Remembering the Martial Law
Volume 20 Number 3
Saturday, 30 September 2006 00:00

By Thelma Catingub

For the first time, I stepped on the Port of Manila in the early summer months of 1972. Born and raised outside of this “great City of Manila” everything I saw - from tall buildings, wide streets and avenues and the hustle and bustle of city life - represented what for people like me a “promdi” 2 was like the Mecca of the Muslim pilgrims. People from the provinces came to Manila to seek their fortune or misfortune. People from the provinces saw in this city as the land of opportunities to better their lives. I came to Manila to be one of the staff of the priest-delegate of Misamis Occidental to the 1971 Constitutional Convention.

Coming to Manila for me that summer was only a subsequent step to the process of con

scientization or politicization that started when in 1969 I joined the KHI RHO, a group of young professionals that supported the struggles of farmers to own the land they were tilling; to increase their share of the produce of the land and to help defend and protect their rights against unscrupulous landlords. KHI RHO was closely allied then with the Federations of Free Farmers (FFF) of Jeremias Montemayor. KHI RHO members together with the FFF embarked on educating the farmers of their rights; raising the political awareness of students and young professionals.

My journey with the farmers brought me to the far-flung hills that comprise Mount Malindang; crossed countless rivers to reach their farms and to other areas where I have not gone before in my life. I helped the farmers look for answers as to why they are poor; why they are landless; why the Subanen people were being driven to the deepest hinterlands of the mountains instead of living in the lowlands with the Dumagats. And when they were settling already in the far-flung hills their houses were burned down to make way for a cattle ranch.

The two years spent in accompanying the farmers in their agrarian struggles were times stolen from my students. Some agrarian cases were won and some were not. When the courts were found wanting in resolving cases; we resorted to pickets and rallies. We lobbied local officials to make true their promises during elections to the farmers. Those two years were very much frustrating years because most often we found our actions mere exercises in futility and ourselves inutile, especially when we couldn’t get the farmers out of jail because of trumped up charges.


Rays of hope came shining with the 1971 Constitutional Convention (ConCon) to amend the 1935 Constitution. The American colonialists had forced the 1935 Constitution on the Filipinos with their sole interests in mind. “It was a constitution which is substantially in accordance with the philosophy of government of the American people…” 3 There was indeed a need to change the Philippine Constitution to respond to the basic needs and interests of the Filipino people. It was high time for a Constitution to be made by Filipinos based on their ideals and aspirations.

FFF and KHI RHO saw this opportunity to change Philippine social structures that would allow a more just dispensation for the toiling masses - the farmers, workers, the indigenous peoples and other sectors. FFF decided to field candidates for the 1971 ConCon delegates. KHI RHO members were drafted as volunteer-campaigners for the candidates. We went campaigning covering the 14 municipalities of the province. Our work with the farmers paid off. For the first time, a candidate won with large margins leaving other candidates who had even spent more money to buy votes and to finance a more sophisticated campaign.

However, we were too naïve then to place all our hopes on the 1971 Constitutional Convention and on the 320 elected delegates who had been elected by the people. While it was true that the Con-Con did indeed provide the people the chance to draft a charter that could be pro-poor and pro-Filipino; it also provided opportunity for the incumbent President, Ferdinand E. Marcos and his First Lady to perpetuate themselves in power. “Polls showed that 80 percent of Filipinos were opposed to a third term for Marcos and to his wife succeeding him.” 4 The Office of the President had to control and to ensure the outcome of the convention that would be self-serving to their interests of holding on to their position of power for more than what is legitimately allowed.

Two important resolutions that would thwart the ambition of the Marcoses were then being proposed by more than a 100 delegates belonging to the progressive bloc, to wit: “a) proposal of retaining the existing presidential form of government and not approving the Marcos’ plan of a change to the parliamentary system; and b) the so-called “Marcos ban” draft provision in the new Constitution, which would have disqualified past Presidents, including Mr. Marcos, their spouse and relatives by consanguinity or affinity within the fourth civil degree from seeking the post of Prime Minister under the new Charter.5 Originally, there were only about 100 delegates who favored the parliamentary system and who rejected the presidential re-election ban.

History showed that the “payola” from the Office of the President to the delegates paid off. It was the delegate of Leyte, former Ambassador Eduardo Quintero who exposed the payola case, where allegedly envelopes with undisclosed amount of money were distributed to select delegates in order that the wish of the incumbent President and the First Lady would be granted. I even asked our delegate if he was one of these select delegates. (Until now I still carry this doubt that he was because at the end he put his imprimatur on the 1973 Constitution and campaigned for its “ratification”.)


