Martial Law veterans recall fighting dark days of dictatorship

Sep. 21, 2019

DAVAO CITY, Philippines – “Makibaka! Huwag matakot! Ang tao, ang bayan, ngayon ay lumalaban! Natutong lumaban dahil sa kahirapan!”

Over 40 years ago, the voice of defiant Dabawenyos reverberated through the main streets of Davao City. They occupied the streets with their placards, raised fists, and firm resolve to fight tyranny. They showed their strong opposition against the late Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator who ruled the nation with iron fist from 1972 to 1986.

“People were fearless then. They voiced out what they thought was wrong”.

It was how Leon “Toto” Bolcan described the People’s struggle in Davao City when Marcos ordered the implementation of a nationwide martial rule. Fondly called Tatay Toto by the younger generation of activists in Davao and in Southern Mindanao, he was known to be a fierce leader of the urban poor sector, who led various protest actions against demolitions and human rights violations. Until now, he continues to fight with the people and march in the streets if needed.

It was a long, dark administration for Tatay Toto, now 79. He was one of the victims of State brutality. He experienced attacks from government forces when he was a mass leader in the urban poor movement.

The city was ruled by the Armed Forces and the Philippine Constabulary along with the anti-communist vigilante Tadtad or Alsa Masa. A score of unlawful arrest, detention, rape, torture, enforced disappearance, and summary execution happened under the military’s anti-communist crusade in Davao.

Blood drenched in the communities of Agdao, Sasa, and Panacan to name a few, as suspected communist members were beheaded, shot or brutally beaten.

“We are doomed by the left and right killings and disappearances. The city is bloody but then we were neither frightened nor scared of what will happen to us,” Tatay Toto recalled.

Peasant leader Lito Lao, who was only 18 years old when Marcos declared Martial Law, remembers how the peasant sector faced the widespread killings and attacks in the countryside.

Tatay Lito, now 65, was exposed to the struggles of the peasant community while he was serving as an altar boy in a Catholic church in Davao del Sur. Later, he joined various marches, camp outs, and immersions where his understanding on the Philippine political situation deepened, especially when they became the target of State repression.

“Peasant killings in the countryside became rampant as if they kill animals. The number of abuses against men and women, both young and old, was increasing day by day. You have no place to go but to join the mass movement,” he said.

Tatay Lito now leads the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas in Southern Mindanao, who despitehis age, continues the fight for the peasants, in particular.

The Church and the Youth Movement

Looking back some four decades ago, both Tatay Toto and Tatay Lito affirmed the enormous contribution of the various churches to the People’s struggles in Davao City.

“It was the Church who stood for us. The church people were fearless. We and the rest of the people drew our strength from them,” Tatay Toto shared.

During the dark years of Philippine history, the Church became ‘critical’ and stood against Martial Law which became the instrument of repression, abuse of power, and cover-up for the government’s inefficiency.

The Church was at the forefront in the fight against the lack of effective programs to resolve poverty and social injustice, the roots of rebellion and social unrest.

It was also the Church that became the people’s sanctuary and helping hand whenever there are attacks or if they look for their missing relatives and loved ones. Priests and lay workers accompanied human rights workers and relatives to visit detentions cells and military camps to find missing persons.

“The Church was always willing to help, to stand with the poor and the oppressed,” Tatay Lito said.

Both said church workers in Davao during Martial Law were very vocal for justice and peace. Meanwhile, they recalled how the youth and students led mass actions in the streets of Davao, many whom carried their organization’s flags and chanted at the top of their lungs against the dictatorship. Some played theatrical pieces on sectoral issues, portrayed the plight of peasants in the countryside and workers in the plantations.

“The mass movement cannot move forward without the youth and students. They played an important role against the Marcos regime,” Tatay Toto said.

The youth also led community forums and discussions which helped the people of Davao understand their current situation then. On the other hand, students in different colleges and universities were vocal against pressing issues like tuition fee increase.

“We have developed fearless leaders from the youth and students. Many of them died during Martial Law while some remained and continue to fight up to now,” said Tatay Toto.

Never-ending struggle

Nearly five decades have passed, Tatay Toto and Tatay Lito are still fighting. Ironically this time, the placards they carry bear the same call when they were at their youth: End oppression and repression.

The Tatays of the movement in Davao City was with the new generation of activists marching through the streets and chanting as loud as the young ones, as they commemorated the 27th year of Martial Law.

“In a society where oppression continues, there is no reason to stop fighting. My time on Earth may be over soon, but I will use my remaining strength to be with the masses,” Tatay Toto said reflecting on his involvement in activism over the years.

Their eyes still light up when they meet their colleagues in rallies and in other activities. They actively participate in discussions, giving their insights and analyses.

“Time may have passed, but my principle and my love to serve the people goes on. This is what the mass movement has taught me over the years. It is not easy, but it is where I am most happy,” Tatay Lito shared.

They have grown old in the mass movement and suffered under a despot and the administrations after that. But as they have devoted their lives to the people, their fight continues.(

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