Youth activists of martial law years share tales of courage

‘Nothing has changed… The same problems plague our country and it’s only getting worse.’


MANILA – As Bonifacio Ilagan prepared to attend the University of the Philippines (UP) as freshman in 1969, his neighbors warned him. Coming from a province, he said: “When people in our place leaned that I am headed to UP, they told me to be careful,” Ilagan told UP was known then as a hotbed of student activism. But instead of getting frightened, Ilagan became curious.

“The activists then were only a small group of students gathering at Vinzon’s Hall. I thought the warning was overrated.” At the Vinzon’s hall, students would gather and discuss current issues such as tuition fee increases, oil price hikes, and the government’s suppression of rights.

“And these students really knew what they were talking about. Many students, even those who were not organized, attended forums and rallies. They were very receptive to progressive thoughts. Student organizers then were getting high grades while doing political work at the same time,” Ilagan said.

Educating the youth did not just happen in universities. I communities, the out-of-school youth were also organized.
Jose Tausan was only 15 years old, a third year high school student, when he met student activists from the University of the East sometime in 1970. “They went to our community at V. Mapa, Sta. Mesa to form a chapter of Kabataang Makabayan. I became a member of that chapter,” Tausan said.

Tausan also organized students and youth in the community. “We held rallies outside the campus and teach-ins to educate ourselves about the crisis.”

The students also immersed themselves in trade unions. “We integrated with workers and helped to organize workers and form unions,” Ilagan said.

The student movement during the first quarter of 1970 was described by Ilagan as like “flowing water” – it was later called the First Quarter Storm. “It was as if there was an explosion. Learning much about the country’s situation – about oil price hikes, the economic decline, graft and corruption – also contributed to the outburst,” he said. Thousands joined the protests, even as these were violently dispersed.

Ilagan said the progressive movement was fast developing at the time. In August of 1971, after the Plaza Miranda Bombing, Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the hope of suppressing the mass movement. “Student and activist leaders were also targeted by the government then and we learned that they had a list of (target) union and youth leaders,” he said.

Martial law

On Sept. 21, 1972, Marcos placed the country under martial law. “White terror is widespread and used against activists in the Philippines,” Ilagan said. “The police, military and paramilitary – all of them carried out terror. There was no more pretension that human rights were being respected, it was out and out fascist rule.”

Many student activists were arrested and detained. Some went underground and went to the countryside. Ilagan also went underground while Tausan went to the countryside to continue organizing work among peasants.

“From 1972 to 1974, we were like groping in the dark but we were not cowed (by the martial law). We tried to find our bearing and the commitment to pursue the struggle,” Ilagan said.

Ilagan said they made sure that they were safe and maintained a line of communication among themselves. “We abandoned our residences; some also abandoned their workplaces and others had a complete change of lifestyle,” he recalled.

Then, they started resuming propaganda work by producing “guerrilla-type newspapers.”

“We mimeographed one ream, about 500 copies, of underground newspaper. It was passed on from one reader to another. What we learned is that when one person received a copy of the newspaper, they would photocopy it until the copy was almost blurred.” This, he said, was a small act of defiance that exerted a big impact on the people.

In 1974, Ilagan was arrested and detained for two years. Upon his release from prison, he wrote a play entitled “Pagsambang Bayan,” which was later directed by Behn Cervantes. “It was a full-length play staged in UP. It was a liturgy articulating martial law sentiments.”

The play ran in UP for two weeks. It was also staged in different schools and communities. By word of mouth, Ilagan’s play became well-known among protesters. Cervantes and other members of the cast were soon arrested and Ilagan was hunted by the authorities.

“But no amount of repression and suppression were able to stop the movement. People became creative to protest against martial law,” he said.

Struggle persists

Forty years after the declaration of martial law, both Ilagan and Tausan, now in their 50s, are still joining protest actions.

“Nothing has changed. Activists of today are shouting the same slogans. The same problems plague our country and it’s only getting worse,” Ed Tablan, another activist who was organized during the 1970s, said.

Tablan was a student in the Philippine College of Commerce (now Polytechnic University of the Philippines). He also took part in various protest actions against the Marcos regime. In 1974, he was arrested, detained and tortured.

“I was arrested in 1974 in District 1 of Manila. I was detained at Camp Crame then transferred to Fort Bonifacio,” he said. “I was tortured as they [state agents] tried to squeeze information out of me. I did not betray anyone. To surrender never crossed my mind.”

For Tablan, the struggle for genuine freedom and democracy continues. “Justice is still not served,” he said.

He added that the Philippine government is still a puppet of the United States government. “President Benigno S. Aquino III is nothing but a puppet of the US,” he told

Tausan dared today’s Filipino youth to continue what they started. “The youth should continue fighting for the people’s rights – not only for education but for national democracy.” (

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