Cover Story

Martial Law 40 years after


His provenance nurtured his politics that spanned six decades of the nation’s historic past.

Saturnino Cunanan Ocampo was born to a family of landless tenants in  Pampanga in Central Luzon, the cradle of agrarian unrest, a background that predisposed him to a life of political dissent.

He became a student activist in the 1950s, and co-founded the Maoist youth group Kabataang Makabayan while working as a business journalist in Manila in the mid-1960s.

When martial law was imposed in 1972, he dove underground and eluded military dragnets until his capture in 1976. One of the longest-held political prisoners, Ocampo escaped his guards while on a pass to vote at the National Press Club annual election in Intramuros, Manila in 1985.

Amid the euphoria of the Marcos downfall in 1986, he surfaced and served as spokesman of the leftist panel in peace talks with the Aquino administration. But the role proved short-lived.

In early 1987, the peace talks collapsed after soldiers fired at militant farmers camped at Mendiola Bridge near Malacañang. Ocampo went underground again and was arrested in 1989.  He was released in 1992. In May 2001, he won a seat in House of Representatives as a nominee of the partylist group Bayan Muna. He served three terms, championing the cause of farmers, fisherfolk, the urban poor and other marginalized sectors.

In 2010, he ran for the senate, and lost. No matter; Ocampo has proven through six decades that a heartfelt pro-people politics will always prosper whether one is in the august halls of Congress, or in a quaint barrio in the hills.

SIM: What was your political involvement when martial law (ML) was declared?

Satur Ocampo (SO):  I was a journalist-political activist involved with the Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties (MCCCL), organized and led by then Sen. Jose W. Diokno in response to the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in August 1971. In fact I was involved in the larger progressive protest movement that began in the mid-1960s.

SIM: Did you anticipate or expect Marcos to declare ML? How much did you know about ML before it was declared?

SO: We had generally anticipated that Marcos would declare martial law, as (follow up) to the writ suspension that spurred bigger protest actions.  The street slogan then was, “Sagot sa martial law, digmaang bayan (Response to martial law, people’s war)!”  Still, we didn’t expect he would do it that soon and in the manner he did—shutting down tri-media establishments and making arrests before formally proclaiming martial law.

SIM:  What was your first reaction and course of action?

SO: My wife (journalist Bobbie Malay) and I were already living in a semi-UG (underground) mode.  Thus we simply shifted to a full-UG mode.

SIM:   What do you think were Marcos’ motives or intentions when he declared ML? Was it justified?

SO: Marcos realized that he and his government were increasingly being isolated from the people, but he was determined to hold on to power at all cost.  Exploiting the presidency’s residual power under the Constitution to declare martial law, Marcos invoked as basis an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government between the Left and those he tagged as “oligarchs.”  There was no such conspiracy, so martial law was not justified.

Marcos coined the term “constitutional authoritarianism” to provide a mantle of legitimacy to the coup that he mounted against the government he headed.  But that could not cover up, much less justify, his naked grab and abusive use of absolute power. Neither did his mantra for reforms to build a “New Society” gain credibility among the people.  It proved to be a hoax.

SIM: What were your expectations?  Did reality conform to these expectations?

SO:  That people’s war would be the apt response to martial law proved to be true—and it actually began before 1972. But the armed revolutionary movement was not yet sufficiently strong to provide an immediate palpable response to the suppressive acts of the dictatorship. Neither the mass base nor the New People’s Army was prepared to absorb the thousands of young men and women who, soon after ML was imposed, trooped to the hills to carry on the resistance.

Nonetheless, succeeding developments have shown that the revolutionary armed struggle—at great cost in lives and physical freedom sacrificed by the best and brightest of a generation—contributed to the weakening of the Marcos dictatorship towards its eventual ouster by popular action in 1986. Inversely, the gross human rights violations, abuses and corruption perpetrated by the dictatorship contributed to the growth of the revolutionary forces and their mass support.

SIM:  How has ML affected you personally? Did it change your political path and beliefs?

SO:  Martial law affected me deeply.  It drew out of me the courage, daring and readiness to die for the people’s cause that I hadn’t imagined I had.  It reinforced my worldview and political beliefs; it taught me to be patient and to persevere in forging on the chosen path to achieve fundamental political, economic, and social change.

SIM: Some people say that ML was the best thing that happened to the Philippines. Others describe it as the darkest period in our history. Which is true, in your opinion?

SO:  ML was not good, much less “the best” thing to have happened to us.  Under the circumstances from which it arose and prevailed, it was definitively bad.  In fact, many of its negative impacts—in terms of policies and governing practices retained by successive administrations—continue to inflict harm on our people.  ML brought about one of the dark periods in our history.  But as earlier pointed out, its being bad also spawned a positive outcome: It spurred nationwide protest and resistance that led to the Marcos downfall.

