Was Martial Law Ever Justified?

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

History is being revisited because it is election time and Bongbong Marcos is running. Revisiting history is good, but revising it is criminal.

A graduating student asked to interview me on a particular question: Did martial law have a good or bad impact on our country?

I was shocked that the question was even asked. In my mind, how can martial law be good for any country that believes in freedom and wants to live in freedom? But because the question was asked, not in a political debate but part of an academic exercise, it led me to realize just how warped our understanding of our martial law experience is today.Marcos-Martial Law

The good or bad that martial law can do to a democratic country is a question that is only subsequential to the more important issue – what for is martial law? The correct purpose of martial law justifies its imposition. If the purpose is according to the reasons anticipated by the Constitution, then martial law is not only an option to do good but a mandate, a necessity.

Marcos used several reasons to justify the proclamation of martial law, which means suspending civil rights and imposing military rule. He claimed there was the communist insurgency. He claimed there was a rebellion by Muslim forces seeking their own independence. He claimed there was unrest in the streets from militant activists. Because of these reasons, Marcos said imposing martial law was justified.

I think we have to flip the pages of history a little bit more. The communist insurgency was not a new thing in 1972, it had been there since the 1940’s. In fact, Ramon Magsaysay as Defense Secretary suppressed, then contained, it. He did not need martial law. He needed only the military to do their job, he needed only his charisma and integrity.

All the more the conflict with rebellious Muslim forces had been around – for centuries before 1972. Again, martial law was never declared to counter the rebellion or secessionist movement in Mindanao. Way after Marcos negotiated peace by asking for help from other Muslim nations, armed conflict in several areas of Mindanao persisted – yet no one calls for martial law.

If Marcos lived through the last three decades and witnessed daily life in the Philippines, he would have seen street protest after street protest in four presidencies. There has not only been unrest in the streets but even armed violence at times. No martial law asked or needed.

Despite the challenges in the countryside and the streets, there still seemed no justification for martial law. By as luck would have it for Marcos, and a painful curse on the Filipino nation, an assassination attempt was reported against Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile. The problem is that people then believed that the ambush was staged, and people still believe it today. The bigger problem is that when interviewed during the tense-filled days of February 1986, many heard Enrile admit the ambush was staged.

Where, then, was the justification for martial law? Because without the accepted reasons that could justify martial law, justify the suspension of civil rights and justify military rule, its imposition was a crime that became the predicate for a continuing series of crimes.

So, before even trying to answer whether martial law had a good or bad impact on our country, we must stay focused on the real cause for its imposition. If there was true justification, we can then move on and evaluate how martial law was handled or mishandled. If none, martial was both a ploy and an instrument to cover with some aura of legality more crimes that were already planned.

What was real was that Marcos had serious political problems, but that the problems were mostly his rather than the nation’s. Of course, as president, every response to his own problem with credibility and popularity used his position and the resources of government. By design, or by sheer ineptness, every Marcos response to the challenges confronting him aggravated his and the nation’s problems. But so many had said that Marcos was brilliant, ineptness seems improbable. What is easier to assume is that a brilliant mind built the veneer for a plausible martial law by deliberately aggravating his political problems.

We must not gloss over the issue of martial law, and it is not because Bongbong Marcos is running. Rather, it is because a complexity of challenges confronts us today despite the many advances in technology, politics, and economics in the last forty years.

The communist rebellion persists, except I am not sure if it is still communistic or has morphed to something else. The Muslim conflict is subdued but capable of erupting to a more massive and aggressive scale. Militant activism is still around and continues to keep recruiting in schools and the barangays. The drug trade has exploded to national proportions and could be more harmful in impact than armed rebellion. There is also China, hovering above our heads like the sword of Damocles. Most of all, there is us, many mired in poverty, weakened by factionalism, and enough political and commercial traitors who seek to profit by pitting us one against the other.
We wish for the best but plan for the worst. We have the ingredients that can cause explosions, or lead towards an implosion. Either way, martial law may become an option. If we are aware, any move towards it can be met with instant opposition and resistance, early enough to show the military where the people stand. But if we are confused about martial law, it can happen again because some of us are led to believe it can be good. Then, past lessons unlearned will become too painful not to learn well the second time around.

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