Living dangerously as an activist during martial law


MANILA — The year was 1976. The veil of fear created by the shock therapy of Ferdinand E. Marcos called Martial Law was wearing thin in urban areas.

Earlier in the countryside, the Moro National Liberation Front and the relatively newly-organized New People’s Army were undaunted as they presented an armed challenge against the dictatorship.

However, among ordinary Filipinos in cities, urban centers, and surrounding areas, the declaration of Martial Law did create a climate of shock and fear. This was precipitated by the strict implementation of martial rule: rallies, political gatherings, and workers’ strikes were banned; progressive organizations were declared as illegal; media agencies were padlocked; Congress was abolished; and thousands were arrested on mere suspicion of being linked with the traditional opposition or the Left. Anyone caught violating curfew was made to pull out weeds at the center island along Edsa; young men sporting long hair were stopped by Metrocom forces and their hair forcibly cut. There were talks that two or more persons gathering together were being arrested. Marcos had the execution by firing squad of suspected drug dealer Lim Seng broadcasted in national television.

Grade school and high school students were made to sing the theme song of Martial Law Bagong Lipunan every morning after the national anthem. The slogan “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan” (For the nation to progress, there must be discipline.) was all over the airwaves. So much so that there was a rumor, which was never confirmed, that popular TV host Ariel Ureta who made fun of Marcos’s slogan over national television by saying “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, bisikleta ang kailangan” was made to ride a bike around the headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary Metropolitan Command in Camp Crame the whole day.

I was just a first year high school student when Martial law was declared so my only beef with it was that all my favorite TV programs were cancelled and that we had to cut short our parties before 12 midnight if we had no intention of pulling out weeds under the heat of the sun along Edsa. I followed my parents’ advice to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” against the Marcos dictatorship.

But when I was about to enter UP in 1976, the situation was fast developing. Two years earlier, a series of workers’ protest actions and strikes, especially in a number of textile and garments factories, such as at Lirag Textiles, Gentex and Gelmart, defied the ban on unions and collective action. These culminated in the La Tondeña strike of 1975. The workers and their supporters from the church, priests and nuns, workers from other factories, and professionals openly and successfully challenged the Martial Law regime. Also the urban poor from the largest informal settlers community in Manila were organizing themselves as the Zone One Tondo Organization. The batilyos or fish port workers of Navotas were beginning the resistance against the “modernization” of the fish port.

The summer before I entered UP, I was already swept by the tide of the brewing student activism. My older brother, who was already a UP student then, invited me to join the Operasyon Tulong relief operations for Typhoon Didang victims. It was an eye opener for me. It was the first time that I saw first hand the poverty in large urban poor communities. To make matters worse, urban poor communities were not only fenced off – to project Metro Manila according to Imelda Marcos’s concept of the “true, good, and the beautiful” – they were garrisoned. Whenever we intended to conduct relief operations in urban poor communities, we followed protocol and asked permission from barangay officials. There were times when we were rejected simply because we came from UP and barangay officials told us that they do not want activists entering their communities.

Also, because the UP Board of Regents was meeting at that time, we held pickets at their doors to press for a student representative to the Board of Regent, the formation of a student council, and for the democratization in the process of selecting the editorial board of the Philippine Collegian, the campus newspaper.

I entered the university without any time for the usual adjustments of a new student. I immediately joined the theater group UP Repertory Company, which was then being mentored by progressive director Behn Cervantes. Coming from my carefree days as a high school student, I was surprised at the ferment among the student population at that time. Cultural groups, regional organizations of students – organizations of students from Central Luzon, the Bicol region, the Visayas and Mindanao – majority of fraternities and sororities, and a number of academic organizations were beginning to hold mass actions for student democratic rights: for a student representative to the Board of Regent, the formation of a student council, and for democratization in the process of selecting the editorial board of the Philippine Collegian, the campus newspaper, as well as for the improvement of laboratory and student dormitory facilities, for an adequate supply of water (Students living in dormitories used to have a contest as to who could take a bath with the smallest amount of water; the winner was able to take a bath with one tabo or dipper of water), cleanliness of toilets, among others. The gatherings cum protest actions, at the lobby of Palma Hall, which was the seat of the College of Arts and Sciences then, eventually turned into a boycott of classes and marches within the building. Soon, we were marching around the university.

Progressive songs, plays, and art works flourished. The dula-tula, the precursor of street plays, was invented. We performed about the problems of the Filipino people in Ang Kagilagilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Juan de la Cruz, UP students Iskolar ng Bayan, and workers Juan Obrero. Progressive one-act and three-act plays calling for collective action on the issues confronting the Filipino people blossomed.

The formation of the League of Filipino Students (LFS) as an alliance of progressive student organizations facilitated the reach of student activism to other universities, especially within the university belt in Manila. However, student activism was not confined within the walls of universities and did not only revolve around student democratic rights. Students realized that the university is just a microcosm of Philippine society. Protest actions outside the university began with lightning rallies.

