Martial Law: 40 years after in the eyes of a management educator

In 1971, then-President Ferdinand Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus. My friends and I had a sense that Martial Law would be declared sooner or later – we just did not know when.

I was already a professional manager, with a Master in Business Management from the Asian Institute of Management-Class of 1970, working for government.

I tendered a letter of resignation as Associate Director for Logistics, Commission on Population, Office of the President, saying I could “no longer serve a government whose leaders I cannot trust.” My friends and colleagues in POPCOM dissuaded me from doing this because they told me “it would put me in harm’s way.” My family asked me to heed the warning. I withdrew my resignation and was told to destroy the letter.

We were certain Martial Law was the next step in the scheme of things, in the way Marcos administration was moving then. When Ninoy exposed Oplan Sagittarius before Congress, some of us believed he had been set up and that the “leak” was a build-up towards the declaration, that Marcos was plugging [his own] leaks.

Then the inevitable happened. Marcos signed Presidential Decree No. 2081 on Sept. 21, 1972, declaring Martial Law. But he actually made it public only on Sept. 23, after many prominent opposition leaders had been arrested and detained. My wife and I lived on Matahimik Street in Diliman’s Teachers’ Village. Sometime after midnight of Sept. 23, we were awakened by a staccato of gunfire somewhere within our vicinity. We wondered what that was all about.

In the morning, we woke up to an eerie silence. I turned on the TV, but the networks were not broadcasting any program. It was same on the radio. I made a few phone calls, and confirmed martial rule was in place. Later that day, Marcos went on air to officially announce that he declared Martial Law.

I remained in government. I was involved in work I believed in, and still do, – population management that was not limited to family planning, though that occupied much of our time at POPCOM. To survive and stay sane

Martial Law forced me to speak with great caution, because I knew people were being arrested and put in jail, others interrogated, and still others simply disappeared. I knew my post in POPCOM was vulnerable, easy to spot and follow. POPCOM was a very high profile agency at the time and the population program was not viewed the same way as it is now by the Catholic Church. We were cautioned to keep an open mind. We were told that the regime was “sincere in instituting reforms but that this would take great effort and much time.” I kept that open mind to survive and keep myself from going insane.

Much of my work as chief logistician was to get to know the country and the facilities we were supplying. Most of the time, I was traveling all over the country, to almost every municipality except for a few areas in Mindanao where battles were raging against the Moro National Liberation Front. The New People’s Army was judicious in not attacking vehicles of the Department – later the Ministry of Health – whose vehicles we typically used in many places nationwide, the DOH being the largest agency we were funding and supplying, even if the population program was not solely a health program and was never meant to be.

Some disclosures are in order.

I actually campaigned for Marcos in the 1965 and 1969 general elections, during which he trounced his opponents at the polls. The support many of us gave him was partly due to his running mate, Fernando H. Lopez, who had a very good public image, possibly better than the President, at the time. Marcos was much written about positively and, as a University of the Philippines High School and UP and college alumnus, I actually heard him speak on several occasions at UP.

Like many back then, I was taken by the very effective Marcos propaganda machinery and the fact that he had managed to put in his Cabinet some of the most brilliant minds in the country. Foremost on my list were Executive Secretary Rafael Salas and Board of Investments chair Cesar Virata, who later headed the Department of Finance and still later, during the Martial Law years, was named concurrent Prime Minister.

I say this because, like many young people, I had high hopes that we finally had a brilliant President with a very, very good Cabinet and that we – as a nation – would begin to progress faster.

A resounding caveat

For me the first alarm bells sounded about two year or so when Salas left in a huff in 1970. The exit was puzzling and the reasons given, given the context in which the departure was made, were not credible. Despite my increasing reservations about the Marcos administration, I accepted an offer for a chance to serve the country

The lifting of habeas corpus was a resounding caveat for me, but the way I was warned not to push through with my resignation sent shivers through me. So I stayed, consoling myself that my work was important. I told myself I was serving the people, not Marcos.

