The Worst And Best Times For Democracy

by Benjie Oliveros


Forty years ago, Ferdinand E. Marcos launched a successful rightist coup and declared himself as president for life, arrested all those opposed to his rule from the traditional opposition to those identified with the Left and even ordinary students, workers, the urban poor, peasants, professionals, church people, among others who, in one way or another, were connected to progressive organizations or were simply photographed attending rallies in an attempt to silence them; totally disregarded the Bill of Rights; banned mass protest actions including rallies and strikes; declared as illegal all progressive organizations; padlocked media agencies; closed Congress; and declared martial rule. He also sequestered the properties and ownerships of his political enemies. It was the worst time for democracy and yet, it was the only way he could hold on to power in the context of a worsening economic, social, and political crisis.

Marcos ruled by decree for 14 years and violated human rights with impunity. He cornered all big government contracts and monopolized strategic industries. At the same time, he acceded to the demands of the IMF-WB by offering a lot of incentives for foreign investments and establishing export processing zones, incurring loans for infrastructure projects, rescinding the fixed exchange rate regime in favor of the floating rate in setting the value of the peso; liberalizing imports, among others. He allowed the use of the US Military Bases for the US’s war of aggression against Vietnam and North Korea.

The Filipino people sank deeper and deeper into poverty not only because of the large-scale corruption of the Marcos family but more important was the regime’s continuing obedience to the dictates of the US and the IMF-WB. This became more pronounced after the debt crisis of the early 80s, which also resulted in the intensification of the anti-dictatorship movement that had been brewing since the mid-70s onwards.

From strikes in a few, small companies to bigger strikes in many companies; from the formation of sectoral organizations to the launching of big alliance formations; from lightning rallies to big mobilizations; from small armed skirmishes to big battles.

The chilling effect of Marcos’s iron fist rule lasted for only two years, as progressives were able to rebuild organizations amid the worsening crisis. No matter how the Marcos fascist dictatorship tried to quell the brewing mass movement by violent attacks on strikes and rallies, massive arrests and detention, torture, enforced disappearances, salvagings (a euphemism for extrajudicial killings), forcible displacement and hamletting of communities, it could not stem the rising tide of the broad anti-dictatorship movement. The alternative press also flourished amid threats of raids and closure.

In this sense, it was also the best times for democracy as workers launched strikes to fight for their rights and benefits, students declared a boycott of classes to push for their democratic rights, the urban poor erected barricades to resist demolition, peasants converged in town plazas as part of their struggle for land reform and the people poured out into the streets to have their voices heard, to fight for their rights, and to challenge the dictatorship, despite knowing fully well that these protest actions would be met by violent dispersal by the security forces of the Marcos dictatorship.

By the time the Marcos dictatorship was about to end, the Filipino people had their own alternative, independent media outlets, the students had their councils and organizations, the workers had their unions and were able to boldly launch strikes, the urban poor and the peasants had their organizations, the people were able to conduct rallies and other forms of protest actions. Even political detainees had their organization and forms of protest. All of these were the products of the people’s struggles.

Thus, when the Marcos dictatorship was ousted and Cory Aquino took over the reins of government, all she had to do was to formally recognize these rights, release political prisoners, and allow the traditional political parties to exist and compete in elections for local and national posts, as well as for positions in Congress.

Essentially, it is not Cory Aquino who restored democratic rights, it is the people who fought for it. The elections and Congress her administration restored did not really benefit the people but the elite in power.

However, human rights violations did not stop. In fact, extrajudicial killings of political activists continued and the Cory Aquino administration registered the highest number of enforced disappearances in the country’s history. The Cory Aquino administration was also criticized locally and internationally because of the proliferation of paramilitary and vigilante groups resulting in brazen rights violations and forced evacuations of communities.

These violations continued within the context of the Aquino administration pursuing the same neoliberal economic program being implemented by the Marcos dictatorship, and the failure of the Aquino administration’s land reform program.

This would also explain why human rights violations continue up to the present and why the succeeding administrations after Martial Law, instead of working to expand the enjoyment of the people of their rights, have been trying to constrict it, such as the “no permit, no rally” rule, the assumption of jurisdiction of strikes by the labor department, the filing of trumped up, absurd cases against leaders of people’s organizations and political activist, the justification of warrantless arrests, the harassments and other rights violations, the hamletting of peasant communities, among others.

This also shows the need for the people to continue defending their rights and fighting for genuine freedom and democracy.

Martial Law may have been ousted 26 years ago. But the economic, social, and political crisis that gave rise to it is continuing and even getting worse. This is why some have the mistaken notion that times were better under Martial Law as prices of basic commodities and services were lower then. The fact that prices have skyrocketed since then and consequently, poverty has worsened, do not prove that we were better off under the Marcos dictatorship; it is an indication that while the form of rule may have changed, the essential programs, policies, and laws that are engendering the crisis remain the same, regardless of who has taken over the reins of government up to now.

Leave a Comment