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Saying “Never Again” to Martial Law: A Sharing for Today’s Student Youth

(Message to Dean’s Listers of the Ateneo de Naga University, 26 September 2015)

By Judge Soliman M. Santos, Jr.

First of all, I join the many today who will be congratulating you the current Dean’s Listers of the prestigious Ateneo de Naga University and also your accompanying proud parents. It is an honor to be asked to deliver some remarks to you on the occasion of your Recognition Day, particularly with some reference or relation to the recent 43rd anniversary of martial law in this country. I happen to have lived through martial law or the years of the Marcos dictatorship from 21 September 1972 till its ouster on 25 February 1986 by the EDSA People Power Revolution. I would imagine that many of the parents here also lived through those years. I hope they can join me also in sharing their own martial law experience and its life insights with you their children. Allow me now to share with you my own personal stories, learnings and values from those years.

Pre-Martial Law Student Activist Generation

In September 1972, I was a nearly 19-year old college sophomore and student activist at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City. I have been a university scholar (US) and college scholar (CS), the equivalent of the Dean’s List in U.P. As a college freshman in the second semester of 1970, I had joined the U.P. chapter of the radical national-democratic (nat-dem) youth and student activist organization Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan (SDK).

I belong to that pre-martial law generation of student activists that were then generated by what was called the “First Quarter Storm (FQS) of 1970.” This was the series of seven big activist street demonstrations, rallies and marches from January to March 1970 around downtown Manila protesting against the emerging abuses of the government under President Ferdinand E. Marcos, then newly elected for a second four-year term. Some of these demonstrations, most notably what was called the “Battle of Mendiola” just outside Malacañang Palace in 30 January 1970, witnessed violent clashes between demonstrators and riot police, resulting in the shooting deaths of at least four students, victims of the very police brutality that was one of the protest issues. I was not yet a student activist then but, as a graduating senior at the Philippine Science High School, I could not but sympathize with and admire those student protesters. How could you not admire them as they linked arms and shouted their now iconic battle-cry “Makibaka, Huwag Matakot!”? At least they were doing something in fighting for a cause, against oppression and other societal ills.

My high school idol was the valedictorian of the first batch of PSHS, one year ahead of my second batch, and then already in college as freshmen mostly in U.P. and mostly continuing to be scholars there. The PSHS valedictorian I am referring to is Reynaldo B. Vea, who was one of those FQS protesters, himself already an exemplary student leader who later became the National Chairman of the SDK. Long before our fellow SDK days in U.P., he was to me in high school the best model of a student who was able to combine excellence in academics with leadership in extra-curricular student affairs, and still having time for a girlfriend. By the way, Rey Vea is presently the President of the Mapua Institute of Technology, one of the country’s foremost engineering schools. In U.P., it was only natural for me to join Rey in SDK. My own activist baptism of fire was as a participant in what was called the “Diliman Commune” when we students barricaded the whole campus in protest against police intrusion in early February 1971. In fact, the “Commune” was sparked by the university entrance shooting and eventual death of my fellow PSHS batchmate, college freshman and SDK member Pastor R. Mesina at the hands of a mad Math Professor who happened to idolize Marcos.

The U.P. Experience

I must confess that after graduating from PSHS, and passing the entrance exams of both U.P. and Ateneo de Manila in 1970, I almost chose Ateneo. This was not because I actually once had the ambition of becoming a Jesuit priest, arising from the influence of two special Jesuit priest friends of my parents. No, I almost chose Ateneo because of the “special relationship” at that time between the then all-boys Ateneo and the neighboring then all-girls Maryknoll (now Miriam) College in Katipunan Avenue, Loyola Heights. This time, somehow head prevailed over heart and I went to U.P. – which anyway had no lack of girls. Of course, the fact that most of my PSHS batchmates chose U.P. and that both my parents and both my grand-fathers went to U.P. may have swung my decision in its favor. I sometimes wonder whether my life path would have been different had I chosen Ateneo, especially in terms of my life’s activist orientation.

The U.P. experience is of course a unique and special one. But perhaps there wouldn’t have been much of a difference in terms of the activist path because Filipino student activism was at its height all over the country, including in Naga City, in the early 1970s. Both Ateneo de Manila and Ateneo de Naga were then hotbeds of student activism in their own right. It was not only U.P., Lyceum, PCC and the rest of the university belt in Manila. In fact, the previous decade of the 1960s was known, among others, for the global phenomenon of “Student Power.” That was the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, one could simply not escape it. As they say, you are a product of your times. Incidentally, during the years when I was back in Naga after graduation from U.P. in 1975, my impression of the Ateneo de Naga student extra-curricular activities atmosphere was that it was more like U.P. than it was like Ateneo de Manila (consider that a compliment).

