Distance lends enchantment to the Philippines' view of Marcos
Revisionists start to suggest the dictatorship wasn't so bad
Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, 1984. (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)
August 29, 2014
The persistent pattern of enforced disappearances around the world provides a critical backdrop for historical revisionism in the Philippines. Nearly 30 years after Ferdinand Marcos and his family fled the country – the climax to the first modern 'People Power' revolution – the consensus on the dictatorship seems to have become diluted.
Making people 'disappear' is both an exercise of power and the entrenchment of it. It is a practice associated with regimes in the 20th century, such as those in Argentina, Chile and El Salvador. Dissidents and political rivals were abducted or arrested, never to be seen again. The object is to cultivate fear and insecurity. These were features of martial law under Marcos.
Many Filipinos who had been part of the resistance are still alive. Some of them are survivors of torture or relatives of the 'disappeared'. According to human rights group Karapatan, the bodies of 759 who were 'disappeared' have never been found – a portion of over 3000 extrajudicial killings.
Yet as the world marks the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance on August 30, post-1986 generations find it hard to grasp what it meant to express dissent or join opposition groups when Marcos was president. Some now assert that, compared to the current standard of governance and politics, life must have been better under Marcos.
Such perceptions are validated when trusted institutions invite Imelda Marcos as guest of honour. She appeared in July at a dinner hosted by the Ateneo de Manila University scholarship foundation, ostensibly due to the fact that the foundation began with proceeds from a Van Cliburn concert that she had organised in 1974. Students posted jocular 'selfies' with her on Instagram.
The optics caused considerable pain and outrage. There are staff members at the Jesuit university and its institutes who went 'underground' during the dictatorship. One of its former students, Edgar Jopson, was summarily killed along with many activists. Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino Jr, the opposition senator who was assassinated at the airport on his return from exile, was also an alumnus. After the dinner, a faculty member posted a Facebook update – widely shared – in which he points out the incongruity of teaching Catholic social values while giving Imelda Marcos a place at the table.
It is an episode that demonstrates the tension between living memory and the apparent distance of history. The university president was compelled to offer a public apology, though the scholarship foundation itself operates autonomously. His statement reads in part: 'Please know that in the education of our youth, the Ateneo de Manila will never forget the martial law years of oppression and injustice presided over by Mr Ferdinand Marcos. We would not be catching up on nation building as we are today, had it not been for all that was destroyed during that terrible time.' A little more than a month later, the Ateneo School of Government was renamed in honour of Ninoy and Cory Aquino.
In brief, there is no such thing as moving on. History is something that we live with. In truth, it is usually those with the least means or culpability who have to live with it.
Last year, the government response to typhoon Haiyan was hampered by the dynamics between a president who happens to be an Aquino and a mayor who happens to be a relative of Imelda Marcos. The sensitivities around who was in charge in the aftermath were grotesque against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis.
In other words, the shadow of dictatorship looms far longer than is ever acknowledged. In Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, a four-hour Philippine film often described by critics as having shades of Dostoevsky, the central character Fabian pontificates frequently on matters philoso-political. At one point he asserts to a group of friends that the mistake that Ferdinand Marcos had made was to democratise corruption.
It is an acerbic observation that calls to mind the current scandal over the Priority Development Assistance Fund, in which certain members of Congress have allegedly participated in a scam to divert pork barrel funds into their own pockets, away from projects to improve local services and infrastructure. This is only one of the ways in which traces of the Marcos regime are manifest in the current political landscape.
While the English translation for the title of the aforementioned film is 'Norte: The End of History', the Filipino word 'hangganan' can also mean 'limit' – the limits of history. These limits are defined by collective memories, the contours shifting according to the intensity in which Filipinos remember life under dictatorship.
Such memories are supposed to strengthen efforts to transcend the past, and indeed there have been touchstones such as the passing of freedom of information (FOI) legislation this year. But as the brutality of the Marcos regime fades with time, so much so that its chilling effects are now misremembered as peace and order, the work of nation-building remains as daunting as it was in the days after the Marcoses fled.
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