SIM: How should history judge Marcos and ML?

SO:  I suppose my answer to the previous question can apply here, too.

SIM:  Do you have a favorite ML anecdote or story?

SO: When our batch of political prisoners that included Jose Ma. Sison, Bernabe Buscayno and Victor Corpus were presented to Marcos at Fort Bonifacio in 1977, I was the only one who smiled and waved to the journalists covering the event. Then when it was my turn to be presented and a military officer began citing my various aliases and background, Marcos interrupted him, saying: “Never mind, I know him!”

SIM: Any ML personality you can’t forget or forgive? Which ML figures do you most admire or detest?

SO: Marcos is the topmost ML personality I can’t forget and forgive.  And his widow and children, who are now public officials and who refuse to admit that the Marcos dictatorship committed, among other crimes, large-scale human rights violations, notwithstanding a US court judgment that it did. They would not even deign to do the least humane gesture: Apologize to the victims and to the people.

SIM: What have you told your children and grandchildren about ML?

SO:  My children are well aware of what, and how, ML was.  They shared my family’s woes during the more than nine years that I was held in military detention (I escaped in May 1985). They joined marches and rallies calling for the release of all political prisoners.

SIM:  If you were to describe ML to a high school student in a sentence or two, how would you do it?

SO:  A sentence or two would not sufficiently convey, on the one hand, the dreadful and detestable realities under ML: the physical and psychological brutalities, the public lies and deceptions, and the arrogant display of power and pelf amid the nation’s impoverishment; and on the other hand, the exciting adventures in the underground movement: the countless stories of courage, heroism and martyrdom;  of arrests, tortures, and escapes from prison, and of turning the drudgery of prison life into beneficial day-to-day activities under self-governance among the political detainees.

SIM: What is your biggest regret in relation to the ML years?

SO:  That I was not able to consistently document, in journals or diaries the situations and my corresponding views at every stage of my varied experiences under Marcos.

SIM: The young do not seem to have enough grounding on ML—why is that, and how do you propose to change this mindset?  What should be done so people don’t forget?

SO:  All the governments that succeeded the Marcos dictatorship have failed to ensure that the martial law period was correctly depicted in our history and social science textbooks. There should have been a course or subject on the ML years in the curriculum for elementary or high school students.

SIM: 40 years after, what have you learned from ML?

SO:  First, that ML must never be repeated; second, that all its bad laws, issued through presidential decrees and instructions by Marcos, should have been rendered void under the Cory government.

Unfortunately, that was not done. Quite a number of Marcos decrees were retained by Cory. Among these are decrees that provide a leeway for the security forces to violate human rights with impunity in undertaking military-police operations.

Another decree has become a huge economic burden on the people: PD 1177, which provides for automatic appropriation for the repayment of our foreign debts every year without passing through Congress. This has accounted for a large chunk of the national revenues going into debt repayment—depriving key social services like education, health, and housing of sufficient funds to provide the people’s needs—even as our debt stock has kept rising (it’s now $63 billion).

The 8th Congress approved a bill repealing PD 1177, but Cory vetoed it.  All subsequent similar bills, including mine in the 12th to 14th Congress, have been ignored by the House leadership. •

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  • Nelson2012

    I just want to clarify clearly what we have achieved after Marcos? – politicians and left leaning group still use Marcos to demonize their families and use as scapegoat that they are the source of our present economic stagnation/condition – they take advantage on the stupidity of our corruptible voters who will be bought during election time from P500 to P3000 while politicians manage to maintain on politics longer than Marcos itself. 

    Ignorant Pinoys still dreaming that this new political dynasties will put our nation back to were we belongs 30years ago. Political dynasties are now: Binay’s family, Angara, Daza from Northern Samar, Pimentil, Angara’s and many more – This political dynasties family are the one who keep on saying Marcos families are dynasties and thanks to media thru ABS-CBN and many more. Todays politicians from KB chairman, up to President are now mostly corrupt. Even now the respective PMAer are now corrupt and politicians who graduated from UP, Dela Salle, Ateneo could not be trusted trusted. During Marcos time, I was a KB chairman in Bobon Northern Samar –  we don’t have any salary (Only the KB President of each Town has allowance) but still we manage to create project (Street Post lighting by Kerosine or Lampara and Road fences from Kawayan) – this funds is thru solitization or donation from constituents and by undertaking week end dance competition or pasayaw.During Marcos era, drugs, murder, rape and many more heinous crimes are not common, but at present – even at your own back yard or house itself you’re family will be murdered/massacred.Our politicians has a blame game mentality and keep on blaming Marcos and now GMA in order to stay in office. While if we compare to US, American politicians don’t blame repeatedly the failure of previous administration rather they try their best to show that they can achieve more.Our Neighbors such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have achieved economic prosperity but what our country had achieved is they opposite. We are only the solid christian nation in Asia, but what our bishop/priest had achieved is a divided nation”When will our voters, politicians, officials, soldiers and many more will change? I dont think so due to they are addicted to the position/etc.  – Nelson/Dubai           

    • droids

      You’re right brother!!!

