Manila During the Marcos Years

By: Jacob Taylor
on for GS215

Manila, capital of the Philippines from 1976-present, was, and still is the center of Philippine culture, politics, and economics. Physically, it is located at the entrance to the Pasig River, built on the silt the river deposited there, and is currently home to 1.66 million people[1]. Ferdinand Marcos ruled, first as president from 1965-1972, then as dictator, having declared martial law over the Philippines, from September 1972 to February 1986. Manila, during this period, is the seat of government, the center of culture, and responsible for half the Gross National Product. It is unquestionably the place around which the rest of the nation revolved. It is not, however, the most stable place during this time period.

Manila was extremely rich, culturally. It had a vibrant arts scene with two resident ballet companies, a philharmonic orchestra, and a theatre company. Starting in the early 1960's, Manila's Universities were a hotbed of protests, well ahead of public cognizance of issues being protested. Students "staged protests against anticommunist witch-hunts and curtailment of academic freedoms, high tuition, incompetent faculty, and the US War in Vietnam", though these protests were largely confined to the university campuses[2]. Manila was home to 5 major television networks, which broadcast to all corners of the archipelago, and which would be rebroadcast by smaller, local stations for those who could not receive them directly. Half of those living in Manila were born elsewhere, having moved there for economic or educational reasons (Manila's University system was thought to be one of the very best in Asia, at the time)[3]. It has been said that if Manila has the flu, all of the Philippines gets a chill[4]. All of this contributes to Manila leading the rest of the nation, culturally.

The Catholic Church ended up being a force for good in Manila, though it started as a pervasive, but passive, force. For many decades the church was a "foreign" one, originally populated by Spanish, American, and Irish clergy. The original church built near Manila inside Fort Santiago, as part of the Intramuros (city defenses, literally "within the walls"), still stands today, almost 500 years after construction. It was restored starting in 1963, and more recently (1992) has an official government department devoted to its upkeep. 80% of Filipinos were roman catholic, but they support only the parts of the religion they like, and have their own "folk" interpretation of other sections, due to mixing catholicism with myriad local animist religions. This led the Vatican to take a hands-off approach to the Philippines, until 1976 when Cardinal Jaime Sin was appointed as the first native cardinal to the Philippines, in Manila. In concert with decrees from the Vatican, he took a vastly more activist role in Manila, specifically against Marcos. He had witnessed the corruption and killings perpetrated by the regime, and felt something must be done. Previous to this policy change, many bishops were already working against Marcos by supporting some of the anti-Marcos groups, but this was formalized by the Vatican when they mandated a more activist role for the church and Cardinal Sin stepped in. Everyone in the church in Manila began actively supporting the People Power Movement, as it was called, a peaceful call for Marcos to remove himself or be removed. Following the assassination of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, the leading Anti-Marcos Filipino Senator in 1983, the church became directly involved with removing Marcos (it was thought that his Captains were behind the assassination), and in 1986 assisted with the election that saw him deposed.

As for the economy of Manila, it looked as though it would improve, and it did while Marcos was still president, but not after he became dictator, as it eventually collapsed due to the corrupt nature of his government. Manila was estimated to be responsible for half of the Gross National Product of the country. Green Revolution-style policies enacted by Marcos enabled rice self-sufficiency by 1968, and complete food self-sufficiency by 1978. It was also the hub of international trade with the rest of Asia, especially China, and "almost all insurance, banking, communications and advertising [was] based in Manila"[5]. Though because of the draw of potentially gaining economic prosperity by moving there for work, and the lacking opportunities present in third world countries, many workers in Manila lived in shantytowns of corrugated tin. They didn't have electricity or drinking water, and were present even in the nice parts of the city. Chinese businesses disproportionately controlled retail, wholesale, and distribution industries. American corporations were two of the three largest banks at the time, Bank of America and First National City Bank of New York, and the third was a British bank, Manufacturers Hanover. However infrastructure was weak early in the Marcos years, so in 1972 when he declared martial law, he also announced amnesty for back taxes, which brought in around 1 billion dollars, which he applied towards construction of roads, bridges, irrigation systems, airfields, schools, hospitals, and public buildings. Additionally, he called for remittances from emigrants and that more should immigrate and send back money, leading to an increase from $82 million in 1975 to $384 million by 1978[6], as a way to invigorate the economy, if only for a limited time period. Additionally, he began a campaign to get emigrants that had gone and made money abroad to come back and be tourists in their "home country". However, these attempts were unsuccessful, and by 1980, real wages of workers in Manila had fallen to half what they were in 1962, and the economy was in complete free-fall by 1983[7]. 1.5 Million Filipinos fled the country, 300 thousand from Manila alone, to escape the worsening conditions. This diaspora spread Filipino culture to the world.

