Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Terror and Culture under Marcos' New Society

Prof. Bienvenido Lumbera
National Artist, Literature

The New Society of the Marcos dictatorship was a cultural construction fashioned out of colonial education, feudal economy, anti-communist nationalism and fascist ideology. It was a response to a social movement launched in 1964 by youth activists of Kabataang Makabayan of the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas, that by the late 1960s had attracted a big following in colleges and universities, principally in Manila, and had grown in militancy when its leading cadres took up the national democratic ideological line of the re-established Communist Party of the Philippines in 1968. In 1971, Ferdinand Marcos tried to undercut the gains of the national democratic movement through terrorist bombings in Manila and suburbs culminating in the lifting of the writ of habeas corpus. By this time, the movement had ceased to be a simple youth movement and had added to its ranks militant labor unions and peasant organizations, with considerable support from the urban poor of the towns and cities surrounding Manila. The movement refused to be cowed, continuing to mount ever bigger demonstrations and rallies. On 21 September 1972, Marcos issued Proclamation 1081 that placed the Philippines under martial law and established the New Society.

By lumping together the edict of Martial Law and the decree creating the New Society, Marcos had sought to cushion the impact of his fascist move with the promise of reform, implying that Martial Rule had been resorted to only because he wanted to initiate changes in the government that could not be instituted under the old dispensation. The deception was to work for a time among the socio-economic elite and the middle class, and it was to create temporary disarray among the national democratic forces that had to cope with mass arrests, redeployment, and adjustments in strategy and tactics.

Marcos rule as a terror tactic proved specially effective among unorganized forces. Individuals chafing under the corrupt pre-Martial Law regime but not affiliated to any group within a movement proved easy to terrorize or co-opt, and they became the early adherents of the culture of the New Society. The mass arrest of known activists and personalities in the political opposition and media, imposition of curfew hours, the presence of checkpoints in the streets, and the prohibition against mass gatherings were instances of terror that brought about "peace and order," winning over citizens who had begun in the previous years to despair over the seeming anarchy in the streets and public places whenever rallies and demonstrations had to be dispersed up by the police.

Even more conducive to conversion to the New Society were grisly details about torture of captured activists and guerrilla fighters being induced to turn witnesses against comrades or reveal Party secrets. Of these the infamous water cure and the electric shock on the genitalia were effective fright tactics in terrorizing prospective recruits to anti-dictatorship organizations or fighting units. Task Force Detainees Philippines documented numerous accounts by torture victims. Rape of captive women, threat of harm on members of the victim's family, humiliation and pain through "unnatural" sexual acts, hot flat-iron applied to the sole of the foot, lying suspended on two separate blocks of ice - enumeration and description are taxed by the instances and variations of the use of torture. ..More "normal" than torture or threat were rampant unemployment and the desperation to hold on to jobs by those who were employed, but equally effective in inculcating assent to Martial Rule. Poverty in the squatter communities was a constant reminder to each and everyone that resistance and recalcitrance to the demands of the New Society could reduce them to the lot of the hordes of unfortunates in the urban poor areas. Middle-class intellectuals, to which sector most artists and cultural workers belonged, could choose to survive by selling their services to the one institution that had jobs to offer, and that was Government. Armed with this knowledge, bureaucrats of the New Society knew where to look for the brains that would cook up propaganda for the Marcos dictatorship and man the offices tasked to disseminate it among the populace.

A review of cultural production under the New Society allows us to group specific works or bodies of works under three categories determined by the use of Martial Law terror.

Suppressed Culture is the obvious category for cultural products deemed subversive by the regime. Print and electronic media openly critical of the Marcos before 1972 were closed down by Proclamation 1081. Newspapers and magazines, the Marcos-funded Daily Express exempted, were banned until a later time when the Martial Law authorities had determined which publishers would submit to the guidelines issued by Government. Stories, poems, songs, plays and artworks produced by writers and artists of national democratic cultural organizations like PAKSA (Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan), Panday-Sining (cultural arm of the Kabataang Makabayan), Gintong Silahis (cultural arm of the Samahan ng Demokratikong Kabataan), Kamanyang Players (cultural group of the Philippine College of Commerce), NPAA (Nagkakaisang Progresibong Artista at Arkitekto), and Sining-Bayan, could no longer be freely disseminated without risk of arrest by the police and the military.

