REMEMBERING MARTIAL LAW: With Mao in Marawi and other memories of Martial Law

Dewdrops tried to cling on to the grass blades that covered the golf course of Mindanao State University as the sun rose behind the Sleeping Lady Mountain. We sat on a boulder that lay half-buried near a pine tree, one of many that lined the middle part of the golf course. A few couples could be seen around, holding and embracing each other while viewing Lake Lanao and a portion of Marawi City that’s visible from that part of the campus.

I was holding a copy of Amado Guerrero’s Philippine Society and Revolution, a must read for activists and students of revolution. It could be mistaken as just another textbook. As a precaution, however, Stephen brought with him a copy of the New Testament. And whenever security guards or other people were within hearing distance I would close the PSR book and he would cite verses from the Gospel to make it appear that we’re having a Bible sharing not a pol-ed (political education) session.

This and other forms of creativity enabled us to somehow outsmart the prying eyes of the MSU administration and go on with organizing and political work in the campus despite the risks. Things were so risky indeed that we’d rejoice over each tiny “victory” like slipping underground manifestos into the rooms at the dormitories, getting editorial posts in student publications, dominating elections for college student councils, and recruiting dozens more to the anti-dictatorship front, students and teachers alike.

We scored a coup sometime in 1982 against the late Lanao del Sur governor Ali Dimaporo himself, who also served as MSU president aside from being an appointed member of the Batasang Pambansa, Marcos’ rubber stamp parliament.

Marcos had just appointed Dimaporo to a state council that would act as caretaker government in case the dictator died or became incapacitated to rule. Dimaporo organized a thanksgiving program and declared a holiday so that most students could attend the program in his honor. He was in for a big disappointment. On the eve of the program we distributed leaflets explaining his role as Marcos’ main man in Mindanao and urging students and employees alike to snub the thanksgiving event. The ploy worked; only a handful of high school students came to the program. Dimaporo fumed while our hearts jumped at the sight of the well-decorated but near-empty gymnasium that was named after him.

Growing disillusionment even in urban areas triggered by the assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. on August 21, 1983 made us more daring almost to the point of adventurism. Morale reached fever-pitch high as reports of bigger mass actions in various parts of the country filtered in through scant copies of newspapers and newsletters produced by cause-oriented groups. In an era where social media was still light years away, a page of a newspaper or magazine was as precious as a piece of bread inside the trash can to a scavenger. Obviously, though, reading Liberation and Ang Bayan was like eating cakes and chocolates.

Liberation is the official publication of the National Democratic Front and Ang Bayan, circulation of which was relatively restricted, is the internal paper of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

In plain sight

“Don’t let your studies interfere with your education” is an adage that all Martial Law era activists are familiar with. And we embraced it with the zeal of a missionary. In between classes we squeezed in studying Marx, Lenin and Mao, holding pol-ed sessions for comrades in the Kabataang Makabayan, and translating Party statements from English to Cebuano. The tasks multiplied after Aquino’s murder, as the movement thought it was high time to push the struggle to the “advanced sub-stage of the strategic defensive”.

Subsequently, security became lax as a result maybe of the enthusiasm and confidence created by growing opposition to the Marcos regime. We did not mind that our room in the dormitory had become marked for having become a venue of supposedly clandestine meetings, and for being the de facto depository for sensitive documents smuggled into the campus.

One time, the dorm manager entered our room and asked about our activities. His unexpected visit almost gave me goose bumps. For on top of the only table inside the room were several copies of newsletters on human rights abuses and a few copies of Liberation. Fortunately, there were copies too of Veritas and Who magazines, and he only picked and read an issue of Veritas and ignored the rest. Maybe he thought all those stuffs were legit since we didn’t bother to hide them. That taught me a lesson in how to hide something in plain sight.

That wasn’t the end. Weeks later, at about 8pm, a dozen security guards armed with Garand and Carbine rifles barged into our room looking for Danny, one of the more visible and vocal student leaders who by then had moved to Cagayan de Oro City to take on tasks that required him to go around Mindanao. Of course, we were frightened of what might happen next. Fortunately, their minds focused on getting Danny alone.

That experience taught us to be more careful with our moves. Aware that we’re being watched not just by the security guards but also by spies among the students, we minimized the holding of meetings and conversations. We started using coded knocks on doors and passwords before entering meeting venues. Important messages were relayed discreetly, such as writing them in small pieces of paper which were inserted in chewing gum wrappers (Juicy Fruit was an ally of the movement!) and passed on to the intended receivers. Sometimes the messenger would stand close to the receiver and slip the paper into the hand of the latter in an unobtrusive manner. It was best to deliver such messages in a crowded place.

Goodbye, Modesto

Life as an underground campus activist went on without incident for a while – until security guards caught Johnny in the act of pasting “IBM” posters on a building wall. IBM means “Ibagsak ang Batas Militar”. Afraid that Johnny could have named names, Danton, the youth cadre assigned to MSU took flight without bidding us goodbye. I opted to stay for a few weeks in the house of a Maranao friend in Marawi whose brother died as a mujahedeen of the Moro National Liberation Front. At the time, the NDF had an alliance with the MNLF.

I spent my forced vacation in Marawi proper reading volumes of Mao’s Selected Works and learning some tips on how to detect surveillance. It proved to be my last memory of the place as a student. After finishing the books I went to Pagadian for another underground assignment. Later, I was sent to Cagayan de Oro City to do “united front” and propaganda work with a legal job as my cover, rubbing elbows with politicians, local officials, lawyers, doctors and university professors.

From time to time, I’d get to see comrades from MSU. Some had taken jobs in private firm. Others pursued the same path I had taken. Sadly, one of them, Modesto, died in a raid in Iligan, on 25 February 1986, exactly the same day Marcos was ousted.

I learned of Modesto’s death about a week after, when I went to Iligan to visit some friends. They said he was dumped in a shallow grave, and his mother had to come all the way from Butuan City to claim his body. Modesto, he who always had a ready smile at the sight of a friend, was gone. Tears fell as I sat in the bus that would take me back to Cagayan de Oro, the cool afternoon wind trying to wipe away the wet marks of grief and pain.

(Andres Luna is the nom de guerre of a scholar in MSU-Marawi who joined the Kabataang Makabayan during Martial Law.)