Marcos Declares Martial Law in the Philippines

Ferdinand Marcos’s declaration of martial law imposed an authoritarian rule on the Philippines that primarily benefited the Marcos family, the military, and the financial elite.

Summary of Event

On September 21, 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos signed Proclamation No. 1081, placing the Philippines under martial law. The president justified his decision with his concern that the country was in peril from communist and Islamic insurgencies. Through a series of general orders, he gave himself the power to govern the nation and direct all operations. These powers included limitations on the judiciary, restrictions on the press, and special personal constitutional authority to create new governmental institutions. He declared that he would develop a “New Society” under a new style of government, “constitutional authoritarianism.” Philippines;martial law (1972)
Martial law;Philippines
[kw]Marcos Declares Martial Law in the Philippines (Sept. 21, 1972)
[kw]Martial Law in the Philippines, Marcos Declares (Sept. 21, 1972)
[kw]Philippines, Marcos Declares Martial Law in the (Sept. 21, 1972)
Philippines;martial law (1972)
Martial law;Philippines
[g]Southeast Asia;Sept. 21, 1972: Marcos Declares Martial Law in the Philippines[00860]
[g]Philippines;Sept. 21, 1972: Marcos Declares Martial Law in the Philippines[00860]
[c]Government and politics;Sept. 21, 1972: Marcos Declares Martial Law in the Philippines[00860]
Marcos, Ferdinand
Marcos, Imelda
Sin, Jaime
Ver, Fabian
Enrile, Juan Ponce
Diokno, Jose

Ferdinand Marcos had been elected to a four-year term as president in 1965 and won an unprecedented second-term election in 1969. According to the constitution of the Philippines, the president can serve only two terms. The imposition of martial law nullified this limitation. Circumventing the constitution and the National Congress, Marcos utilized citizens’ assemblies (barangays) to ratify martial law. Marcos gave himself the right to legislate by personal decree. He issued more than nine hundred major decrees during his presidency.

The first consequence of martial law was political repression. Within days after Marcos’s proclamation, thousands of his critics were arbitrarily arrested for being subversives and were held without trial. They included several senators, three members of congress, two governors, four delegates to the Philippine Constitutional Convention, three newspaper publishers, and several journalists. Marcos arbitrarily dismissed four hundred government employees and demanded resignations from thousands more. To repress all public criticism, Marcos closed all but one of Manila’s fifteen daily newspapers, six of the city’s seven television stations, and nine of the major radio stations.

Under Marcos, the autonomy of the judicial branch was destroyed. He had ultimate power over the justice system because he could remove any judge or judicial official by fiat. He packed the Supreme Court by expanding it and adding his own judges. Civil courts were superseded by military courts. Decisions of these tribunals became final only on Marcos’s approval. A report of an Amnesty International Amnesty International mission in 1975 concluded that the judiciary of the Philippines had become totally ineffective in preventing violations of human rights. Amnesty International saw the rule of law under martial law as authoritarian, unchecked by constitutional guarantees or limitations.

Prisoners of the military were subject to torture and harassment. Philippines;human rights abuses
Human rights abuses;Philippines They often were not charged with any crime and were held without trial. Under the command of General Fabian Ver, the military and police employed torture methods against critics and so-called subversives. These methods included “salvaging,” or kidnapping and murder; electric shock treatment; “telephone,” a euphemism for breaking the eardrums; “hamletting,” the forced evacuation of villagers to special camps; and sexual attacks.

The abuses of individuals included women, students, and even social workers. In 1977, Vilma Riopay, a twenty-one-year-old female catechist, was taken into custody and severely tortured. As a result of her beatings, she became an invalid. A student leader who had criticized Marcos, Edgar Jopson, was captured in 1974. He escaped from prison in 1979. Four years later, he was again captured. Later, his battered corpse was turned over to his father. The government suppressed a popular demonstration of sympathy and support for the young man. Trinidad Herrera, leader of a slum-based Manila organization, was arrested for challenging government relocation efforts. She was tortured, but because of pressures from the World Bank, she was released from jail.

Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos during a state visit to the United States.

(Library of Congress)

Strict press controls robbed the press of its function as an independent agent for information and analysis. Official censorship and punitive licensing procedures created a press that lacked credibility. Relatives and friends of the Marcos family established their own television and radio stations and newspapers. They used these institutions to attack their opponents and to promote loyalty to the government. No criticism was allowed of the president and his wife, Imelda Marcos, the regime, or the military. The secrecy allowed for deception, especially concerning the Marcos family’s corruption, official embezzlement, and the crimes of the police and armed forces.

The two pillars justifying martial law were the needs to suppress insurgencies and to promote economic reform. To counter the communist and Muslim uprisings, military forces expanded in number from less than 50,000 to 225,000. The military budget increased from $129 million in 1973 to $676 million in 1977. This amount accounted for 20 percent of the national budget. In addition, U.S. military aid more than doubled, from $80 million in 1972 to $166 million in 1976.

Marcos’s economic policies were designed to increase foreign investment and tourism. To create stability, Marcos outlawed strikes in “vital industries” and curtailed the activities of labor unions. To promote tourism, Imelda Marcos rebuilt large parts of Manila. This effort required the removal of urban slum dwellers. The police and military were used to dump the so-called squatters in empty fields miles from water, job opportunities, and adequate housing. In May, 1976, two thousand demonstrators in front of the Manila Cathedral were arrested for opposing the first lady’s urban renewal projects.

The only major institution that effectively criticized martial law was the Roman Catholic Church. Roman Catholic Church;Philippines Just a month after the announcement of martial law, Father Edward Gerlock, a Maryknoll priest active in social action programs, was arrested on charges of subversion. His order mobilized to defend him and criticized martial law as being incompatible with the social justice program outlined by Pope Paul VI and the Asian Bishops Conference of 1970. The torture of Father Primitivo Hagtad and the arrest, torture, and interrogation of the Reverend Toribio of the United Methodist Church in early 1974 resulted in a united Protestant and Roman Catholic attack on martial law. The government, however, continued to arrest and torture church leaders and laity. By 1975, there was vigorous church opposition to Marcos’s rule. Cardinal Jaime Sin mobilized the Catholic Church in criticizing Marcos’s policies.

The maintenance of martial law required a large international propaganda machine and a well-supplied secret police abroad. The Office of Media Affairs hired American public relations companies and conservative academicians to defend Marcos against his international critics. In addition to the open acts of propaganda, many Filipino critics charge that Fabian Ver’s secret police engaged in acts of intimidation and even murder. The mysterious disappearances in 1977 of Primitivo Mijares, a former Marcos aide who testified before the U.S. Congress regarding the corrupt practices of the Marcos regime, and the murders of two outspoken Filipino American labor activists in Seattle are examples of Marcos’s network of terror outside the Philippines.

In 1981, Marcos lifted martial law and, despite charges of election fraud and corrupt practices, was reelected president. He did not reform any of the repressive institutions that had developed since 1972. The assassination of Marcos’s chief rival, Benigno Aquino, Aquino, Benigno, Jr. Jr., in 1983 led to political destabilization and ultimately resulted in the popular uprising that forced Marcos, his family, and his major supporters to find asylum in Honolulu in 1986.


The irony of the martial law proclamation was that initially many Filipinos seemed to welcome the new order. At first, Marcos’s authoritarian rule brought some order to Manila. Strict military and police rule greatly curtailed the activities of criminal elements in Manila. Murder and robbery rates dropped. The city was beautified and garbage was collected. Many Filipinos considered the national legislature weak and disorderly, the media filled with sensationalism, and the insurgencies a threat to social order. The closing of the legislature and the restriction of press freedom thus were not causes for great concern.

