We cannot turn away. When something bleeds, you watch it carefully.
This last year doctors found in my brainstem a cerebral cavernous malformation: an inaccessible, blackberry-shaped lesion of leak-prone capillaries that tend to bleed and expand places where there’s no space for expansion. Turns out those who dislike me were right: I have a hole in my head.
Annual MRI scans will reveal my cavernoma—as it’s cutely called—to be dangerously increasing or harmlessly stable. The chance of either at this point is 50/50, which are worse odds than in blackjack (at which I’ve stubbornly lost). It could mean nothing, it could just as well mean everything.
Such leads you to take measure. Let me please tell you what I discovered.
I was born under martial law and I could now die during martial law. Don't we all hope to end in a better state than we began?
There are a few things still that I’d like to see. The things I broke, fixed. Thanks, given to those to whom I’m grateful. Books, written. Laughter, with loved ones. The Northern Lights. And the entire length of the Philippines, on foot. I’d like to live to see all that.
Most of all I want to witness politics working the way it promises. That’s partly because I was raised among it, with my parents as members of Congress. But mostly it’s because it is human to want promises kept.
Earlier this year, indefinite military rule was declared across a third of the Philippines, with the threat that it might be expanded nationwide; it’s been forty-five years since it’s been used so readily. It's hard for me to not be concerned. I was born under martial law and I could now die during martial law. Don't we all hope to end in a better state than we began?
When Filipinos of a certain age speak of martial law, they refer less to a system of rule than to a troubled era of communal but intensely personal experience. For so many, it remains a wound that still bleeds. For me, it is how I began to learn what democracy is—by hearing true stories about how it dies.
At first, dictatorship was said to have worked. It brought order across the Philippines. Protests ceased. Politics became straightforward. The unopposed regime built many good things. Manila was peaceful and secure. Evening curfew was effective, and even fun when it stranded you at a friend’s house or at a party. If you weren’t a communist, terrorist, or destabilizer, then you had nothing to fear. At first.
By 1977, five years after martial law began, my family packed a few suitcases for a short holiday to California’s Disneyland. A short time after, we arrived in Vancouver, Canada, to begin a new life—among the lucky few who could.
The regime in the Philippines had long turned abusive, with media controlled, the legislature locked down, and many businesses sequestered. Governance had been shared among cronies, while opposition politicians were imprisoned. Dissenters were arrested without warrant and detained without trial, with many tortured, raped, or even killed and dumped on the streets in a practice known, ironically, as “salvaging.”
My family, like many exiles, watched from afar martial law’s expanding violence against others, and like many émigrés we suffered wounds that even we could not see. Gone was not only our democracy, but our home, our country. I grew up in a purgatory of in-betweenness, never learning the language of being Filipino but never thinking for a second that I was anything else.
In 1986, nine years after we had left, it was the dictator’s family’s turn to lose what they had stolen from us. In what became known as the People Power Revolution, Filipinos of all backgrounds flooded the capital. The ailing strongman faced a tough decision. Members of the military were abandoning him. His son and heir allegedly urged him to open fire on the peaceful protestors. The American president offered their family asylum in Hawaii.
In the middle of the night, they fled in disgrace. Not long after, my family returned to the Philippines.
Never in my lifetime have we Filipinos been, as we are now, so political, so engaged, so enraged.
Three decades have passed since democracy was restored, and that distance tempts us to see the dictatorship as a fourteen-year blip in the country’s history. But remember that for those who endured it, martial law seemed interminable. They could only hope for its end. Thousands who were pulled into military camps, prisons, and shadows did not live to see its demise.
How much longer, wider, and bloodier might it have been had the dictator bequeathed power to his wife and children? But there were things the strongman could not control. His body was failing him.
Death always takes a lifetime, and it usually arrives too early. Mortality may warn with baldness and back pain, reading glasses and regrettable griefs—until it’s suddenly quick. Some diagnoses you see coming, inherited from your elders. Others, you don’t expect.
