Martial Law Babies: Kiko Pangilinan, another battle against Marcos lies
(4th in a series of profiles of Martial Law Babies as we prepare to mark the 50th anniversary of the martial law declaration in September. This is the generation Marcos tried and failed to mold into his version of the Hitler Youth. They fought his dictatorship instead.)
Like me, Kiko Pangilinan actually welcomed martial law. We were in grade school then. What a delight it was that in the weeks and months after Marcos seized power in September 1972, we didn’t have to go to school.
There was a downside in the beginning: suddenly, there was nothing on TV. “We couldn’t watch ‘Funny Company.’ We couldn’t watch ‘Gigantor,’” Kiko told me on a recent video call. “Suddenly it was all ants” — the static background signal you see on TV when nothing is on, which looked like a mass of ants running around the screen.
But that didn’t last long. Cartoons returned. (My personal favorite was “The Wacky Races.”) In fact, that was all we could watch for a time — and it was great.
“Of course, there was the hush hush talk,” Kiko recalled. Marcos had all the power and was now the supreme ruler in the land. That wasn’t a problem for children our age. Life was good for middle class families like ours. We lived comfortable lives. So long as we didn’t resist the regime, or spoke out against it, we were going to be alright.
But of course, there was a dark side. Years later we would we learn of the plunder and the abuse and the lies and the killings and the torture — the brazen repression of anyone who dared to defy the dictatorship.
To get an idea of what it was like then, young Filipinos of today should imagine the Philippines as North Korea or China today, or the societies featured in “The Hunger Games” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Everything’s fine so long as you keep your mouth shut and obey, but prepare to face the wrath of the state if you decide to resist.
“I will admit that I actually believed Marcos was doing good for all of us,” Kiko told me. “I was, by and large, a victim of the propaganda.”
We all were. In fact, we were even part of the propaganda. We were taught the fascist songs praising Marcos and his regime — like the songs children were forced to sing about tyrants like Hitler or Kim Jong Un. We still remember the lyrics today. “May bagong silang, may bago nang buhay (There’s a new birth, a new life),” Kiko sang, chuckling.
“Images of grandeur and propaganda talaga,” he said as he remembered the lies we were taught as children. But like many of us, like most Martial Law Babies, Kiko eventually saw through the lies and the deception.
He learned to sing a different song.
Road to Damascus moment
For Kiko, the process of awakening began in the summer of 1981. He got a summer job working on a rural health program in Iloilo. It was his first real exposure to life outside Manila, among Filipinos who did not enjoy the life he had in the capital. Many of them, he was surprised to learn then, were actually sympathetic to the communist rebels.
“That was my road to Damascus moment,” he said. “It was an eye opener for me. You’re out of your comfort zone, there is resistance, even fear.” That’s when he realized that “there was so much I didn’t know about the country.”
By the time he and I entered UP in 1981, Diliman was the epicenter of youth activism in the country. Everything came to a boil two years later when Ninoy Aquino was assassinated.
“It was brazen and shocking,” Kiko said of Ninoy’s murder. Aquino was killed in broad daylight moments after he was arrested by Marcos’ security forces at the Manila International Airport. What was even more disgusting and enraging was how the regime tried to cover up the murder with outrageous lies and theories.
“Puro kasinungalingan ang isinusubo sa atin. Akala talaga nila tanga tayong lahat. They tried to feed us all these lies. They thought we were all stupid. .. Why were they feeding us with this garbage? What are they hiding? When you start asking these painful questions that’s the beginning of your politicization.”
This was true for most of us, especially on the UP campus.
Diliman was then an exciting place for young Filipinos searching for answers. “Hindi ka pwedeng dumaan ng AS 101 o AS Lobby na walang nagii-sloganeering o nagmamartsa. You couldn’t pass through AS 101 or the AS Lobby without encountering students shouting slogans and marching,” he said, referring to the Arts and Sciences areas where political gatherings became common during those years.
The rise of a student activist
The Aquino assassination marked a turning point for Kiko. He became one of the leading student leaders on the UP campus. He won a seat on the university student council in 1985 when Chito Gascon, the late chair of the Commission on Human Rights, was elected chair.
A few months later, in a bid to shore up his credibility, Marcos called for snap elections. That set the stage for an electoral battle that as many predicted led to massive cheating in favor of the dictator.
I remember driving with Kiko to one of the protests that followed at the Batasan. We talked about how we became politicized, how we were influenced by the writings of nationalists like Renato Constantino, which he said gave him a deeper understanding of our history. When we talked recently, he also mentioned Hernando Abaya as another influence.
Then the EDSA revolt happened. Marcos was overthrown in a popular uprising.
For Martial Law Babies, it was a time for celebration. The dictator who fed us all those lies hoping we would be his little army of followers was gone. But what followed wasn’t exactly what we hoped for. “It was a tumultuous time,” Kiko, who was elected chair of the UP Student Council after the EDSA uprising, said.
In November 1986, labor leader Lando Olalia was brutally murdered which coincided with the first of a series of coup attempts against Cory Aquino’s government.
In January 1987, police opened fire on a peasant march on Mendiola, killing more than a dozen activists and protesters. It was a sign of the Aquino government taking a more violent, hardline approach to protests. But, as I also learned later, it also marked the underground left’s willingness to provoke a violent backlash — even it meant sacrificing the lives of activists.
