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PHILIPPINES - Islands Under Siege, June 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Islands Under Siege"

On the Front Lines in Mindanao

Rebellions, Wars and Insurgencies in the Philippines

Population, Government, Economy

Muslim Rebels, U.S. Presence, Politics




A Conflicted Land: Rebellions, Wars and Insurgencies in the Philippines
1898-1933: America’s Colony 1934-1964: War and Independence 1965-1986: The Marcos Years 1987-2003: Reform and Rebellion

1965-1986: The Marcos Years

America lends a hand to an anticommunist dictator.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos

President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda became infamous for their political corruption and lavish lifestyle. Marcos first made a name for himself in Philippine politics by successfully defending himself against charges that he had shot a political rival. (photo: Francois Lochon/Getty Images)
Today, the name Ferdinand Marcos conjures up images of oppressive rule and of his wife Imelda's huge collection of shoes. Marcos was elected president of the Philippines in 1965. His early accomplishments in developing rural areas were overshadowed by his eventual descent into crony capitalism and dictatorship. In 1972, he declared martial law: Constitutional rights were suspended, the legislature was closed and Marcos held on to power for another 14 years.

Successive American administrations tolerated and supported Marcos in spite of his authoritarianism, seeking his help to maintain a sizable military presence in the country. America's bases in the Philippines played a vital role during the Vietnam War, and after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, they served as a counterweight to the Soviet naval base in Cam Ranh Bay.

But the U.S. bases were a contentious issue for many Filipinos, who saw them as further evidence of America's enduring colonial meddling. While the bases did create jobs and boost the local economy, they also fueled crime and prostitution in adjacent communities.

President Johnson meets with Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos during a conference in Manila, 1966. (photo: Yoichi Yokamoto/National Archives)

In the early 1970s, a Maoist rebel group called the New People's Army (NPA) and a Muslim separatist group called the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) formed in the southern part of the country. The NPA expanded to include as many as 25,000 members while the MNLF received aid and arms from Libya and Iran. The United States, fearing communist insurgency, sent advisors to train the Philippine army, as well as millions of dollars in military aid and weapons.

Corazon Aquino is sworn in as president

Corazon "Cory" Aquino is sworn in as president, 1986. Aquino entered politics after her husband, a prominent opposition leader, was assassinated by the Marcos government. (photo: Robin Moyer/Getty Images)
The United States barely protested when Marcos used the struggle against insurgents as an excuse to crack down on all political opponents. Asked about the situation in the Philippines in 1984, President Ronald Reagan replied, "I know there are things there in the Philippines that do not look good to us from the standpoint right now of democratic rights, but what is the alternative? It is a large communist movement."

By the mid-1980s, Marcos's unpopularity among Filipinos was impossible to ignore. He faced not only a guerrilla war but also widespread public unrest. Hoping to placate his critics, Marcos announced a "snap" presidential election to be held in February 1986. Despite the government's attempts to fix the results, Marcos lost to Corazon Aquino, the wife of assassinated opposition leader Benigno Aquino. But Marcos stubbornly refused to concede defeat, even as senior members of his military defected and thousands of unarmed Filipinos took to the streets in an unprecedented display of "people power." The tense standoff ended when, at the urging of the United States, Marcos stepped down and went into exile.

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