Martial law survivors: “Sa panahong ito, ano ba sa tingin niyo ang bayani?”

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On the 45th anniversary of martial law, three of its survivors — (from left) Hilda Narciso, Ed dela Torre, and Zeny Mique — reflect on what it took to recognize and defeat an abusive regime. Photos by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Zeny Mique was a student activist as early as the First Quarter Storm, that time in Philippine history when civil unrest and continuous protest unfolded in the first quarter of 1970, leading up to the declaration of martial law in 1972. “Hanggang 1972, nang ibaba ang martial law, ay tuloy ang pakikibaka [ko] bilang estudyanteng aktibista, hanggang bandang Jan. 1973, ‘yun yung first arrest,” she recalls. She was detained at Camp Aguinaldo for two months, released, but spent another year and a half in prison.

At that time, Edicio “Ed” dela Torre was a priest who worked with farmers in pursuing land reform. “I was radicalized in a sense that I didn’t not [only] want to speak for the powerless, I also wanted to empower them, so I was into community organizing,” he says. His work put him in a precarious position, one that he knew was coming.

“There was talk that martial law might happen … I think it came sooner than anyone expected. There was anticipation precisely in 1971. There was the Plaza Miranda bombing, the writ of habeas corpus, that was the beginning,” he recalls. “In ’72 — I remember the anniversary of the Plaza Miranda bombing was August — who would have known one month later, martial law na.”

“The declaration was supposed to be signed Sept. 21, 1972,” dela Torre adds, “but it was promulgated Sept. 23. Sept 21, I was still in a rally in Plaza Miranda, warning people martial law might come. ‘Di ko alam, napirmahan na pala.”

Ed dela Torre.jpg Ed dela Torre, a former priest and activist during martial law, sits as a board member of Bantayog ng mga Bayani. "Ang pulitika ko ay pulitika ng Bantayog, kasi marami dun sa pader na 'yon, mga kakilala ko, nasa konsensya ko if 'di ako magsasalita para sa kanila." Photo by JL JAVIER

In Davao, around 10 years later, Hilda Narciso was arrested for conspiracy to commit rebellion, an unfounded allegation for which she had to pay six painful months in prison, as a victim of rape, torture, and unlawful detention.

I first met Nanay Hilda — as I’ve begun to call her — at an assembly against the burial of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. A year on, I meet her again, in a climate that has seen Marcos among heroes in the Libingan, the declaration of martial law anew in Mindanao amid the Marawi crisis, the bloody battle against drugs that has seen thousands dead, the attack on state institutions through the impeachment complaint against the Chief Justice, and most recently, the threat to abolish — in whatever manner — the 1987 Commission on Human Rights.

“Ganitong ganito ang martial law noon, bago magsimula,” says Narciso.

A divergence of narratives

When it comes to martial law in 1972, the collective memory, it seems, has not decided on what narrative it should believe. As the nation remembers Proclamation 1081 — which was pronounced on Sept. 23 but predated to Sept. 21 — two main narratives emerge in present day: one that, despite proof to the contrary, remembers Marcos’ dictatorship as a glorious era of discipline and prosperity, and another that remembers it as a time of struggle, repression, and widespread corruption.

For Mique, the divergence of narratives is not new. “’Yung mga Marcos loyalist, dati nang andyan ‘yan. Mas naging visible lang sila ngayon noong nagsimula si President Duterte, kung saan kaalyado niya ‘yung mga Marcoses, at dito parang lumakas loob ulit ng mga Marcos loyalists,” she says.

“’Yun yung tingin ko na nagpalala ng divide; ‘yung nakaupong administrasyon ngayon ay kaibigan ng mga Marcos,” Mique adds.

“Ganitong ganito ang martial law noon, bago magsimula.” — Hilda Narciso

But the root of the divide, ultimately, may be discontent. Asking “Was Duterte’s Rise Inevitable?” in Nicole Curato’s “A Duterte Reader,” Julio Teehankee writes: “Thirty years since the People Power uprising, Philippine democracy still hobbles with significant dysfunctionality in which resistant political and business elites refuse to undertake much needed reforms to realize genuine socioeconomic and political transformations.”

Mique is the executive director of Claimants 1081, an organization of martial law and human rights victims at that time, who filed a case in a Hawaii district court in 1987. “We have about 4,000 members all over the Philippines. Maliban doon sa pakikipaglaban sa class suit sa Hawaii, ‘yung Claimants 1081 ay naging active dun sa pagpasa sa RA 10368, o ‘yung tinatawag na Recognition and Reparation for Human Rights Victims during Martial Law, which was signed by [former president] Pnoy [Aquino] last 2013.”

