Martial law veterans call for vigilance
(Second of a series)
Doris Nuval could not believe it. The Supreme Court in November last year allowed the burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at Libingan ng mga Bayani.
“How can this—the unthinkable—happen?” she asked.
This was the same Marcos who had plunged the country into the long night of martial law in 1972, the same man who sat 10 rows away from the small bomb she had planted during an international conference at the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) on Oct. 19, 1980, to embarrass the dictator.
Marcos was unscathed as members of the Presidential Security Command immediately jumped to protect him from the blast and tucked him away.
Nuval, then 28, was part of the diplomatic corps of the Department of Tourism that organized the American Society of Travel Agents (Asta) conference, a job that allowed her to bring the bomb into the PICC.
The Asta convention in Manila was to be the Philippines’ “coming-out party to the world” after eight years of martial law, she said in an interview with the Inquirer.
Nuval was arrested days later when government agents traced a package of bomb components to her after torturing her comrades, she said.
“I didn’t want to hurt anyone, I told my comrades, but they assured me it would only be a small bomb … for propaganda purposes only,” she said.
The explosion from the device, which was the size of cigarette pack, did not kill anyone, but the bang was heard around the world, which took notice of the growing resistance to the dictatorship with new groups emerging, such as the Light a Fire Movement and the April 6 Liberation Movement to which Nuval belonged.
Nuval faced 21 criminal charges, including rebellion, murder, illegal possession of explosives, plotting to assassinate the President and attempted assassination of Cabinet members.
Nuval believes she escaped physical torture because her father and Marcos were very close “war buddies.”
In 1985, her father, who was Marcos’ assistant on ports and harbors, negotiated her release on condition that she leaves the country. She left for the Netherlands to seek political asylum and returned after the Edsa People Power Revolution.
Now 65, Nuval was back to old familiar grounds after the sneaky burial of the late dictator at the Heroes’ Cemetery.
“I found myself again in the streets,” she said. “I did the math. Forty-five years! And Marcos is still on our lips!”
For Nuval and many victims of human rights violations under martial law, the Marcos burial and the small margin of votes that prevented Ferdinand Jr. from capturing the vice presidency in last year’s elections were a stinging reminder that their decades-long fight against tyranny was far from over.
The martial law survivors also worry about the return of strongman rule—this time under President Duterte, who has close ties with the Marcoses and recently threatened nationwide martial law for reasons eerily similar to the dictator’s justification for military rule—violent unrest.
Mr. Duterte recently threatened nationwide martial law after imposing it in Mindanao if communist rebels take their fight to the streets.
“It scares me that he would declare martial law. If it happens, I’m coming out of retirement, I swear,” Nuval said.
Nuval said she could see Mr. Duterte following the Marcos template. “I’m beginning to think they are made of the same cloth,” she said of Marcos and Mr. Duterte.
Under Marcos, subversion was the most common and convenient charge slapped against dissidents. Under the Duterte administration, it is a drug offense, she said. “But then again, later on, it might be because you talked against Digong,” she added.
The killing of 17-year-old Kian Loyd delos Santos by the Caloocan police was the “turning point” for her, she said.
Nuval said social media posts warning people about illegal arrest or advising the public to be home before midnight were too much of a reminder of life during Marcos’ martial law.
“It’s terrifying that now they could just pick up anyone,” she said. “And when you cow people into that kind of situation, then it would be easy to declare martial law.”
Poet, essayist and martial law survivor Mila Aguilar shared the same anxiety over the “parallels” between human rights violations under the Duterte administration and under Marcos.
Over 3,200 deaths, 35,000 torture cases and 70,000 incarcerations have been recorded during the entire Marcos regime, according to American historian Alfred McCoy in his 1999 paper, “Dark Legacy: Human rights under the Marcos regime.”
Critics of the Duterte administration are quick to note that the death toll in the war on drugs has surpassed in just one year the killings during martial law, with the police acknowledging they have killed at least 3,800 people who allegedly fought officers during antidrug operations. Thousands more had been killed by vigilantes suspected to be working with the police.
“This one is worse. While Marcos was a thief and had goldlust, this one (Mr. Duterte) has bloodlust,” Aguilar told the Inquirer, adding that Marcos, at least, pretended to be a benevolent authoritarian.
Life in the underground
Aguilar, 68, was a teacher and journalist before she worked as a community organizer. She went underground in 1971 after Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus, the precursor to martial law.
She was later sent to organize in Mindanao, where there was “tangible fear of martial law.” People told stories of soldiers suffering war trauma suddenly shooting from inside a bus into the mountains they passed and of comrades being skewered by their captors, she said.
Aguilar later headed the National United Front Commission of the Communist Party of the Philippines which mobilized the antidictatorship sectors among professionals, church workers, businessmen and other so-called “middle forces.”
She resigned from the party in 1984 and went back to teaching but was arrested not long after. She was placed in solitary confinement and faced both “soft” and “hard” interrogation to force her to give information about the underground. She was freed after the Edsa Revolution.
Her years in the underground and in detention had stolen time she could have spent with her son, who was cared for by her mother, she said.
“It was very difficult,” she said. “For the first five months in separation, I couldn’t stop crying. But my husband told me, ‘Let us just build a better society for him.’”
Her husband, Magtanggol Roque, was killed by soldiers in Mindanao and the couple’s dream of a “better society” remains a “work in progress,” she said.
“There’s still so much to do, and so much [lessons] that have been neglected that need to be corrected,” she said.
She acknowledged that the younger generations were slowly losing their grip on the lessons of martial law, the record of Marcos and his dictatorship and the significance of the struggle for democracy.
She, however, said the youth could not be completely blamed for this.
“[Educating the Filipinos] should be a partnership of the young and the old. The old have the wisdom … but only the young can implement” changes, Aguilar said. “Never give up democracy, whomever may be the sweet talker in charge.”
Nuval said that the “torch has been passed” to the millennials.
“They might have only heard stories, but once they go through … what I have gone through, it will really change you,” she said.
“My message to them is to stay vigilant all the time and take care that [martial law] will never happen again,” she said. “We only have one country. Who else would work for it?”