Creeping Amnesia

by Juan L. Mercado

Today is the 41st anniversary of the imposition of martial law. There were 22 Manila-based journalists arrested by military teams that shoved “assos” into our faces. “What’s an ‘asso?’” asked our grandson, a University of California Irvine freshman.

Few remember the “arrest and seizure orders” issued under Ferdinand Marcos’ rule-by-bayonet. “Journalists must remind people of what they prefer to forget,” columnist Simeon Dumdum wrote in “Speak Memory.”

“Soldiers are here, asking for you,” then National Press Club president Eddie Monteclaro said over the phone. “OK if I give them your address?” Gifted with backbone, Monteclaro later lodged a habeas corpus petition (GR No. 36142) for arrested journalists. “Sure, Ed. I’m not going on the lam,” we told him.

Honolulu Star Bulletin’s Carl Zimmerman hitched a ride in the car that ferried us to Camp Crame. “Here it is, Carl,” we said on being shown the order. “We’re being nailed under something called Proclamation 1081.” The colonel snatched it and bristled: “Foreign correspondent? You are not allowed to see this.”

What cuts is detention’s open-ended nature. It is harder on families. A lawyer, my daughter now lives in California with her physician-husband and two kids. She remembers the late Fr. James Reuter. The Jesuit waited until her St. Paul third grade class was dismissed. “Not everyone in prison is bad,” he reassured her. “Your father and other newsmen are not criminals.”

“Could all the journalists please follow me,” Col. Generoso Alejo told the detainees. “You have a visitor.” It was almost midnight, at the tail end of martial law’s first week. Outside, silence blanketed the streets emptied by the dusk-to-dawn curfew.

In the lower bunk, Evening News’ Luis Beltran groaned and rose. From the upper bed, I shimmied down. We followed Daily Mirror’s Amando Doronila, Philippine News Service’s Manuel Almario and Taliba’s Benny Esquivel. Ben David, Celso Carunungan and Luis Mauricio (now all deceased) preceded us into the barred reception room.

Our “midnight visitor” turned out to be our jailor, the then PC commander Gen. Fidel V. Ramos. “Nothing personal, gentlemen,” he said after amenities. “I was ordered to neutralize you. Please cooperate. We’ll try to make things easier for you.”

Have we cooperated by forgetting? “The brain has corridors surpassing material place,” Emily Dickinson wrote.

We recall the first—and only—Mass the detainees were allowed to offer. An imprisoned SVD priest, Fr. Constante Floresca, officiated. “Don’t you feel offended for being arrested for illegal assembly?” his fellow detainees  joshed him. “Your Master was nabbed for subversion.”

Through gritted teeth, Amando Doronila read the gospel of his choice: “Those who take by the sword will perish by the sword.” Within an hour, the order came down: “Until further notice, Mass will not be permitted.”

Detention offered a window on how people react under pressure. Some crumble. A number withdraw into cocoons. Those locked gates burnish the steel in others.

Some mornings, women political detainees were allowed an hour to chat with us and detained Constitutional Convention delegates like Alejandro Lichauco. Among them were Haydee Yorac, Manila Times’ Roz Galang, and painter Veronica Yuyitung (wife of Chinese Commercial News editor Rizal Yuyitung, shanghaied by Marcos agents to a Taipei military jail). We’d swap stories—and smuggled foreign news clips.

After the dictatorship’s collapse, Yorac went on to win the Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service. Under her watch, the Presidential Commission on Good Government recovered a looted $683 million stashed in Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ Swiss bank accounts. She secured court decisions clobbering the notorious coconut levy. The same burnished steel showed in her work, from peace negotiator to elections commissioner.

“Yorac knows she will not complete the task herself,” the RM Foundation wrote before her death in September 2005. “Others will rise to it. No one is indispensable, she reminds us all. Making a difference is enough.”

Early evenings, detainees would swap jokes that dictatorships everywhere spawn. The late Graphic editor Luis Mauricio told about two Filipino dogs who lined up for US visas. “Martial law has been good to you,” the scrawny mutt tells the plump mongrel. “Why do you want to leave?” The reply: “I want to bark.” Was it Constitutional Convention delegate (and later Vice President) Teofisto Guingona who spun the yarn about a Pinoy who is taken ill while passing Imelda Marcos’ Film Center? As the Pinoy vomits, a passerby whispers into his ear: “Pare, I share your opinion.”

Editor Celso Carunungan  had us in stitches about martial law enforcer Juan Ponce Enrile buried to his waist in hell. He grouses because Ferdinand Marcos has fire lapping only at his feet. Marcos shushes Enrile: “I’m standing on Imelda’s shoulders.”

There’d be talk on what one planned to do when released. My wish was simple, I joked: “To write the arrest orders for the next government.”

Telling jokes against “Big Brother” are “tiny revolutions,” author George Orwell noted. “Political humor is a response to dictatorial regimes,” says University of Massachusetts’ Oriol Pi-Sunyer. The danger surges when the wisecracks are stomped out.

We recall walking out of detention with Free Press editor Teodoro Locsin Sr. He refused to publish under Marcos. What would this towering editor, who died in January 2000, have written about Ferdinand Jr.’s “joke” to run for president in 2016?


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