Martial Law Stories: Who Is Marshall Law?

 President Ferdinand Marcos

President Ferdinand Marcos

I was in the barrio of Biasong, Leyte when martial law was declared. I hadn't known that Marcos had declared martial law, because there was no radio or newspaper where I was staying. I do remember that morning though. I had set out early for Ormoc enroute to Cebu. An eerie quiet had descended on the town, and the usual hustle and bustle that started around 4:00 a.m., with fishermen, vendors and housewives washing their clothes--none of that was happening. I took a cab to the pier to buy my ticket back to Cebu. The lines were unusually short, and the tempers among the passengers were unusually mild. I boarded the small, not so crowded boat around 12:00 noon and reached Cebu at 5:00 that evening.

Meeting me at the dock were our maid and her son. The pier was unusually quiet. We unloaded my luggage and swiftly took a cab back to Espiña Village. Jumping out of the cab and running into the house, I asked my mother if something was wrong? Before she could answer, the phone rang. It was my aunt who calmly told me that Marcos had declared martial law! I was blown away.

At first I didn't believe her because she told me in a rather joking tone. I asked her if she was kidding me, and she responded, "No." She said Marcos had planned a national broadcast for 8:00 p.m. when he would explain why he declared martial law, as well as explain the full text of Proclamation 1081, which imposed it. I was in a state of shock. As I reflected back on the day's events, it all of a sudden clicked why there were hardly any people on the streets, on the pier and in the market places.

Martial law had been declared and the lock down on democracy and political dissent would be complete by eight o'clock that evening. For the next three hours, the Filipino people held its collective breath and waited.

I took a bath, ate a light dinner and headed over to cousin Millie's house to listen to Marcos' statement. He didn't come over the airwaves until almost 9:30 p.m. During the long wait, Millie, to break the ice, joked about "Who is Marshall Law?" I didn't think she was so funny. Finally, the radio crackled and Marcos began to speak...not in Tagalog, but in English!

Starting with his opening statement: "I am ordering Proclamation 1081, the imposition of martial law to go into effect upon completion of my statement..." I honestly could not believe that he was saying what I thought I was hearing. It was too unbelievable, too much like fiction, too fantastic to comprehend. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever be in a situation where democracy, as I have come to know it, would end. I had read in history books about different countries, mainly in Latin America, where martial law had been imposed. But I never thought it could happen in the Philippines. I have to say honestly that I was scared shitless!

The next morning, only one newspaper reached the newsstands, and it was a Marcos-controlled paper. By the time I got there almost all the copies were gone. Clearly, the population of Cebu City had already descended on every newspaper stand, as well as every supermarket, buying out the canned goods, meat, candles and batteries. Cars lined up at gas stations, and the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT) wires were burning up with calls to relatives and friends all over the islands and abroad.

In the streets, tanks and armored vehicles positioned themselves. The Philippine Armed Forces camps were on "red alert," and the Philippine Constabulary, the national police force, manned every corner and alley. Roadblocks were set up on the major highway. The entire island of Cebu was now an armed encampment.

Radio and television stations, the national and local press and universities and all interisland and overseas travel stopped operating. Each island was left unto itself, rife with anxiety and chaos as citizens scrambled for whatever provisions they could get their hands on. By noon, the streets of uptown and downtown Cebu City were deserted. Everyone stayed home, close to radios or television sets, waiting for the next government announcement. No mid-day announcement came.

By late in the evening, the Marcos government aired a progress report. The government had successfully raided "safe houses", universities, churches--anywhere they suspected communist activists and sympathizers might be hiding. Thousands of people, all over the Philippines, were arrested and sent immediately to trial or torture or swiftly to their deaths.

My mother knew that I had a long and active history with the struggle for civil rights and social justice in the United States, where I had grown up. She also knew that I was not one to just sit idly by and watch as the Marcos fascist machine bore down on the population. She made a decision. I had to leave the Philippines immediately. But all interisland and overseas travel had ceased. She made me promise not to do anything rash or stupid to cause the authorities to take notice of me. I complied with her wishes so as not to place my immediate family in jeopardy.

After one week, Marcos allowed interisland and overseas travel to resume. It was thought that by doing this he would not appear to be a ruthless dictator in the international press. As he lifted the travel ban, he also announced that no one who was "peace-minded," complied with Proclamation 1081 and held foreign passports (provided they did not offer support to the communist insurgency) would be arrested or detained. This was the signal my mother needed. She immediately made travel plans to Manila; there, she would purchase my ticket back to the United States.

Early the following day, I was ready to leave. Packing all through the night, I managed to fit everything I needed in two medium-size suitcases. In the afternoon, we headed for Mactan Airport where my mother and I boarded a plane for Manila.

