IN 1853, THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE was referred to by Tsar Nicolas I as the “Sick Man of Europe,” which was then in a state of decline. After World War I, the phrase was applied to several European countries that included France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Germany. It was the result of the economic chaos that the war brought to Europe.
Ten years later, the Taiping Rebellion in China brought misery to the Chinese people and once again the “Sick Man” cropped its ugly head again, this time in China; hence, the phrase “Sick Man of Asia” was coined.
In 1896, the North China Daily News published an article saying: “There are four sick people in the world – Turkey, Persia, China, Morocco … China is the Sick Man of the East.” At that time, the ruling Qing dynasty was so corrupt and incompetent that it earned the scorn of the world. The Westerners, who had mocked, humiliated, and insulted China, took advantage of the miserable state of the country and eventually took over its economy. Shanghai was run by the Shanghai International Settlement, which was dominated by the Americans and British. They established the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC), which was later expanded to include the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, France, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Peru, Mexico, and Switzerland. Hong Kong became a British colony and Macao a Portuguese colony. It was imperialism at its zenith. China also came to be known as the “Sick Man of Asia.”
Then the dictator Ferdinand Marcos came to power in 1965. After his first term as president, he started planning how to stay in power after his second term, which would have ended in 1973. Marcos started planning and he formed two sets of advisers, a 12-member working group called the Rolex 12, with each member given a gold Rolex watch as a symbol of power. Rolex 12 was composed of generals and economic cronies. They were the architects of the martial law plan. But within this group was another group, known as the Omega Five, which consisted of the generals who were also part of the Rolex 12. Their main responsibility was to make sure that Marcos would remain in power. They were the Praetorian Guard whose loyalty was unquestionable.
On September 23, 1972, Marcos announced that he had placed the Philippines under martial law. He said that it was necessary to stop the “communist threat” posed by the newly founded Communist Party of the Philippines. But some sources claimed that he staged a series of bombings and ambushes as justification for the declaration of martial law.
This marked the beginning of a 14-year period of one-man rule. However, opposition figures of the time accused Marcos of exaggerating these threats, using them as a convenient excuse to consolidate power and extend his reign beyond the two presidential terms allowed by the 1935 constitution.
Marcos’ human rights record
Martial law was lifted on January 17, 1981. However, he retained virtually all of his powers as dictator. It is remembered for the Marcos era’s record of human rights abuses, particularly targeting political opponents, student activists, journalists, religious workers, farmers, and others who fought against the Marcos dictatorship. Based on the documentation of Amnesty International, historians believe that the Marcos dictatorship was marked by more than 3,200 known extrajudicial killings, 35,000 documented tortures, hundreds of disappearances or “salvaged” as they were called, and 70,000 incarcerations. There were thousands of human rights violations. The economic standing of the country dropped. The dawn of martial law was hell. It was the darkest chapter in Philippine history.
Although the Philippines had attained improvement in its economy during Marcos’ first term, that is not enough to support the claim that considers his presidency as the golden years of the Philippines. But based on data given by the Philippine Statistics Authority, the country experienced the biggest decrease in income per person yet, and it took the country 21 years to recover from that loss. In fact, such a decrease in its economic standing gave it the title of the “Sick Man of Asia” — a label associated with massive political corruption, unequal growth, and poverty.
On August 21, 1983, Ninoy Aquino was assassinated on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport. The assassination further triggered the economic downturn of the country.
People Power Revolution
On February 25, 1986, the People Power Revolution ousted the Marcos dictatorship. Ironically, the leaders of the rebels who evicted the Marcoses from Malacanang were two members of the Omega Five.
As reported in the news, after Marcos was ousted, “government investigators discovered that the declaration of martial law had also allowed the Marcoses to hide secret stashes of unexplained wealth which various courts later determined to be ‘of criminal origin.’ ”
The Marcos government had to cut overall government expenditures to reduce deficits. Marcos bankrupted the Central Bank; it had to be dissolved and replaced by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. Its bad accounts are still being paid for by taxpayers.
After the ouster of Marcos, the country managed to rise economically afterwards. In 2013, under the presidency of Benigno Aquino III, the country was dubbed by the World Bank as Asia’s Rising Tiger. In 2014, the Japan External Trade Organization survey showed “the Philippines as the second most profitable among ASEAN-5 countries, next to Thailand,” formally abolishing the “sick man” status of the Philippines.
However, it was reported in the news that “during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, several commentators have argued that due to the slow growth of the economy and Duterte’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Philippines seems to be on the brink of restoring its ‘Sick Man’ status.”
Sad to say, the Philippines could once again become the “Sick Man of Asia” if the 2022 presidential election would catapult to power the progeny and namesake of the late dictator.
As Winston Churchill once said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Here’s hoping that the Filipino voters would learn from our dark history and vote wisely on May 9, 2022 and prevent the return of the “Sick Man of Asia.”