The Toll on Human Lives and Rights

Until now, 40 years after the declaration of martial law and 26 years after the fall of the dictatorship, no accounting of the total number of persons who were detained, tortured, summarily executed, disappeared or suffered other abuses has yet been done. By design and circumstance, accomplishment of this task has been rendered impossible.

To concentrate power into the hands of a small circle, Ferdinand Marcos needed to subjugate, if not eliminate outright the executive’s co-equal branches of government, the political opposition and untrusted subordinates. In one fell swoop, established social and political institutions were closed down, dismantled or crippled, and time-honored traditions and processes were discarded. In contrast, the military establishment was enlarged and strengthened so as to increasingly dominate almost all aspects of the country’s life. With characteristic speed and efficiency, the armed forces performed its role as the principal machinery for imposing Marcos’ will on the entire country and propping up the dictatorship.

Thousands, including those considered potential troublemakers by the martial law government, were herded to jails. In spite of the initial shock and terror effect, resistance to the rapacious and oppressive rule mounted as people boldly, and in many cases creatively, defied the laws of the “New Society” which comprised initially of Marcos decrees and orders, and later, a Marcos constitution. With the judiciary having been transformed into a mere adornment of the “smiling martial law,” dispensation of justice and proper treatment of offenders were severely impaired, nay, virtually vanished.

Justice, however, was not a concern of the regime; the jails and the decrees were purely for suppression and punishment. And in fact, the offenders, who the regime pretentiously referred to as “public order violators” (POVs) when addressing foreign audiences, were the ones fighting for freedom and justice.

With the imposition of martial law, the “writ of habeas corpus” is automatically suspended. But even if it was not, the military and police were too busy arresting, interrogating and detaining people that it had to do away with the niceties of legal documentation, filing of charges, and the burdensome task of following through with the cases that come after. Besides, secrecy is basic doctrine in military and security operations; civilians like lawyers, fiscals and judges are too clumsy and cannot be trusted to be involved with such. The police needed to be militarized.

According to an Amnesty Report dated 11-28 November 1981:

“In the first three years of martial law, over 50,000 people were arrested under the emergency regulations, almost all of whom were detained without charge or trial. The Amnesty International mission which visited the Philippines in November to December 1975 was officially informed that 6,000 people were still detained as of May 1975. The 1975 mission found that 71 of the 107 prisoners interviewed alleged that they had been tortured. The mission found also that torture occurred most often during interrogation after arrest when detainees were commonly held incommunicado, often in secret holding centres known as ‘safehouses’. “

In 1974, the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP) established the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) to help the thousands in prisons all over the country. In addition to providing moral and spiritual support, assisting in the prisoners’ material needs and working for their release, TFD bravely undertook the task of documenting cases of arrests and detention which almost invariably coincided with torture, and in numerous instances, summary execution and disappearances. Meager resources and the threats and harassment that its volunteers were exposed to hampered the organization in its work. Moreover, investigations and documentation that fact-finding missions in far-flung areas conducted where there are ongoing military operations was extremely dangerous and simply hopeless. Nevertheless, the TFDP accomplished an outstanding feat in investigating and documenting cases of human rights violations during the martial law period.

The MNLF-led sporadic uprisings in Muslim areas in Mindanao just one month after the declaration of martial law was the harbinger of a protracted and fiercely-fought rebellion. Not expecting extreme opposition, the government further militarized the whole area and accelerated the beefing up of the AFP. Central and Southwestern Mindanao became battlegrounds. Whole communities were subjected to bombings, strafing, forced mass evacuations and food blockades. Arrests, torture, detention, summary execution, massacres and other forms of human rights abuses became rampant. The town of Jolo was bombed and subjected to artillery fire; it was razed to the ground in 1973. Open warfare left 50,000 people killed in its wake. ( By 1977, even the Marcos government had estimated that a million civilians were displaced and an additional 200,000 refugees fled to Sabah as a result of the fightings. (

By the second half of the decade, even as the war in the Muslim areas of Mindanao began to wane, opposition and defiance to the martial law government grew bolder and more intense in the rest of the country. In some cities, open protests made a comeback while armed clashes between rebels and government forces in the remote provinces became more frequent, occurring even in areas where there were previously no known insurgent activities.

Under those conditions, but more especially so in the first half of the 80s as the downfall of the dictatorship neared, it was but predictable that the frequency and number of human rights violations would rapidly rise and with them, the increase in the goriness and brutality of the abuses as in the killing of of Dr. Juan Escandor, the beheading of Fr. Tulio Favali and the Escalante massacre.

After the fall of the dictatorship, victims of human rights violations filed a class suit in the United States against Marcos. More than 10,000 claim forms bearing accounts of the violations committed and accompanied by supporting documents were submitted to the Hawaii District court through the class counsel in 1992. The court accepted a total of 9,539 claims that involved 3,672 summary executions, 727 forced disappearances and 5,359 torture cases with the rest deemed “facially defective.”

To be able to connect to the victims so that the claim forms can be filled up and filed, the class counsel utilized the mass media and enlisted the help of human rights NGOs in spreading the word about the class suit. The discrepancy between the large number of actual victims and those who filed claims were primarily attributable to the limited capacity of radio broadcasts to reach people in the remote barrios especially in areas where armed conflict continue to rage. Many who were able to know about the case where discouraged or prevented by the difficulty of traveling to the city where the claim forms are being distributed and where they will be collected.

A large number of victims did not file claims, in the belief that the chances for the case to prosper are nil. Lastly, there were those who refused to put a monetary equivalent to the sacrifices and difficulties they suffered, arguing that they fought the dictatorship because it was the right thing to do and that they did not expect any personal reward whatsoever as a consequence of their action.

Although it is impossible to come up with exact figures on martial rule’s toll on human lives and rights, we owe it both to them who sacrificed and laid down their lives, and to the future generations to come, that we strive to unearth and reconstruct historical details decades after they happened. In the coming days, will publish data, statistics and insights as we continue to seek out the truth from our past.

2 comments on “The Toll on Human Lives and Rights

  1. Pingback: Bakit Ampanget na ng Tingin ng mga Tao sa 1986 EDSA Revolution? | iskramboldtots

  2. Pingback: Remembering Ninoy | Oikonomos

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