I could not write better than the illustrious historian Alfred W. McCoy, so I might as well reprint what he had written about martial law terror of President F. Marcos 39 years ago today.
“IN THE FOURTH MONTH of President Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law rule, two constabulary troopers marched a middle-aged Chinese merchant across a Manila parade ground. As they tied him to a stake, Lim Seng joked with soldiers, still confident that he could buy his way out. Only when they fixed the blindfold to his face did the realization strike home. Lim Seng, Manila’s top heroin trafficker, was still straining against the thick ropes lashed across his torso when the first volley struck. Graphic footage of this execution, played and replayed in movie theaters across the Philippines, sent a signal that the president’s hand had restored public order and saved the nation’s youth from the scourge of drug addiction.
Law and order were central to the legitimization of Marcos’s authoritarian regime, which he grandly christened “the New Society.” In the first years after he declared martial law in 1972, his restoration of security won him wide public support and a tenuous political legitimacy, particularly in Manila, where crime and chaos had been most acute under the Republic. During the first years of authoritarian rule, Marcos, then in his prime, proved to be an iron-fisted commander in chief that could control his repressive forces. With characteristic cunning, he divided military authority among trusted subordinates and then played one against the other. To fulfill his mandate for order, Marcos centralized police power, merging the hundreds of municipal forces into an Integrated National Police under constabulary control. Although Marcos’s motives were suspect, this new structure represented the first serious attempt in over a century to upgrade the quality of local law enforcement and proved a useful innovation that survived his later fall from power.
Over the longer term, however, the regime’s reliance on this police power for covert control harbored a fatal contradiction. Along with his imposition of order Marcos created constabulary and antisubversion squads, arming them with both formal decrees and informal impunity to suppress pro-democracy dissidents. After five years of “constitutional authoritarianism,” Marcos’s security squads shifted from formal mass arrests to extrajudicial operations. As his regime’s celebrated “discipline” degenerated into systematic state terror and conspicuous corruption, citizens sensed the failure of their Faustian bargain with dictatorship, swapping democracy for stability, and slowly withdrew their support. Marcos’s legitimacy faded, opposition grew, and in the end his massive police and military apparatus retreated before a million outraged citizens massed on Manila’s streets. Law and order were central to the regime’s early acceptance, but this legitimacy was undermined over time by the same police apparatus that had been used to impose order. In both its rise and demise, Marcos’s authoritarian regime thus rested to a surprising degree on the quality of policing.
In this sense the image of Lim Seng’s on-camera execution was an illusion, another act in the dictator’s brilliant use of political theater to mask the contradiction between the image and the reality of martial rule. Lim Seng would become the only criminal legally executed in the fourteen years of martial law. But there would be thousands of extrajudicial killings of labor leaders, student activists, and ordinary citizens, their bodies mangled by torture and dumped for display to induce terror. This practice was so disturbing to the country’s collective consciousness that the Filipino-English dialect coined the neologism “salvaging” to capture its aura of terror. Tens of thousands more were arrested and abused, arousing both domestic opposition and international opprobrium.
From declaration to decline, Marcos’s martial law regime would also feel the subtle force of Washington’s influence. In planning his demolition of democracy, Marcos consulted the American ambassador who, concerned by the rising opposition to the U.S. bases, lent tacit support. Several years later President Carter, through troubled by Marcos’s abuses, was forced to set aside his human rights concerns to preserve the military bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay. When a democratic opposition challenged Marcos in 1986, the waning of the cold war in Asia had already reduced the strategic value of those bases, allowing the Reagan administration to withdraw support and encourage Marcos’s flight into exile. Throughout the fourteen years of dictatorship, however, Washington ignored the regime’s repression and backed Marcos with military aid and diplomatic support. By allowing the bases to shape bilateral relations, Washington once again found, as it had during the 1950s that its military and economic aid was diverted to shore up a small oligarchy against the democratic aspirations of the masses and middle class.” (Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America’s Empire, p. 397-98)
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