A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Experiencing Martial Law Twice In My Lifetime: Reflections For Transitional Justice

(Speech delivered at the webinar on Transitional Justice on September 21, 2020, organized by the Ateneo de Manila University’s Martial Law Museum, Commission on Human Rights and the Transitional Justice League).

A week before the unlamented Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, our youth theatre group based in Mati in Davao Oriental staged a militant play that condemned the injustices that characterized Philippine society of that period. The play was entitled – UNSAY KAUGMAON SA ATONG NASUD, MANANG TAKYA? What is the future of our country, Aling Takya?

We mounted it at the open-air city plaza in front of about two thousand people who came to watch the play. As we were about to mount the play, a squad of PC soldiers rushed to the stage to stop the actors from performing. As Director, I immediately faced them and asked on what basis they were doing so, since we had a permit from the City Mayor’s office and martial rule had not yet been declared by Marcos. That week, there were rumors already about the suspension of habeas corpus and then the declaration of martial rule.

As the people shouted to allow us to go on, the PC soldiers lost face and had no choice but allow us to go ahead.  A week later, on the night when martial rule was announced, immediately the same squad led by the same Lieutenant, came knocking at our apartment door and promptly arrested me, an ICM nun and a woman lay worker. We were then rushed to the military headquarters where we were grilled by the Camp Commander. Our parish priest, a Maryknoll priest rushed to the camp and as he was a friend of the Camp Commander, was able to convince him that he was wrong in arresting us for we were not rebels. A negotiation then took place, and at the end, we were all placed under house arrest for three months.

Back home, we then heard in the next few days of the many people who were being arrested as many also fled to evade arrests. Mati at the time was a center of protest, the Federation of Free Farmers, the Khi Rho youth groups and the Basic Christian communities were involved in militant protests and rallies, so a number of us were targeted for arrests. Everything stopped with martial rule as we tried our best to be ready for any eventualities, although the more radical ones fled to the nearby mountains to explore a more revolutionary option.

I was not too radicalized yet at the time and the traumatic experience made me cautious. So I resigned my work there in the parish, and went back home to Davao City and joined what I thought was a safer type of work, as Project Officer of the Mindanao office of the Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP). Well, it wasn’t really as safe as I thought, since some of our partners were those working with Indigenous Peoples, like the Passionist Missionaries who were engaged in community development efforts with the T’bolis in the isolated villages of Lake Sebu in South Cotabato.

There were already tensions between the T’bolis and the missionaries versus the PANAMIN  (Presidential Assistant on National Minorities), as there rumors that Elizalde’s concern there was to explore both the possibility of building a hydro-electric dam as well as be engaged in mining. Naturally, the T’bolis protested. I went to cover this story as they were our partners and I was asked by our Manila office to find out exactly what was happening.

Well, I was a young man then, looking very much like a university student and I stood out as someone who was not from the area.  For the PANAMIN personnel and the CHDF (Civilian Home Defense Forces), I must have looked like I was there to link up with the NPAs (New Peoples Army)  so when I entered the PANAMIN office to talk to the person in-charge, I was promptly arrested. They confiscated my bag and when they saw that I had documentations inside my bag, I was then accused of being a spy.  Fortunately, I was able to convince the PANAMIN officer to allow me to radio the Bishop’s house who promptly came to assure them that I was a guest of the missionaries. I was then released to the bishop.

This time I realized that my engagement with PBSP was too moderate and I was convinced of the need to turn militant as many friends, colleagues and even family members were no longer afraid to take on radical options. I joined a faith-based church group engaged in justice and peace and we collaborated with Task Force Detainees, not just to respond to the needs of political prisoners and their families but also to monitor and document human rights violations.

Davao City erupted in a growing number of rallies and demonstrations and our crowds got bigger every time a march-rally was organized. There were rallies to denounce the rapid expansion of banana plantations, the unjust conditions of agricultural workers, the non-implementation of agrarian land reform, the ejections of urban poor communities and the expanding atrocities committed against Moro and Lumad peoples. When major events were celebrated – the martial rule anniversary, the Human Rights Day on Dec. 10, Independence Day and the like – there were all kinds of indoor and outdoor activities organized.

The more that we documented human rights violations, the more intense our collective response became and our numbers continued to grow. At first the conscientization and organization thrusts involved mainly the basic sectors, but in time the movement to organize students, teachers, lawyers, media people, medical personnel and the middle class households also expanded. This led to the eruption of cultural protest actions from mounting plays to concerts. I returned to my theatre work and organized a theatre group to mount radical plays as we collaborated with the Philippine Educational Theatre Association (PETA).

