Dear Anonymous Man Hiding in the Shadows

Ian Rosales Casocot
14 min readSep 24, 2023

I bumped into you because I clicked on the YouTube link from the Twitter account of The Weekly Sillimanian, because the title of the video they were teasing intrigued me: “Tingog sa Kahilom: Silliman University During Martial Law.” [Link] I know all about voices in grim quiet — that is in essence life in the Philippines — and that was a great hook for a title. It promised to be a short documentary by Silliman campus journalists dealing with a fraught time in the university’s history — with an entire country in darkness as a backdrop — and which remains largely unwritten about and unexplored in local historiography.

I was wondering if the documentary would get the details right.

Things like Rev. Joel Tabada being the first Sillimanian arrested right after Martial Law was proclaimed on September 23, a Saturday. The very next day, because it was his turn to mount the pulpit at the Silliman Church, he delivered a sermon titled “Burn!” — which he based on Luke 24:32, a hopeful message about Christ’s disciples giving each other uplift after his crucifixion. It was a relatively harmless sermon — until the knock came that midnight, and seven fully armed soldiers were at his door to escort him to the PC barracks, with a short detour to his office at the church, where they questioned him about the possible subversive contents of his library. Finally, in the barracks, he was interrogated ceaselessly, and when he was finally placed in the general holding cell, he met many other Silliman students already in detention, who all expressed surprised, and delight, to see him — until a badly mauled man was suddenly thrust into their company. “[The man] was nursing [a] bloodied mouth,” Rev. Tabada wrote of that night. “Then a drunk guard outside shouted invectives against ‘activists’ who were responsible for the present troubles of the Martial Law. He came to the stockade and pointed his gun at us and to the cowering students, shouting: ‘Unsa, mosukol mo? Ha?!’ Then he cocked his gun, but he was prevailed by his companions to leave.” [Source]

Things like all media and all the schools all over the country being closed down — and only allowed to open much later, on October 14, at the government’s behest. Silliman University was closed down, which everyone thought was going to be temporary — until the administration found out that it was still being closed down, even when universities were now being permitted to open up. Silliman was one of four schools padlocked during Martial Law, the so-called “Infamous Four,” which included University of the Philippines units (including its Institute of Mass Communication), the Philippine College of Commerce, and the Philippine Science High School.

According to Dr. Crispin Maslog, “Silliman campus activism had caught the attention of Malacañang Palace no less. President Ferdinand Marcos himself scolded the university during a speech in Dumaguete, noting that members of the opposition, including Senator Jovito Salonga, Juan Liwag and Benigno Aquino Jr. were invited to speak on campus. He warned Silliman University: ‘Do not engage in partisan politics because you are supposed to be an academic institution. You may regret it.’ Did we ever regret it.” [Source]

It took Acting President Proceso Udarbe all that he could to summon diplomatic skills and beg Malacañan to reopen Silliman. Finally, it was allowed to reopen, contingent on several demands: among them, the resignation of the entire faculty, and the fencing of the campus.

[The fencing of the campus was significant. An American school by design, Silliman was known for having an open campus without any fences — with only gumamela bushes to mark some of its boundaries. For it to be reopened during Martial Law, the bushes were uprooted and in their stead were placed chicken wire fences. It was to restrict the traffic in and out of campus, with official sentries posted in the new gates to monitor everyone’s coming in and going out of the school. There were dissents from the community, but what could it do? It was deemed a necessary compromise. I still remember those chicken wire fences growing up in Dumaguete in the 1980s. I never thought of them as markers of the Martial Law — and when they gave way to the sturdy concrete and wire fences we have now, they closed up the university for good, making it an insular place sometimes removed from the goings-on of Dumaguete life. The fences truly are a dark psychological mark on the Silliman spirit, a remnant of the visible signs of oppression from those murky times.]

Things like the curfew, and not being allowed to meet in groups of five or six or more — with the students somehow finding a way to circumvent all that by doing instant slumber parties in whatever homes they found themselves in for the night when curfew rang; and by gathering at the basement of the Silliman Church, called the Catacombs, where they were able to gather in larger groups in the name of culture-making: hence, the many artists borne of those Catacombs years that thrived in singing, acting, writing, painting, and the like.