Generational Defining Moments

The activist times and the martial law period from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s were the defining moments of my student generation. Perhaps in the same way that the Japanese war and occupation years from 1941 to 1945 were the defining moments of my parents’ generation. Incidentally, the world also recently commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of that Second World War. Lest we forget, this Ateneo de Naga campus was once used as a Japanese garrison. In a conscious attempt to draw on living memories of that Japanese time, martial law activists, rebels and the mass base would refer to the Philippine military and constabulary as “mga Hapon.” Those two eras were among the worst of times for this country, times that tested and molded your character, times that made you or broke you, and in fact, for many, times that killed you.

Those may not have been the best of times but they definitely could bring the best out of you, in fact, in the case of many, by laying down their lives for others. My generation and my parents’ generation had the fortune or misfortune of living in interesting times, oftentimes too interesting for comfort. According to today’s fountain of knowledge Wikipedia, “May you live in interesting times” is an English expression purported to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse. Martial law and the Japanese war were perhaps such a kind of interesting times, the kind that amounts to a curse. On the other hand, bad times are also what one make of them. The boredom of uninteresting times can also kill – the spirit, if not the body. I will go back to this “interesting times” discourse in the end.

Martial Law Declared, Going Underground

When martial law was publicly announced on government TV in the afternoon and early evening of 23 September 1972, after radio and TV silence and no newspapers in the stands since the early morning of that day (following a night of nationwide though mainly Greater Manila Area arrests of activists in various sectors, opposition politicians, and media persons by the military and the then Philippine Constabulary), even though the corresponding presidential Proclamation No. 1081 was dated two days earlier on 21 September 1972, I was personally astounded that Marcos actually did it. We activists sort of expected it, as it had been building up since his suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus on 21 August 1971, hours after that night’s Plaza Miranda bombing of a Liberal Party rally. When martial law was declared more than a year later, the first thought that came to my mind was “This is war!” and soon thereafter I decided to drop out of U.P., go underground with the illegalized nat-dem movement, and leave home, all without leave from my parents, only leaving them a letter to inform and explain to them my decision.

My activist cause of fighting against the Marcos dictatorship and for an alternative nat-dem society had become more important to me than my studies. And since the activist organizations like the SDK were illegalized as “subversive organizations” and could no longer operate aboveground, the activist work then had to be done underground. Imagine the worry and disappointment of my parents. Again, that was no longer so much a concern to me, just like my studies and scholarships. To sacrifice this was the least that one could do, when called upon by Inang Bayan, as we activists saw it, inspired by the example of our nation’s heroes from its earlier history. This martial law was another war on our people, and we felt that it was our turn and our honor to offer our lives, if necessary, true to the last line in the national anthem. Despite my parents’ valid misgivings, to their credit, they respected my decision and only cautioned me to be careful. Even before martial law, true to their liberal upbringing of us three children at home, they never restrained me and my younger brother from our involvement in radical student activism.

It has been said that one must not let one’s schooling get in the way of one’s education. I learned more about Philippine society and revolution from the discussion groups (DGs) and “Learn from the Masses” drives of SDK than from my subjects and classes at U.P. The most important activist learning was the value of “serve the people” and selflessness in this context – seemingly diametrically opposed to the “selfie-ness” of your present-day millennial generation. It helps though when your university has as its longtime iconic symbol the Oblation statue of a man facing upward with arms outstretched, symbolizing selfless offering of oneself to the country. And where, because of state subsidies, all its students were later, in fact during the martial law years, called “Iskolar ng Bayan.” It helps further, like in my case, when the initials of one’s fraternity are parlayed to mean no longer just “Advocates of Scholarship” but also “Alay sa Sambayanan.”

Rebellion and Oligarchy

When Marcos proclaimed martial law, it was actually to perpetuate himself in power beyond the end of his second term in 1973. But what he announced instead as his two objectives were “to save the Republic (from a Communist-led rebellion) and reform our society (into what he called the New Society).” With regards to the rebellion sought to be suppressed by martial law, Marcos made particular mention, among others, of the following: “The New People’s Army and the Communist Party (of the Philippines) have also sought to establish in a similar pattern (to that of Isabela), a rural sanctuary in the province of Camarines Sur and are attempting to expand into Albay, Sorsogon and Camarines Norte as well as Quezon Province.” He also made special mention of the “tremendous increase” in the operations of two “front organizations:” first, the Kabataang Makabayan as “the most militant organization of the Communist Party,” and second, the SDK which he described as “an outspoken front organization” with “highly indoctrinated and fanatical members” (that would include me, thank you, Mr. Marcos, for the historical credit).

