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(Speech delivered by Rep. Edcel C. Lagman at the Center for Liberalism and Democracy’s Martial Law Forum at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani on 17 September 2022)

On the 50th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr., it is vital that we understand why we commemorate the darkest years in Philippine history.

We commemorate the declaration of martial law not to celebrate a national tragedy but to remind ourselves not to forget the atrocities and plunder it spawned.

There are 3,200 reasons not to forget the brutalities of martial law – the 3,200 Filipinos documented by Amnesty International who perished during those horrific years at the hands of those who were sworn to protect them. This is not to mention the thousands more who were tortured, detained, raped, persecuted, and forcibly disappeared.

Commemorating the horrors of the past instills in us the obligation to guard and be vigilant against its recurrence. Remembering will make it more difficult to normalize violence and injustice.  Remembering will help foreclose the propensity of people to turn a blind eye on official corruption and misconduct. Remembering is honoring the victims and survivors of martial law and celebrating their lives and sacrifices. Remembering helps counter revisionist attempts to deodorize the dictator’s odious regime and sanitize the sins of the Marcoses against the Filipino people. Remembering is essential in demanding accountability.

I learned about the declaration of martial law from my younger brother, Atty. Hermon Lagman, in the wee hours of the morning of September 23, 1972, two days after Proclamation No. 1081 was furtively signed by the despot Ferdinand Marcos.

Shortly before Martial Law was declared, Mon and I were both working with then Senator Doy Laurel in the Senate Committee on Justice. I was chief legal counsel and head of the technical staff and he was one of my hardworking and dedicated associates.

When martial law was declared and Marcos shut down the Congress, I invited him to join the Romero and Lagman Law Office of which I was managing partner. Mon adamantly refused as he had already decided to serve exclusively labor clients and litigants and would put up his own labor law office.

But even if I already had my own law office and he had his, we were collaborating counsel in the case of the batilyos or fish haulers in Navotas. In June 1975, the Navotas batilyos bravely staged a mass “misa” protest action. In October 1975, the La Tondeña union of which Mon was also the lawyer, spearheaded the most celebrated open defiance of the martial law strike ban. Like the batilyo rally, the La Tondeña strike was also strongly supported by priests, nuns, and the community.

The next year, the strike ban defiance spread to other union-clients of Mon at the Mead Johnson-Bristol Group of Companies, Atlantic Gulf and Pacific Co., and Solid Mills.

For courageously challenging aboveground the martial law regime and its disastrous consequences on civil liberties and the national economy and his resolute crusade to promote and protect the rights of workers, he was forcibly disappeared by agents of the State and is still missing after 45 years. My kind, gentle, intelligent, and courageous brother was 32 at the time of his disappearance. He would have been 77 now.

We endlessly searched for him in all military camps and detention centers but we were faced with a blank wall. Ultimately, we had to accept his martyrdom as a courageous and patriotic desaparecido.

Mon’s disappearance 45 years ago broke my heart. Retelling today the story of his activism and subsequent disappearance breaks my heart all over again. But I should speak out and disseminate the truth for silence kills. It kills the truth. It kills freedom of expression. It kills the right to dissent. It kills democracy.

My two younger brothers, Hermon and Filemon or “Ka Popoy” were among the courageous dissenters and resistance leaders during martial law together with the men and women whose names are emblazoned right here on the Bantayog ng mga Bayani’s Wall of Remembrance.

My family’s experiences under martial law prompted me to work tirelessly for the enactment of a triumvirate of human rights laws that will protect citizens against abuses and violence, especially those perpetrated by the very people who are supposed to be our protectors and defenders – the police, military, and other government officials.

The “Anti-Torture Act” provides for the right to freedom from cruel, inhumane, and degrading punishment or treatment, in particular with respect to persons in custody and prisoners. For the first time in Philippine law, torture is recognized and penalized as a distinct crime. It also outlaws secret detention places and solitary confinement and provides for the rehabilitation of victims and their compensation.