Politically, Manila was the seat of power in the Philippines. It was the capital city, and home to the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Supreme Court. The Presidential Palace is also in Manila, which has been home to Spanish, American, and Philippine Governor Generals. The Manila region is home to the "National Capital Region", housing these houses of government, as well as the largest international airport and seaport in the Philippines. This was Ferdinand Marcos' seat of power. Because of Marcos' ruling style and rampant corruption, starting off as a President twice elected, then declaring martial law from 1972 till his ouster in 1986, the political environment went from somewhat pessimistic but stable to peaceful revolution over the period. He was first elected president in 1965, and re-elected in 1969, costing $50 million in mostly public funds. In 1972 he declared martial law over the Philippines, which he called "constitutional authoritarianism", and immediately arrested thousands of filipinos for "subversion", mostly political opponents and "communists". Immediately upon declaring martial law on September 22nd[8], he closed down all newspapers and radio stations, and the people of Manila wept, for they were previously the one standing bastion of democracy in the region. Ninoy Aquino, a Senator and staunch critic, was jailed for 7 years from 1973-1980. But, Marcos needed to project some semblance of electoral politics to the international community, so he created a new party, the "New Society Movement" (based on his martial law declaration that this would be called the "New Society") and held a series of referenda and plebiscites to show the international community that there was local support for his policies; this was irrelevant though, as he controlled parliament and the supreme court in Manila[9]. The progression over this period is most apparent: "in 1968 we were singing hey jude and can't take my eyes off you" but "the manila of 1971 had become accustomed to patrols on the streets at night and checkpoints at certain corners"[10]x. Filipinos had lost faith in democracy, and so by 1971 the people of Manila had come to be accepting, if somberly, of this fate. They still held out hope that much-needed reforms would be pushed through by this new dictatorship, but it was not to be. The government in Manila crumbled, and with it Manila did as well. Daily rounds of arrests continue for years, but on June 16th, 1981 Marcos held elections with only the nationalist party as the competitor, and he won 88% of the vote. Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, a senator who led the fight against Marcos, was assassinated on August 21st 1983 upon returning to the country from Hawaii for a health problem and self-imposed exile. This set off a final chain of events that led to the final collapse of the Marcos regime, and Aquino's wife, Corazon, being elected president in a bloodless "people powered" revolution on February 25th 1986. Marcos was flown to Hawaii with his family aboard a US jet the same morning.

The important role of the international community cannot be downplayed, here. Much of the terror perpetrated by Marcos during this time was financed by his economic policies that brought money back into the country via remittances and increased trade, but also his extremely good relationship with the United States over this period[11], who financed him directly as well as giving him aid in the form of military supplies. Ninoy Aquino was flown to the US for bypass surgery in 1980, and stayed there until his return and subsequent assassination in 1983. All of this, all of the economic development, cultural mix and transmission, and political intrigue (and truncheons!) were centered in Manila. It was the center of all of these flows. Culture flowed into Manila at the beginning of this period, and towards the end it flowed back out with the diaspora caused by the extreme worsening of economic conditions, and Marcos emigration policies. The television companies represent this well, as the shows of the period were mostly variety shows and other high drama events reflecting the high drama in Manila at the time, and were rebroadcast all over the archipelago. This period also saw major infrastructural industries run by foreign corporations, namely American, British, and Chinese, bringing culture, outside capital, and political influence into Manila. Even through these tough times, Filipinos had a vibrant arts scene and one of the best university systems in Asia. The church played a huge role, both as a religious source of hope in down times, but also as an engine of social change after Cardinal Jaime Sin was appointed by the Vatican, and assisted in Marcos's ouster. All of these flows culminated in the People Power Movement removing Ferdinand Marcos from power, and holding open and free elections to begin the next great age of the country. All of which were coordinated in the town squares, universities, and jails of Manila. The communists united with "anti-imperialists" and other groups (including the catholic church, locally) against Marcos, to save their Democracy. To keep it authentic through the truncheons, the black-bagging of political activists (people who wanted democracy!), the referenda and plebiscites meant for outsiders. To do justice for Ninoy Aquino. Though somber, and with an extracted economy run by an autocratic dictator, Manila prevailed, creating a new democracy via a nonviolent people powered revolution, electing Aquino's wife as the first president, and leader of the transition. This can be if not a template, at least inspiration for all who are under the rule of an autocrat, to yearn for democracy, and to fight to keep it when it is created. This vibrancy and resolve in the face of batons should give the rest of us the courage to throw off the chains of dictatorships when they appear in our communities. The universe waits for us to do so.


Abinales, P, and Donna J Amoroso. State and Society in the Philippines. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

Aguilar, Delia D. "Filipino Feminists." Off Our Backs 14.9 (1984): 32. Print.

Asian Americans in the Twenty-first Century: Oral Histories of First- to Fourth-generation Americans from China, Japan, India, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Laos. New York: New Press, 2008.

George, T. J. S. "Constitutional Martial Law?" Economic and Political Weekly 7.42 (1972): 2107-108. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.

Kessler, Richard J. "Marcos and the Americans." Foreign Policy Summer 1986: 40-57. Print.

Munro, Ross H. "Dateline Manila: Moscow's Next Win?" Foreign Policy Autumn 1984: 173-90. Print.

Overholt, William H. "The Rise and Fall of Ferdinand Marcos." Asian Survey 26.11 (1986): 1137-163. Print.

Woods, Damon. The Philippines: A Global Studies Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

Zich, Arthur. "The Marcos Era." The Wilson Quarterly. 3rd ed. Vol. 10. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1986. 116-29. Print.


1: Woods, p.143

2: Abinales, p.198

3: Woods, p.146

4: I can't remember which book this was from, but it was said by Nick Joaquin in Manila, My Manila, excerpted in Woods or Abinales.

5: Woods, p.146

6: Abinales, p.215

7: Abinales p.215

8: George, p.1

9: Abinales, p.211

10: Abinales p.203, except it's really a quote from Manila, My Manila, because that's what that entire page is.

11: See: Marcos and the Americans