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Martial Law Was Not a Political Panacea for the Philippines

Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has been making headlines lately as the presidential race in the Philippines runs ever closer towards the 2022 elections in May this year. On the local level, and at the time of this writing, he maintains a commanding lead in polls and opinion surveys despite opting out of public debates against other candidates. With overwhelming support behind him, he is currently poised to possibly win the elections and become the next president after Rodrigo Duterte.

To a global audience savvy with world history, his name may come across as familiar; in which case, he is perhaps best known for being the son and namesake of the very same dictator who declared martial law in the Philippines back in the 1970s. He brands himself as a changemaker, and in some ways, he promises not to be like his father. It would be admittedly unjust to hold him fully accountable for the sins of another, even if the other person in question is next-of-kin.

However, any conversations about the various issues during the martial law years under the late President Ferdinand Marcos are often colored by political affiliations or differences in experiences, and necessarily affect the direction of the ongoing campaign. Some rightfully decry it as a brutal regime plagued by human rights violations, cronyism, and economic lows, as others look back with fond but misplaced nostalgia towards what they believe to have been a desirable golden age.

Advocates claiming that martial law days were a grand time in Filipino history must contend with the fact that economic data does not support this idea. It might be that not every region in the country was equally affected by the policies, which leads some individuals in the diverse citizenry to look upon martial law more favorably. To set the record straight though, martial law was not great for the Philippines, not from an economic perspective, nor a humanitarian one.

A discussion paper drafted by economists from the University of the Philippines discusses these topics more closely. Although it is true that the Philippines recorded high economic growth for at least two years in the 1970s after martial law, parsing of data shows those gains did little to prevent what followed. Poverty reached all-time heights, social unrest and hunger were rampant, the purchasing power of the peso fell, incomes shrank, and until the recovery in the early 2000s, it is said that as many as twenty years of potential development were lost under the authoritarian regime.

Economist Jan Carlo Punongbayan succinctly summarized what every Filipino should know concerning the tragic case of the martial law epoch. It was not an economic golden era, life was not comfortable then, and crony capitalism and corruption were pervasive. The Philippines did not rise during martial law, so any promise to make it rise again as in those days would be ironic and empty. Filipino incomes lagged behind those of ASEAN neighbors, and national debt soared due to unsustainable borrowing. Evidence of its failure in the country is both convincing and overwhelming.

Naturally, one would be wise to look at such data and statements with a bit of suspicion, as aggregated figures and general proclamations do not always hold an accurate view of reality. Yet, setting aside these for the sake of argument, martial law in the Philippines was still a historically difficult period that cost not just so much in terms of money or economic losses, but also the lives of thousands of people who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed under deplorable circumstances as Filipinos resisted or otherwise expressed discontent against the dictatorship.

Even in the face of all this data and of these stories regarding the heinous acts that were done in those years, dubious accounts still proliferate that are sometimes evocative, but at other times are just propaganda. This includes sweeping pronouncements about the era, such as the Philippines being the second Asian economic power behind Japan, or the notion that German cars became as common as taxis on the streets of Manila, all during that time! The spread of selected nostalgic memories that ultimately lack economic nuance is quite pernicious; it muddles up the discourse and contributes to covering up the woes of back then, idealizing what was certainly not at all ideal.

The truth of the matter is that martial law was no utopian time. While it may not have had identical or universally comparable repercussions on every Filipino, the constant fear caused by the threat of force used then, the numerous abuses of highly centralized power, and the decades-long damage to life and livelihoods left in the wake of the economy that followed, all do not justify whatever supposedly positive things happened only to the few or the favored.

Whether or not the upcoming elections result in another Ferdinand Marcos being voted into the highest position in the country, it is not just the task of the son to get out from under the shadow of the father. The country itself must escape the dangerously romanticized rhetoric that the heavy hand of a harsh rule is required and acceptable to foster peace and prosperity in the Philippines. Any meaningful change in this perception can only be done through open communication that acknowledges and condemns the real horrors of martial law that Filipinos should truly never forget.