In hindsight events that occurred before the declaration of Proclamation 1081 seemed independent from each other and not parts of the whole grand design of the tapestry of holding on to power by the Marcoses. These events were very disturbing and alarming violations of the basic rights of the people that were supposedly enshrined in the Fundamental Law of our country.

In August 21, 1971, Plaza Miranda literally exploded on the face of the nation.6 The tragedy was the proclamation rally for the eight senatorial candidates of the opposition Liberal Party for the 1971 mid-term elections. Due to this incident that maimed some of the leaders of the opposition, the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus was suspended through Presidential Proclamation 889 within a few hours of the bombing and mass arrests of student activists and suspected members of the nascent reestablished Communist Party of the Philippines were affected.

According to Mijares in his book The CONJUGAL DICTATORSHIP, special psychological warfare units of the AFP launched a series of terror-bombings on the following: Manila’s water system (NAWASA), the City Hall Building of Manila, the men’s room of the 14th floor of the Quezon City Hall that housed the 1971 Constitutional Convention, the business districts of Manila and other installations excluding the Malacaňang Palace. He alleged that the main objective for these terror bombings was to create fear and national paralysis as well as a sense of despair on the part of the populace. President Marcos, he further alleged, blamed all these bombings on the Maoist New People’s Army.

Before these series of bombings, the military disclosed of a shipping vessel, the MV Karagatan floating unmanned in the seas of Digoyo Point in Isabela. Hundreds of long firearms of the M-14 caliber and thousands of rounds of ammunition were left behind on the seashore. They alleged that this arm cache was for the New People’s Army.

All these seemingly independent occurrences prepared the stage for the declaration of Proclamation 1081 known as Martial Law of 1972.


I woke up to the deafening silence on that fateful day of September 23, 1972. Already accustomed to the noisy bustle of the early mornings of the city, the ominous silence was eerie and produced gooseflesh on my skin. Radios were silent. There were no shows on the television channels. People were grouping around street corners talking and wondering. Rumors about the ambush of the Secretary of the Department of National Defense, Juan Ponce Enrile, abound. People talked of martial law being declared. Ninoy Aquino and other prominent leaders of the opposition as well as businessmen and media men who were avid anti-Marcos were arrested.

Together with my boss, the Con-Con delegate, we roamed Quezon City and the other cities of Manila and Makati. First and foremost to visit friends and kababayans7 to see how they were faring. Along the way, surprisingly, there was less traffic. The usual hustle and busyness of human traffic in the city was absent. Department stores and businesses were closed. There were no newsboys. Newsstands were bare.

Questions of the people were answered that evening.

President Marcos formally announced on television at about 8:00 in the evening of 22 September 1972 that he had placed the whole country under martial law as of 9 p.m. on 21 September 1972 using his power vested by the Constitution as the commander in chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

The 1935 Constitution, Article II, Section 10, paragraph (2) stated:

“The President shall be the commander-in-chief of all the armed forces of the Philippines, and whenever it becomes necessary, he may call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion, insurrection, or rebellion. In case of invasion, insurrection, or rebellion, or imminent danger thereof, when the public safety requires it, he may suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, or place the Philippines or any part thereof under martial law.”

With one swipe of the pen, Proclamation 1081 abolished Philippine Congress, suppressed press freedom and suspended due process of law. Proclamation 1081 sounded the death knell of whatever democratic principles were enshrined in the colonial 1935 Philippine Constitution.

The outcome of the 1971 Constitutional Convention was already a foregone conclusion after the declaration of Proclamation 1081: President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos and First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos would rule as conjugal dictators in the Philippines.

For 16 long years a reign of terror and human rights of the people were blatantly violated with impunity - 10,000 or more were arbitrarily arrested and illegally detained, became “desaparecidos” and summarily executed. Task Force Detainees of the Philippines has documented thousands of cases of arbitrary arrests and illegal detentions or prolonged detentions without charges; or the inhuman and unimaginable torture of persons held in captivity; or the “salvaging” (euphemism for outright murder of suspects) of political dissidents. The Martial Law Regime of the Marcoses had committed gross violations of all the “inalienable rights” of the Filipino people.

Before the end of these dark annals of our country’s history I would be arrested and detained three times; I would be widowed and my only son orphaned of a father’s love and care. My husband, the father of my only son, was “salvaged” and buried without us being able to attend his funeral.

The dire consequences of the infamous years of the conjugal dictatorship to the Filipino people should never be forgotten. The sad and expensive lessons had been imprinted on the pages of Philippine history by the blood of those who were martyred and by the sacrifices of those who survived. The survivors had given the best and the most productive years of their lives in fighting the dictatorship.

People must be made aware to say forcefully and with strong conviction, “NEVER AGAIN TO MARTIAL LAW”.

Ms. Thelma Catingub is an active member of The Task Force Detainees of the Philippines

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