Note: I wrote this commentary for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The latest election ad of Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., now making the rounds on TV and radio, is consistent with his unapologetic position on the crimes committed during the dictatorship of his late father, Ferdinand Marcos.
In the ad, a fisherman, an athlete with an amputated leg, a Moro woman, a soldier, a prodigal son, and a separated couple give one-liners on reconciliation and going beyond the past. It ends with Bongbong saying, “You are not the past. We are the future.”
Surely this is just another way of repeating the infamous statement he made last August: “What am I to say ‘sorry’ about?” And yet this blatant call to erase our memories of injustice is just the tip of the iceberg.
In a rare family lunch one Sunday, my youngest sister, a Grade 5 primary student in an exclusive school in Cebu, talked about how her teacher in class taught that the dictator brought economic development in spite of grave human rights abuses.
The same conclusions were offered in a Grade 5 elementary textbook: “Martial Law brought many changes in the Philippines. There were changes that helped the people in the beginning but generated more problems in the end.” Infrastructure projects, beautification campaigns, and tourist promotion were enumerated as some of martial law’s positive features that supposedly offset its horrors.
A disinterested stance on the Marcos regime’s legacy is attempted in the textbook. But that attempt ended up in an apology for the regime’s excesses, and a suggestion that these happened only with the best intention in mind. What is left unsaid is the way the dictatorship monopolized all power as a means of gaining untold wealth while unleashing systematic repression on critics and dissenters.
Extravagant projects were heavily financed by loans which became the source of kickbacks, and ordinary Filipinos were held responsible for the foreign debt that ballooned from $2 billion at the start of the Marcos regime to $26 billion by 1986.
This regime of “crony capitalism” was built on top of a machinery of state terror which, according to American historian Alfred McCoy, imprisoned 70,000 perceived critics of the regime, tortured 35,000, and murdered 3,257.
It is not only the Marcos family’s shameless attempt to rewrite history that has made these dark years seem like the Philippines’ “Golden Age” for a segment of the populace. For one, no truth commission was organized after the fall of the Marcos regime to uncover the crimes of the dictatorship and educate younger generations about these in a comprehensive manner.
Compare this to the way postwar Germany took firm steps to ensure that the evils of the Holocaust will not be forgotten. Schoolchildren learned about the genocide of the Jews, communists and other enemies of Nazism. Concentration camps were transformed into museums. Guided tours and TV shows depicted the Nazi regime in graphic terms, presenting the horrific crimes and explaining the historical context. It thus comes as no surprise that even now, this part of world history is still viewed with shame by humanity.
In contrast, the post-Marcos administrations beginning with that of President Corazon Aquino failed to fully hold the Marcoses accountable for their corruption and rights violations.
Many abusive policies from the martial law era have remained in place. The first Aquino administration, for instance, retained Marcos’ Presidential Decree No. 1177, which mandated the automatic payment of foreign debts. Marcos relics like Batas Pambansa No. 880 or the “no permit, no rally” policy, as well as the Education Act of 1981 allowing schools to hike tuition with impunity, are still in effect today.
Human rights abuses persist, as shown by the targeting and killing of the lumad (indigenous peoples) of Mindanao, and the continuing violations that stretch back to the infamous “Mendiola Massacre” of peasants marching for genuine land reform just a year after the fall of Marcos.
The growing acceptance of glowing myths of the Marcos era is therefore not just the outcome of Filipinos’ innate forgetfulness or “forgiving culture.” It has more to do with the absence of a real settling with the past and the failure of an “elite democracy” characterized by unabated poverty, injustice and rampant corruption.
This is why the son of the dictator can brazenly call on the public to forget the past in his run for the second highest position in the land. This can also explain the lure of the iron fist, as exemplified by the tough-talking Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s open endorsement of the killing of petty criminals.
Memory is an arena of narratives contending for our interpretation of history. With the specter of history returning full circle, it is as important as ever that we never forget the past. We must look to the daring struggles of past generations that resisted dictatorial rule and apply lessons on the power of collective action to the social predicaments of the present.
Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez once wrote: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” Perhaps this should serve as a wake-up call for the aging generation who directly experienced and fought the evils of martial law to come out with more of their stories and pass these on to the next generations before these are completely forgotten.