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Opinion

Remembering Martial Law—a Mindanao perspective


September 21 of each year remains a day of remembrance of the dark nights in Philippine history. Forty years ago, then President Ferdinand Marcos signed Proclamation 1081 declaring the entire Philippines to be under Martial Law. Though there were rumblings and rumors of the impeding imposition of Martial Law, the people and the entire nation were caught flat-footed when the said proclamation came to effect two days after, on September 23.    
Congress was padlocked; overnight the freest press in the entire Asia was muzzled into deaf silence; prominent oppositionists and media people were arrested; and the citizens lost their freedom and the constitutional guaranteed bill of rights. Marcos became the absolute power enjoying both executive and legislative powers. His proclamations, orders and decrees were classified as political matters outside the jurisdiction of the courts, including the Supreme Court.
 
In the Southern Philippines, particularly in Muslim Mindanao, Martial Law meant confiscation of all guns in the hands of non-Marcos partisans or supporters. The Armed Forces, then including the Philippine Constabulary-Integrated National Police, were given one clear order—establish the Martial Law rule and quell all oppositions no matter what the cost.
 
The young and still “green” peoples of the now Muslim Mindanao did NOT take the order of surrendering all firearms sitting down. The nation woke up a month after with an open rebellion in Moroland. In October 1972, the group that called themselves Ihlas attacked and occupied Marawi City. It ignited the war in the Southern Philippines. The conflict spread akin to a virulent virus to Sulu, Zamboanga Peninsula, Basilan, Cotabato Empire Province, and Lanao.
 
There are three prominent images of Martial Law years that remain indelible in my mind and psyche to this date.
 
The first is the military operations with NO HOLDS BARRED in terms of aerial bombardment; use of artillery shelling, mortars, tanks and armored personnel carrier or APC. A friend would always reminisce about her younger years in Jolo where in “the languid streets of Asturias and Scott, the military armored personnel carrier or amphibian tanks were a common sight. Their slow rolling movement also got them ‘baptized’ as kagang-kagang, or crabs. The tanks would prowl around town practically all day on almost every day, creating so much impact in the minds of children, that they had become associated with evacuation and death.” 
 
This same sight was true in many Cotabato towns where the noises and the earth tremors caused by the slow rolling APC not only disturbed the nights but also sowed terror in the hearts of the people. To civilians and rebels alike, the APCs, the artillery shelling, and the aerial bombardment were the visages of military rule and the dictatorship.
 
The second image that the Martial Law years continue to present to me is the massive displacement of peoples from the countryside to the cities of Cotabato and Zamboanga, in particular. The rise of the “campo Muslims” in both cities and the “displaced” in Sabah are “remnants” and silent testimony of that war havoc that haunts us to this time.
 
Then we began to understand the meaning of “total war.” The two cases in point were the complete destruction of the town of Jolo in February 1974 and this was followed a few months after by the complete burning of the municipality of Tumbao in Cotabato (the present day Kabuntalan). In both instances, people reported the use of a new incendiary bomb—napalm bomb.
 
The third image is the gruesome and ugly face of war “personified” by the wounded and the dead on both sides (military and non-military). The sight of casualties was overwhelming and would turn any strong stomach upside down. The times that I was called to the military camp in Awang to bless the dead prior to their “transport” home had become a single powerful argument against war. The sight of cadavers from 1972 to 1976 lined up as they were being dried after their embalmment revealed the ugly visage and cruelties of war.  
 
I can go on and on about my personal reminiscences and actual experiences of Martial Law years in Mindanao. There is no one that was left unscathed by the war and Martial Law. All of us on the ground sustained both physical and psychological traumas. They are “chips” that we continue to bear.
 
Many resort to simple forgetfulness believing that amnesia of the past would give some solace. Others continue to live in terror and bitterness that the mere sight of the military, either the AFP or liberation front, continues to give jitters and nightmares. 
 
Still others simply remember the years of ignominy and continue to tell and retell their stories of pain, displacement, the desaparacidos, and the dead. They echo the cry of the survivors of Martial Law in Latin America: ‘NUNCA MAS’! Never again, Martial Law!
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