Cultural production by activist organizations went underground, coming out with publications that carried news and commentary about human rights violations and other venalities committed by the Martial Law government. Circulation of their output, however, was severely hampered by strict military surveillance of organizations earlier identified as "Leftist." Theater groups based in city centers would take sometime before they could put on anti-dictatorship performances again, although in the countryside national democratic cultural production continued to flourish beyond the reach of the police or the military.

The second category was State Propaganda, consisting of creative writing, theatrical performances, films and comics designed to promote the goals of the New Society. The National Media Production Center was generously funded as the central mill of the government's propaganda machine. An early output of this agency was an anti-communist film, directed by no less thana major director in the person of Lamberto V. Avellana and starring the much-awarded Charito Solis. Depicted was the New Society's success in combating the ideology with which the Communist Party had misled students, workers and peasants.

The typical cultural production of the New Society, however, was always colossal in scale, whether it was a building or a crowd. Events like the parade that went by the name of "Kasaysayan ng Lahi" required mammoth crowds of the scale of the publics Hitler's propaganda chief Goebbels had put together to project the fascist power of the dictator. As to buildings, Imelda Marcos was dubbed as afflicted with "edifice complex," indeed she had an obsession with large-scale constructions like the Philippines International Convention Center, the Film Center she ordered built for the Manila International Film Festival (an event that in itself was a mammoth affair), the Folk Arts Theater that was raised to house the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant (another mammoth undertaking), the Coconut Palace, and the Philippine Village Hotel (now Westin Plaza), all to be seen in the vast grounds of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Certainly, "Thrilla in Manila," the internationally projected boxing match that brought the then heavyweight champion Mohammad Ali to the Philippines, was a super-production intended to gain the New Society world-wide media attention. In 1975, when the film festival started in pre-Martial Law days by Manila Mayor Villegas was revived, the Marcos dictatorship decided that the event should serve the propaganda needs of the New Society - it was decreed that the films entered for the competition each should be based on any one of the programs of the Martial Law government. Thus, Balikbayan, Family Planning, "Back to the Province," Land Reform, and "Sa Ikauunlad ng Bayan, Disiplina ang Kailangan" were dutifully inscribed into the narratives of the films shown for the ten-day duration of the festival.

The known vanity of the First Lady saw to it that top painters and sculptors would immortalize her image in their works. There was a mural showing Imelda like a Madonna of the Ailing at the main lobby of the Heart Center of the Philippines, another product of the Lady's "edifice complex." Projecting themselves as the Adam and Eve of the Filipino nation, the couple commissioned a mural showing them as the Malakas and Maganda of the Philippine creation legend. Epics were ordered to be written for their glorification, one for Ferdinand Marcos by then Censors chief Guillermo de Vega and another one for Imelda Marcos by UP poet Alejandrino G. Hufana.

A sub-category of State Propaganda consisted of cosmetic cultural production intended to present the New Society to the world as "smiling Martial Law." Examples are the "Bagong Anyo" fashion shows, which catered to upper-class fondness for vacuous entertainment, the Metro Pop Song Competition, another "glitter event" intended to keep the populace singing and dancing, and the sex films passed off as art by the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines under Johnny Litton to take minds off the hard times. The Martial Law propagandists threw their support for the production of numerous movies with big action stars playing real-life military men whose supposed law-enforcement exploits and noble deeds were meant to make military rule palatable to the general public.

The third category of cultural production in the New Society was Anti-Martial Law Propaganda. If Martial Law terror was initially able to drive national democratic cultural production underground, in 1975 along with the outbreak of the La Tondena strike -- the first to defy the prohibition by the dictatorship -- there was a re-surfacing of suppressed protest culture. From this year onward, anti-dictatorship art and culture was to show more daring in openly denouncing the crimes of the regime. A tabloid-sized publication by the name of Sigin of the Times, published by the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP) came out periodically with news and commentary about the sins of the dictator and his spouse and of the bureaucrats and military men in their employ. From the ranks of top businessmen , a group came out with a heavily-researched expose of "crony capitalism" in the New Society. The expose was titled "Some Are Smarter than Others," words from the very mouth of Mrs. Marcos herself when she was interviewed in Fortune about relatives and friends who had amassed wealth under the New Society. Of course, copies of the AMRSP publications and "Some Are Smarter than Others" had to be circulated sub rosa for mere possession of such "subversive" readings was cause enough for arrest and detention and, worse disappearance or salvaging.

