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. •