Forty years ago
Martial law aimed to wipe out the communist insurgency, but ironically it turned into the single most important recruitment tool of the communist movement. How did this happen?
The first arrests that were carried out just after midnight of Sept. 23, 1972, targeted high-profile figures from the legal opposition, the press, the academe, and the student movement. As expected, their arrest and detention instantly produced a chilling effect on the rest of the country. Those who had been active in the broad struggle against the Marcos government but managed to elude the first wave of arrests instinctively made themselves scarce. Many fled their homes and sought refuge in the houses of relatives and friends. But they could not stay put in one place without alarming and endangering their hosts. And they needed to know who else among their associates and colleagues had been arrested. They therefore had every reason to maintain contact with their fellow activists.
Although everyone was talking about martial law months before its actual declaration, we had no idea how severe or brutal it was going to be. In the University of the Philippines campus, we had casually talked about what to do in the event of a massive crackdown on activists. But we never got around to discussing contingency measures in any detailed way.
In contrast, the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) appeared to have prepared well for the emergency. The party kept a string of “safe” houses and contact addresses to be used in the struggle against the regime. In the first weeks of martial law, these shelters were opened not just to members of the party but also to fellow activists in the broader united front who had nowhere to go for safety. Whether they were fully conscious of the choice they were making or not, those who sought refuge in these safe houses in effect entered the portal of the underground.
The shared experience of danger and camaraderie that the underground offered validated the youthful yearning for participation in the great unfinished revolution. Life on the run, and the many little assignments that one took for the movement, served as the initiation rites for full membership in a clandestine movement that offered protection and involvement in exchange for a life under rigorous discipline. The ultimate sacrifice took the form of dropping out of school and leaving one’s own family. That wrenching experience, which often meant going against parental advice and authority, would symbolize for many the beginning of a new identity as a full-time revolutionary. The romanticism of that thought gave an altogether different meaning to the unconditional submission to the party line that was demanded of every member of a collective.
Martial law thus became a crossroads for many activists of that period. My wife Karina and I were more fortunate in not having to be confronted by such a choice. While we participated in many rallies, meetings, and forums in which the CPP was a dominant voice, we kept our autonomy. We knew the leaders and worked with them, but we knew we were not part of the decision-making circuits that determined the direction of the movement.
When I went back to England in 1971 to resume my graduate studies, leaving Karina and our 6-month-old son behind, I could sense that the situation in the country would deteriorate. Karina became more actively involved in organizing teachers both in UP and the other universities. Unknown to her, she was at that time pregnant with our second baby, whom she lost after joining a particularly strenuous march. We called our unborn child “Demo” to mark him out as a casualty of that fateful struggle.
I came home in July 1972 to start field work for my doctoral thesis. At once, I found myself in the whirl of activism in which my wife had invested a great part of her time and energy. We were staying in my parents-in-law’s home while they rented a house where Karina’s father, Renato Constantino, could finish the first volume of his history book in quiet seclusion. Two months later, martial law was proclaimed. The arresting party that came at dawn of Sept. 23 took RC, my brother-in-law, when they could not find his father. A few days later, the team came back for the elder Renato and placed him under house arrest. Another arresting team looked for Karina at her office in UP, but failed to find her. Having been away for three years, I was not on the military’s radar screen.
The threat of arrest forced us to move residence a number of times within a year. It was during this period that our daughter Kara was conceived, making her the only one of our four children to be consciously planned. I had assumed that the military might treat Karina more leniently if they knew she was with child. Later, I would find out that in Latin America, dictatorial regimes did not treat pregnant women activists any differently. They detained them and took their babies away at birth, and put them up for adoption.
One never really knows how far a dictatorship will go to impose its will on the population. It is this whole uncertainty—and the absence of any possible recourse to justice—that dominates one’s daily life under martial law. The possibility of being picked up from the streets at any time and then made to disappear so consumed us that for many years we carried in our wallets small strips of paper bearing the names and phone numbers of relatives who could be contacted by witnesses if we were arrested.
That sense of insecurity never left us, and perhaps it is the most difficult thing to explain to the younger generation. Under its spell, people sometimes acted in ways not easy to comprehend. We recognize the complexity of these choices by withholding quick judgment.