remains in public view in his northern mausoleum. George Hamilton is back in town, the Big J is Senator and Asiong Salonga is President. Theft is respectable, gambling the favored vice and shabu the poor slob’s opium.

We have muddled through over a decade of democratic restoration and as we approach the end of the second millennium, we might find solace in the Pinoy’s ability to maintain his sense of humor amidst the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and public service.

Still, in some quarters we hear them saying again that freedom is mere excess and license for abuse. Again we are being told that discipline is urgently needed and danger pervades the air. The barbarians are said to be upon our gates once again and only a strong arm may save the day. Twice told tales should come with an extra pinch of salt and older wine.

The batch of ’99 faces a world that offers up greater possibilities but less certainties. They may look back in years ahead to those four fabled days at EDSA where yellow-shirted grandmothers shared chicken drumsticks with street kids, where brave nuns armed with roses faced down the evil empire and remember with fondness a people’s shining hour, or yet again think themselves victims of another old and terrible lie.

But if EDSA does turn out to be a lie, then it is but the same lie lovers succumb to again and again. If it be fantasy, then it was at least our fantasy. To borrow lines from Kahlil Gibran poetizing about pleasure: EDSA is a freedom song, but it is not freedom, it is the blossoming of our desires but not their fruits.

I do not know whether my own youth would have been better served by more of Damian Sotto’s diatribes or of Ninoy as President or the survival of Pic magazine to a riper age, rather than by KB marches, the Kasaysayan ng Lahi spectacle, the ’74 Miss Universe pageant, the Thrilla in Manila (when I caught a glimpse of the great ‘butterfly’ floating about at the Folk Arts Theatre) and the Manila International Film Festival. Perhaps, if things do get worse I might still find myself reminiscing someday to kids about the good old days of tree planting to the beat of a martial tune, when Congress was on extended recess, elections were decided far in advance, one newspaper a week sufficed, talking heads did not hound TV screens, and when a wise king and his beautiful wife ruled benevolently from their palace by the river.

I find neither crystal ball gazing nor dwelling upon lost chances enviable tasks. My remembrances are driven largely by nostalgia and my projections by wishful thought. But we are a bit older, if not wiser, now and should we find all our TV channels off the air one morning saw for one broadcasting a decades old animation, and our Internet server down, we might not want to hang around long enough to relearn an old anthem or review old issues of a certain magazine.



  1. rizalist says:

    Congratulations on another excellent essay published on Philippine Free Press Online. And I notice you have a slick new look. I like it!

  2. […] Charlson Ong pens Memories of a Martial Law Minor, recounting what it was like to grow up under the New Society. […]

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  6. […] I was just fourteen years old during the EDSA revolution. All I remember was almost two months of vacation from a shortened fourth quarter of school. But as a military brat, aside from our home away from the camp, we also had a life in the camps. I grew up in Camp Aguinaldo and I was a seventies kid with a Military parent. My concept of Martial law and Marcos was different. I can only speak for myself, but military brats like me were made to believe that Martial Law was for the best. So I have to google those who bothered to chronicle what they remembered about Martial Law as a minor. […]

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