• • •
All my life I’ve suffered chronic migraines and my new doctor suggested an MRI scan. I agreed because, after years lost in the world building my career as a writer, I suddenly had health insurance from my new university job in the Middle East. Plus I thought it would be cool to look inside my head.
Some people are reminded of a coffin when faced with the claustrophobic confines of an MRI machine. My hospital softens that with a charming lie of faux windows framing life-size images of clouds in the sky, back-lit on the ceiling, and a beach with palm trees, along one wall. Onto the platform that slid into a tunnel I laid myself horizontal. I was fitted with earmuffs, which piped in the Koran in Arabic, as well as a contraption of angled mirrors that magicked my gaze towards my feet and to the technicians beyond, comfortingly. It was routine, and so it was fun. The machine thrummed like a drill. I drifted to sleep and was disappointed when finally woken by an orderly. Throughout, I’d felt no fear. Why would I?
Weeks later, in a white room with a neurosurgeon, I saw my brain and spinal cord dissected digitally on a screen, stacked in layers in black-and-white. In the middle of my brain stem was a dark blot. “For now, we can only wait for your next scan in December,” the doctor said. “But call us if you have symptoms.” Symptoms? “Seizures, blindness,” he said, “paralysis—even if just partial.” He shook my hand goodbye.
Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months seeped into each other, like ink smearing across newspapers to obscure the daily troubles of the rest of the world. The year trudged into that part of the calendar which I associate with spring and rebirth—but in Abu Dhabi, where I work as a professor, the season rolls into withering heat, as if the end will come not in ice but in fire. As friends on social media elsewhere celebrated the encroaching efflorescence of summer, I hid in the artificially frigid indoors, kept to myself, and drank too much every night. I look back and wonder how I didn’t break down. But what else do we do but get through it, right? I did. Sort of. I struggled. Still do. Then I feel guilty.
Our democracy still bleeds from the dictator's martial law and the chronic failures that came after it.
Some nights, when I close my eyes, I see a young stranger, almost half my age, slumped on a sidewalk. It was about 10pm on a beautiful Saturday evening in January, on a dark highway in the north of my hometown, near the fish port on Manila Bay. I was researching an article on the reporters documenting abuses of power in a government’s attempt to clean up the streets. In the shadows, a black halo of blood surrounded that young man who would now never get older than his 22 years. In his head, a hole. In his hand, a cap. The hole was from a close-range bullet. The cap was from the NBA. He clutched it against his chest, as if he’d taken it off to treasure it. Or to obligingly make way.
Writers tell the world what we see, but sometimes I wish it wasn’t so. Our job may render us unpopular. In my seeing, our democracy still bleeds from the dictator's martial law and the chronic failures that stumbled after it. We have forgotten our troubled past because we were too busy watching the new present and the uncertain future—too busy watching ourselves be let down by our leaders. All of them. The good ones failed to mitigate the bad ones, and the bad ones refused to compromise for the greater good.
All used our hopes, votes, and support to legitimize their control, and they have mostly proven either arguably incompetent, inarguably corrupt, absolutely self-serving, or all of the above. Yes, they did oversee improved but unequal economic development, a widened but disaffected middle class, and greater opportunities for those willing to work for too little and sacrifice too much. Yet our democracy, as a form of representation and a system for change, has hardly progressed. Politics is indeed a tough job, but our politicians have either refused or failed to empower us to help them.
Everyone knows that most elected positions in the Philippines are controlled by dynasties, just like we all know that blood is always thicker than water. The clans band together to safeguard fiefdoms, shape legislation, refine governance in their favor, and jealously share control with other powerful families—justifying it all as they go along, because that’s what we humans must do when we put our loved ones before strangers. Every national election ends up like musical chairs played by crotchety old politicians and their gloating sycophants—all of whom promise change, because they know that we know that change is needed.
• • •
After the dictatorship ended, there was a great sense of optimism that I remember well. My father was a businessman, a soft-drink bottler from a Filipino-Chinese minority, with neither fame nor public office to inherit; despite our deep differences, I admire how he was able to simply will himself into the closed world of politics. That buoyant era opened our democracy in that new way—however limited and ultimately wasted that change may have proven.
