It was Jan. 15, 1973, the day Lim Seng — a Chinese drug lord found to have had in his possession some 34.75 pounds of heroin worth P3 million in September 1972 — was to be executed by firing squad as ordered by newly self-installed martial law president Ferdinand Marcos in his declared Drug War. Some 5,000 curious civilian on-lookers, roped off from the Known Distance Range, and they say another 10,000 at the Fort Bonifacio entrance, waited for the spectacle to start.
At 5:57 a.m., the military policemen strapped Lim to a wooden post with a black strip of cloth tied around his chest and a white band around his ankles. Some 500 meters facing him, the firing squad of eight non-commissioned military sharpshooters readied their M-16 rifles. At exactly 6 a.m., a brief drumroll urged the squad leader’s fateful order: “Handa, sipat, putok!” (Ready, aim, fire!). One solid, unified volley sent seven .30-calibre bullets into his chest and Lim quivered and slumped.
One bullet was a dud — a forced euphemism to evade the personal guilt of those who directly shot Lim who could hope that it might not have been their hand that killed him. But even for the young First Lieutenant who trained and rehearsed the firing squad, there was no denial of that hollow feeling in the gut that he has taken a life that only God can give and take back. “I can’t sleep, Love,” he mumbled as he lay tossing in bed beside his young sleeping wife.
The young officer was eventually assigned to Jolo to fight in Marcos’ offensive against the Muslim insurgents in Mindanao. “I’m OK, don’t worry. Take care of Baby,” he would tersely say to his anxious wife. But he was not OK. When he came home for a two-week furlough after three months of combat duty, he was a different man. He had lost his ready smile and boyish exuberance; his zest for life and adventure. Eyes ringed with controlled tears, he unburdened to his wife what he could not say over the band radio, of soldiers dying like swatted flies in Mindanao. What troubled him even more was the killing he and the soldiers had to do, in the line of duty. But I am a soldier, he would say at the end of each painful outpouring. Killing in war comes from self-defense and survival. In war, if a soldier does not kill, he will be killed.
The young officer was killed in action barely five months after being assigned in Jolo.
The seemingly incongruous examples of a drug lord being executed by firing squad and the killing of Filipinos by brother Filipinos in the war in Mindanao in Marcos’ martial law when it comes to the young officer’s personal moral sensitivity to killing per se may be difficult to understand in today’s creeping revision of history and remembrance. Will there be qualms of conscience in reviving the death penalty in today’s society, the widow of the fallen officer in Jolo asks? Has the perception and expectations of the military and police forces changed? That they, who are responsible for peace and order must respect and protect life, are the ones to destroy it?
But the military changed into a different face, with a different mind and ways, during Marcos’ martial law. Of course it would be different when the military was in charge. Historical accounts of the Lim Seng execution relate that days after Martial Law was declared, elements of the Constabulary Anti-Narcotics Unit (CANU), led by then First Lieutenants Reynaldo Berroya and Saturnino Domingo, along with representatives of the United States Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, caught Lim in possession of drugs and immediately arrested him. Historian Ambeth Ocampo, in his July 13, 2016 column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, said, “Lim Seng was used in the campaign for law and order that later spiralled into other killings and disappearances that still haunt us decades after martial law.”
Rappler, in a Sept. 22, 2016 analysis, relates that “about 70,000 people were imprisoned and 34,000 tortured, according to Amnesty International, while 3,240 were killed from 1972 to 1981. During this dark chapter of Philippine history, thousands of people were subject to various forms of torture. Prisoners were electrocuted, beaten up, and strangled. They were burned with a flat iron or cigars. Water was poured down their throats, then forced out by beating. Women were stripped naked and raped, various objects forced into their genitals.” Historian Alfred McCoy wrote about Marcos’ elite torture units, whose specialty was psychological torture and humiliation aside from the physical pain. Could the military, the executioner in martial law, ever have been unchanged by this?
The widow asked her late husband’s mistah (former classmate) at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), “What can you say about the death of Cadet Darwin Dormitorio, 20, last Sept. 18, suspectedly of hazing by his upperclassmen at the Academy?”
“The mission of PMA is to instruct, train and develop cadets so that each graduate shall possess the character, the broad and basic military skills and the education essential to the successful pursuit of a progressive military career,” he said. “If the mission is to develop cadets to become officers, why disable or destroy them? If the intention is to make them tough, why not let them undergo the tougher training given for special military operations, absent the risk of hazing. The difference between the two types of training is the mindset,” he emphasized.
Both agreed that killing and brutality has no place in the PMA, and that hazing must be strictly forbidden and no physical violence allowed. The mistah recalled that when the widow’s husband was a cadet, he was not one of those “favorites” of the seniors in the “fourth-class system” where, for the full freshman year, the “beasts” (as PMAyers call the newbies), are subjected by the “masters” (upperclass) to whimsical requests and “punishments” like push-ups, but never physical violence. Thus was their generation molded to have a deep respect for life and the dignity of others. That was the foundation for the young officer’s subliminal feelings of guilt about the killing of Lim Seng by firing squad, and the tenuous justification of killing for self-defense and survival in violent man-to-man combat in Jolo.
Yet new Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa (PMA Class 1986) has been pushing for the imposition of the death penalty by firing squad against drug lords who continue to engage in the illegal drug trade in President Rodrigo Duterte’s Drug War, the Philippine Star headlined on July 5, 2019. He said the firing squad execution should be done in public, such as the Luneta (Rizal Park) — so that media can cover it. “Wala naman akong ibang campaign promise, ’di ba. Wala akong ibang plataporma noong tumakbo ako kundi bitay, bitay, bitay,” the former police and corrections chief told reporters, according to DZMM Teleradyo on June 26, 2019. (I didn’t have any other campaign promise or platform when I ran other than death penalty, death penalty, death penalty.)
Has violence become the mindset of military and police officers? Then we should not wonder why Cadet Darwin Dormitorio died within the walls of the Philippine Military Academy, his young body beaten to a bloody pulp by some barbaric bullies. Because of command responsibility, and certainly for utter shame and embarrassment, PMA Superintendent Lt. Gen. Ronnie Evangelista and Brig. Gen. Bartolome Bacarro, Commandant of Cadets, resigned last week. Dormitorio’s death is being investigated, and will be judged by both the military and the civilian courts.
Rear Admiral Allan Ferdinand Cusi has been named acting PMA superintendent, and Brig. Gen. Romeo Brawner, acting commandant of cadets, by the newly installed Armed Forces chief Lieutenant General Noel Clement.
The PMA Cavaliers have the serious business of reversing the mindset of killing and brutality, and upholding the noble image of “an officer and a gentleman.”
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.