Marcos and Martial Law in the Philippines

The Sunday edition of the Philippines Daily Express on September 24, 1972, the only newspaper published after the announcement of martial law on September 21, the evening prior.

Ferdinand Marcos changed parties to run against Diosdado Macapagal and was elected president in 1965. While running for the presidency, Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda Romualdez, sang campaign duets as part of his strategy to win votes. Marcos came to power as a nationalistic social reformer with a broad electoral mandate to deal with the country’s chronic problems.

During his first term of office, he achieved considerable improvement in initiating infrastructure programs and increasing rice production. The country was ranked second in Asia in terms of economic standings.

At the beginning of his term, Imelda was all charm. Then in Sept. 1966, she made her international debut on an official trip with Marcos to the United States. She entranced Lyndon Johnson by singing at the White House party. Then she went to New York, where she mingled with the Whitneys, Rockefellers, and Fords at a Metropolitan Opera premiere. She commented enviously to a Manila magazine later, “Wow, In America, when they’re rich, they’re really rich.”

She got the taste of the rich and would outdo them all. When Johnson visited Manila, she gave him a reception that might have been staged by Cecil B. DeMille. She invited American presidents, members of Congress, company executives, and journalists. She dazzled them with her lavish hospitality as she and Marcos drove the country into hock to defer the bills. She flew Dame Margot Fonteyn and Van Cliburn at her expense. She spent a fortune on a cultural center, a luxury that crippled the economy. In June 1983, in a show biz extravaganza, she married her daughter Irene to Gregorio Araneta, which cost $10 million, including $1 million to restore the old church in Marcos’s hometown of Sarrat. Marcos constructed a jet airstrip in the remote area and chartered planes to fly in five hundred guests, housed in a sprawling hotel built for the occasion, which later fell into disrepair. Imelda filched some of the money from a typhoon relief fund, and Marcos’s rich cronies contributed.

In Tokyo, Rome, or Paris, she would buy racks of clothes and trays of diamonds along with often unauthenticated antiques and paintings. She squandered $12 million on jewelry in a single day in Geneva. In Manhattan, Bloomingdale’s Dept. Store opened especially for her on Sunday. At Scribner’s bookshop in New York, its president said, “They landed like locusts, taking every third copy off the shelves, sometimes every second copy – art books, poetry, classics, travel, history, biography.” Cory Aquino later exhibited the abandoned loot and Imelda’s 3,000 pairs of shoes as a moral lesson in avarice. Imelda compensated for her miserable childhood by seeking revenge against the upper classes while claiming to be one. She invented a confused fairy tale of her early life that made Marcos’s exaggerated reminiscences seem pale in comparison.

In 1969, Marcos became the first president to be re-elected. He was the seventh president. That number was his lucky number too, and seven years after becoming president, Marcos imposed Martial Law in 1972.

After his fiercely contested re-election in 1969, the economy, which had already started to decline, worsened. The administration was faced with opposition as it attempted to draft a new constitution.

A convention called in 1971 to draft a new constitution became the arena for the many conflicting issues that were wrecking the country. All had supporters and detractors, and the administration faced demonstrations and protests by students and reformist groups of all political persuasions.

During the early ‘70s, conditions approached anarchy, with riots, street crime, bombings, and assassination attempts. The radical outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines had formed an armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA); in 1969, though still a minor force, it began committing acts of terrorism and clashing with government forces. The separatists Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), representing the dissident Muslims of Mindanao and Sulu, pressed claims for secession by opposing the military in the south, and fighting intensified between Christian and Muslims of Mindanao. The Muslim rebellion in the south had claimed 50,000 lives. It finally ended in 1976, when a treaty was signed, and limited autonomy was granted. The political and economic situation never recovered.

Citing the prevailing economic crisis and threat to the national security due to rural communist insurgency, Muslin revolts in Mindanao, and rapid deterioration in law and order with student unrest, President Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Its stated objectives were to save the Republic from communism and formed a disciplined “New Society” based on “constitutional authoritarianism.” It claimed peace and order, land reform, economic development, and government reorganization as its aims. Marcos faced little resistance from the opposition as well as the military. A new constitution was ratified by a national referendum in 1973, then held in abeyance. It replaced the Congress and Senate with a parliament, the Batasang Pambansa (National Assembly), and set no limit on the number of presidential terms. Referenda approved an extension of the presidential term of office and the continuation of martial law. Marcos gained complete control of the National Assembly along with major business and the media, and he jailed his opponents. He was constitutionally barred from a third term in office, but under martial law, there would be no elections.