Within a few years, however, the public came to believe that Marcos’s New Society was really a new plutocracy that was destroying the Philippines financially and creating a large, impoverished lower class. Foreign debt rose from $2.5 billion in 1970 to $10 billion in 1980. By 1985, the debt was $30 billion. The proportion of the urban population living below the poverty line rose from 24 percent in 1974 to 40 percent in 1980.

The establishment of martial law led to widespread abuses of human rights. Every sector of the society was affected by the militarization of the Philippines. The suspension of habeas corpus gave security forces power to arrest and hold anybody without any legal challenge. For example, health workers in rural areas had been accused by the military of aiding and abetting the insurgents. Without any recourse to legal due process, doctors and nurses were arrested, tortured, and killed. According to a 1985 report by the International Commission of Jurists, for example, one doctor was shot while working in his clinic by a military man in civilian clothes. The intimidation of medical personnel aggravated the already significant “brain drain” of health workers from the Philippines to foreign countries. This emigration greatly reduced domestic availability of health care, especially for the poor.

Despite the government’s widespread abuse of human rights, it still won support from the U.S. presidential administrations of Richard M. Nixon Nixon, Richard M. and Ronald Reagan. Reagan, Ronald When Vice President George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W. attended Marcos’s inauguration in June, 1981, he offered a toast to President Marcos that became a symbol for what some saw as disrespect of human rights issues among American leaders: “We love your adherence to democratic principles and to democratic processes.” The U.S. government’s close relationship to Marcos produced a strong antiforeign and nationalistic backlash in the Philippines. Filipino leaders and mass organizations called for the termination of American military bases, and terrorist attacks were made against American forces.

The major consequence of martial law was its self-destruction. Except for a small but militarily and economically powerful group of followers, Marcos lost all popularity with the Filipino people. Lawyers throughout the Philippines, under the leadership of Senator Jose Diokno, actively represented victims of Marcos’s rule. Marcos overwhelmingly lost the 1986 presidential election to Corazon Aquino, Aquino, Corazon wife of the assassinated Benigno Aquino, and was forced to flee the Philippines in ignominy. Philippines;martial law (1972)
Martial law;Philippines

Further Reading

  • Celoza, Albert F. Ferdinand Marcos and the Philippines: The Political Economy of Authoritarianism. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997. Examines the period between 1972 and 1986, the year in which Marcos was ousted from the Philippines.
  • Hamilton-Paterson, James. America’s Boy: A Century of Colonialism in the Philippines. London: Granta Books, 1998. Comprehensive analysis of the rise and fall of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos.
  • Karnow, Stanley. In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines. New York: Random House, 1989. Well-documented study of U.S.-Philippine relations focuses on American support of Marcos despite his corruption and human rights violations. The author, an outstanding journalist on East Asian affairs, personally interviewed the Marcoses, General Ver, Benigno Aquino, Juan Ponce Enrile, and other political leaders in the Philippines and in the United States.
  • Leary, Virginia A. The Philippines: Human Rights After Martial Law. Geneva: International Commission of Jurists, 1984. Investigates the abuses of the armed forces and the police, critiques the criminal law and the judicial system, and provides excellent documentation of the abuse of economic and social rights. The report provides a unique survey of the abuse of tribal people.
  • Rosenberg, David A., ed. Marcos and Martial Law in the Philippines. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979. Collection of scholarly works on New Society ideology and policies concerning the legal system, land reform, freedom of the press, and the economy. Most useful is the appendix, which contains key documents on the proclamation of martial law and the responses of human rights and religious groups.
  • Seagrave, Sterling. The Marcos Dynasty. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Muck-raking investigation of the Marcos family and their cronies. Provides lurid details on the venality, corruption, and repression of the regime. Although some of the data have been questioned, this study remains one of the most thorough and substantial critiques of the alleged atrocities of Marcos, General Ver, and other members of the regime.

United Nations Issues a Declaration Against Torture

Carter Makes Human Rights a Central Theme of Foreign Policy

Assassination of Philippine Opposition Leader Benigno Aquino

Marcos Flees the Philippines