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Is it 21 or 23? The confusing history of the martial law declaration

Is it 21 or 23? The confusing history of the martial law declaration

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  • Do you remember the _ night of September?

This week we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the declaration of martial law, a dark period in our history that continues to plague various facets of our country and our lives today. This year’s commemoration is a little too ironic, as current social ills harken back to the so-called “golden era”—the struggling economy, the peso-dollar rate at an all-time low, continued police brutality, and foremost on the list, us finding a Marcos in Malacañang once again.

Amid all this is the relentless attack on facts and history. And the mythmaking has appeared to run so deep that even our very own memory of martial law has been tampered with. 

Every year, we face the dilemma of whether to commemorate martial law on the 21st of September or on the 23rd. While most organizations, groups, institutions, and even media would mark Sept. 21 as the day of remembrance, historical accounts note that the declaration of Martial Law—that image of Marcos Sr. on television that is seared into our collective memory—actually happened on the evening of Sept. 23.

Signed, sealed, delivered on very different dates

What can we point to as the reason behind this confusion? Should it even matter what we say about this day? 

Writer Manuel L. Quezon III, in a column for the Inquirer, writes: “The moment you commemorate martial law on Sept. 21, Marcos wins. That is because Sept. 21 is only tenable as the anniversary of martial law if you accept legal fiction—that, simply because the Great Dictator pointed to a hastily typed stack of papers, it must be so because he said it was so. But it was not. But so strong was the lie—because so often repeated, and so often commemorated—that many of those who lived through it recall it as he wanted it recalled. However, if you ask often enough, recollections will suddenly emerge from their Marcos-induced fog of lies, and reveal the truth.”

Records prove that on the 21st of September, Filipinos were still able to exercise democratic rights. A demonstration was held at Plaza Miranda on that day, Congress still had a session (during which Benigno Aquino Jr. delivered a privilege speech), and media outlets were still in operation.

It was in the wee hours of the 23rd that the military began to take action, arresting Marcos’s detractors (the first of which was Aquino) and shutting down the media. On the evening of the same day, Sept. 23, Marcos Sr. declared martial law on TV.

In “The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos,” Primitivo Mijares writes: “The deceit employed by Marcos in the imposition of martial law was in the implementation of Proclamation No. 1081 ahead of the official announcement. Marcos also displayed the same callous contempt for the elementary requirements of democratic rules on prior publicity of presidential acts affecting the liberties of the people.” 

Still, various other accounts exist. According to the Official Gazette, Marcos had announced that “he had placed the entire country under Martial Law as of 9 p.m. on Sept. 22, 1972 via a proclamation which, he’d claimed, he’d signed on Sept. 21, 1972.” Foreign journalists meanwhile hold other accounts, dating the signing to Sept. 23.

However, there also exist records in which Marcos Sr. himself said to the Philippine Historical Association months after the declaration that he had actually signed the document on Sept. 17, but then “held and […] suspended” it for several days. “I kept it in my possession, because on September 17 I wanted to be sure that the things I want to know were definitely confirmed,” he said.

If arrests and shutdowns were made on the 23rd, where did Sept. 21 come from? “Two things emerge: first, whether they conflict or not, all accounts indicate that Marcos’ obsession with numerology (particularly the number seven) necessitated that Proclamation No. 1081 be officially signed on a date that was divisible by seven. Thus, September 21, 1972 became the official date that Martial Law was established and the day that the Marcos dictatorship began. This also allowed Marcos to control history on his own terms,” the Official Gazette also states.

Historian Ambeth Ocampo succinctly puts it: “Marcos himself left us with a tangled history.”

Getting the numbers right

Some may argue that regardless of the date, what matters more is that we continue to commemorate and remember the atrocities martial law has caused, and continue to demand for accountability. 

But now that we’re at a time when the most basic of facts are being distorted, it is equally important that alongside remembering the thousands of victims, we also remember the exact details of this point in our history.

If we’re going to remember the 11,103 survivors, the 70,000 imprisoned, the 34,000 tortured, the 21 years of false peace, isn’t it also fair to remember that it all began on the 23rd of September, when the nation woke up stripped of their rights?

If we are to remember, we must remember it all.

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