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MEL STA. MARIA | Why February 25 should be remembered

The People Power Monument on EDSA, Quezon City. InterAksyon file photograph
The online news portal of TV5

Atty. Mel Sta. Maria is the Dean of the Far Eastern University Institute of Law and Professor at the Ateneo de Manila School of Law.

In early 1986, there seemed to be no end in sight. The dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos intended to perpetually rule the Philippines. He ordered a snap election on February 7, 1986. It was rigged in his favor.

Prior to that election, he put in place all the necessary laws and decrees to make himself virtually a king – and a despotic one. Amendment Numbers 5 and 6 contained in his Martial Law Constitution gave him the power to make laws in addition to his power to implement them. This allowed him to churn up, amend and repeal "laws of the land" as often as he wanted, depending on his whim. His power to be the sole authority to determine, select and appoint magistrates made judicial independence an illusion.

Moreover, Marcos' martial law constitution empowered him to designate any of his chosen government officials to issue warrants of arrest against people and to search and seize their properties without probable cause determined by a judge. He used this effectively, jailing his critics, including students, businessmen, politicians, priests, nuns, imams, journalists, and just anyone who dared to question him. Even without actual rebellion and invasion, he can declare martial law and suspend the writ of habeas corpus – thereby incarcerating anyone without charge and trial – for as long as he wanted. He controlled the military by making his relative its boss. And he did this too with the national police.

He flouted extravagance and cherished ostentatious ceremonies insensitive to the unabated poverty around him. There was just too much hypocrisy. And he loved it.

Finally, he made himself legally untouchable providing for his own immunity – during and after his term – indeed forever – from civil, criminal and administrative liability and prosecution. Had he continued to be President and his Martial Law Constitution not been abrogated, he would not have suffered the fate of Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III who were/are made respondents in preliminary investigations or accused in criminal cases (meritorious or otherwise) filed against them after their respective terms. Brazenly, Marcos provided for his own God-like infallibility. He was not accountable even to the Filipino people.

On February 25, 1986, there was no choice but for the people to unceremoniously remove him from office. And it was a decisive move. "People Power" it was called. The world marveled at the courage of the Filipino nation.

In the aftermath of the ouster, the monstrous damage to the country of Ferdinand Marcos' regime was revealed. The Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG) was created for "the recovery of all ill-gotten wealth accumulated by former President Ferdinand E. Marcos, his immediate family, relatives, subordinates and close associates, whether located in the Philippines or abroad."

Presently, about P170 billion in ill-gotten wealth (assets, monies, and properties) had already been recovered by the PCGG. And the PCGG is still trying to recover millions, if not billions more. This theft can be considered the grandest larceny in Philippine history.

And no less than a law, Republic Act No. 10368, acknowledges that the Marcos regime was one of the darkest periods in Philippine history requiring justice for all those who were its victims. It "declared the policy of the State to recognize the heroism and sacrifices of all Filipinos who were victims of summary execution, torture, enforced or involuntary disappearance and other gross human rights violations committed during the regime of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos covering the period from September 21, 1972 to February 25, 1986 and restore the victims' honor and dignity.

Yes, February 25 must be remembered by all of us. It was an historic moment. As we heard the news that the dictator Marcos left, we rejoiced. Personally, I thought of Teotimo Tantiado, a peasant-worker and a friend, who, on the night of April 10, 1978 was arrested at the Loyola House of Studies in Quezon City in a raid conducted by the dreaded Metrocom – the Marcos "Gestapo" at that time. From all accounts, Teotimo was tortured and eventually died for not naming his "accomplices." For all I know, he might have saved my life and many others who were in a meeting with him during that day two hours before the raid. He is a hero.

Indeed, February 25 is a special day to remember Teotimo and all those who sacrificed their lives to resist the Marcos tyranny so that we may have the freedom we savor today.

While it may be easy to express disappointment and feel disheartened – either because we still see remnants of a dictatorship in our midst seemingly gaining strength and threatening to reemerge with greater greed for power, or because we feel betrayed by people who took office post Martial rule but nevertheless failed to live up to the ideals of honor, integrity, honesty and love of country that we felt in EDSA –, let us remember that our duty to make our country good again did not end when People Power happened 31 years ago in EDSA.

The deaths of Teotimo and all the victims of martial law only show that the duty to make sure there would be no need for another people power in order to protect our rights lies in each and every one of us. Their deaths mean that our struggle continues – that EDSA only marked the beginning of a conscious awakening that our cherished liberties and freedoms will always be threatened if we do not fight for them. And this we must do with unwavering commitment much like the lyrics of our national anthem – "ang mamatay nang dahil sa iyo". This is a lifetime commitment we all share and should remind ourselves when we remember and honor what happened on February 25, 1986.