An Assassination, Martial Law, and a Revolution, Part 2


First year of Martial Law, R & C climbing on the gate in front of our house, Herminia supervising

The phone call came at five in the morning. It was my husband’s secretary. “Turn on the radio,” she said. “Marcos just declared martial law.”

That’s how it happens, without warning.

For the next two hours, my husband sat on the floor in his shorts and undershirt, switching from station to station, calling his colleagues and friends, and trying to get more information from the Filipinos and local Chinese he knew.

“Stay inside,” he told us. Eugene knew all about danger. He had lived through war and occupation.

And yet … At 11:30, with nothing new on the radio or phone, curiosity got the better of him. We packed up the kids and drove around. The usually crowded streets were eerily quiet. We drove through Makati, down Ayala Avenue, and onto EDSA.

We could have eaten anywhere, but Eugene turned into the parking lot of a favorite Filipino restaurant, Barrio Fiesta. He couldn’t have chosen a better place to find some action. We sat down and ordered our pancit, kare kare, and fruit salad. And sure enough, before our food arrived, soldiers from the Philippine Constabulary walked in the door, their hips heavy with weapons, their boots and uniforms shouting their power. They sat down not far from us, and waved for menus. And then we all ate.

It was September, 1972, less than a year after we’d moved to the Philippines. When I think about the nine years of martial law, what I remember is the midnight curfew, the soldiers with assault rifles stationed outside banks and department stores, and the newspapers, so strenuously controlled that they were no longer worth reading.

For some Filipinos, the imposition of martial law had more serious consequences than it did for us.

Last week on my blog I wrote about “Old Girl,” a story in Mia Alvar’s short story collection, In the Country. It’s an excellent story that gives us an inside look at Senator Benigno Aquino before his assassination from the viewpoint of his wife, Cory.

Another of my favorites in the same book was a novella, the title story, “In the Country.” On page one, we meet a young nurse, Milagros. She has organized a nurses’ strike and Jaime, an idealistic journalist has come to cover it. From the beginning, politics and history cast a shadow over the couple’s love story.

They move in together and Milagros gets pregnant. Then Marcos declares martial law, and Jaime (Jim) is carried off to a military prison, where he will stay until the lifting of martial law nine years later.

… four khaki-uniformed officers led Jim out of 26 Avalon Row to a Metrocom car. … “What’s the charge?” Jim asked. He looked Milagros in the eye, as if the question was for her. “Gentlemen? The charge?” …

“Just come with us, boss,” said the officers, in the voice one uses with a senile or demented man.

The story ends fourteen years, two children, and a tragedy later during the People Power Revolution that ended the rule of President Ferdinand Marcos.

In 1986, after twenty years in power, Marcos was old and in poor health. He was brought down by a combination of things—widely held suspicions of election fraud, an aborted military coup, and a Catholic cardinal who sided with the rebels.

With the plotters holed up in a military camp, Cardinal Sin got on the air on Radio Veritas and exhorted the people to come out on the streets and support the rebels. Almost immediately, thousands of citizens flooded the highway.

The People Power Revolution lasted four days, the crowd growing to more than a million strong. Soldiers switched sides, and in the end, Marcos was forced to fly off to Hawaii for medical care.

So how did the Revolution affect the fictional nurse and journalist? I’ll just say that Milagros didn’t go to the streets. She had her reasons.

You can read all about it in In the Country by Mia Alvar.















About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
book reviews, books, expatriate life, family, Philippines , , , , , , ,


  1. Thanks for sharing this with us, Nicki. It certainly must have been a frightening time.

    • There were some frightening incidents. Once when I took the kids to Rizal Park to play, a young soldier near us gave his assault rifle to a kid to play with. I don’t know if he left the safety on, but we moved away from him.

  2. Oh my word, Nicki! What a riveting story!!! Thank you for having this series. I would have been scared to death! It reminds me so much of the freedoms we have here that I often take for granted.

    • The scary thing is that on the day before the declaration of Martial Law, the Philippines had freedom of the press, the writ of habeas corpus, a constitution, and a congress. A day later, they were all gone. It makes you wonder whether our institutions could survive a would-be dictator. It took fourteen years before Filipinos rose up and forced him out of power.

  3. Very scary. I’ve seen a lot of movies and read stories on Germany and other countries that were taken over and it’s never good. Hope you weren’t too affected.

    • Fortunately Marcos didn’t want to start World War III or open concentration camps. His enemies did suffer, though–Communist sympathizers, the opposition party, journalists, and anyone on the other side of his policies. Here are some statistics from Wikipedia: “In total, there were 3,257 extrajudicial killings, 35,000 individual tortures, and 70,000 were incarcerated. Of the 3,257 killed, some 2,520, or 77 percent of all victims, were salvaged—that is, tortured, mutilated, and dumped on a roadside for public display.” Not being on his enemies list, we did okay.

  4. How was it being an ex-pat there? Did you feel worried, or that your U.S. citizenship protected your family?

    • My husband’s employer, the Asian Development Bank, made loans to the Philippine government, so that helped. But living under martial law was just fine for most people, Filipinos or expats. If you weren’t a journalist or a member of the opposition party or anyone else on his shit list, martial law didn’t make too much difference–unless, of course, you cared about having a functioning democracy. The rich got richer. The farmers didn’t do so well, though.

  5. It could happen here too

  6. Martial Law would take some getting used to. Sounds like you took it all in stride ~> “We sat down and ordered our pancit, kare kare, and fruit salad.”

    • It didn’t take long to get used to it, as long as we were careful to arrive home before the midnight curfew. That’s why it was interesting for me to read a story that detailed how martial law would have affected a Filipino journalist who worked for the wrong newspaper. We did hear stories, but they’re easy to forget if you’re not personally involved.

  7. Wow, what a fascinating experience. Sounds a lot scarier than it actually was, based on what you’ve shared. Glad you’re with us to share the stories!

    • Thanks, Jocelyn. I suppose we all go through lots of interesting things over the years. Reading In the Country brought back some memories and reminded me that the way I experienced those events was probably quite different from the way they were experienced by some Filipinos.

  8. Oh Nicki, that must have been both terrifying and interesting for you. And your children must have been frightened by it all.

    • Funny. I don’t remember our children being frightened by political events. They were very young when we moved to the Philippines, so they didn’t expect anything different.

Leave a Reply