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The Middle Children of the Republic

September 21, 2013

I was born in the year Marcos was overthrown by EDSA.

There really were no Martial Law horror stories for me from my family. No one was arrested, tortured, or even just censured a la Ariel Ureta – this last one was confirmed false by Ureta himself. Our family was greatly at peace during the Martial Law period, being insulated from politics.

I grew up in a Philippines struggling to get out of the dictatorial rut the Marcoses had driven it in. It was not a simple problem of brown-outs, mind you, or the peace and order situation. It was the fact that the military’s top brass had considered taking over the government, and if they had succeeded, they would have made us like Myanmar, and Corazon Aquino like Aung San Suu Kyi. The West would have romanticised us once more, and we would be very popular in art circles. But that didn’t happen because Cory stood her ground and fought the power-hungry generals as much as she could. She had help from Fidel Ramos, who became the next president, and up until the end of the Ramos presidency we had a semblance of parliamentary dignity. (Miriam will disagree, and I totally understand, but the very fact that she was active in the political scene during the Ramos presidency is proof that we were at least trying to work things out.)

I and my second brother were the first of the family to grow up in this post-EDSA environment. My elder cousins, my aunts and uncles, my parents, my grandparents – they experienced another world. This world was so fascinating to me, the period of the 1960s and 1970s – the period people would demarcate as “Martial Law” (incorrect) or the Marcos Era. If Marcos was bad, my young mind reasoned, why did people elect him? I read up on the achievements of this period, as well as the human rights violations and the general degradation of society at that time.

It turned out to be – surprise! – a problem from way, WAY back. It wasn’t the Marcos Era that was wrong, I thought, but the entire four-decade block post-independence! I read about the machinations that propelled Magsaysay into power, the defeat of Garcia’s Filipino First dream, Macapagal’s decontrol policy, the student riots of 1968, 1969, and 1970, the First Quarter Storm.

Why am I bringing this up on the anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law?

There is this article by Benjamin Pimentel making the rounds, asking us to never be swayed by the Marcos loyalists who told us that it was much better back then, during the Martial Law period.

I actually didn’t want to write for this day, because in all honesty I do not see that now or back then was any better. I saw it as an exercise in futility to argue for or even against the return of a dictatorship in the Philippines. Lee Kuan Yew was laughing at us, wasn’t he? Let him, I said. He’s right, but not in the way the Marcos loyalists think he is.

Of course – back then, when the peso was about equal in worth to the dollar (that meant that the peso was really strong in the world market), our purchasing power was much larger. We also lived a much simpler life, content with our modest work opportunities in the Philippines. Those who could go abroad, went abroad, usually to the US, the eternal-forever-and-ever mother ship, and did great there as immigrants. We looked like a faraway American province: not really a banana republic, but more like the brown, non-state version of Arizona. But we did well in geopolitics, domestic economy (we were poised to take off after the reconstruction), and tourism.

But there were other problems, and this is why I’m writing. Chief of them is the maintenance, and even strengthening, of the crushing principalia class, all the way from the Lacandolas to the present political families. Several families made their fortunes crushing other families and making them work as peons. Our past mainly-agricultural industry was filled with it. Sugar? Coconut? Rice? Corn? Tobacco? And now, there are more industries being ruled this way. This is one thing we have never neglected to point out. The Philippines, from that period up to this very moment and continuing, is a multiple oligarchy. ‘Feudal’ doesn’t even cut it. We are under simultaneous dictatorships from each ruling family. They rule primarily our political lives, but also our economic and social lives.

It doesn’t feel like a dictatorship, because these dictators are too small in scope and even contradict and fight with each other at times. We pass through dictators every day, and the funny thing is that they don’t freaking have to be – because we are the masters and we could vote them out of office, only we do not because we’ve become too freaking comfortable with the devil we know.

The article I mentioned was written to the people born after Marcos, which, in an umbrella-like fashion, includes me. Consider the following paragraphs my response, then:

Mr. Benjamin Pimentel, sir, I believe you mean to write to the people who grew up during the Estrada and Arroyo presidencies. Our half-generation, which sprouted from just before Marcos was expelled to the end of the coups, is (I dare say) different. We perceive, more than either your generation or the generation you must be writing to, that nothing has been changed by EDSA. It is still the same sick system of oligarchy and massive, shameless corruption. And we perceive that because it is we who have been made so sick by it that we wanted to disassociate ourselves from the country in shame. We love the Philippines, but we hate its politicians and its politics, especially because they are the same old faces and (more important) they have the same old oligarchic agendas. This is why the little things in the news tick us off like crazy, along with the more important and anger-worthy news items.

This is why we are so angry about (the naive) Jeane Napoles. We see her, we see Imelda Marcos, we know nothing has changed.

This is why we hate the VAT. We see it, we see the bank accounts in Switzerland used to store the sequestered taxpayer money, we know nothing has changed.

This is why we are enraged about Dan Brown’s “Gates of Hell” comment. We hear him, we’re reminded that Manila is one of the dirtiest cities in the whole world, physically, mentally and spiritually, we know nothing has changed.

Sir, nothing has changed. We’re still eating bitter herbs from the coconut shell that certain people of your generation have made for us to eat like dogs. The sad news is that we’re being expected to renew the country, and by ourselves. Even horses do not work well when malnourished. But we’re doing the best we can, because we love the Philippines.

We are the indicators of how everything is in the country, we, the lost generation of the Philippine Islands. And we would like your generation’s help.

Sincerely yours,

one of the middle children of the Republic

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