Of the 75,537 claimants, only around 4,000 have received half of what is due them. “Nitong panahon lang ni PNoy, noong 2013, na-sign-an ang batas na ito. Andoon na ang pagkilala ng estado sa mga nagbuwis ng buhay, ng mga libu-libong nakulong at na-torture noong panahon ng martial law. Ganoon katagal,” she says.

Zeny Mique.jpg Zeny Mique, executive director of Claimants 1081, is against the 'compromise' involving the Marcoses' return of some of their ill-gotten wealth. "Kung nandyan 'yung ill-gotten wealth na ibabalik nila, dapat ibalik nila lahat ng mga ninakaw nila sa bansa. Pangalawa, ‘pag binalik nila yan, 'di ibig sabihin na immune na sila sa mga cases. Guilty pa rin sila." Photo by JL JAVIER

What took the recognition so long? “Ang nangyari, ‘yung People Power, naangkin din ng isang grupo. Eto ‘yung mga sinasabing dilawan, o ‘yung mga yellow crowd,” adds Mique. “Hindi masyadong na-glorify, nakilala ‘yung mga efforts ng talagang lumaban sa diktadura, noong panahon ng martial law.”

For dela Torre, the monsters of an authoritarian regime persist because of a public “pissed off” with its elite leaders. “Na kung minsan, ay para bang arrogating upon themselves the monopoly na kami lang ang democratic. Parang may certain moralistic superiority,” he says. “Kami lang ang malinis, kayo madumi. Kayo ay democratic, kami hindi.”

The politics of Bantayog

Dela Torre sits at the board of the Bantayog ng mga Bayani, which was established out of a desire to build a monument for those who died struggling against the 1972 martial law regime. “It is uncompromising against Marcos and the Marcos dictatorship, and honors all those who opposed; it didn’t care kung anong kulay mo,” he says.

“When you’re a hero, people can’t learn much from you, except courage. Mas maganda ‘yung nabuhay, nagkamali, bumangon. Marami kang matutunan dun.” — Ed dela Torre

But the process of choosing who to honor isn’t that simple. Dela Torre says the board is hounded by questions revealing the politics of what they do. “After a while people asked, paano ‘yung lumaban pero nag-survive? Tapos namatay later, ‘di ba natin pwede isama?”

“So naging martyrs and heroes,” he says, referring to the ‘heroes’ part as part of Bantayog’s efforts to be more inclusive. “Dapat may roots ka sa panahon ng EDSA. Pero paano ‘pag nagkanda-loko loko na [‘yung tao] after EDSA?” He laughs. “That’s when the debate happens.”

What’s important is the board arrives at a consensus on who to place at the wall. “If may mag o-object, sorry na lang muna. We’re not saying ‘di sila heroes, but it’s reflected sa leadership ng Bantayog.”

Dela Torre himself was not supposed to be included in the board. “To be a member of Bantayog, you have to be part of the founders, or dapat may relative kang martyr. Eh wala ako eh. Eh nag-survive ako. So paano ‘yun?” He was invited eventually out of respect for his contributions post-EDSA.

Bantayog ng mg Bayani.jpg Bantayog ng mga Bayani was established by some activists associated with the left, but the bulk of it was the "anti-Marcos elite," says Ed dela Torre, a board member. Photo by JL JAVIER

The politics of Bantayog, it seems, reflects the confusion on who we regard as the ‘heroes’ behind the Philippines’ most powerful and peaceful revolution, and how we have moved forward from there. “Democracy is messy. And of course democracy favors mainly the elite. But I favor to fight an elite who tries to outwit me than one which tries to kill me,” dela Torre laughs.

In Bantayog, he sees young people romanticizing his generation as a heroic one, a generalization which he is quick to debunk. Dela Torre recalls people saying, “Mas okay pa 'yung henerasyon nun! Ang tapang!” to which he responds: “Huy, kakabakaba din kami nun!”

In searching for so-called ‘heroes,’ he’d rather that people look to their own generation, among those who live with them. “Kasi ang hirap mag-emulate ng sa tingin mo ay above normal o superhuman,” he says. “When you’re a hero, people can’t learn much from you, except courage. Mas maganda ‘yung nabuhay, nagkamali, bumangon. Marami kang matututunan dun.”

'We're at the bottom of a well'

The hairs in Narciso’s head are silvery-gray, and are arranged in a tight bun. She speaks extensively of healing, of karma, of the merits of slow understanding. Mique speaks in a measured, restrained tone, far from the picture of a typical student activist she was more than 40 years ago. Dela Torre, now no longer a priest, sits in Bantayog, answers my questions, but sometimes trails off, then quickly jumps off to another thought.

