Seminarians join a demonstration outside the Ateneo de Manila university campus on Sept. 20, on the eve of the anniversary of the martial law declaration. (Photo by Angie de Silva)
Church leaders in the Philippines have urged people not to forget the lessons of martial law as the country marked the 44th anniversary of the declaration of military rule on Sept. 21.
"We should not forget," said Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the bishops' conference. "We should always remember the lessons of history."
Former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law on Sept. 21, 1972, supposedly to suppress a growing armed communist insurgency.
Some 120,000 people were imprisoned during the martial law years that ended on Jan. 17, 1981, less than a month before Pope John Paul II visited the country.
"Let us not have social dementia. Let us not commit the mistakes of the past over and over again," said Bishop Gerardo Alminaza of San Carlos.
The prelate reminded Filipinos to avoid committing the mistakes of the past as he led a commemoration of a massacre of farmers in Negros Occidental province that took place on Sept. 20, 1985.
"These cultural reenactments are good to keep memories alive, a lot of our youth do not know what happened during martial law," noted the prelate.
Archbishop Villegas said one thing people should learn from the martial law years is the "lesson of standing up for what is right."
Activists march in the Manila to mark the 44th anniversary of the declaration of martial law on Sept. 21. (photo by Angie de Silva)
'Imprints of martial law' remain
On Sept. 21, activists marched in the streets of major cities of the country to voice concern over what they described as continuing human rights violations.
Jigs Clamor of human rights group Karapatan said the existence of political prisoners "proves that the imprints of martial law are still here."
To date, there are at least 525 political prisoners languishing in jails and detention centers around the country.
Clamor said the government's "anti-insurgency programs" have only changed in name since the Marcos dictatorship "but all have resulted in gross human and people’s rights violations."
"The root causes of massive unrest during the years of martial law continue to drive Filipinos to rebel and change the system," said Clamor.
He said the challenge for President Rodrigo Duterte is "to remove the imprints of martial law" by addressing poverty, lack of social services, corruption, among others.
Duterte, who came to power less than three months ago, has initiated peace talks with communist rebels aimed at ending almost 50 years of insurgency.
Among those who joined street protests on Sept. 21 were student activists who walked out of classes to demand "free education, protection of human rights, and just and lasting peace."
The students also said "widespread killings" of suspected drug pushers and users "are clear manifestations that gradually, we are being brought once again to the claws of martial law."
Some 3,000 people have already died in killings linked to President Duterte's all-out war against illegal drugs.
"Filipinos will never again allow the country to be under the rule of the military. The youth is set to fight any threat to the country’s democracy," said Kevin Castro, spokesman of the National Union of Students of the Philippines.
The students also expressed "grave concern" over the revival of mandatory military training for college students implemented during the time of Marcos.
Still paying for Marcos' misrule
Activist group Freedom from Debt Coalition said the "seeds of the country’s economic woes … were sown during the time of the late dictator."
"Marcos ranks among the most infamous plunderers not just in the nation’s history but in the history of the entire world," said Eduardo Tadem, the coalition's president.
When Marcos became president, the country’s foreign debt was less than US$1 billion. By the time he was ousted in 1986, it was US$26.4 billion.
The bulk of Marcos’ estimated US$8 to US$10-billion so-called hidden wealth has yet to be recovered.
This year's martial law anniversary is observed in the midst of an ongoing debate on the propriety of burying Marcos in the country's cemetery for heroes.
"That such a debate is taking place at all is perhaps the most glaring reminder that the lessons of that terrible chapter in our history have not been learned," said Tadem.