In trying to suppress the rebellion, martial law instead suppressed more the fundamental freedoms and civil liberties of the people, especially their freedoms of speech, of expression, of the press and of assembly. More fundamentally, martial law not only suppressed but actually killed whatever existing regime of democracy in the Philippines with its replacement by one-man rule with the whole military, constabulary and police force as his private army. This in turn resulted in widespread and systematic human rights violations, with estimates of at least 3,240 “salvaged” or extra-judicially killed, 759 forcibly disappeared, 34,000 tortured, and 70,000 detained often without proper arrest warrants and charges. These cold statistics do not, however, do justice in conveying the full human pain, indignity or loss by these martial law victims and their families, as well as the collective cost to the social fabric.

In the end, as pointed out by University of Baguio Law Dean Pablito V. Sanidad Sr., Marcos not only did not achieve either of his announced two objectives of martial law. On the contrary, the Communist-led rebellion became bigger and stronger, and Philippine society was instead perverted by military supremacy over civilian authority and the old oligarchy was replaced by a new oligarchy of Marcos cronies who, together with the generals, plundered the wealth and resources of the nation to fatten themselves. Absolute power indeed corrupted absolutely. Eventually, the economic and financial situation of the country was no longer tenable. The percentage of people living in poverty in the cities almost doubled from 24% to 40%. The worst signs of the times, as pointed out by fellow activist and book author Susan F. Quimpo, were the rice shortages with long lines for rationing at the Kadiwa Centers, the gasoline shortages with long lines for rationing at gas stations, and the electric power shortages resulting in power outages and electricity rationing per district.

Marcosian “Golden Age”?

No, except for the short-lived outwardly peace and order in the streets and the fear-induced and sloganeered discipline of the first year or so of martial law, the latter did not work, as it eventually all unraveled, including by its own undoing, notably the 21 August 1983 assassination of the returning oppositionist former Senator Ninoy Aquino. The much ballyhooed martial law infrastructure of roads and bridges was certainly true only for the Ilocos home region of Marcos, the veritable demigod “Apo” to the Ilocanos. To sum it up, that martial law of the past did not work. Never again should we go back to that except as a matter of truthful history to learn its lessons so as not to be condemned to repeat it.

But do not just take my word for it about what I can only give now as a general or overall picture of martial law. I have given only my view of the overall balance of things with martial which for me was largely negative. As the critical minds you should be as Dean’s Listers, if you do not know what really happened during martial law, as is understandably the case with many of your generation, then find out for yourselves through good reading up and even academic research. And this should be not only via your accustomed internet surfing, including the shortcut hashtag #NeverAgain. The social investigation (SI) we did during our time was hardly desk-bound.

Political Detention and Legal Struggle

Let me go back a bit to my personal martial law story. While still in the underground in early 1973, my parents welcomed me back home and even allowed me to use my room as an underground press for several revolutionary publications. But on the night of 19 April 1973, our home was raided by a military intelligence and I was arrested and then detained mainly at Camp Aguinaldo until I was released on 15 June 1973. I was actually one of the luckier political detainees. Aside from my short detention of less than two months, I was not subjected to torture -- other than the unappetizing prison food That was how I spent my “summer vacation” of 1973. Upon release, I immediately re-enrolled at U.P. to show the military that I was rehabilitating myself to be a “good boy.” Of course, I soon enough went back to underground work with SDK while continuing my studies. By that time, I had lost my NSDB scholarship and shifted from B.S. Electronics Engineering to A.B. History, which course I figured would allow me more time for activism and with which course I eventually graduated cum laude on 13 April 1975.

But I do not consider that graduation cum laude as my most important achievement at U.P. Rather, it was my part in developing what we activists called “legal struggle” under martial law. This was initially done by building nat-dem core groups within existing or new campus organizations so as to lead these into directions supportive of the nat-dem cause, which included the anti-dictatorship struggle. I personally worked with several activist friends and classmates in this by joining the Alpha Sigma Fraternity and founding a new Lipunang Pangkasaysayan (LIKAS). To make a long story short, this kind of work with activist-guided legal organizations in many schools, communities and factories contributed to the building of an open mass movement in the cities that was to be part of the anti-dictatorship forces. Incidentally, my other important personal achievement at U.P. was meeting my future wife through LIKAS. Indeed, there still was love and marriage in the time of martial law.

