by Tess Bacalla
Thirty-nine years ago this month, the Philippines found itself plunged into darkness when then-President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. Ostensibly to modernize the country and prevent a communist takeover, the multi-headed hydra that was the brutal Marcos dictatorship snuffed the life out of a nation that was once the envy of its Asian neighbors for its vibrant economy and thriving democracy. Fourteen years later, in 1986, the Philippines mounted a peaceful uprising that toppled him from power.
With the country under a state of emergency, civil liberties were suspended. The Philippine Congress was shut down alongside media establishments. Curfew was imposed and movement severely restricted. Worse, suspected activists and political opponents were jailed on subversion charges, including then-opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr., father of our incumbent president, Benigno Aquino III.
Almost four decades later, September should be a nostalgic time of year for Filipinos - especially those of us old enough to remember the atrocities committed under the Marcos regime.
But, oddly enough, for much of the post-Marcos era, we have hardly had a meaningful state-led commemoration of Marcos’s declaration of martial law on September 21, 1972 - a brazen ploy to remain in office.
“We fear that while the people seem to forget the crimes of the Marcoses, the heroism of those who risked their lives fighting for freedom and human rights will also be forgotten,” writes Emmanuel Amistad, executive director of the human rights group Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, in an article last September for the Philippine Star.
The specter of violence unleashed by martial law was unprecedented in our history. In a 1999 paper, historian Alfred McCoy noted 35,000 individuals were tortured, 3,257 were killed, and 70,000 were jailed during the Marcos era.
When the Philippines finally ousted Marcos in 1986, democratic institutions were in tatters and the public coffers had been bled dry.
At the start of his presidency in 1965, the Philippine foreign debt stood below $1 billion. By the end of his 21-year reign, the Philippines had accumulated $28 billion in debt, according to the IBON Foundation, an independent think tank. A significant chunk of these debts did not go to infrastructure or social programs but to his pockets.
“Former President Marcos is estimated to have siphoned off between $5 billion and $10 billion by the time he was forced out in 1986,” reports the World Bank.
Seeing what is happening in much of the Arab world today brings stark memories of an era in our nation’s past that we Filipinos should not forget. The wave of pro-democracy protests, triggered by a massive outpouring of outrage against authoritarians like Marcos, resonates with those of us who care enough to remember the important lessons of our past.
But unlike much of the mass actions in the affected Arab countries, which have left scores of people dead, ours was peaceful and bloodless. The Philippines became the toast of the world following what came to be known as the “People Power Revolution.”
“People Power was our greatest moment,” says history professor Michael Charles Chua.
Twenty-five years ago in late February 1986, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, alongside disgruntled and reformist military officers, peacefully gathered for four days at a national highway in Metro Manila called EDSA (short for Epifanio de los Santos Avenue) to demand Marcos’s ouster. Oust him we did.
On a recent visit to Marcos’s home province, Ilocos Norte – some 475 kilometers north of the Philippine capital Manila – I pondered our apparent proclivity toward historical amnesia.
I knew that Ilocos Norte, known for its pristine beaches and other breathtaking sights, was also home to museums devoted to the memory of Marcos, fondly called ‘Apo’ (‘Old Man’) by the provincial folk. Marcos, after all, took good care of his province.
“Marcos cultivated the solid North during the time that he was president by pouring patronage funds to the Ilocos region,” says political scientist Francisco Magno.
Still, I did not quite expect what I saw walking into these museums. They depicted Marcos not as the tyrant that many Filipinos knew him to be, but as a benevolent statesman who only had his constituents’ best interests at heart.
The Marcos Museum and Mausoleum, for instance, houses not only his preserved body – which was flown back to the Philippines in 1989 from Hawaii, where he and his family sought exile in 1986 – but also his dubious war medals, which historians have invariably questioned.
The Malacanang of the North, once the official residence of the Marcos family in Ilocos Norte and now a museum, holds mementos of their days in power, including former First Lady Imelda’s elegant bags and photos of her preening before the camera in her bejeweled splendor.
I curiously watched some local tourists as they scanned the Marcos memorabilia, many of them gleefully posing beside the strongman’s life-size replicas.
The Marcos Photo Gallery, also curiously called “World Peace Center,” still contains photos of the Marcoses, including those of the beauteous and globe-trotting Imelda and a still robust Marcos meeting with foreign dignitaries and world leaders.
With the exception of the Malacanang of the North, these museums are run by the Marcos family. As private museums, they are outside the jurisdiction of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP).
Mandated to promote Philippine history and heritage, the government-run NHCP seeks “to rekindle the Filipino spirit through the lessons of history,” says chairperson Maria Serena Diokno.
But how does the existence of museums that perpetuate Marcos’s claims of glory and good governance, yet trample both our sufferings under an oppressive dictatorship and what we valiantly fought for in 1986, fulfill that goal?
“The best way to create an atmosphere where we have all kinds of ideas is to have all kinds of museums,” says Diokno, whose father, the late nationalist Jose Diokno, was one of those imprisoned by Marcos.
This is all part of the “freedom that we struggled to enjoy,” she adds.
Historian Chua has a different take on the issue. “We recognize the Ilocanos’ love for Marcos, but not to the point of revising history,” he argues.
Ironically, it is in today’s socio-political milieu – free from the clutches of tyranny – that the Marcoses (wife, son, and daughter) have reclaimed political power. Imelda, notorious for her mind-boggling shoe collection, is Congressional Representative of the second district of the deposed dictator’s province. Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Jr. is a senator, and older sister Maria Imelda ‘Imee’ Marcos is governor of Ilocos Norte.
Twenty-five years since the 1986 popular revolt we are still chafing under the enormous weight of corruption and other forms of social and political malaise. Elective posts, for instance, are still dominated by powerful political clans.
Twenty-five years after our bloodless uprising, we find ourselves vigorously debating if the dictator’s yet-to-be interred remains should be accorded a hero’s burial, as though we have forgotten how he plundered our country and made a mockery out of our democracy.
Twenty-five years later Filipinos' notoriously short memory has surfaced again.
“If people will remember history, they will stop committing the same mistakes over and over again,” says historian Chua. “History is too important to be left to historians.”
About the Author:
Tess Bacalla is a freelance journalist from the Philippines. She has written on a host of issues dealing with corruption and other socio-political issues, as well as women and children. A graduate of A.B. Mass Communication, Tess has written for the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, Manila Times, Health Today, Business World, Jakarta Post, and the now-defunct World Executive’s Digest. She was the regional editor of Inter Press Service Asia-Pacific between 2009 and 2010. At present she writes for Vera Files, a media organization in the Philippines, teaches journalism at De La University in Manila. Next to writing, Tess enjoys traveling a lot.