I learned much, all my years observing, and avoiding, the campaigns, speeches, grand plans, and behind-the-scenes of governance. I saw enough to know that it wasn’t for me, but I witnessed enough to know that politics needs me—because it needs all of us, every single one who wants to be counted, no matter our profession or persuasion. With our participation, democracy remains the best apparatus to advocate for our concerns and peacefully change bad leaders.
But I, like so many of us, refused to take part sufficiently. There was life to be lived, young love to be pursued—and anyway, what good could I, or any of us, do against such a complex and corrupt system? So you turn your back and hope that someone will fix it. Especially because someone is always promising that they’re the most qualified do so. Sometimes it’s just easier to believe a lie, especially when we’re given little choice.
What happened to the notion that any citizen with good ideas, integrity, and community support can rise up from whatever background to help lead the country? How has politics become the domain of dynasts, celebrities, oligarchs, and scions? We cast our votes, swell the ranks at rallies, pay our taxes, and are made to shut up and do as we’re told, with no recourse. We are helpless against impunity. Participation via opposition is interpreted as a threat. Dissent is cast as destabilizing. We are ruled, not led.
There is a vital difference between popular opinion and democracy. Authoritarianism has always benefited by confusing the two.
Something stinks. We all smell it.
Near the fish port on Manila Bay, at that crime scene, one thing stayed with me more than the rest. It wasn’t the abundance of blood—I’d already seen enough dead bodies shot through the head. It wasn’t its particular funk when mixed with the daily dust of the city—redolent of rotten flowers. It wasn’t the police report that said vigilantes killed the young man as he fled on his motor scooter—a story contradicted by eye witnesses. Nor was it the way his body sagged between two men wearing blue latex gloves as they heaved him into a black vinyl bag. Or the way they plopped unceremoniously his filthy flip-flops onto his shins just before they zipped him away—a step I’ve seen repeated at every crime scene, like tossing in errant debris that fell from a trashcan as it’s hoisted to the curb.
What has stayed with me indelibly is how that dead young man held that NBA cap against his chest—as if a funeral was passing or the Philippine flag was flying. When a cop tried to remove it, to examine the body, he had to pry it away finger by finger. Even he seemed surprised at how tightly those who will die can hold on.
When I was about the age of that young man, I stubbornly thought that we could change our country by vesting others with the strength of our faith. Youth is nothing if not optimistic, even when angry, and at the turn of the millennium I was one of thousands in the streets of Metro Manila, ousting yet another obesely plunderous president—this time halfway through his six-year term. As young people do, I believed our chants had power, and I saw our popular will as democracy in action—a parliament of the streets. The system had faltered, it could not punish the guilty, and we had to work extrajudicially to save it. We contributed to a better future by empowering a new leader with our hope.
But there is a vital difference between popular opinion and democracy—and authoritarianism has always benefited by confusing the two. Democracy is a system of foundational laws that ensure representation and a functioning opposition so that neither individual ego nor popular opinion can ever deny the basic rights of anyone who has differing perspectives, faiths, or concerns. Democracy is not consensus; it is consensual disagreement—defined by the pursuit of equality, not unfettered in service to the largest mob. Transparency, co-equal branches of government, dissent, and checks and balances against unchecked and unbalanced authority all work to prohibit a monopoly of power by spreading it as widely as possible into the hands of all the people. A good leader would not just wield that on our behalf; a good leader would teach us how to use it.
I’d never wish on anyone the disillusionment I felt after my president, for whom I had rallied, proved to rival her predecessor in perfidy. She dragged us through nine years of corruption, dysfunctional governance, allegations of electoral fraud, and the impunity that saw it go unpunished. Yet I supported her longer than I dare admit, because it is easier, as they say, to fool someone than to convince them they’ve been fooled.
Frustration is like radiation—it accumulates, poisons, and wanes slowly. Our dissatisfaction with our rulers put into place the next savior. But after she failed, another came, and he failed, too, in many other ways. Now our frustration has put another into power, with his shallow solutions to deep problems. He will inevitably fall short, too. They always do, because our problems are bigger than any one person.