Classmates Killed in Action

Unfortunately, there was also much death. Many of my contemporary activists did not survive martial law, especially those who chose to serve the people by armed struggle. Let me mention just two. First is Alexander A. Belone II who was my classmate at Naga Parochial, Philippine Science and U.P. After his first year at U.P. which saw the Diliman Commune death of our Pisay batchmate Sonny Mesina, Alex’s parents had him transfer to UNC, back to the relative safety of Naga. Second is William Vincent A. Begg of Legazpi City, who was kicked out for his activism at Ateneo de Manila, and transferred to U.P. where we became the closest friends in Alpha Sigma and LIKAS. Billy was only 24 when he was killed in action as a CPP-NPA cadre in an encounter with the military on 22 March 1975 in Villarey, Echague, Isabela. I had to break this sad news to my brod’s father.

Alex was only 28 when he was killed in action as a CPP-NPA cadre in an encounter with the constabulary on 11 October 1980 in Coguit, Balatan, Camarines Sur. I was able to personally get an eyewitness account of it for his family only in 2014 on my sentimental visit to the place while I was still Acting Presiding Judge at the Municipal Trial Court of Balatan. Alex and Billy were among those that the Philippine Daily Inquirer recently referred to as the “Best and brightest dead before 30.” It is “never too young to be heroes.” Theirs was the supreme sacrifice that must be given due recognition. The freedoms we presently enjoy that were won back in EDSA 1986 would not have been possible without their part of the anti-dictatorship struggle. Some of that recognition is now immortalized in the Bantayog ng mga Bayani.

Many of those who names are enshrined in the Bantayog were, truth to tell, CPP-NPA cadres like Alex and Billy. That should not really be surprising because, to give historical credit where it is due, for the most part of the more than 13 years of martial law, especially its earlier darker years, it was the CPP-NPA which was the main resistance to the Marcos dictatorship. Their heroic deaths fighting the dictatorship are what merit the honor roll in that memorial wall.

Best and Brightest, For Whom?

Today, in this occasion of yours, we speak of a different recognition, one also well-deserved, this time for academic excellence. You are obviously the brightest students of Ateneo de Naga. The obvious follow-up question or challenge is: are you, or can you, also be its best students? In the Foreword of the recently launched Ateneo de Naga University Press book Bikol Magis about the different generations of Ateneo de Naga students over eight decades, co-editor Greg S. Castilla writes, “In the context of our Ateneo education, Ateneans are always challenged to do more by striving for excellence and growing to be men and women for others.” I believe that it is the latter – being men and women for others – that is the proper parameter for being or becoming the best, and not just the brightest. Being the best involves not only the mind but also the heart and the soul. Of what value is your academic excellence if it does not serve the people, benefit your community, help our country, but only yourself or your family?

In my remarks, I tried to show how my activist generation showed our love of country during the time of martial law by fighting the Marcos dictatorship and to restore democracy. How do you show your love of country during your time now? Of course, these are different times. There is no big over-arching enemy like the Marcos dictatorship or the Japanese occupation. Except of course the global problem of climate change. But there are still so many problems of our country or even our city. For example, the rebellion and the oligarchy that martial law was supposed to solve are still there. This is not to say that things have remained the same, have not changed at all. They have. And these are different times. And you are a different kind of student youth than we were during our time.

“May you live in interesting times”

What can you do to help in your own small way? It is best that you find your own answers to this question. Let me just say that the fight now is on multiple fronts, some big and some small. Not only the issues of the day but also more so your forms of struggle will be quite different from ours. The social media have become the new major arena for what we called propaganda work. Your savvy with keeping it short and sweet (or tweet), unlike us in our time, should work well for you. Only you can perhaps fully connect with your fellow student youth.

Let me end by saying, “May you live in interesting times,” but hoping that this will not give you a curse of a problem to deal with. The real curse is to live in uninteresting times, which is boring. If that is the case with your time now, then your challenge is to make it interesting. Or as Professor John Keating in the movie Dead Poets Society put it, “Carpe diem, seize the day, make your lives extraordinary!”


SOLIMAN M. SANTOS, JR. is presently Judge of the Regional Trial Court of Naga City Branch 61 since 2016. Before that, he was Judge of the 9th Municipal Circuit Trial Court of Nabua-Bato, Camarines Sur since 2010. He has been a long-time Bikolano human rights lawyer, peace advocate and book author. He has an A.B. History cum laude from the University of the Philippines in 1975, a LL.B. from the University of Nueva Caceres in Naga City in 1982, and a LL.M. from the University of Melbourne in 2000.


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