Hilda Narciso before and after the arrest.jpg (Left) Hilda Narciso after graduating from her BS Education course, taken before 1975. The other photo was taken right after she was released from detention in 1983. Photos courtesy of HILDA NARCISO

The abuses of Marcos’ martial law remain clear to them, even as they ponder how to make sense of it today, in the midst of a war on drugs, a fake news landscape, or government officials who think themselves above the people they serve. Narciso says “para tayong nasa baso o balon”: we need to go out and take a holistic perspective of what ails us. “We need to be critical, questioning, and analytical. ‘Wag lang tayo tango nang tango.”

The matter of extrajudicial killings, she says, is an example. A healer, Narciso emphasizes the need to understand the drug problem for what it is: a health problem. “They’re sick,” she stresses. “The country is sick,” she adds, alluding to the present political climate.

Dela Torre also critiques the manner by which the drug-related killings are dismissed as not part of government policy. “[I] remember I was in prison, I asked [the police], how do you get policy instructions from the president? Meron ba kayong dokumento? [They said,] ‘No, nakikinig kami ng speeches ni Marcos. Pagkatapos, ah, ‘yun pala gusto nila. Sige gagawa kami ng intelligence plan,’” he recounts.

“Public statements of an official, including a president, is policy,” dela Torre concludes from that particular experience. “You cannot say wala naman akong dokumentong si-nign, minis-interpret niyo ‘yan.”

“‘Yung People Power, hindi ‘yan pag-overthrow sa isang diktadura para mamayani ang isang gobyerno na may pagka-, sabihin na nating, neoliberalist government pa rin ... sabi namin, kami’y nakipaglaban kasi ang gusto namin ‘yung tunay na demokrasya, ‘yung para sa mahihirap.” — Zeny Mique

Mique, for her part, feels saddened, but not entirely: “Nandun ‘yung pagkalungkot, pero at the same time, parang na-gi-guilty din. Naging complacent din kami eh. Kami na nakaranas ng direkta ng karahasan nung martial law, ‘di kami naging open na magkwento ng aming karanasan. Hanggang ngayon, marami pa ‘yung ayaw magkwento.”

Many women (especially those from the provinces) were unable to undergo psycho-social rehabilitation after what they went through, thus, making the trauma come alive when recalled today. “Kung meron mang nakukumbinsi naming magsalita, madalas, habang nagkukuwento, nag-be-break down pa rin talaga,” Mique says. “Umiiyak pa talaga ‘pag naaalala ‘yung nangyari.”

“[What we do is] we try to convince them,” she adds. “Kasi panahon na para ipaliwanag sa kabataan 'yung naranasan natin. Sikapin natin na maintindihan nila ito at wag nang maulit nang muli sa mga susunod na henerasyon.”

Claimants 1081 goes to schools around the Philippines to share the survivors’ experiences. “‘Yung People Power, hindi ‘yan pag-overthrow sa isang diktadura para mamayani ang isang gobyerno na may pagka-, sabihin na nating, neoliberalist government pa rin,” she says. “Sabi namin, kami’y nakipaglaban kasi ang gusto namin ‘yung tunay na demokrasya, ‘yung para sa mahihirap.”

Hilda Narciso2.jpg Hilda Narciso established the Women's Crisis Center in 1989 as part of her human rights advocacy after martial law. A human rights victim herself, she went to trainings for stress reduction therapy abroad after what she experienced, which she now employs as a healer. Photo by JL JAVIER

Dela Torre agrees that it is both a burden and a challenge for those who survived to tell the story again and again, this time in more creative ways, grounded in the present. “You cannot rely na nangyari doon, may records. It has to be retold. It has to be retold in contemporary circumstances,” he insists.

“Other than telling our story, we pose a question sa huli: sa panahong ito, ano ba sa tingin niyo ang bayani? It’s no longer about admiring the past,” he adds. “In a democracy, kahit sino ka, kaya mong tumindig eh. Gawa ka ng paraan.”

It is easy to look into the years leading up to martial law and the revolt of 1986 as years that made ordinary people heroic survivors of a tumultuous time. But dela Torre, sitting inside a martial law museum within a memorial of martyrs and heroes, shakes his head in disagreement.

“Look, we were not a particularly heroic generation. It’s just that there were extraordinary circumstances that forced us to take a stand,” he says. “And it didn’t happen overnight.”