Elsewhere in Negros, terror reigned in the next ten years — often underreported or unreported, and often denied — and the tentacles of that climate of fear touched all the levels of society in various ways: the ordinary workers were oppressed and had no voice, and many of them left to die in regular purges by the military who considered their fight to have decent lives “subversive” and “communist”; and the rich who were badly affected abandoned their lands, and those with means migrated to greener shores.

You were the first figure I saw on the video. You were right smack on center screen, the shadows of the room you were in obscuring your face, with the only illumination coming from the lights fleeting in from the blinds behind you. Your voice was distorted. You clearly wanted to hide in the shadows of anonymity.

And, at first, I thought: Are you the literal “tingog sa kahilom” promised by the title? Why is this documentary privileging you by making you its introduction? That bothered me.

When you finally spoke, you made the following points:

First, you said that the Martial Law was “necessary because of the separatist movement in Mindanao,” and that “President Marcos did this for us to remain one and united here in the Philippines.” Second, you said that if it were not for the declaration of Martial Law, “we might be a communist country now, and Joma would be our president.” Third, you said that the Martial Law “was very peaceful,” like what your grandparents told you. Fourth, you said that there was a “significant increase in our economy” during the Martial Law. Fifth, you said that it was a golden period because “different infrastructures [were] built during the Martial Law.” Sixth, you said that it was all “very good,” that it was “constitutional,” that it was “for the people,” and “for the country.” And lastly, you made some awkward accommodations, saying that “somewhat some abuses done during the Martial Law, [and] we can never deny that.”

And I found myself sighing, because these were overly generalized positive assertions about the Martial Law I have heard before, which have long since been answered and rebutted by fifty decades of investigation and scholarship. They are lies. But why do these lies resurface again and again? Because that’s the nature of the lie: relentless regurgitation somehow give them a sheen of “truthiness.” It was the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels who first stumbled on that unfortunate effect: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth,” he once said. [Source]

There is a reason why in the past decade or so, the machinery behind the Marcos renaissance has deployed a battle of narratives especially through social media — designed to obfuscate truth and render as dubious all the journalism that have been done to document two decades of corruption and abuses.

I see your eight points, and I cannot help but feel these are items regurgitated in recent years in a widespread effort to perfume the reputation of the Marcoses, in an effort to rewrite the past, and in an attempt [now proven successful] to reinstate the family in power. They are easily debunked, of course. Hundreds and hundreds of books have been written by our foremost scholars, historians, economists, political leaders, and creative writers that have painted an era that is far from the golden one you espouse. [I can provide you with a substantial list, if you care to read and learn. I compiled a quick bibliography of all these things in 2016 when Duterte said “there are no books about the Martial Law.”]

Points 1 and 2: Marcos did use the “communist threat” posed by the newly founded Communist Party of the Philippines and the “sectarian rebellion” of the Muslim Independence Movement as one of his primary reasons to declare Martial Law — but opposition figures of that time, including eminent statesmen like Jovito Salonga, Lorenzo Tañada, and Jose W. Diokno accused the president of exaggerating these threats, and utilizing them as “a convenient excuse to consolidate power and extend his tenure beyond the two presidential terms allowed by the 1935 constitution” — the real reason for the declaration. [Source] In fact, before the 1972 declaration of Martial Law, CPP-NPA-NDF membership was around a measly 60. It ballooned to 25,000 near the end of Martial Law. So statistics and history would point out that the Martial Law actually exacerbated the communist insurgency instead of quelling it. [Source]

Point 3: Was the Martial Law period “peaceful”? Marcos liked to dub his martial regime as a kind of dictatorship with a heart. And people now parroting this line usually do refer back to their grandparents when they say that period was “peaceful.” Was it? I guess it was, the way we understand cemeteries to be a bastion of peace and quiet. In an era governed by fear, wouldn’t you be cowed to into silence? And wouldn’t people who did not immediately bear the brunt of the abuses often mistake that silence into peace? There has been debates that “peace and orderliness” of those times was a privilege only enjoyed by those with advantage — but many were not so lucky. In fact, many of those who did run afoul of the regime were suddenly using their connections and privileges to get themselves out of trouble: “Everybody is a cousin of a friend of a public official to exempt themselves [from] the law or gain favors. Kapag may gulo, palakasan ng kakilala sa gobyerno,” one Jacob Alc surmised. [Source]