Aside from Marcos opponents like Aquino, most Filipinos seemed to welcome martial law-at least during its first year. It resulted in a dramatic reduction in crime, violence, and the use of guns. Urban streets were safer. Overnight, city streets were clean, and garbage was collected. Crime dropped sharply. Businessmen were reassured by the promise of a crackdown or at least reduction of bribery and corruption. He pledged land reform and the creation of citizen assemblies to “restore power to the people.” The cost was a departure from democratic ideals, involving the detention of opposing politicians and journalists, suspension of Congress, the writ of habeas corpus, freedom of press, speech, and assembly, and the imposition of strict censorship and a midnight-4:00 a.m. curfew. An estimated 67,000 people were arrested during the early years of martial law.

But it was plain from the beginning that Marcos’s lofty principles and statements were merely cosmetic devices to mask his absolute power. He spent a fortune bribing convention delegates to approve a new constitution that assured him full authority, especially the right to govern by decree.

On September 23, 1972, the country awoke to an absence of media. No newspapers, radio, nor TV broadcasts. But soon, the word was out. Raids and arrests were made left and right by the military. All print and broadcast media had been blocked out. Hours later, a television station was allowed to transmit news from Malacanang Palace: Martial Law was in effect, and the executive order had already been signed two days earlier. The slogan of the New Society would rule the day: Sa Ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan  (For the country to progress, what is needed is discipline). Marcos started ruling with an iron fist, erecting monuments to himself and accumulating a vast fortune for himself as well as his “cronies.”

The Marcoses and their associates controlled the monopolies that made up most of the successful industries. The military became corrupt and was used as a tool to control opposition and to settle personal vendettas.

Marcos resorted to blatant extortion to crush his opponents’ families. He jailed a younger Lopez on flimsy charges of murder, pledging to release him on condition that the family sells its controlling share of the Manila Electric Company to Imelda’s brother Kokoy. With a down payment of less than $2,000 to make the deal legal, Kokoy captured a company worth $400 million. Kokoy swiftly took over other hotels, factories, and shopping centers with loans from government banks.

Marcos disowned other families to provide his brother, Pacifico, with insurance, banking, and real estate firms and steered his sister, Fortuna, into shipping. He even helped his elderly mother gain control of timber, tobacco, and food processing companies. But his most lucrative privileges went to a group of trusted businessmen who knew how to make money – and furnish him with enormous kickbacks.

Marcos decided on the showcase project in 1973 – despite advice that it would be too costly and that the site selected for the plant was near a geological fault. William J. Casey, chairman of the Export-Import Bank, offered Marcos more than $600 million in loans and guarantees. Bids for the contract were opened, and General Electric seemed to have won. At that state, Herminio Disini, husband of Imelda’s cousin, proposed his services to Westinghouse. A long and complicated battle followed, and in the end, not surprisingly, Disini prevailed. Marcos chose Westinghouse, whose bid had climbed to more than $1 billion. What turned the trick was a Westinghouse commission to Disini of nearly $80 million, camouflaged as a fee to his construction company for its involvement in the project. A fat slice of the money, of course, went to Marcos.  By 1988, the nuclear plant was still unbuilt, but interest on the loans had doubled its original cost. Disini’s enterprises had meanwhile crumbled in debt, and he fled to Austria.

Through joint ventures, kickbacks, and outright gifts, their cronies helped the Marcoses to accumulate a fortune that CIA analysts put as high as $10 billion. The Marcoses operated in a baffling maze of intermediaries, dummies, and phony names. Apart from their Manhattan and California real estate purchases, they preferred to remain liquid, keeping huge sums in secret Swiss and Hong Kong bank accounts.

