By Leandro D. Quintana
As I write this piece it is just a few minutes into September 21, 2012 in the Philippines. Doubtless there are millions of Filipino adults and even many high school aged teens at the time, who still have vivid memories of the events leading to, surrounding and following those chaotic, and for many, deadly, hours and days when Ferdinand E. Marcos declared martial law and usurped all governmental powers. That date in fact very well ranks as our own “Day of Infamy”, the phrase used by US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt to describe the December 7, 1941 Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor which drew America into WWII.
What prompted me to drift into memory lane was reading Jess Dureza’s “Advocacy Now” piece where he recalled his own chain of events on that day and how it profoundly affected his life as it caused him to return to Davao and complete his then suspended law school studies.
My recollection of that day itself was quite different from that of Jess and many others , I must confess. As the news broke that martial law was declared, I was comfortably sipping a mai tai at the Chart House bar along the Ala Wai canal in Honolulu, Hawaii. I had left the country less than a month earlier to pursue a new career and life overseas. While this may have been somewhat bourgeoisie in nature, I was nevertheless very emotionally invested as to what was happening back home. Some of the people Jess mentions were also friends and acquaintances of mine and I cared very deeply for their well being.
One of them was the late Max Soliven, who was not only an important contact for me as a public relations operative for Philippine Airlines, but had also become a close personal friend over time. In fact my last few days in Manila were spent in his company. We moved around to his many haunts like the Country Bake Shop near the Luneta where other journalists of the time usually congregated to share the latest news or gossip of the day. I spent a few hours at his office at the corner San Marcelino and Herran in Ermita. It was also his mom’s house and in fact on that day, August 22nd I believe, had a long chat with her while Max hammered out his “By the Way” column on an old-style typewriter.
In one of our stops, lunch at the MOPC I believe, when we were finally alone and could speak openly, I offered my observation that the overall situation in the Philippines seemed ominous and that I could sense danger dripping all over the place. After all, this was not more than a year after the infamous bombing at Plaza Miranda that almost decimated the Liberal Party senatorial candidates who were holding their Miting de Avance to cap the 1971 political campaign. Marcos apparatus was quick to label the incident as the work of “communists”. He then used it to justify suspension of the writ of habeas corpus bringing to the minds of many the parallel to Adolf Hitler’s bombing of the bundestag as the precursor to his assumption of all powers in pre WWII Germany.
Also of grave concern was all the visible political unrest especially around Manila where young activists led by the Kabataang Makabayan and joined by thousands of students were marching the streets demanding drastic reforms and justice for the oppressed; a potent brew ripe for the exploitation. (“Ibagsak ang mga tuta ni Marcos” was a favorite chant of the protestors, by the way )
I’m afraid of a military type takeover of the country led by Marcos himself, is what I told Max. I then suggested to him that in light of the imminent danger, and since he was one of Marcos’ most virulent media critics, it was perhaps prudent for him to take his family out of the country and go on a sabbatical elsewhere.
While he agreed that things were not looking too bright, he said that he was not too worried. In fact I clearly remember him saying, as he sucked on his pipe, that whatever happens no one would “touch” him. I was not too surprised over his reaction. Over the years that I knew Max I had come to notice that he had a “warrior” mentality and attitude not only in his journalistic pursuits but also his very persona. For example, he was an avid gun collector and sometimes talked of his uzis and other armaments and how each one would be used in combat. He also had a prized knife and sword collection. One knife, a beautifully crafted and jeweled one from Toledo, Spain, was on display in his office. This was not a man who would run away from a fight.
Another reason perhaps for his confidence was the fact that over the years he had developed and cultivated friendships with many of the military and police leaders of the day. And he believed, perhaps, that if Marcos were to undertake a putsch, that he, Max, would be tipped off ahead of time by his many contacts in government and that he had time to take himself and his family out of harm’s way.
That’s not what happened though. As news broke of the martial law declaration I abandoned my half full mai tai to seek out a phone to call Manila. All communications were cut off. I did reach a close contact at the PAL office in SFO who gave me a complete rundown as to what was happening that fateful September 21 day. Ninoy Aquino, he said, along with Max Soliven, were among the very first ones arrested and jailed. Needless to say my heart sank. I feared for my friend Max. And as the days moved on my “circle of fear” grew larger. Family. Friends. Colleagues in the journalistic community who might be vulnerable and rounded up and treated badly.
In time we learned that although difficult, stressful even painful for many of the high profile detainees, they were eventually released, mostly with stringent conditions as to what they could do or say. Max was one of those freed from jail. His cellmate Ninoy was kept for some 10 years and had to go on a hunger strike to call attention to his and the country’s dire predicament. The rest is history.
The chapter is, sadly, not closed. There were thousands who were reportedly wiped out in one type of extrajudicial killing or another and whose murderers going off scot free. No finis can be written to this sad and tragic saga. Not while justice continues to keep a blind eye to the crimes of the Marcoses who have since been back and are now in power again, enhanced and much elevated in fact by the billions of dollars they looted from the Philippine nation when they ran roughshod over the country for 21 years. Thus, in a sense, this “Day of Infamy” is not just a scar on our country’s history; for as long as the Marcos regime lives on, revived and revitalized by the Marcos heirs, September 21, 1972 shall remain a gaping wound that will fester in our collective psyches for a long time to come.