Martial-law activists now ready to tell own stories

Author’s note: This is a feature article I wrote for GMA News Online in 2009. Fourteen years later, it gladdens me to note that more and more historical pieces are being written by the activists and other unsung dissenters of that period—to put their definitive stamp on the record about their own experiences, to combat the most insidious forms of historical distortion about the Marcos dictatorship, to reiterate the lessons about moral courage and mass struggle, and of course to show their kids that they were there, fighting on the frontlines, keeping the flame alive in the deepest dark long before the break of dawn.

September 21, 2009 7:03pm

Most of us who lived through those times remember the day with stark imagery.

The most indelible detail that defined that Saturday morning was something very plain and obvious: we woke up with our radio sets silent, except for random static. Later that day, a few stations would come alive with music of marching bands and, incongruously, love songs of the soul group Stylistics.

The date was September 23, 1972. Rumors took flight and disquiet grew thick among the citizenry throughout the day. Then, as dusk fell, then-President Ferdinand E. Marcos went on nationwide broadcast to announce the declaration of martial law. He had signed Proclamation No. 1081 two days earlier, on Sept. 21, and had put the deadly plan into effect before dissenters could react.

At this point, one could turn to cliché and say, “And the rest is history.

But, for good or bad, that period in Philippine history is still being written by those who helped make it, with many chapters to go before it is closed. These activists, faceless in the past decades, are gradually coming into their own and telling their stories, often for the first time in public.

Bal Pinguel, the firebrand

Baltazar “Bal” Pinguel, now a “peace and justice advocate” based in Philadelphia, was familiar to every pre-martial law activist as the intense speaker of the Kabataang Makabayan (KM) whose speeches set many Metro Manila demonstrations afire.

Pinguel recalls: “I was attending an emergency meeting of the KM National Council in a private house in a Paranaque subdivision when news of martial law came in.” In that meeting, the KM leadership decided to redeploy their Metro Manila forces to the provinces.

“Later I was deployed to Laguna; my priority task was to revive the underground student network in UP Los Baños,” he added. In November 1973, Pinguel was arrested together with other UP students and teachers in Sta. Cruz, Laguna.

He didn’t stay in jail very long. After torture and transfer to Camp Vicente Lim, he and eight others dug a hole in the wall and escaped from the camp stockade while the tower guards were getting drunk to stave off the December cold. “It was the first mass jailbreak of political prisoners under martial law,” Pinguel says with a tinge of pride.

Pinguel would be captured again in Cebu City seven years later as an urban organizer, and brought to Camp Bagong Diwa in Bicutan.

“When Marcos went through the motions of lifting martial law in 1981, almost all the political detainees in the Philippines were released, except for a small number,” he said. “That select few included me. We were moved to Dormitory 9-C, at the Muntinlupa Death Row.”

But the prisoners took advantage of Pope John Paul II’s 1981 visit by waging a hunger strike that caught the attention of the foreign press and the Vatican hierarchy. Marcos returned them to Bicutan, and Pinguel was given temporary release in January 1985. He went on to help form the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN).

Although he is now US-based, he continues to pursue “justice and peace issues.” He works for a non-profit peace and justice organization, American Friends Service Committee, as its director for its national peace-building and demilitarization program.

Albert’: a typical faceless story

“Albert” (not his real name), now an overseas-based entrepreneur, was a student leader in Manila when martial law was declared. On Sept. 21, he was still able to speak at Plaza Miranda on the imminence of martial law and the reasons for it. “Irony of ironies,” he mused.

On Sept. 23, Albert and his wife prepared to go underground. They knew it was inevitable. “(But) we were not prepared for it – in terms of what to do and where to go. We had to wing it. We moved from house to house, sometimes for a day, sometimes two – all the time trying to make sure that our colleagues and allies in our circle of students were alright, listening to the radio or watching the news for any arrests or worse.”

At the same time, Albert’s organization was planning a response in various parts of Greater Manila mostly among students groups. “Students responded spontaneously in various creative ways – in the University Belt, the elite schools south of the Pasig, at UP, etc. through leaflet distribution, flash rallies, noise barrages,” he said.

“As among many activists struggling to set up the underground and develop it into a movement,” Albert said, “we learned to live fugitive lives and learned to rely on each other even as debates … (sometimes heated) lent spice to the days spent mostly moving about the city, holding meetings or trying to maintain contact with allies, many of whom were clearly shaken and were looking for a way to resist.”

Albert was arrested in February 1973 but not physically tortured. He lost contact with his wife who was still active in the underground and pregnant with their firstborn. Eventually, the two found a way to communicate through relatives who were allowed to visit him in prison. “The military probably knew (that many detainees used this method), but it would have been highly uneconomic to inspect every cigarette butt or wrapping paper that went in and out of the cells,” he said.