The worldwide hunger for commodities had boosted the Philippine economy during the early days under martial law, buttressing Marcos’s claim to be improving conditions, but the prosperity was transient. Western and Japanese bankers, desperate to earn interest from their colossal deposits of Middle East oil dollars, begged the government to borrow without examining their ledgers too closely. Marcos was pleased to accommodate. By 1980, his foreign debt had risen to more than $10 billion, up fourfold in five years. The Philippines owed more to the International Monetary Fund than any developing country in the world, and close to twenty percent of its faltering export earnings were going to cover the interest on the loans. The debt was to triple over the next five years, leaving the world financial community no recourse except to meet, moan, and hope for even partial payments.

As Marcos tried to bail out his cronies from the economic crisis, Imelda continued her profligate shopping binges and publicity sprees. She squandered $31 million on a grotesque guesthouse made entirely of coconuts and $21 million on a film center. The poverty in urban and rural areas escalated. A World Bank study estimated that the proportion of people living below the poverty line in cities had risen from twenty-four percent in 1974 to forty percent in 1980. The countryside was no better.

Persecuted peasants, fearful of army or police reprisals, could not complain. The human rights violations alarmed some Filipino politicians, lawyers, and professors, and a few protested. The Catholic Church, meanwhile, gradually became the most articulate and influential critic of the regime.

With his political opponents jailed, exiled, underground, or powerless, and the courts and media under control, Marcos began to rule by decree, unchallenged. He had dismantled his opposition and destroyed the previous system’s checks and balances.

Martial law ended in 1981. During this period, Marcos had restructured the constitution to accommodate his personal rule. The decrees issued under martial law remained in effect. The dictator retained the authority to rule by decree, use emergency powers, and detain alleged national security violators virtually at will. Marcos was re-elected for six years in 1981 in an election boycotted by his major opponents.

In retrospect, martial law brought increased stability and enabled foreign investment to help foster steady economic growth through the ‘70s, though progress was uneven. While luxury hotels rose in Manila, the government failed to address the root causes of poverty. During this period, too, Marcos developed a powerful political machine, penetrating almost every village in the country. The might of the Philippine Armed Forces increased dramatically as membership tripled and the influence of its generals expanded.

During this time, Imelda chaired 24 agencies, councils, and corporations, giving her control of budgets that amounted to more than $500 million annually.

Marcos committed a major blunder by presuming the fourteen thousand members of the Philippine clergy to be his enemies. He did nothing to deter his troops from raiding seminaries and convents and arresting, torturing, and even murdering priests and nuns. Early in 1981, to herald the arrival in Manila of Pope John Paul II, he lifted martial law – a hollow gesture since he retained the right to rule by decree. The visit, on which Imelda spent more than a million dollars, proved to be a disappointment. Instead of blessing his regime, as Marcos had hoped, the pope decried “the violation of the fundamental dignity of the human person,” adding that “social organization exists only for the service of the man . . . and cannot claim to serve the common good where human rights are not safeguarded.” His homilies strengthened Cardinal Sin, who from then on spearheaded the opposition to Marcos. Still, it was to take more than Sin’s divine message to alter the situation.

Marcos and his wife Imelda – called the Conjugal Dictatorship by disenchanted Filipinos – prospered until the 1983 assassination of the popular opposition leader, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. On his return to the Philippines after a self-imposed exile in America, on August 21, 1983, Aquino was shot dead on the tarmac of the Manila Airport after stepping out of his plane, presumably murdered by Marcos’s henchmen. The spectacle shocked a world that, for the most part, had never heard of Aquino. The assassination fanned discontent.

Faced with a restless populace, Marcos called a snap election in February 1986 to renew his mandate. Amid unsubtle election fraud, he was proclaimed the winner over Aquino’s widow, Corazon (Cory). But Marcos was losing ground; his political cronies began to jump ship, and, in that same month, a four-day bloodless revolution climaxed with a standoff between Marcos’s tanks and citizens at EDSA. This busy highway ran between two military camps in Metro Manila.

Marcos and Imelda were bundled off in an American plane to Hawaii, where they retired to an expensive villa overlooking Honolulu and whined for the old days. Marcos died there in 1989. Imelda to return to the Philippines for an unsuccessful comeback bid.

The specter of the Marcos regime lingered long after his departure. He left behind a depressed economy and an exhausted treasury.


Philippine Guide by Jill and Rebecca Gale de Villa

Insight Guide Philippines by Discovery Channel

Philippine Handbook by Carl Parkes

In Our Image – America’s Empire in the Philippines by Stanley Karnow


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