Of the outlets for anti-dictatorship propaganda by the national democratic movement, theater proved to be the most daring and the most effective. One of the earliest cultural groups to openly court suppression was the UP Repertory Company under the direction of Behn Cervantes. Its "Pagsambang Bayan" used the form of a religious service to depict the radicalization of members of the clergy. Its central character was a priest officiating at Mass and dialoguing with members of his congregation on religious conviction and involvement in the movement for the liberation of the oppressed. Workers, peasants, urban poor, youth and students, tribal Filipinos and middle-class intellectuals were represented by groups of actors who moved freely among the audience to simulate and stimulate active participation in the "discussions" that culminated in the decision of the priest ( he has in the process turned into a representative of the conscientious but still uncommitted individual ) to join the oppressed in the task of liberating themselves. Another play mounted by UP Repertory was "Sa Panahon ni Cristy," the first drama to take up the sensitive subject of the rape and abuse of a young woman by her military torturers in a detention center.

The UP Diliman campus was a relatively protected territory at this time by virtue of the academic freedom that the University of the Philippines was supposed to enjoy even under a repressive political climate outside. But over at Fort Santiago in Intramuros, Manila, PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association) could not invoke any principle that would fend off arrest should the military decide that it was overstepping the bounds allowed by Martial Law. Nevertheless, the Raha Sulayman Theater in Fort Santiago played host to PETA productions protesting human rights abuses and supporting the struggles of peasants, fisherfolk, urban poor and workers against oppressive landlords, bureaucrats, capitalists and military authorities. Many of its productions were thinly-veiled narratives about political issues in contemporary Philippine society that government repression could not altogether keep from public view. "Ang Walang Kamatayang Buhay ni Juan de la Cruz Alyas. . ." was about guerrilla warfare during the American Occupation, but its depiction of the harsh policy of "reconcentration" for the people of Batangas was also a reference to the "hamletting" of peasant populace in areas where the New People's Army was active. "Unang Alay" was the story of Andrers Bonifacio and Gregoria de Jesus and the death of their infant son, but it was also an allusion to the risks and rigors suffered by men and women active in the anti-dictatorship movement. "Juan Tamban" tells the story of a social worker who encounters the case of a boy from a squatter area who eats cockroaches, but it was also a about a university-based intellectual in contemporary Manila who allies herself with urban poor residents protesting poverty and government neglect. In the case of "Batilyo," PETA openly criticizes New Society support for Filipino capitalists and their Japanese partners who wanted to control the fish-delivery system in Navotas. "Nukleyar," a rock musical, is a direct espousal of the cause of the Nuclear-Free Philippines Movement against the Martial Law government. The visual arts scene in Metro Manila at this time saw the rise of a group of young painters who had moved away from the fashionable abstract expressionism of mainstream painters and chose to depict in their works the plight of workers, peasants, and slum-dwellers against the backdrop of dire poverty in the city and brutish treatment by the rich and the powerful. The theme powerfully projected in the images created by the Social Realist artists invariably showed or implied the seething anger of the masses and their optimism in shaping their own future. Edgar Fernandez, Orlando Castillo, Pablo Baens Santos, Renato Habulan, Jose Tence Ruiz, Papo de Asis, Antipas Delotavo, Neil Doloricon and Nunelucio Alvarado were but a few of the signatures affixed to works of art that were collectively subsumed under the category of Social Realism, all of them figurative but executed in different styles according to the aesthetic background and orientation of the individual artist interpreting the times.