After release, Albert re-enrolled in school and later got a job. At the same time, he and his wife rejoined the underground, were rearrested, released, then rejoined the movement again. “Like many of our colleagues, we led an underground life of meetings, consultations, sudden travels and, on the surface a family life, as professionals,” he said.

Albert sees his martial law suffering as the collective experience of an entire generation that later helped shape People Power at EDSA. “What we saw among our comrades and the people we were in touch with was a daily inspiration for us. Far from being cowed, those days of outright suppression brought out the best in us as individuals and as a people. Those days, when the movement was practically the only force organized enough to effectively resist the regime, those were the days that framed the backbone for a nationwide resistance. Fourteen years later, in my mind, it would be the crucial and sustaining element that would bring the dictatorship down.”

The media activist

Kathleen Okubo, an Ibaloi from Baguio City, was a young activist of Kabataang Makabayan who happened to be in Pangasinan when martial law came. She was arrested with six others.

“(Our) apartment … was raided at 6 a.m. The local press, radio, and print editors and publishers of Pangasinan Courier and Sunday Punch came to our rescue, and discovered then it was martial law.”

Her group was packed in a 100-square foot jailhouse at the PC camp in Lingayen. “I remember, in the middle of the night that first day, we were joined by some 50 ‘de colores’ (members of Cursillo, a religious prayer group) who were chanting, crying and praying that they were being persecuted by ‘enemies of God.’”

The detention area grew more packed with detainees that night until the next day. “Most of them did not understand the whats and whys of martial law, so the first thing we did was hold a ‘discussion group’ right there. Even the military guard asked questions about it.”

Okubo remembers that the PC was ill-prepared to feed and house the many people arrested in their raids. “We were treated like convicted criminals,” she said.

Upon her release, Okubo went on to help set up NGOs and pursue her advocacy in the field of print media. She would be arrested and jailed two times more, the last one in 1993. “But there is no other choice. I remain a human rights advocate,” she says matter-of-factly.

The environmentalist

Dr. Rowena Boquiren, a social scientist who is well known in conservation circles, was an 18-year old activist in 1972.

Boquiren was visiting her parents in the province when martial law was declared. But she was not prepared for what her dorm mates at Kamia (one of the UP Diliman residence halls for women) did on her behalf.

“To protect me in case the military would swoop down on UP offices and buildings to arrest anyone with ‘anti-Marcos’ materials, my dorm mates gathered all my books and reading materials that had even the slightest tinge of critical, progressive and pro-people ideas – even literary and historical books like Ibong Mandaragit of Amado Hernandez and Land of Bondage, Land of the Free of former senator Raul Manglapus – and burned all of them. It became difficult to be a middle-class intellectual when the only property I had went up in smoke!”

Boquiren observes that “senseless exploitation of our natural resources, corruption, and abuse of power had been happening then at all levels and on a wide scale before martial law, but all the more so under martial law. They continue to happen even today. We continue addressing these serious problems in the Philippines – still even as an intellectual on the ground.”

Human rights lawyer with NPA brother

Jose Mencio Molintas—human rights lawyer, former Baguio City councilor, and member of an experts’ group on indigenous issues at the UN—was 11 when his elders told him about martial law and the need to cooperate with the authorities to avoid arrest.

In college, Molintas became a cadet officer and had to allow himself to be used to spy on school activists. Then his younger brother joined the underground. “That was when I started asking him and myself about military abuses and the objective and chances of fighting and winning against Marcos.” The younger brother, Wright Molintas Jr., was killed by the military in 1987 as a suspected NPA commander.

“My experience of handling cases of activists and alleged NPA members gave me a better insight of what they were fighting for, how the government treated them, and from that, made me open my eyes wide to the injustice done against people fighting for the poor,” Molintas said.

As a member of a prominent Ibaloi clan in Benguet province, Molintas understands that “people like us in the Cordillera are in a state of poverty in a land of plenty, because something in our system, aside from corruption, makes some people poor or poorer and some very rich. The bad legacies of martial law are still here hounding us, despite the EDSA revolt.”

Molintas thinks that “Edsa 1 should have vindicated all those who fought against Marcos and martial law…” but Cory did not do much “to address the issues of the rebel movement and instead called for an all-out war.” Activism must continue to fight for people’s rights and resist US intervention in the country’s internal affairs, he added.

Palanca awardee

Roger Mangahas, multi-awarded writer in Pilipino, was an instructor at the University of the East in 1972. He and his wife Fe were arrested in January 1973 and jailed mostly at the Fort Bonifacio until August 1974.