The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights lauded the “Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act” the second in the triumvirate, as a “landmark legislation” that “demonstrates the political will of the Philippines and its people to prevent and eradicate the terrible practice of enforced disappearances”. This model law makes the Philippines the first country in Asia to criminalize the practice of enforced disappearance.

The third is the milestone “Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act”. The law’s Declaration of Policy states that: “[I]t is hereby declared the policy of the State to recognize the heroism and sacrifices of all Filipinos who were victims of summary execution, torture, enforced or involuntary disappearance and other gross human rights violations committed during the regime of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos covering the period from September 21, 1972 to February 25, 1986 and restore the victims’ honor and dignity. The State hereby acknowledges its moral and legal obligation to recognize and/or provide reparation to said victims and/or their families for the deaths, injuries, sufferings, deprivations and damages they suffered under the Marcos regime.”

It is tragic that while we are commemorating the 50th anniversary of the dictator’s marital law and condemning its evils and corruption, the highest office of the land is occupied by the very son and namesake of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. – the architect and executor of martial law.

As we remember the profligacies and injustices of martial law, our current President continues to extoll the so-called “golden age” of the Philippines under Marcos, Sr. and encourages historical revisionism by purging the sins of his father, his cronies, and the Marcos family by sweeping them under the filthy rug of historical perfidy.

Five decades later, the poisonous tree of martial law continues to bear the malignant and bitter fruits of deliberate disinformation and fake news proliferation; red-tagging and profiling of activists; distortion, even outright falsification, of historical facts; the official banning of books described as “subversive” and “anti-Marcos”; incursions on the freedom of expression and of the press; denial of official corruption; the nonexistence of remorse from martial law’s beneficiaries and their utter lack of accountability; and the elusiveness of genuine justice for martial law victims and survivors.

This is why it is vital that we cultivate a strong and nationwide culture of remembrance that goes beyond annual commemorations. The evils not only of Marcos’ martial law but all forms of tyranny must be systematically and comprehensively taught in schools so that children will know the names and stories of martial law heroes and martyrs like they know the names of the newest matinee idols, develop not only critical thinking but also an abhorrence to oppression and historical revisionism, and recognize the warning signs of nascent dictatorship.

For our nation to cultivate a culture of remembrance, the brutalities and venalities of the dictator’s martial law must be depicted in visual arts, shown in cinemas and television, heard in songs, told by survivors and their families through written chronicles. In Germany, thousands of commemorative plaques of victims of Hitler’s Nazi forces are spread throughout the country on the streets where they used to live or on the exact spot where they were abducted or killed as a constant and permanent reminder to Germans of the horrors of the Holocaust and an acknowledgement of the grievous sins and mistakes that should never be made again.

The second coming of the Marcoses proves how we as a nation failed to inculcate into our people’s collective memory the horrors and abuses committed against us by our own leaders. The fact that another Marcos is now President of the Republic must propel us to fight and stop their malicious machinery of lies and fake news with its widespread and insidious tentacles.

We cannot come to terms with this dark and violent period in our history if we do not look at it with unflinching eyes and without frank and honest discussion. We must ensure that the human rights laws that we have worked so hard to have enacted must be fully and properly implemented. We will remain plagued by the progenies of martial law – despotism, repression, dishonesty, and violence if we continue placing in power the very heirs and enablers of the dictator Marcos Sr.

The slogan “Never Again” is not used exclusively to refer to martial law in the Philippine context. It was first used as a battle cry against the horrors of the Holocaust and then genocide and tyranny in general. It was also a rallying call after the September 11 attacks.

But “Never Again” is more than a battle cry. It should be a moral code that we must live by. Never again must we allow ourselves to be victimized. Never again must our human rights be trampled upon. Never again must our nation be enveloped in fear and oppression. Never again should someone we love dearly lose his life so that we may live to enjoy basic freedoms. 

It is both a prayer and a promise that we will never forget the tragedy of martial law and that evil will never again be allowed to thrive. We should not forgive and forget the perpetrators and beneficiaries of Martial Law until they admit their odious crimes and show contrite repentance.

National amnesia must be purged as an abhorrent malaise. Never again!