What it means to be branded as ‘subversive’ during the Martial Law years

Graphics by Dominic Gutoman / Bulatlat


MANILA – It was four years into the martial law of Ferdinand Marcos Sr. when Aida Santos was arrested, with soldiers and intelligence officers waiting at the hospital, where her husband Ed Maranan was supposed to seek medical attention. There was no warrant of arrest for Santos but they took her nonetheless.

In the hands of her military captors, Aida said she was tortured, raped, and held incommunicado. On the sixth month, she was finally released, following pleas and the tapping of their family’s connection in the military bureaucracy. Her family pleaded that she be released as she was pregnant and also had a small son to care for.

“It was only after my release that I learned from the military commission that I was facing subversion charges. That was the time when I finally understood why I was behind bars since there was never a warrant of arrest presented to me in the first place,” she told Bulatlat in a phone interview.

But looking back at her own share of activism, she said that she was involved in the strong student movement at that time, where she joined protest actions to decry the oil price increases and labor problems.

What it meant to be tagged ‘subversive’

During her six months of incarceration, Santos said she was only booked and fingerprinted in the weeks leading to her release. “Prior to that, there was no record of me being in the hands of the military. They could have easily disappeared me, like my friends. There were a lot of them.”

She shared that while on temporary release, she was ordered to file a report to Camp Crame everyday, and write what she did the day before. She shared that she and the rest of her family were subjected to surveillance.

“A mere suspicion (of being members or supporters of the revolutionary movement) may lead you to have your name be part of the ‘subversion list’ but it is not clear to you why,” she said.

Santos’s father Armando was also arrested sometime in 1974. Their home was ransacked and some of their family’s properties were then seized, including their car and her mother’s sewing machine. Even when her father was eventually released a year later, he was no longer allowed to return to teaching, nor transact in the bank because he was suspected of funding the Communist Party of the Philippines.

Her siblings eventually dropped out of school.

Santos, for her part, later returned to the university to get her bearing.

“We needed to be courageous and enterprising. I got odd jobs, also editing and writing. But we led a simple life. We had no financial ambition. During the martial law days, we just needed to survive all aspects of it – physically, mentally, and emotionally,” she said.

Why ‘tag’ perceived enemies of the state

Santos said she can still see the remnants of the Marcosian branding of subversives to activists to the red-tagging and terror-tagging these days. When one is branded, she said, they are vulnerable to graver rights abuses – from arrest to disappearance, and even killings.

“We were not called terrorists then. That is just a new invention of the state to justify what they are doing,” she said.

For historian Francis Gealogo, dissent is ostracized and criminalized to isolate those who are defying the powers that be.

“Categorization of subjects is part of state power. You need to toe the line and those who dare to dissent will be tagged for others to fear, to warn them that these people should not be emulated,” Gealogo told Bulatlat in an interview.

In the Philippines, the babaylan (women priests) who challenged the patriarchy of the Spanish colonizers were branded as bruja or witches. Others, Gealogo said, were tagged as salvaje (salvages), simaron (untamed), remontado (gone back to the hills or mountains) and tulisan (bandit) to refer to those who defied the pueblo order set by the Spanish colonizers.

The term hereje (heretic) later surfaced in the 19th century, as reflected in the novels written by the Philippine national hero Jose Rizal.

During the US colonial period, those that also resisted were branded as ladrones (brigands).

The Act No. 781, later amended by Act No. 1683, stipulated that it is the duty of all municipal orders to notify the provincial governor and the nearest Constabulary officer of the presence of ladrones. Else, they will be fined not exceeding $1,000 and be imprisoned for not more than two years.

In communities “infested” by the ladrones, where the police are unable to provide constant protection, the law said residents will be temporarily brought within stated proximity to bigger villages of the municipality and be “there to remain until the necessity for such order ceases to exist.”

During the Japanese occupation, the guerrilas were also painted in a bad light due to their resistance against their imperial government.

Gealogo said that in the Cold War era, dissenters were tagged as “communists.”

Watch:  This Week in People’s History: McCarthy and Redtagging

Red-tagging is often linked to the late US Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who, in the 1950s, led a witchhunt by fueling fears that their government agencies and universities have been infiltrated by communists through televised senate hearings.

He was later censured by the US senate over abuse of their committee, saying that such recklessness was “contrary to senatorial traditions.”

Debunking labels

Nowadays, these tags that were used by the country’s colonizers against their dissenters have remained in the present-day language though the use is no longer in vogue, said Gealogo. “But the concept remains. Dissent is criminalized and the tagging has political, social, and legal repercussions.”

Human rights groups noted that there has been an increase of red-tagging and terror-tagging, following the passing of the country’s terror law. Bank accounts of religious and civil society groups were also frozen and at least 27 websites – including Bulatlat – were blocked by the Philippine government over supposed terror links.

Even the term pasaway (stubborn), said Gealogo, is being used as part of the government’s discourse for people to blindly obey state order.

Gealogo, who is also the lead convenor of Tanggol Kasaysayan, said there is a need to push for a positive historical revisionism, which will seek to correct such tagging that made its way to history books, including the depiction of Macario Sakay as a bandit instead of a revolutionary.

Positive historical revisionism, he added, was a task that Rizal himself began in his 1890 annotations to Antonio Morga’s Spanish chronicle Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas, and when he wrote his two novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.

Gealogo also paid tribute to civil society, the academe, and the legal profession that continue to challenge the criminalization of dissent, with the government repealing laws such as the Anti-Subversion Act.

Resist attempts of negative historical revisionism, rights violations

Santos said that the charges against her and her husband Ed were never resolved. When the military commission was eventually decommissioned after the ousting of the Marcos dictatorship, she said they just assumed that it was over.

“Those cases are trumped up anyway. This is why it took so long – 10 years and nothing happened,” she said.

Santos said that part of holding to account those responsible for their sufferings during the martial law days was when she, her husband, and her father applied for a reparation, following the passing of Republic Act No. 10368 or the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013.

“It was not so much for the money but also to have the government recognize the human rights violations. Putting it down on paper and recollecting the trauma was a horrible and painful experience,” she said.

Meanwhile, the red-tagging and terror-tagging of activists meant criminalizing their assertions of their freedoms. “What hurts now is that they are criminalizing it using petty crimes.”

She said, “we have to continue to assert our rights even people like me who is already in a wheelchair will continue to fight. Those who belong to my generation are now either gravely ill or gone. It is sad that not everyone gets to talk about the horrors of the past. But it is good that the youth is woke.” (RVO) (https://www.bulatlat.org)

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