The anniversary of the declaration of martial law is on September 23 (not September 21)
President Jose P. Laurel issued Proclamation No. 29 on September 21, 1944 placing the Philippines under martial law, effective September 22, 1944. Marcos followed a similar process, although he did not actually sign his Proclamation No. 1081 on September 21: he signed it on September 17 or on September 22, in either case dating it September 21.
Throughout the martial law period, President Marcos built up the cult of September 21, proclaiming it National Thanksgiving Day by virtue of Proclamation No. 1180 s. 1973 to memorialize the date as the foundation day of his New Society. The propaganda effort was so successful that up to the present, many Filipinos, particularly those who did not live through the events of September 23, 1972, labor under the misapprehension that martial law was proclaimed on September 21, 1972. It was not.
The facts are clear. A week before the actual declaration of Martial Law, a number of people had already received information that Marcos had drawn up a plan to completely take over the government and gain absolute rule. Senator Benigno S. Aquino, Jr., during a September 13, 1972 privilege speech, thus exposed what was known as “Operation Sagittarius”. The Senator said he had received a top-secret military plan given by Marcos himself to place Metro Manila and outlying areas under the control of the Philippine Constabulary as a prelude to Martial Law. Marcos was going to use the bombings, which includes the Plaza Miranda Bombing, in Metro Manila as a justification for his takeover and subsequent authoritarian rule. In his own diary, President Marcos in his entry for September 14, 1972, wrote that he informed the military that he would proceed with proclaiming martial law.
This was indeed the culmination of a long period of preparation: in his January 1971 diary entries, Marcos discussed meeting business leaders, intellectuals from the University of the Philippines, and the military, to lay the groundwork that extreme measures would be needed in the future. By May 8, 1972, in his diary, Marcos confided that he had instructed the military to update its plans, including the list of personalities to be arrested, and had met with Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile to finalize the legal paperwork required.
On September 21, 1972, democracy was still functioning in the Philippines. On same date, Senator Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. delivered his final privilege speech in the senate.
Thursday, September 21, 1972 was the last session day of the week. Primitivo Mijares, among others, recounted the functioning of the House of Representatives and the Senate, with committee meetings scheduled for that night.
That afternoon, as Edicio de la Torre recounted in 2009, a protest march was held in Plaza Miranda, sponsored by the Concerned Christians for Civil Liberties (Eva-Lotta E. Hedman, John Thayer Sidel in their book Philippine politics and society in the twentieth century: colonial legacies, post-colonial trajectories, says this rally was led by a coalition of “more than thirty civic, religious, labor, student and activist groups [and] mobilized a crowd of 30,000 in a protest rally at Plaza Miranda which received prominent national radio, television, and newspaper coverage.”). For his part, in his diary, President Marcos wrote that he, together with members of his cabinet and staff, finished the preparation of Proclamation 1081 at 8 PM, September 21.
A day after the final speech of Ninoy Aquino, that is, September 22, 1972, the newspapers still came out: they featured the rally held the previous day in Plaza Miranda. Mijares in his book recounts President Marcos was agitated by a statement reported in the Daily Express that if martial law were declared, Aquino said he would have to be arrested soon after or he would escape to join the resistance to martial rule.
The pretext for martial law was provided later in the evening of Friday, September 22, 1972, the convoy of Secretary of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile was ambushed in Wack-Wack as he was going home to Dasmariñas village in Makati before 9 PM. This ambush, as Enrile later revealed in 1986, was staged by Marcos to justify Martial Law. Marcos himself, in his diary entry for September 22, 1972 (9:55 PM) wrote, “Sec. Juan Ponce Enrile was ambushed near Wack-Wack at about 8:00 pm tonight. It was a good thing he was riding in his security car as a protective measure… This makes the martial law proclamation a necessity.” His diary entry for September 25, 1972 mentions conditions after two days of martial law, also indicating martial law in reality is dated to September 23, 1972.
This means that when President Ferdinand E. Marcos appeared on television at 7:15 PM on September 23, 1972, to announce that he had placed the “ entire Philippines under Martial Law” by virtue of Proclamation No. 1081, he framed his announcement in legalistic terms that, however, were untrue, and that has helped camouflage the true nature of his act, to this day: for it was nothing less than an autogolpe, or self-coup. He said he had placed the entire country under martial law as of 9 PM on September 22, 1972, which, he claimed, he signed on September 21, 1972.