In the beginning (of Martial Law), I was very skeptical. I did not know if I willed myself to be more open to it out of fear and the need to reconcile my thoughts and values with the how to behave in a certain manner to stay out of jail.

As the months went by and certain projects prospered, that skepticism waned but never vanished. I saw progress in many parts of the country even as rebellion in Mindanao had erupted. Like many others, I suffered from ignorance of the context in which people like MNLF leader Nur Misuari, who were our seniors in UP, declared that uprising.

The way Malacañang’s occupants conducted the business of running the country under the guise of social progress and nation building caused me considerable distress. A number of what I considered badly conceived projects that did not contribute to development directly – the “edifice complex” wasn’t limited to Mrs. Imelda Marcos, whose projects could not have progressed without the President’s approval; the president himself was also giving the green light to all kinds of huge projects that to my mind did not address the real problems we saw in the field – deteriorating school houses, Rural Health Units, lack of irrigation systems, and the like.

Still, there were enough improvements in many parts of the country for me to think that perhaps enough good was happening for me to go with the flow, suspend disbelief and judgment, and the urge to leave government. It also helped that I got an overseas scholarship which gave me over a year to gain wider and deeper perspectives in life.

Purging of government

Going into 1974, my optimism, which buoyed my hopes, waned substantially. What kept it up was a change in POPCOM’s leadership. The then new executive director Rafael Esmundo, who came from a poor family, proved to be a field-oriented person with a deep-rooted sympathy for those mired in poverty. He took the program to a direction I could more truly believe in and serve.

I regained a good measure of optimism in September 1975 during the anniversary celebrations marking the declaration of Martial Law, Marcos announced a clean up, a purging of government. In reality, the purge did not actually produce its desired results.

Looking back, it was a poorly conceived plan. Many of our concerns on the need for extreme care in implementing it – including precise wording of the Letter of Instruction (LOI) mandating the purge – went unheeded and many of those implementing the order, fearing the consequences, took to the extreme by including many who had retired, resigned, or died in their lists. It was shameful.

The effect was not to clean up government but to hobble it, as people not only moved with greater caution but others started looking for ways to get back at the people who made the lists and at others who were perceived to have helped them.

That helped me decided to move out – that and the fact that my first son was born. I could no longer support my family on government salary. I spent the rest of the 1970s at the Asian Institute of Management with greater resolve to act against the continuation of the Marcos regime. I became active in the Bishops’-Businessmen’s Conference for Human Development and Manindigan!

A support network

What did those years do to me? My life was changed in a radical way. To an extent, I focused more on grassroots nation building than trying to influence development at the policy level. I was convinced that there were radical social changes needed if we wanted progress that the Communists at that time – in more ways than one – had a genuine reason to pursue their cause though I disagreed with their means. On a personal level, I became more aware of the difference of being a social success to being socially significant.

At this point, certain people influenced me in a deep manner, Rafael Esmundo being one of them, as did Gaston Z. Ortigas of AIM.

What I would like to stress, however, is the fact that many people learned the wrong lessons from Martial Law and are applying those now that they continue to corrupt our nation.

Many of the changes were positive as a result of martial rule, coming from the realization of the boundaries of what we would not accept and tolerate – endure, if you will. It also rekindled a trait long dormant: love of country over self-interest and survival. Believe it or not, many would have died fighting the regime in the streets of Manila.

That period in our history made many of us truly aware of just how corrupt our society had become; how Herculean indeed the task was of cleaning up the nation. It gave many us the resolve to start working on changing the nation.

The negative results arose from our optimistic and forgiving nature. We willingly accepted the proffered apologies of many of those who had been part of the sophisticated banditry of the past. We were content to rid ourselves of the more prominent people associated with the regime but forgot that they had, in all those years, infected a much deeper and wider network that aided them in doing their work. — VS, GMA News

Professor Mayo Lopez teaches primarily for the Master in Management Program of the W. SyCip Graduate School of Business, and teaches programs at the Center for Development Management (CDM) and the Executive Education and Lifelong Learning Center (EXCELL). He has served as assistant dean for EXCELL and associate dean for the CDM.



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