• • •
However bitterly we may disagree, we citizens are in this together. Those who follow my work know I try to treat my many detractors with the compassion they rarely extend my way. That’s because I know well what they’re going through, and what they’ll go through, eventually. Hope sings. Reality bites. And in bitterness we turn our backs, eventually. Something fades when we do. Our cynicism becomes a eulogy for the living.
These nights it scares me sleepless that we’re doubting the mechanisms meant to keep us empowered, rather than revising our faith in rulers who do not maintain those fail-safes for us. When we study history, from the perspective of those who suffered—rather than those who flourished or steered—it’s clear that things like martial law are not solutions but symptoms. Healthy societies need neither propaganda nor military rule. When such are imposed we are not wrong to watch carefully.
Especially when we’re watching that slow bleed, now familiar, from which authoritarianism can sprout. That death by a thousand tiny ruptures—the piecemeal surrender of seemingly insignificant rights that together form significant protections. We’ve seen before that steady acquiescence, and witnessed the quiet but gradual results that became loud and clear in the flames of the Reichstag, and the ruined harvests in China that killed tens of millions, and our dictator’s suspension of habeas corpus in 1972, and the seizing of Zimbabwean farms, and the mass arrests in Turkey, and the current poverty and unrest in Venezuela.
We know that the resulting rule may do well while it is benevolent, as in some young undemocratic countries today. But we’ve never, anywhere, known the willing abdication by one that’s turned abusive—at least not without destruction or death. It’s always been this way, in civilizations come and gone. In Greece, Plato predicted it. In Rome, Juvenal articulated it: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Who will guard the guards themselves?
We all know what the answer should be.
Politics is too important to leave to the politicians.
Never in my lifetime have we Filipinos been, as we are now, so political, so engaged, so enraged. Our current crop of rulers is sometimes credited for that, but that overlooks the fact that we are the ones who put them there. And it is we who can hold them relentlessly to account. It is we who can leave them to their short-game shenanigans while we focus on the long-game. It is we who can shine light on our young leaders so that their idealism does not corrode in the darkness. It is we who can start conversations about democracy with those who’ve never really had it. And it is we who can refuse to let right and wrong be redrawn by those who benefit from its redrawing. They have turned our democracy into a lie so that we'd believe in them instead of believing in each other. But in that, at least, we can still choose.
I'm writing to you now about all this not because I want your sympathy for this time-bomb in my brain, but because I don’t want to talk about it ever again. There's too much work for all of us to do.
Tonight, there are people dying in the dark corners of the Philippines. It’s been like that for as long as we can remember. I think of that young man, half my age, who died from a hole in his head. In the morgue, on a slab, with his one eye half open and his other eye half closed, he looked like he was pretending—like he would stand up and laugh at his practical joke then saunter home to those who love him. I think of how he died, untried as a criminal, yet convicted to death because of the tiny stone of crystal meth allegedly in his pocket and our fear and the chance circumstances of his birth—while all the untried, and the convicted, criminals in our government live and laugh and practically make a joke of it all before standing up to saunter home to those whom they love.
I, for one, refuse to cede our democracy to the murderers, plunderers, rapists, pedophiles, thieves, plagiarists, narcissists, electoral cheats, philanderers, wife beaters, misogynists, liars, prescription drug abusers, hypocrites, religious zealots, warlords, charlatans, gaslighters, gambling kingpins, oligarchs, monopolists, spoiled brats, mutineers, shirkers of command responsibility, executioners, cronies, rubber stampers, carpet baggers, lapdogs, opportunists, and incompetents who comprise our executive, legislative, judicial, and local government institutions.
Until my final breath, whether in forty years or forty days, I will fight them. Unafraid, because I know I am not alone. Unbowed, because we all deserve better. Politics is too important to leave to the politicians. And though we all share culpability for the state of our nation, a huge difference remains between us and them: We regular citizens are not the ones empowered. Don't you think we should get together and demand, seriously: Why not?
Now that would be change. How I’d love to live to see just that.