I was forced to take on a high profile, as I spoke at these rallies and conferences. I was also invited to attend sessions at the United Nations in New York and Congressional committees in Washington as well as went around Asia, Europe, Australia to give talks on the human rights situations in the Philippines to groups ranging from Amnesty International to Justice and Peace groups.  I also travelled to Central and South America to have an idea as to how they were dealing with the massive human rights violations. Those of us with this kind of tasks knew we were being monitored by the State’s intelligence agents and knew the risks involved. But we continued to hope that our social and symbolic capital would keep us safe. But as it turned out, eventually we, too, fell into the military’s arms.

One day in March 1983, I was going to pass on documents of human rights violations to a German Lutheran Pastor who was leaving within the week back to Germany, and through him the documents would find its way to the Human Rights groups. This was the period when we had no social media, and one could not trust the post office, so the only way we could send reports abroad were through friends who came for exposure trips. Unknown to me, the German pastor was tailed by the military to the apartment where he stayed, and there along with those living there, were all arrested, tortured and kept in isolation. One of the women in the group was gang-raped.

Caught with the documents, the military could now charge me with possession of subversive materials and subversion.  They also raided our office and planted arms, so I could be charged with possession of weapons. I was airlifted immediately to Manila where I faced the notorious General Galileo Kintanar and kept incommunicado for a week at Camp Bago Bantay. As they could not pin me down, and with the late Sen. Jose Diokno and Sr. Marianni Dimaranan filing a habeas corpus case with the Supreme Court, the military had no choice but surface me. But I was still incarcerated for 22 months until the courts cleared me and Marcos had no choice but sign my release papers, just before EDSA took place.

So just how many of us got victimized by the Marcos martial rule? Data from TFD and human rights monitoring groups estimated that 3,257 were victims of extra-juicial killings, 35,000 cases of tortures, 77 disappeared and 70,000 got incarcerated. Of the 3,257 murder victims, an estimated 2,520 were tortured and mutilated before their bodies were dumped in various places

Naturally when the Marcos regime collapsed and in the aftermath of the EDSA revolution, many of us were desperately hoping that a transitional justice system would take into effect, given the popularity of Mrs. Cory Aquino, whose own family also got victimized. Emerging from the period of conflict and repression, there were high hopes that the massive and systematic human rights abuses committed by the Marcoses – from the dictator and his cronies and top military generals down to the lowest-ranking CHDF – could be made accountable for their abuses and the victims provided redress.

Unfortunately, despite some initial attempts of the Aquino administration, a transitional justice system never got off the ground. Thanks to the efforts of Atty. Robert Swift and the likes of Etta Rosales, there was compensation to human rights victims, but not all victims got their share. Later during Congress also made a delayed response and also passed a law providing compensation and this time more were able to benefit, but by the time the funds were released some could not be located or have died already. Through the years, the post-EDSA governments never managed to pin down the abusers and make sure they spend time in prison. And recently the Marcoses have won many of the litigations that were filed in court to recover the wealth they stole from the country’s coffers.

And to our horror, on 23 May 2017, we in Mindanao were subjected again to another declaration of martial rule which lasted for almost three years, being lifted only by 31 December, 2019. Before President Duterte formally signed the martial law papers, there were talks already that martial rule was going to be imposed not just in Mindanao but the whole country. Our reaction naturally was – Oh no, not again!  The Dutertards were quick in justifying this martial rule because of the dangers of terrorism as well as claiming it will not repeat the Marcos record of massive human rights violations. But given the number of EJKs  (extrajudicial killings) that took place owing to Duterte’s drug war – which is much higher than the statistics of victims under the Marcos regime – and the fact that until today no one really knows how many people died during the Marawi siege, as well as the assassinations of Lumad leaders, peasant leaders and human rights advocates, one cannot just claim that Duterte’s martial law is OK.

But why has my generation experienced martial law twice in our lifetime? Because we as a people have not really learned the lessons of history and we have failed to make sure that those in power can be accountable to make sure transitional justice takes place every time we are faced with a crisis that threatens our democratic processes, and God-given human rights.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and until recently, a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Manobo Dreams in Arakan: A People’s Struggle to Keep Their Homeland” which won the National Book Award for social science category in 2012,  “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw)  Gaspar is a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents]

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