Historian and University of the Philippines Third World Studies Director Ricardo Jose also recalls: “It seemed peaceful for the first few years, maybe the first four or five years, because there was censorship going on, because people were willing to give it a chance actually, because it was so different from the pre-Martial Law days where you had all the rallies going on.” But the regime’s true colors were ultimately revealed, and those who bore the brunt of the quelling of opposition would not consider what happened to them as “peaceful and orderly” at all. [Source]

Point 4: The early years of the Marcos regime saw respectable economic growth, with the GDP growing at an average of almost 6% per year from 1972 to 1980. But studies have shown that the ways of strongman rule actually help the economy [see China today], especially in the initial sprinting stage, because dictatorships often streamline the economic process because of a hostaged bureaucracy — although this remains a controversial position. [ Source ]

But what we need to know is that in the latter years of the Marcos regime, the family’s systemic plundering of the economy [of which there are thousands of evidences, each one more glaring and flabbergasting than the last], alongside that of the greed of their cronies, eventually weakened the economy country. People forget that the dire effects of corruption are not immediate, but is felt in the cumulative. By the early 1980s, the country plunged into its worst postwar economic downturn, with the GDP shrinking by 7.3% for two consecutive years, 1984 and 1985. And this downturn was so large that it took the country more than two decades to recover to the level of GDP per person in 1982. In other words, the glamorous parties that were being thrown in the early days to signal a flimsy success finally gave way for the stark reality to bite everyone’s ass when corruption and systemic economic instability could no longer be denied. [Source]

Point 5: As for the increase in “infrastructure,” many books and articles have been written about the Marcosian edifice complex, which had a hefty price. Economist Emmanuel de Dios wrote in 1984 that the bulk of the construction projects made during the Martial Law “were not very productive and many were outrightly wasteful,” and that while some have cultural value, other projects consisted of “overdesigned bridges, highways, public buildings or large energy projects designed to secure a political constituency, to get a commission, or to corner a contract.” And which required the country to borrow money, which according to expert estimates, will take the country up to 2025 to fully pay the debt incurred during the Martial Law. [Source]

Point 6: Was it all really good, was it for the people, was it for the country? Or was it about a family wanting to extend its powers beyond the limits given to them by the constitution of the country, and amass untold wealth in the process — which has resibo, which has been proven in various court, which has been historically affirmed as true. It was not good at all for the country. [Sources: There are too many, but here’s one that gives a good summary]

And finally, that dismissive acknowledgment of the abuses, dear sir, makes me wonder what kind of morality you have. As if the souls of all those who died, and the troubled memories of all those who suffered but lived to become witnesses, are mere “footnotes” in your insistence of Marcosian glory. The dismissal reminds me of another bloody dictator, Joseph Stalin, who once said: “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.”

But here are some statistics, anyway, which I’m sure you will dismiss. The Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board currently recognizes 11,103 victims of the Marcos regime. Out of over 75,000 claimants of martial law victims, 11,103 were processed by the board as eligible persons for financial assistance. [Source]

The numbers for each approved claim are as follows:

Killing and enforced disappearances: 2,326
Torture (rape and forcible abduction): 238
Torture (mutilation, sexual abuse, involving children and minors): 217
Torture (psychological, emotional, and mental harm): 1,467
Cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment: 182
Detained (more than 6 months): 699
Detention (15 days to 6 months): 1,417
Involuntary exile (violence and illegal takeover of business): 579
Involuntary exile (intimidation and physical injuries): 2,739

Last September 21, to commemorate the 51st anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law, we honored those 11,103.

