*(n); an occurrence repeated so many times that it becomes normal

It was the late ‘70s. Youth groups from the Gregorio Araneta University Foundation were holding discussions about the ongoing dictatorship under Martial Law. The meeting was held in secret. It was strictly prohibited by the government to talk ill about the president or the administration.

One of the participants was Abet. A transfer student from Adamson, he was slowly learning about the world of activism. During his early college days, he had seen rallies and blockades which, in hindsight, he did not initially understand. With media outlets nothing more than propaganda machines of the state, it was difficult for him, or almost any Filipino, to learn about the grave human rights abuses that were happening if not for the discussions. The only other way was to experience the cruelties firsthand from the police.

As they discussed, members of the Metrocom arrived. The group, in panic, dispersed and ran away. Unfortunately, not all escaped.

The roundup was nothing short of normal. It was a well-known fact that dissent was not allowed in any corner of the archipelago. Any hint of criticism or opposition was sanctioned heavily. During the Martial Law era, some 92,607 were arrested due to violation of public order, 5,531 were tortured, 2,537 were summarily executed, and 783 were never found or heard from again. These numbers, the bare minimum of known human rights violations, were recorded in 1986. Deaths and disappearances, no matter how tragic, were normalized.

The government took on an exponential amount of debt in a very short amount of time—around $16 billion within a span of just five years—on the premise of booming infrastructure. Indeed, the government built, built, built buildings still in use today, including the CCP Complex, the Philippine Heart Center, the San Juanico Bridge, among others. However, the cost of the country’s external debt was grossly unsustainable.

Unemployment became widespread, reaching 12.6 % in 1985. The inflation rate also grew a whopping 23.2% in the same year. More Filipinos were trapped in a web of poverty as social services became inaccessible, as the prices of basic commodities spiked. The gap between the rich and the poor skyrocketed, setting down a story of royal families ruling over peasants. This meant thousands of homeless children running down the streets barefooted while the halls of the Malacañang Palace were decorated with imeldific bakyas.

Abet, for one, was forced to drop out of college in order to work and make a living.

“Nalaman kasi sa bahay ang involvement ko sa aktibismo, (The people at home learned about my involvement with activism)” says Abet. “Pero alam ko, alibi na lang iyon, kapos na rin talaga sa badyet ang tiyuhin kong nagpapaaral sa akin.” (But I know that this was just an alibi. My uncle who sent me to school was really short on budget at that time.)

He ended up working as an organizer for a nongovernment organization until he became an employee of the Philippine General Hospital. Even then, he felt the intensifying economic difficulties faced by Filipinos.

“Yung 1978 at mga sumunod na taon, madalas na isyu ang pagtaas ng presyo ng langis at tuition, (In 1978 and the years thereafter, there was the recurring issue of oil price hikes as well as tuition fee hikes)” he said.

There were things that thousands of Filipinos, including Abet, wanted to change during that era: curfew, corruption, cronyism, and many more. As dissent was suppressed, Filipinos grew creative in their protest. The mosquito press became an institution. A new underground movement became stronger. In 1986, the series of struggles materialized and mainstreamed along Epifanio Delos Santos Avenue (EDSA). The dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, was ousted. Democracy was supposedly restored.

Two years after that, under the administration of President Corazon Aquino, Abet was arrested in St. Agnes Hospital, Quezon City, along with Rolando Dural and Renato Villanueva. He was charged with subversion and was kept by state elements for days. He recalled being tortured and coming close to being one of the disappeared.

In 1991, his petition for habeas corpus, and a case filed for violation of his right against warrantless arrest, were denied. His case became an infamous precedent in Philippine jurisprudence, known as Umil vs. Ramos, involving former President Fidel V. Ramos himself.

Martial Law embedded in history the names of many Filipino martyrs and heroes in the likes of Lorena Barros, Rizalina Ilagan, Ditto Sarmiento, Jr., Dr. Juan Escandor, and Eman Lacaba, even survivors like Judy Taguiwalo and Etta Rosales. The call for justice, made in behalf of all those fallen or lost, was an EDSA 1 promise, along with the call for stable institutions, for the end of corruption, and for the eradication of poverty. Sadly, making such promises seemed no more than an election campaign stunt heard every three years.

To many Filipinos, not much have changed. The story never ended, starting instead over and over.

In 2006, two female leaders were abducted by military elements in Hagonoy, Bulacan. They are Karen Empeño and a pregnant Sherlyn Cadapan, both UP students, whose fates and whereabouts are still unknown. According to an eyewitness, the two women faced unimaginable torture, including being tied upside down and suffering wooden jabs to their genitalia. The mastermind for their abduction, Ret. Gen. Jovito Palparan, was convicted of kidnapping and serious illegal detention charges by the Malolos regional trial court earlier this week.

In 2015, three community leaders in Lianga, Surigao del Sur were shot to death by paramilitary elements. Indigenous Peoples (IPs) comprising the community were continuously branded as rebels and anti-government forces. Their schools were burned down for being alleged recruitment grounds for the New People’s Army. Forced to fend for themselves due to lack of infrastructural and economic support, the IPs remained landless and without access to proper education and healthcare.

In 2017, teenager Kian Loyd delos Santos was closing down his family’s store when members of the Caloocan City police beat him down, dragged him, and blindfolded him. He was shot twice in the head. Before he was killed, Kian pleaded for his life, saying he still had an exam the next day. After his autopsy, his paraffin test came back negative and it was discovered he was not even on the police watchlist. The police officers initially sacked for his death were recently promoted in the Philippine National Police.

In 2018, inflation rate reached 6.4 %—the highest recorded in recent years, mimicking the spike during the ‘70s and ‘80s when the country was under military rule. Taxes on petroleum products and food skyrocketed, following the passage of the TRAIN Law. Dissenting forces like Sen. Antonio Trillanes and Sen. Leila Delima were ordered put behind bars. A US-backed airstrike displacing thousands of Moro families—this went unreported. Seven Tausug youths killed by the military in Sulu—barely reported. Meanwhile, politicians vomited out of power steadily returned.

Dictatorship has no face. It is a web that shrouds the powerless and less powerful. It acts in a way that will serve its interests. It is a seductive whisper that makes people believe victory is at hand. Dictatorship may be hidden behind democracy, behind a change of color, a change in hand signs, or a change of politicians. Dictatorship is not just an administration; it is a system.
To topple down a system, two things, among others, are vital: collective consciousness and mass action—these are the same topics taught in the discussions held by the youth during the ‘70s.

Until we learn that we are oppressed—until we learn to stand alongside multitudes of people far more oppressed than we are—no EDSA People Power will topple down tyranny and no election will end dictatorship. What is needed is not a change in administration, but a change in the system. Without it, any change will only be a mark of the start of a well-told cliché.

(This article was originally published in the Philippine Collegian Special Martial Law issue, 21 September 2018)


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