Yet accounts differ. David Rosenberg, writing in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (“The End of the Freest Press in the World,” Vol. 5, 1973) chronicled that about six hours after the ambush, President Marcos signed Proclamation No. 1081, placing the entire country under Martial Law, placing the signing at around 3 AM on September 23. Raymond Bonner, in his book Waltzing with the Dictator, narrates his interview with Juan Ponce Enrile with which the former Defense Secretary recalls that he and Acting Executive Secretary Roberto Reyes witnessed President Marcos sign Proclamation No. 1081 in the morning of September 23, 1972. The Bangkok Post in a series of articles called “The Aquino Papers” published in February 20 – 22 of 1973, asserted Proclamation No. 1081 had been signed even earlier, on September 17, 1972, postdated to September 21. Mijares also mentioned in his book that President Marcos said as much in an address to a conference of historians, in January, 1973.
Two things emerge: first, whether they conflict or not, accounts all indicate President Marcos’ obsession with numerology, seven being his lucky number, necessitated that Proclamation No. 1081 be officially signed on a date that was divisible by seven. Thus, September 21, 1972 became the official date that Martial Law was established and the Marcos dictatorship began. It also allowed Marcos to control history on his own terms.
The second is that the arbitrary date underscores that the actual date for martial law was not the numerologically-auspicious (for Marcos) 21st, but rather, the moment that Martial Law was put into full effect, which was after the nationwide address of Ferdinand Marcos as far as the nation was concerned: September 23, 1972. By then, personalities considered threats to Marcos (Senators Benigno S. Aquino Jr., Jose Diokno, Francisco Rodrigo and Ramon Mitra Jr., and members of the media such as Joaquin Roces, Teodoro Locsin Sr., Maximo Soliven and Amando Doronila) had already been rounded up, starting with the arrest of Senator Aquino at midnight on September 22, and going into the early morning hours of September 23, when 100 of the 400 personalities targeted for arrest were already detained in Camp Crame by 4AM.
In the meantime, the military had shut down mass media, flights were canceled, incoming overseas calls were prohibited. Press Secretary Francisco Tatad went on air at 3PM on September 23 to read the text of Proclamation No. 1081. The reading of the proclamation was followed by President Marcos going on air at 7:15 p.m. to justify the massive clampdown of democratic institutions in the country. He would subsequently issue General Order No. 1, asserting that all powers had been transferred to the President who was to rule by decree. Congress would not convene until, in anticipation of it in January, 1973, President Marcos accelerated the “approval” of a new constitution to preempt the legislature.
The New York Times reported about these events in an article entitled Mass Arrests and Curfew Announced in Philippines; Mass Arrests Ordered in Philippines in their September 24, 1972 issue. The Daily Express itself, announced in its September 24 issue, that President Marcos had proclaimed martial law the day before, September 23, 1972.
After the declaration and imposition of Martial Law, citizens would still go on to challenge the constitutionality of Proclamation No. 1081. Persons arrested filed petitions for habeas corpus with the Supreme Court. But President Marcos, who had originally announced that martial law would not supersede the 1935 Constitution, engineered the replacement of the constitution with a new one. On March 31, 1973, the Supreme Court issued its final decision in Javellana v. Executive Secretary, which essentially validated the 1973 Constitution. This would be the final legitimizing decision with on the constitutionality of Martial Law: in G.R. No. L-35546 September 17, 1974, the Supreme Court dismissed petitions for habeas corpus by ruling that martial law was a political question beyond the jurisdiction of the court; and that furthermore, the court had already deemed the 1973 Constitution in full force and effect, replacing the 1935 Constitution.
Martial Law would officially end on January 17, 1981 with Proclamation No. 2045. President Marcos, however, reserved decree-making powers for himself.
Today, the Constitution safeguards our institutions from a repeat of martial law. The Supreme Court is empowered to review all official acts to determine if there has been grave abuse of discretion. Congress cannot be padlocked. Martial Law is limited in duration and effects, even if contemplated by a president.