    • sanjuan683

      Style nila bulok hehehehe Gusto nila mawala si Marcos nuon dahil sila ang papalit hehehehe Nagkatotoo ang maitim na pangarap ni nognog Binay at iba pa pulitiko hehehe Hinahanap ko ang buhay nuon Martial Law dahil tahimik ako nakakalakad ng matiwasay kahit na hatinggabi.

  • dequis

    ang tagal nang namatay noong pumirma ng 1081 ano pang dahilan para mamundok tayo. Pero Philippine Daily Inquirer, ano ba talaga, forget and forgive o forgive and forget.

  • Enzotevie

    When Mr. Ocampo and Liza Masa joined the team of Manny Villar which IBONGBONG MARCOS as its candidates for senators, these two “political opportunitsta” lost their moral ascendancy to “preach their cause” for the “masa.”  They sold out to the mainstream politics (and maybe for a huge sum of PhP_______ to financially reward themselves).  They forfeited my ardent belief on their personal crusades and in their “progressive parties” (Bayan/Makabayan/Gabriela) ideals and missions as they just used these parties for their self-aggrandizement while pursuing in the same vein their true colors “by selling themselves” to the corrupt including the only son of the deposed dictator.  I couldn’t think nor believe that they would bed with their worst enemy.  Shame on them.

    Moreover, with this Chinese controversy, I’ve yet to see in print and demonstrations by this “Bayan/Makabayan” and other leftist progressives, commenting and critizising these “chinese” bullying on the Pinas.

    And lastly, with PNoy now at the helm of doing what is best for the country, totally removed from the corrupt practices and oppressions they preached to totally detest, why can’t they support him by coming to the folds of the law and save the country from wasteful lawlessness, by their cohorts’ (NPAs) murders and ambushes.  Why can’t now reason on them prevail over hatred to a regime totally gone.

    • sanjuan683

      Mabuhay ang Martial Law!!!!!!!! galit sila sa Martial Law pero every Sept 21 sine-celebrate at ginawa pa holiday. hehehehehe

      • s1ck0fit4ll

        sino’ng sila? manong, pag ginugunita yung pangyayari, hindi ibig sabihin na nagbubunyi. inaalala ang sep 21 para hindi na muling maulit at makalimutan ng mga bagong henerasyong.

        mahiya naman yung may ganyang mentalidad sa mga namatay, nawala at hanggang ngayon eh hindi pa din natatagpuang mga biktima ni makoy/ML

  • antonioluna

    after marcos, came another breed of more corrupt and more inept politicians 

  • mllacuna

    These people are making Marcos as their scapegoat. 40 years! For Christ Sake! Si Marcos pa rin ang sinisisi ng mga taong ito. Maski mamatay na kalabaw…si Marcos pa rin at ang pamilya niya ang may kasalanan. Succeeding leaders and governments always blame Marcos for their own mistakes, mismanagement, inefficencies, being corrupt, being incapable, being incompetent, economic stagnation, etc., etc. Kasi iniwanan tayo ni Marcos na ganito, eh.  Kasi ninakaw ni Marcos, eh. Kasi si Marcos ganito..ganyan. Wala na ang mga taong ito. Si Marcos 20 years or so lang nagsilbi…40 years after…ilang leaders na ang naupo, ano na ba ang lagay natin? Nakakasawa na rin ang mga taong ito. Assuming na may naging kasalanan si Marcos sa inyo at hindi ninyo mapapatawad…hindi lahat dahil sa kanya.   

    • sanjuan683

      ehehehe Gusto ko nuong panahon n Martial Law nakakalakad ako ng matiwasay sa gabi at hindi ako natatakot sa militar kasi hindi naman ako kalaban ng gobierno o aktibista na patago-tago. hehehe O hayan nawala na si Marcos. umunlad na ba ang Pinas. hehehe wala rin pinagbago naging magulo ang kapaligiran dahil nawala ang disiplina.

      • s1ck0fit4ll

         baka hindi ka lang nakursunadahan, tatang! swerte ka lang

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