“Before martial law, I had written some poems and articles in protest against imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism, and fascism,” Mangahas says. He had written one particular poem, Duguang Plakard (Bloodied Placards), a few days after the historic Mendiola demonstration of Jan. 30-31, 1970. It had won first prize at the Palanca awards.

“But that poem,” Mangahas says, “combined with Proclamation 1081, became the basis for the university to dismiss me from the faculty in October 1972, and for the military to arrest me a few months later.”

Although he wasn’t physically tortured, Roger suffered from loss of work and says he continues to suffer the ill-effects of detention on his health. Keeping active among Filipino literary circles, Roger says he continues to pursue the advocacies that led him to jail as a young cultural activist.

Close shaves

“Manny” (not his real name), now an economist and column writer, was in 3rd year high school in 1972. He doesn’t remember much except attending small rallies and distributing leaflets to oppose the Marcos constitution in early 1973.

Recalling the early years of underground resistance, Manny said, “Activists exercised a lot of self-initiative back then, deciding on their own to post sticker tapes with anti-martial law slogans on walls. Sometimes, looking back, I find it funny because the tapes were so small, I wonder if anyone was able to read them.”

During the daring May Day 1977 rally at the Luneta, “I was arrested on Taft Avenue together with other UP students. We were brought to the Manila Police precinct on UN Avenue, where we were detained for eight hours. Batch by batch, the detainees were brought to [Camp Bagong Diwa in] Bicutan. We happened to be among the last batch. Along the way, in the vicinity of Quiapo, our police escort said they will set us free if we pay them. We emptied our pockets and gave them what they wanted. They set us free right there. We were lucky. The earlier batches that reached Bicutan were detained for months.”

Publication specialist

“Perry” (not his real name) was an incoming college senior at Ateneo de Manila University when he decided not to enrol for his last year, and become a fulltime activist in June 1971.

“I was already in the urban underground, doing translation work for education materials, when martial law was declared. One of my comrades had a transistor radio that I always borrowed for the night, to help me sleep. I was still awake (it was around past midnight) when the news flash came about Enrile’s car being ambushed. The next morning, all stations were dead and I thought the radio I had borrowed was busted. Some of my house-mates had a hunch it was already martial law. They got out of the house and went around. Everywhere, they got the confirmation we needed. It was indeed martial law.”

Perry describes himself as a publication and information specialist. Right now, he says he is trying to help organize next year’s commemoration of the historic First Quarter Storm of 1970, which would be its 40th anniversary.

“It would be a good occasion for remembrance,” Perry says. “The tree of People Power, I think, sprouted from the seed of what was then called ‘student power’ during the FQS. There is an FQS page on Facebook. I want people to remember this great beginning, and how it reshaped the lives of many young people like me back then.”

Continuing history

As the years of martial law passed into history, its full story gradually began to take shape from the immense documentation as well as oral remembrances of hundreds of thousands of people who played active roles at that time. Films, books, articles, manuscripts and legal testimonies began to emerge and accumulate.

It helped that many of the opposition stalwarts persecuted by Marcos were articulate writers and media-savvy. Leaders like Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., Sen. Jose W. Diokno, Don Joaquin “Chino” Roces, and Sen. Lorenzo Tañada Jr. have passed away or are fading fast. But their memoirs and other papers live on.

The younger generation of activists who were in the frontlines of the 1970-1972 upsurges and the 14 years of resistance against the Marcos regime, however, have not been as prolific in producing memoirs and papers.

One reason is clearly because many of them continue to work incognito in the underground movement of the CPP-NPA-NDF, and can only share their stories through their own propaganda channels.

Another possible reason is that even those who have chosen to work aboveground remain reticent about sharing their past experiences, for fear that the same factors that drove them underground in their youth continue to threaten their safety until now.

These generations that grew up and achieved maturity under martial law are now in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Some call them the FQS generation, or martial law babies for the younger ones. Some of them have taken up, or about ready to take up, the top ranks in government, political parties, the academe, media, and the business world.

In any case, they are increasingly ready to tell their story on their own terms. They see their martial law experiences as constituting a historical watershed that can provide valuable lessons for the next generations.

Albert says it best: “We need to constantly remind ourselves and others about the facts of martial law, through books, journals, editorials, blogs, etc. We should tell the young people that until now, our people are still paying the legacy of the Marcos years – the foreign debt, the bloated military, the corruption, the economic mispriorities.”

“We owe it to our fellow compatriots, especially those who lost their loved ones or who sacrificed their very lives during those years, to continue pushing for the same valid causes, if only in their own way.” – GMANews.TV

Author and GMANews.TV city editor Jun Verzola was 16 years old, an activist and freshman at UP Diliman, when martial law was declared in 1972. He was arrested in January 1973 and spent six months at the Ipil Rehabilitation Center in Fort Bonifacio.

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