I helped DAKILA Dumaguete screen the documentary 11,103, directed by Mike Alcazaren and Jeannette Ifurong, for the Dumaguete community, and we showed the film at the Luce Auditorium. The filmmakers included my family’s story in a separate but powerful segment they’ve titled “Negros Martial Law Stories,” which included the stories of Joel Abong [the boy who died from malnourishment, and became the grim poster boy for the Martial Law shenanigans regarding Negros sugar], the Negros 9, and the Escalanate Massacre. The film itself unspools with the stories and faces of various victims of Martial Law, just a few of the 11,103 or even more that suffered tremendously during those times. They told us stories of torture and hardships and persecutions and massacres by the military. Who knew about the massacres in Mindanao? In Mindoro? In Samar?

I think of these people in the film — and how they readily gave their unwavering witness with their voices undistorted and their faces clearly seen. While you, dear anonymous man in the shadows, prefer to hide your face in shadows and your voice distorted. Which is telling. If you think you have the handle on the “truth,” why hide?

Truth to tell, I’m still overwhelmed by the response to the screening of the 11,103 documentary at the Luce. That Mike and Jeannette were able to beautifully tell the story of my family and the loss of our land during Martial Law is something priceless, and my family is indebted to them for telling our story in a very sensitive way. The Negros Stories portion was all of a piece, and all four stories really managed to paint our island as one of the worst hit in terms of abuse. All the other stories were also compelling, and made me teary-eyed. Who knew?

I’ve written so much already about this subject, so I’m just going to make the remainder of this article about thanksgiving and acknowledgments. A huge thank you, of course, to the filmmakers, and to producers Kara Magsanoc Alikpala and Zonia Bandoy for persevering! Thank you to all friends and students who carved out a portion of their work/school day to commemorate September 21 with this film! [I know it wasn’t easy, and I know that many of them were also denied the chance to see the film because of the authorities immediately above them. Binawalan!] Thank you to Dakila Dumaguete for organizing this, and for making sure everything ran smoothly. And thank you to Diomar Abrio for the graciousness of helping us screen this film at Silliman.

The talkback portion of the program essentially consisted of people wanting to tell their own Martial Law story, and students responding emotionally to the stories on screen — which was all very moving. Mike said something in the end about the film urging all of us to “start small” in our own projects of remembrance, and to “find our own stories” about what happened in our country decades ago, which still divides us all until today.

“Ask your family for their Martial Law stories, like what Ian did,” he said. That is important, I think, because right now, what we face is really a battle of narratives — but the truth of history is in our side. Merong resibo.

But it’s important to find and tell the stories.

Because the stories are what will reach people. People like you, dear anonymous man in the shadows, do not care anymore about facts and statistics — all readily available for you to study, but will probably ignore. But you might care for stories, and you might be moved by them.

Many of the subjects on the film [as well as some of the people who gave their stories during the Q and A] were united by one thing: their Martial Law story was something they never talked about for years and years, until now. [In the documentary, a son tearfully confronted his father on camera: “Why did you never tell us that they put a sack over your head when the military picked you up?” His father’s response: “I didn’t say anything because it was too painful to tell.”] And in our audience that day, Atty. Whelma Flores Siton-Yap felt compelled to tell the story of her father [which I won’t repeat here because it is her story to tell]. She said in a rejoinder: “I’ve never told anyone this story before, until now.”

It was the same with my family: kay “family writer” man ko and I was a baby when all these happened, I asked endless questions about the painful chapters of my family’s past to overly reticent members of it, and I dug deeper, and out of that came the viral essay, “Raping Sugarland.” When the documentary crew came over two years ago to film us, I was even surprised to find that my brother Dennis, normally a very quiet and non-political dude, had a lot of things to say about my family’s experience. I saw that as him grabbing the chance to talk about dark things in his past he had long since suppressed.

But there are so many Martial Law stories left untold, and that generation of witnesses are becoming old and dying. For that alone, I’m glad I said yes to taking part of this documentary project.

This is for history, this is for remembrance.



Ian Rosales Casocot

Interpreter of hamsters. Author of Beautiful Accidents: Stories and Heartbreak & Magic: Stories of Fantasy and Horror