Film as a widely patronized cultural product was under strict regulation by the censors, but the ingenuity of scriptwriters and directors was able to offer movie-goers works that went beyond entertainment and tackled subject matter with social implications. Lino Brocka's "Bayan Ko, Kapit sa Patalim" touched on the forbidden issue of strikes under the New Society, and got into difficulties with the censors that required a Supreme Court opinion to resolve. Mike de Leon, in "Sister Stella L," showed the radicalization undergone by a nun when she got herself involved with the union of a cooking oil company and suffered harassment and torture in the hands of the police. In "Batch '81," the same director used the terror practices at fraternity initiations to criticize the fascist tactics of the Martial Law regime in molding the consciousness of the youth. "Sakada" by Behn Cervantes, before its copies were confiscated by the military, exposed the abuses and injustices committed by landlords in cahoots with the military in the suppression of the peasant struggle for higher wages and better treatment.

The literary output of the anti-dictatorship movement was the most persistent and the most directly critical. In 1973 in Focus Philippines, a magazine run by Kerima Polotan-Tuvera, known propagandist for the New Society and wife of New Society bureaucrat J. Capiendo Tuvera, a short poem in English may be said to have delivered the opening salvo from the literary world. "Prometheus Unbound," by a poet masquerading behind the penname Ruben Cuevas appeared ostensibly as a harmless take-off on a classical theme by an beginning poet. Closer inspection of the stanzas, however, would reveal that the poem had taken mischievous advantage of an old practice by Tagalog poets of making an acrostic of the beginning letters of the lines and spelled out the activist cry of "Marcos, Hitler, Diktador, Tuta."

Between 1972 and 1983, songs and poems about the anti-dictatorship struggle had been proliferating. They came from the countryside where they celebrated the armed struggle led by the New People's Army and the quest for land reform; from the colleges and universities where young poets and composers wrote and sang in support of the struggle of workers, peasants and the urban poor; from the prisons where captured activists and militants told of violated human rights and their longing for personal freedom and the people's liberation. These songs and poems were collected in anthologies and songbooks and widely disseminated both in the cities and the countryside. Jess Santiago, Joey Ayala, Paul Galang and Heber Bartolome were poet-composers whose songs gave voice to the anger and plaints of a people whose hopes and dreams for a better society had impelled them to join the struggle for national liberation and democracy.

The year 1983 was a truning point in the anti-dictatorship struggle. The assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. and themockery of an investigation and trial of those involved in the crime so incensed the uncommitted sectors of the populace that the ranks of the movement were considerably augmented. In the same year, a thin sheaf of poems quietly contemplating and lamenting the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. cost four poets their jobs as consultants in a government center. In Memoriam was a jarring reminder of terror as a weapon of the architects of Martial Law which could suddenly pull the economic rug under one's feet when such feet tread a track away from the gilded pathways of the New Society. Ironically, from a prison cell, prize captive Jose Maria Sison would bring out with impunity a collection of his own militantly revolutionary poems carrying the ideological line of the CPP titled Prison and Beyond. On the other hand, a novelist who was not even writing from the underground could publish her potentially subversive account of the Martial Law years in Dekada 70. Lualhati Bautista's novel is the "growing-up story" of a woman who discovers her powers as a woman and matures as housewife and mother when under the tense years of the Martial Law regime she had to cope with a patriarchally-molded husband and with the differing responses of her five sons to the social and political conditions of the times. Indeed, the anti-dictatorship forces had so multiplied that terror by this time had ceased to be an unfailing deterrent.

From the foregoing account of terror and culture under Marcos' New Society, the following observations might be gleaned:1. Terror is most effective on individuals who work in isolation.2. Terror is not always created by physical force, it can also be a confrontation with deprivation. 3. Any kind of assent obtained through terror can only be tentative, and lacking conviction such assent can only be non-productive or capable only of mediocre products.4. Terror is effective for as long as it is able to project itself through dimensions, numbers or magnitude, its characteristic cultural production is largely dependent on scale instead of content.5. Terror has a great capacity to drive dissent into the margins or underground, but that capacity is in the long run limited by its lack of intellectual substance.6. Terror works best when its methods are kept secret, for once those methods have been exposed, the "terrorized" will have learned how to fight back.7. Terror is a bankrupt weapon that will always be hard put to deal with dissent powered by the creative imagination, which will always find ways of coming to terms with the inhibiting bounds of fear, or ways of working around the risks and hazards set by those in power.

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