The Marcos government declared Martial Law on September 21, 1972, although it was only announced to the public on September 23, after a night of rumors and military raids and arrests. Metro Manila awoke to an ominous silence.
And then what?
Nothing. Later a government broadcaster announced that not a single crime had been committed that day. Never mind what the country had lost in terms of civil liberties, human rights, the constitution!
The country came back to life slowly. Schools started in four weeks or so – but with caution and under watchful eyes. Most schools were charged with policing themselves. This was something new: schools had generally been safe areas for thinking and discussing, and though occasionally threatened from without, free within. Now school administrators were forced to keep students and faculty in line, under threat of closure. Now students and faculty cast wary eyes on the janitor who loitered in the hall, and regarded new students, new procedures, and new requirements with suspicion.
But students will be students, and soon graffiti began to appear on walls, especially in rest rooms, and one page, crudely reproduced subversive publications began to appear suddenly in piles on tables in areas students walked by. There were also lightening demonstrations: a group of students would suddenly assemble in the cafeteria or some other very populated place, chant a few slogans, raise a few fists, and be gone. One group in U.P. would appear, sing the National Anthem, and dissolve into the crowd. How can that be criticized?
And soon teachers relaxed too, and went back to being teachers, and class discussions became more real. Teachers often fell into private political discussions with four or five students after class, in hallways, or offices.
When limited student organizations were allowed to resume, in the Ateneo, at least, they were cast in a religious framework of Christian care for the poor. Immersion programs were set up: privileged Ateneans were housed with families in poor communities for a week or so, going back to campus to process this whole new reality. Pre-med students started a group that gave primary health care to mountain people. High school students from the Ateneo tutored public school students, bursting with pride when their students got college scholarships. Ateneo itself began a very generous and far reaching scholarship program. College in those years was life changing to many.
The four or five years before martial law had been very chaotic, filled with radical voices, extreme positions, rallies, violence: students killed, people disappearing. For a long time after the declaration, there were no rallies, no demonstrations, no very noisy voices. But people did begin to organize, and think, and talk. And in a way the analysis of the national situation became much deeper, much more thoughtfully discussed when the extra noise and confusion had abated. Within schools and within the greater society, organizations sprung up: organizations focused on health care, or disaster mitigation, or small enterprise that offered employment and locally produced goods, or literacy education. None of these efforts were framed in strident political terms, although some of them did stir the ire of the martial law government: In 1982 Dr. Bobby dela Paz was gunned down in Samar doing primary health care among the very poor – but empowering these people, encouraging them to take their lives into their own hands Bobby had gone to Samar as a new graduate of medicine in U.P., challenged to serve the poor for two years, but at the end of that time, he did not want to leave. He went into private practice but continued to treat the poor for free, day or night, in the increasingly militarized island of Samar. He did this work without political rhetoric.
What will happen now as the country comes out of this very strident, noisy election period? Silence. But then people will start to think again, and wheels will move. People will look around and try out the limits of the new government. They will find new ways to respond to whatever happens. We may be in for another period of struggle, but we will struggle.
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