No, Marcos Wasn’t the First To Declare Martial Law in the Philippines

The first happened during World War 2.

Martial law—or a state where a particular area (or the whole country) is under the control of the military or armed forces—is most often associated with former President Ferdinand Marcos. But not many people know the late strongman was not the first to declare it.

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Before Marcos declared Proclamation 1081 in September 21, 1972, there had been other instances in the country’s history where the government was forced to declare martial law to stamp out insurrection or quell disorder. Two of these happened prior to the Philippines becoming a republic in 1899.

Martial law during the Spanish occupation

The first was in 1896, when Ramon Blanco, then the Spanish Governor-General Ramon Blanco of the Philippines, placed eight provinces of the Philippines under martial law. These provinces were Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Pampanga, Tarlac, Laguna, Batangas, and Nueva Ecija, where rebels had been fighting Spanish soldiers in what eventually became the start of the Philippine revolution.

“The acts of rebellion of which armed bodies of the people have been guilty during the last few days at different points of the territory of this province, seriously disturbing public tranquility, make it imperative that the most severe and exemplary measures be taken to suppress at its inception an attempt as criminal as futile,” Blanco said in the proclamation, according to historian Ambeth Ocampo.

“Those who are found on, or who had been at the scene of an action, and those who are captured fleeing or in hiding, after having been with the rebels, shall be treated as presumably guilty,” he added. “That seems to cover almost everyone, including the aged, infirm, women and children.” 

Two years later, in May 1898, Emilio Aguinaldo issued a similar proclamation, soon after his return from exile in Hong Kong.

“Now that the great and powerful North American nation has come to offer disinterested protection for the effort to secure the liberation of this country, I return to assume command of all the forces for the attainment of our lofty aspirations, establishing a dictatorial government which will set forth decrees under my sole responsibility, assisted by the advice of eminent persons until these islands are completely conquered and able to form a constitutional convention and to elect a president and cabinet, in whose favor I will duly resign the authority,” Aguinaldo said, according to the book A History of the Spanish-American War of 1898.

First official proclamation of martial law

While both instances involved leaders declaring a form of military rule, it was actually Jose P. Laurel, who was the country’s commander-in-chief during the Japanese Occupation in World War 2, who was the first to declare martial law over the country in an official proclamation as President.

“The danger of invasion being imminent and the public safety so requiring, I, JOSE P. LAUREL, President of the Republic of the Philippines, pursuant to the authority conferred upon me by section 9, article II, of the Constitution, do hereby place the Philippines and all parts thereof under martial law and suspend the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus therein,” according to the official proclamation.

“For the purpose of carrying this Proclamation into effect, the President of the Republic of the Philippines hereby assumes all powers of government essential to or incident in the establishments and maintenance of martial law all over the Philippines, and to that extent, will exercise such powers and functions personally or by delegation by him to the presently organized and existing civil authorities, or to such new agencies or instrumentalities as he may, from time to time, create, in accordance with the exigencies of the situation,” he added.

The proclamation was dated September 21, 1944, the exact same day as Marcos’ own proclamation in 1972 (although Marcos announced it to the country on September 23). It became effective at 9 a.m. the next day, September 22, 1944 

Also on September 22, Laurel issued Proclamation No. 30, which declared a state of war between the Philippines and the U.S. and Great Britain. It became effective at 10am on September 23, 1944. 

“President Laurel had been under pressure from Japanese Premier Hideki Tojo, since as early as the inauguration of the wartime Philippine Republic on October 1943, to declare war against the United States and Great Britain,” according to history site The Kahimyang Project. “Laurel had successfully parried off that Japanese demand for more than a year. But in the face of attacks on the territory of the Philippines by the returning allies, President Laurel found no more reason to delay the proclamation of martial law and the state of war. 

“In his eventual trial for treasonable collaboration in 1946, President Laurel argued that by declaring a state of war between the Philippines and the United States and Great Britain, but mandating that no Filipino would be conscripted in the Japanese army, he did not give the Japanese anything that they did not already have; in fact, he gave them nothing.”

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Martial law was eventually lifted on August 17, 1945. 

As for President Marcos' martial law, it was offically lifted on January 17, 1981, making it the longest in the country's history. 


Of course, after Marcos, martial law was declared two more times in the country. First, in December 2009, through Proclamation 1959 during the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Martial law covered only the province of Maguindanao soon after the events of the so-called Maguindanao massacre. It was lifted eight days later, on December 13, 2009. 

The second was on May 23, 2017, through Proclamation 216 under the current President Rodrigo Duterte. The President placed the whole island of Mindanao under martial law following clashes between the military and Islamist guerillas affiliated with the Maute Group. It proclamation was lifted over two years later, on December 31, 2019.

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Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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