In one of the first lightning rallies, we inconspicuously gathered along Azcarraga avenue, now Recto, near Maxim theater, which no longer exists now. The signal to converge was a clap with the chant “Marcos, Hitler, diktador, tuta!” (Marcos, Hitler, dictator, puppet of the US). This was accompanied by the distribution of materials condemning Martial law. When policemen came to arrest us, we mixed with the crowd of onlookers. But one of our companions ran inside Maxim theater. So policemen stopped the viewing of the movie, ordered the lights to be turned on and arrested him. We also held lightning rallies along Avenida by mixing with the crowd of pedestrians while shouting slogans of “Marcos, Hitler, diktador, tuta,” “Sahod itaas, presyo ibaba” (Raise wages, bring prices down), “Martial Law ibagsak” (Down with Martial Law”, “Sagot sa Martial law, Digmaang Bayan” (Our response to Martial Law, People’s War), “Imperyalismo ibagsak, Pyudalismo ibagsak, Burukratang kapitalismo ibagsak!” (Down with imperialism, feudalism, bureaucrat capitalism).

When the protest actions of students from different universities, workers, and the urban poor swelled, the lightning rallies developed into big mass actions, which played hide and seek and eventually see-saw battles with the Metrocom. We were able to hold marches around the university, then after the protest action inside the university, we went straight into buses to the site of the multisectoral mass action.

One of the first big rallies was held at Plaza Miranda. The plaza was jam-packed with protesters. When the speakers began shouting “Mendiola, Mendiola” (to Mendiola bridge) and we stood up, the Metrocom started closing in and attacking us with truncheons. We were surrounded so we had to run through the pedestrian overpass.

Rallies soon developed into see-saw battles with the Metrocom along Avenida, then Lawton, and eventually Mendiola.

In one of the first big mass actions along Avenida, in 1977, the Metrocom attacked us as soon as we began to gather. We ran inside the Sta. Cruz church. The Metrocom sent jeeps mounted with machineguns to patrol around the church and fire their guns to scare us away. We filed out of the church in small groups then converged again and marched along Avenida. The Metrocom attacked us with truncheons and fired warning shots. We clashed with the Metrocom using the poles of our placards and when we retreated and were pursued lobbed pillbox and Molotov bombs at them. This sent the Metrocom retreating so again we marched then they attacked again. When they sent a fire truck, youth from the workers and communities threw eggs injected with black paint at the windshield of the fire trucks to obstruct their view. They continued hosing us down with dyed water even if the fire truck was no longer able to pursue us. The Metrocom pursued us on foot while we converged in different areas then marched again. This went on for hours until we decided to disperse. After we dispersed, they arrested anyone whose shirt was tinted with the dye used by the fire trucks.

In between these street protest actions, we held distributions of materials, and painting of slogans against Martial Law along the main streets of the metropolis. Within the university, we continued with the boycotts and marches, performed plays, worked to expand the membership of student organizations, and held dialogues with university officials. On top of these, we also had to make sure that we studied and attended enough classes so that we would not get kicked out. The no ID, no entry rule was being strictly enforced then so being kicked out meant not being able to enter the university.

The Marcos dictatorship responded to the growth of the anti-dictatorship movement with more repression. Salvagings (a euphemism for extrajudicial killings), torture, arrests and detention, and enforced disappearances were committed with more frequency. Every single day in the life of an activist then carried with it the threat of being arrested, salvaged, or forcibly abducted. Attending rallies meant taking the risk of being arrested and hurt in the battles with the Metrocom. Whenever we attended rallies, we had extra shirts wrapped in plastic and tucked inside our pants so that if our shirt was tinted with the water from the fire trucks, we could change and evade arrest. We also brought a toothbrush and toothpaste just in case we had to spend the night in jail. And we had unwritten rules: never leave your buddy, never run inside enclosed establishments, always be alert and aware of your surrounding and tighten your ranks.

When the protest actions intensified, mass arrests were done before rallies in the hope of preempting it. Whenever the Marcos dictatorship got wind of a planned big protest action, the Metrocom became busy conducting zoning operations and arresting people in urban poor communities and doing mass arrests of student leaders. Arresting units waited for targeted students to enter their classes or they knocked on their doors at night to arrest them. A week before a scheduled big protest action, I chanced upon the chairman of LFS eating fish balls near the university library. I joined him and, while eating fishballs, whispered to him if he was aware of rumors of an impending wave of arrests. He replied that he had heard of it but no arrests had been made yet among his colleagues in LFS. After a few days, we were both arrested.

But the waves of arrests and increasing human rights violations did not deter the mass movement from growing and the protest actions from intensifying. The last years of the Marcos dictatorship from 1981, when he declared the sham lifting of Martial Law, to 1985, saw the peak of human rights violations. But it was too late for the dictatorship. By the time the Marcos dictatorship was ousted, the Filipino people were already enjoying their rights of free speech, assembly and the freedom to organize and take action, not through a decree of Marcos but through assertion and years of struggle. It was also the time when the Filipino people were highly politicized and, after the assassination of Marcos rival Benigno Aquino Jr. in 1983, the anti-dictatorship movement, which was, at the beginning, participated in only by political activists and the basic masses, has expanded to include a broad array of sectors, including the middle class. And the rest is history.

But wait, the Marcos dictatorship did not end with “And the Filipino people lived happily ever after.” Forty years after Martial Law, the issues and problems that oppressed the people then still haunt us up to this time. (

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