Kiko could have been one of the casualties. He was at the protest and spoke at Liwasang Bonifacio before the march to Mendiola. “What probably saved my life was that I had a midterm exam,” he said. He was then an evening student at UP Law and had to leave for his class before the march.
Then came the devastating blow to our generation. On September 19, 1987, student leder Lean Alejandro, the brilliant symbol of the Martial Law Babies, was assassinated.
Kiko was home in Quezon City when he heard the news. He quickly got in his car and rushed to Saint Luke’s where Lean’s body was taken, feeling nothing but pure rage. “Walang katapusang pagmumura. Mura ako nang mura. I was cursing nonstop. I don’t remember how I reached Saint Luke’s.”
‘There are lines you do not cross.’
I followed Kiko’s career from afar. It has been a journey of victories and defeats, of navigating what we as young activists had imagined as a snake pit of trapo politics.
Kiko was elected to the Quezon City council in 1988. A subsequent bid for a congressional seat failed amid serious allegations of vote rigging. But he was elected to the Senate in 2001, emerging as an important national leader. (He also happens to be married to a pop culture icon, Sharon Cuneta.)
We had not talked in person in years though we are connected on Facebook and sometimes swap jokes and funny comments on one another’s posts.
I’ve grown hesitant of featuring politicians especially after writing about another senator who became a staunch Duterte supporter. But Kiko and Erin Tanada, whom I wrote about as part of this series on Martial Law Babies — these leaders I trust and admire.
“There are certain lines you don’t cross,” Kiko said when I asked how he has navigated the world of the trapo (traditional politician).
Like what lines? “Integrity. Corruption. The truth.”
When he ran for another term in the Senate in 2007, for example, he opted to run as an independent, rejecting huge amounts of money offered by the two main political camps led by Gloria Arroyo and Joseph Estrada. The reason was simple. He had asked GMA to resign in the wake of the Hello Garci scandal, and he had been active in the anti-Erap campaign in 2001 which led to People Power 2.
“I went solo. There are certain things you do not compromise on.”
Kiko stated what we always knew to be true as young activists: “If you don’t get people organized and mobilized as stakeholders, and they are not buying into your policy pronouncements, it’s not going to work.”
Joining Leni’s fight
That’s the challenge he and Leni Robredo face in the 2022 elections. Robredo clearly is the most qualified of the candidates, the besieged vice president who has been the country’s acting president — the leader who has taken on the big challenges faced by the nation, led by a deadly pandemic which Duterte clearly is not interested in addressing.
But they face an uphill fight. Kiko knows that. And they are taking on a serious threat: half a century after Marcos set up a brutal dictatorship, his son, who has arrogantly denied the abuses and the repression during his father’s reign, is looking to reclaim the power they lost when Filipinos finally said, “Enough!”
And Bongbong Marcos has plenty of resources, much of it from the wealth the Marcoses plundered during the dictatorship. They are also using the stolen wealth to twist the truth, to spread lies of what we went through under Marcos.
Kiko and I talked about how the past we lived through has been distorted. In many ways, this happened because we failed.
We defeated the dictatorship in 1986 through a compromise, Kiko said. “The biggest compromise was the EDSA revolution. If we did not go out and support Enrile and Ramos based on the tenet that they were the architects of martial law baka wala iyong People Power, there would not have been a People Power uprising.”
“Naipanalo nga iyong ‘86 pero wala namang full accountability. We won in 1986 but there was no full accountability. ..Justice was not served.” The billions that the Marcoses stole were not recovered and are now being used in their bid for power.
The forces that supported and benefitted from the dictatorship repackaged themselves to adapt to the new political order — a system in which most of the lessons of the past under Marcos were downplayed, denied and even forgotten.
“That’s why we are where we are now. This is the political situation we find ourselves in. Precisely because we chose to accommodate rather than to stand firm.”
When Robredo asked him to be her running mate, Kiko said he was hesitant, mainly for family reasons. At one point, as Robredo disclosed recently, Leni considered launching her campaign without a running mate had Kiko decided to refuse.
Kiko knew that would have put Leni in a difficult position, which partly led him to accept. “I want her to win.”
But it is the idea of a Marcos comeback that made him decide to join Leni’s campaign. The idea of backing down from a fight against the forces that destroyed the country when we were children — it was not something Kiko could accept.
“A lot of that was precisely what haunted me and made me decide to support her,” he said.
“There are certain compromises that are unacceptable, especially when it comes to enabling historical revisionists. As a student leader and activist, I offered my life and risked my life in fighting the dictator. Why would we allow them to return? But nga tayo risk lang. At least with us, it was just about risk. Thousands of Filipinos gave up their lives fighting tyranny and dictatorship.”
Fifty years after we woke up as children to the lies and deceptions of martial law, and 36 years after we helped defeat the dictatorship as young activists, Kiko Pangilinan is ready for another fight against the forces seeking to bring it back.
“Noong panahon na ako ay hinamon, hindi ako umatras. Hindi ko inatrasan iyong tawag ng panahon. Nilaban natin. When we were challenged by the times, I did not back down. I did not retreat. We fought back.”