SAN FRANCISCO — You’ve been hearing a lot about the date – September 21, 1972 — and the event — the day martial law was imposed on our country, the day the Marcos dictatorship was born.
That was 40 years ago.
This may not mean much to you who grew up after the nightmare finally ended, after Filipinos rallied to oust one of the most despicable leaders in world history.
You’ve probably heard about him. If you travel north, you might even see his corpse in a glass case. You might also see remnants of a giant bust carved on the side of a mountain.
You know how shameless Filipino politicians show off by putting up big posters with their photos in public places? Well, try to imagine living under a leader who actually thought that he was so great he should have his face carved on a gigantic rock for all to see.
Think about it.
Someone blew up that bust many years ago — which is really a shame. It was hideous, but still, it could have served as a reminder of what we went through. What your parents and grandparents went through under Ferdinand Marcos.
You probably heard about the debates on whether he should be buried with our other heroes at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. You probably heard his son, now a senator, defending his record, claiming that had Marcos not been overthrown, the country would have turned into another Singapore.
It’s a bizarre claim. And I never get tired of pointing this out: Bongbong is essentially arguing that the Philippines would have become another Singapore, known as one of the least corrupt nations in the world, under a president considered one of the most corrupt leaders in history. (Google “most corrupt leaders” and you’ll understand why Bongbong is bonkers.)
You’ve probably also heard the dictator’s supporters remember those years as the good ‘ol days. The country was more peaceful, and people were happier, they’d say.
You know what, in some ways, they were right.
I was eight years old when martial law was declared, and I remember being so happy that day. Classes were suspended, and there was nothing to watch on TV but cartoons.
Our neighbors and even my parents were glad to see an end to the student demonstrations. People were lining up to ride a jeepney. To some, it certainly looked like an entirely different country.
And it was.
But these were not the changes that most people, especially the middle class, thought were actually taking place.
For in those early months and years, middle class and upper class families welcomed Marcos’s version of “peace and order,” the orderly queues and the empty streets where activists once voiced their opposition to corruption and injustice. But behind the scenes, unknown to many, the stealing, the torture, the killing had begun.
It had grown quiet all of sudden, because those who had the guts to speak out had been silenced. Imprisoned. Tortured. Co-opted. Murdered.
Actually, back then, the term Marcos’s goons used was “salvage.” Yes, salvage, as in “to save” or “to rescue.” For that was how Marcos and his allies imposed “peace and order.” They saved the regime’s critics and opponents – by killing them.
Later on, even the phrase “peace and order” morphed into a sick joke. My father enjoyed telling it.
“Peace and order? Ah, that actually means, ‘I want a piece of this. I want a piece of that. And that’s an order.’”
Remember that the next time you hear of Imelda’s jewels or shoes, of news about some mansion or bank account linked to the Marcoses.
Then there’s the argument that goes like this: ‘What was the point of getting rid of Marcos? Look at how there’s still so much corruption and injustice in Philippine society after all these years.’
But one thing you need to remember, and perhaps we need to remind ourselves about this too, those of us who joined the uprising to get rid of Marcos — We didn’t march thinking we would suddenly live in paradise. We didn’t face riot police and the security forces thinking that the country’s problems– the corruption, the poverty, the abuse of power — would suddenly disappear.
We joined the fight to get rid of a tyrant. And guess what – we won. And you won.
I know it’s hard to believe, especially given all the news of corruption and abuse and of people dying and disappearing.
But trust me: it was much, much worse back then. It was a much scarier, more violent time, when even the mildest criticism of government, of Marcos, of Imelda, could land you in jail or even get you killed.
Look at it this way. Some of you don’t like the current president. And you probably even joined the fad of Noynoying, making fun of the guy, calling him all sorts of names. You know what would have happened to you if you had tried a stunt like that during the Marcos years?
Marcos’s allies want you to forget that. They want you to see the long struggle against dictatorship, and the uprising that finally brought it down as wasted effort.
Which is really an absurd view if you think about it. It’s like telling our heroes and those who waged past struggles in our history that everything that happened, everything they did was a waste.
It’s like telling Jose Rizal, “You know those novels and essays and poems you wrote, including that last one you composed shortly before you were shot to death by the Spaniards, all that was a waste of time. For look at how messed up the country is right now.”
It’s like telling my own father, “Papa, joining the guerrillas was a stupid idea, given how the country whose freedom you defended against the Japanese has turned out.”
Fighting Marcos was worth it. For we took on a bully and we won.
This is not to downplay or dismiss the problems the country faces today.
And you should speak out about them. You should complain and protest. You should demand that things should be better, and you should go out there to try to make them better. It is perfectly all right for you to march, to picket and even to go Noynoying.
Just don’t believe those who say it was much better before.
You’ll hear it from Marcos’s old allies.
You’ll hear it from those who simply don’t like democracy, who find it inconvenient because it keeps them from acquiring more wealth and more power.
You’ll hear from those who just can’t stand ideas they don’t agree with, who arrogantly think they have all the answers and must therefore have all the power.
They’ll present themselves as the nation’s saviors based on twisted claims. Some would point to their military discipline and experience. Others would claim to have the correct political line base on historical truths. Some would claim to have god on their side.
Don’t trust the liars and the bullies. Democracy can be messy and chaotic. But the alternatives are even messier. They create a false, deceptive sense of “peace and order.”
Like the cartoon shows I watched the day Marcos’s dictatorship began its reign of destruction.
On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel