Human Rights and Martial Law

WiseOwl PH
2 min readSep 22, 2021

NOTE: This was written in 2010 by Oya Arriola, WiseOwl’s Communication Strategist. We’re reposting this because we still remember.

Martial law was declared in the Philippines on my sister’s second birthday. I grew up with adults mindful of curfews and careful never to be seen among a group of more than 3 people at a time. My uncle brought home strangers or disappeared for days at a time, and my grandmother periodically made a bonfire of all his books and papers. A schoolmate’s father, a businessman, was found floating in the Pasig River. After Ninoy Aquino was assassinated at Manila Airport, my mother started attending rallies and spoke at the funeral wakes of people she did not know. My father’s art studio churned out design after design of protest posters. For my high school retreat, my mother wrote me a letter apologising for being away for much of the time, explaining that what she was doing she was doing for our future. Much much later, I realised that one of my classmates never spoke about her father because he had been a political prisoner of the dictatorship. I discovered that an aunt had been a prisoner too, escaping at Christmas time and walking down a mountain barefoot for miles until it was safe for her to hitch a ride without raising suspicion. I met people who had gone through horrific ordeals in the hands of those who had decided they were enemies.

That was the context of my childhood and why I became an activist. A few years ago, catching up with old friends who are now lawyers, doctors, businessmen and economists, we agreed that the experiences we had 20 years ago continue to influence our perspectives today. I still marvel at how protective Filipinos are of our freedoms and rights, undoubtedly because they were won at a very high cost. Their deprivation affected all of us, whether we were conscious of it or not. That is the essence of human rights after all — they are inseparable from who we are. They come to the fore of our consciousness in extreme times, but can also be found in the mundane details of everyday life.

After the overthrow of Marcos, activists swore that they would never forget the lessons of martial law. To me, that meant — and still means — ensuring that the values of human rights and justice are instilled in each of us and embedded in our norms and institutions. That government is accountable to the people. That a difference of opinion does not create an us-versus-them situation. That nobody is imprisoned indefinitely without trial or in appalling conditions (not even criminals!). That atrocities like last year’s Maguindanao massacre never happen again. That everyone has a fair chance, no matter how little money she has, who he knows, or which gender or religion she belongs to. I do what I do today because I haven’t forgotten.