Arriving two hours later, we were met by my aunt. We stayed there for another two days while my mother arranged for my flight back to the United States. I made several phone calls to friends I had known in the U.S., who had since returned back home. One person, in particular, Luz, arranged to meet me at Manila International Airport. She had a small, inconspicuous envelope she wanted delivered to a mutual friend in San Francisco. I agreed to take it.

Manila International Airport was under construction at the time so it was completely enclosed by cyclone fencing and looked more like an armed camp than an airport. Luz and I met in the main restaurant. We exchanged pleasantries, talked briefly and then she gave me the envelope. My mother didn't want to enter the airport, so she stood outside, waiting for my plane to take off. At last it was ready, and one last search of carry-on baggage was conducted.

When I got the envelope from Luz, I divided the contents, placing some papers inside the jacket of one of the record albums, the bulkier papers, I placed inside an envelope labeled "flight insurance," which I then placed in my passport folder. I decided to take the bag that contained the record albums on board with me so as not to have them broken or chipped in the general luggage compartment. When it was time for the inspector to check my carry-on luggage, he fumbled around, looking between and inside each album. As he came close to the one that contained the envelope, my heart raced. Sweat had already begun to form on my brow and nape and roll down my back. I knew he would find it. I knew I was going be in trouble.

When he finally reached the record album, he opened it up and found the papers. He took them out and started to read them. Bunched in his hands were newspaper clippings and articles from magazines Luz had managed to cut out the day before martial law was declared. There was also a letter addressed to John and the Kalayaan collective in San Francisco. It was my unfortunate luck that since martial law was declared, the definition of "contraband" had changed and now included any and all pieces of propaganda written against the regime.

The inspector looked at me long and hard. He immediately summoned representatives from the armed forces. All in all, fifteen men with rapid-fire machine guns surrounded me. I could barely move. Next, a government official came and seized my passport folder. He rifled through it, taking my passport. I knew that very moment that he was about to ask me what was inside the envelope labeled "flight insurance." By this time I was an absolute wreck.

I quickly got my wits about me and demanded to know why they were detaining me, after all I was an American citizen. They explained that they had found anti-government propaganda in my carry-on, and wanted to know who gave it to me, and why I was in the Philippines. All the while my mother stood outside the gates of the airport wondering why my plane hadn't taken off.

Stalling for time, I demanded to speak with American Embassy officials and have them present during my interrogation. They denied my request. I again insisted that I be put through to the American Embassy. And again they refused. By now I thought for sure they were going to arrest me and send me off to Camp Crame or Muntinlupa. [Camp Crame became the main detention facility for political prisoners during martial law. Muntinlupa, on the other hand, is Manila's main prison and held principally criminal detainees.] Instead, they brought me to a small room with a little lamp and proceeded to ask me more questions. It was the same thing over and over, only each time they asked, the questions were re-phrased in an attempt to get me mixed up and confused. But I held my ground. By this time, my plane was already delayed two hours, and I knew the other passengers were pissed.

Flinging my passport folder on the table in front of me, one inspector asked me what was in the envelope labeled "flight insurance." For a split-second I thought I should just give up, but I quickly dispelled that thought and decided to bluff him. I responded, "What do you think is in that envelope? It says flight insurance. If you want to look inside, just open it." He slowly picked up the envelope and pressed it against the light of the lamp. He could only see my flight insurance forms, which I had wrapped around the papers Luz had given me. So, all the inspector was able to discern from the shadow of the envelope was precisely what I had told him. He placed the envelope back in the folder and gave it to me. I breathed a slow and heavy sigh.

In the meantime, other inspectors took my luggage off the plane and proceeded to rip it open, looking for other papers or perhaps some secret compartment. They found none. I was then released, given some rope to tie my luggage together and told to board the plane.

As I ran down the tarmac, I took one last, long look at the Philippines and my poor mother standing outside the gate. I cried out, fearing that I would never see her or my brother again. That was the longest seventeen-hour ride back to the United States.

When I arrived in the U.S. I immediately contacted John. We met at the United Filipino Association office where I handed him the envelope. He opened it and placed the contents on the table. Well, I have to say that I'm glad those inspectors never opened the envelope, for inside was a five-year summation of the armed struggle in the Philippines, written by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Also in it was the latest printed copy of Ang Bayan, the news organ of the CPP. Could you imagine what those officials would have done if they had found those documents? I shiver to think.


This article is excerpted from A Time to Rise: Collective Memoirs of The Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP), Rene Ciria Cruz, Cindy Domingo, and Bruce Occena (Editors), University Of Washington Press, October 2017.

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Jeanette Gandionco Lazam, born and raised in New York City, was a member of the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP) and later the International Hotel Tenants Association in San Francisco. She retired after working for U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee of the 9th Congressional District.