To preserve image of martial law as a temporary "crisis mechanism," Ferdinand Marcos announced in January the end of military rule in the Philippines. But in eight years of one-man rule, Marcos has increasingly lost credibility. Like his empty 1973 offer to divide his personal fortune among the people, his promise to reinstate civil rights may well come to nothing.
Marcos calls his dictatorship a "revolution from the top," to save the country the trauma of a revolution from below. Yet political and economic disorder remain central to Philippine society. In 1980, there were kidnappings for ransom, student demonstrations, clashes with the New People's Army and Muslim liberation foces, and terrorist bombings: the same elements which Marcos said forced him to assume absolute control in 1972.
Students who saturate walls with posters calling for a return to democracy are not alone at rallies. Last September, 22,000 marched to support the united opposition's National Covenant for Freedom and Democracy. In Bacolod 12,000 marched for human rights. News of such demonstrations passes by word of mouth because the government has a monopoly over the news. Last year 39 bombings reminded the people of Marcos's complaint against his predecessor's administration: "We cannot even guarantee life and limb in our growing cities."
As proof that he is no dictator, Marcos poses as a revolutionary, identifying himself with the restless masses. Yet if, as he claims, he has removed the causes of rebellion by eliminating gaps within his New Society, why is the country still 90 percent impoverished? WHO reports that 60 percent of the people lack potable water. To dispute the claim that the caloric intake of Filipinos is second lowest in Asia, the government compared it with that of battered Bangladesh. The New Society cannot be that concerned with the masses when its banks charge farmers interest 150 percent higher than the initial rate from foreign nations extending the loans. A truly compassionate government would forgo monumental buildings and jet-set resorts until it had effectively met the problems of nourishment, housing, and employment.
Marcos tries to refute charges that his administration is totalitarian by claiming civilian supremacy over the military. But as recently as September of last year, 32 new military commissions and provost courts were established. There are 12 military commissions in Metro Manila alone, handling 2,005 criminal cases. Constabulary authorities have organized town mayors in Central Luzon into paramilitary units against the insurgents; and the youth are trained as cadres of counteractivists.
It is clear that Marcos is very much concerned with refining and preserving an image of smooth interrelationships: manipulative democracy, Filipino-style. So successful is the effort that foreigners often leave the country defending it.
The President is a master of political finesse. People disappear but not in numbers which might provoke international outrage. Token opposition is even "franchised," to give his administration the semblance of democracy. Token investigations of graft are undertaken, to distinguish his rule from previous ones of which he said, in 1971, " . . . corruption at the top is matched by social corruption below." Now even the courts have been tainted. Lawyers know which judges' decisions are for sale and either avoid them or seek them, as their clients wish.
Martial law imposed without justification and maintained beyond any necessity could well cause the assassination of a country -- its will and spirit, its integrity and essential dignity.
That Marcos has succeeded in making martial law seem bearable to many Filipinos is beyond question. Tyranny was always associated with outsiders: Spain, America, Japan. It is hard to believe one can be oppressed by one's own. People are confused by propaganda calling martial law democaratic, a "testing of national character." They are awed by public buildings on a grand scale, by international pageants and trade conferences which seem to approve the Marcos administration.
Unless the cleansing process of a true election interrupts his hold on the country, martial law can well make tyrants of even the common man. As individuals become indifferent to truth and justice, as they allow their own rights to erode, they become capable of usurping the rights of others. A nation can outlive the tyranny of its leaders but not that of its people.
Hope lies in President Marcos's listening to his own pronouncements on the mutuality of obligations between a government and its people. It lies in an opposition that is not self- serving, whose primary wish is to "help prevent democracy and the liberties of the people from vanishing from the land." Martial law has become part of the Philippine heritage; but it does not have to become its tradition.