What you need to know
Survivors of martial law in the Philippines gathered in the wake of the restoration of the Marcos family to power. They fear a return of the worst abuses from the era.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was proclaimed winner of the recently concluded Philippine elections. Marcos Sr. oversaw a bloody and plunderous regime for over 21 years. Now, fifty years since the father declared Martial Law, the son appears poised to pick up where his father left off.
The 21-year martial law period saw thousands of human rights violations perpetrated by state forces against government critics and ordinary citizens alike. Amnesty International, with the help of local civil society groups, at least 35,000 cases of torture, 70,000 incarcerations, 3,257 killings from this era. (These figures are believed by those who study the atrocities to be conservative.)
Many survivors of martial law who spoke with The News Lens are in a state of shock following the restoration to power of the family that oversaw the brutality. Marcos Jr. has spoke of his father’s tenure as the country’s “golden age.” Activists fear that these are not just empty words, but signal a return of the worst abuses from the era.
May Rodriguez is the executive director of Bantayog ng mga Bayani (Foundation of Heroes), an institution dedicated to historical preservation of the martial law period and honoring victims and opponents of the dictatorship. She herself is a victim of abuse and torture. During this year’s presidential campaign campaign, she shared her account of torture under the Marcos regime.“I saw others as well, a boy screaming from zaps of electric torture, a friend with polio beaten black and blue, a man with both feet bandaged because a military officer had pressed them with red-hot iron during interrogation.”
“I spent months as a prisoner in Marcos jails, one of many thousands across the country. I count several friends abducted and never seen again. My godmother was killed by intelligence agents inside a hospital room.”
Since the elections concluded, Bantayog’s memorial wall of heroes, museum, and grounds have seen a marked increase in visitors. Many lay flowers, post letters, or simply sit quietly for a few moments.
On May 21, the foundation organized an assembly of survivors to tell their stories, collectively grieve the country’s descent and hope for better days.
“Since the elections finished, many of us have been unable to comprehend our emotions. It’s not just because the elections were dirty, but for us survivors, we are haunted by a continuing pain. Will we all just forget about the abuses of the past? We are going to have an administration that will not respect history,” Rodriguez told The News Lens.
The Philippine government granted the Bantayog grounds to its custodians after the 1986 People Power Revolution which toppled Marcos. Rodriguez and the rest of the staff say they are already preparing for government interference with or outright closure of their museum. But they plan to push back against any erasure of the history they’ve preserved. “When this typhoon of a political situation comes crashing on us, what will we do? We take inspiration from the martyrs, they give us clarity in our actions. Right now we try to strengthen our hearts.”
At the Bantayog, Tina Bawagan shared memories of her first husband Ishmael Quimpo. They were both activists. She said that Quimpo, who died fighting with the anti-Marcos New People’s Army, was practically fearless and would be active today if he were alive.
Many veterans of the anti-Marcos struggle like Bawagan have pointed to the proliferation of propaganda and disinformation in the past decade to support Marcos Jr’s claims that his father’s rule was beneficial to the Philippines. The voting population is mainly composed of those aged 18 to 40 years old or have had no memory of martial law. And Philippine history has been diminished in importance in the country’s public school curriculum since 2014 reforms.
The survivors said that a lack of proper education on the martial law era, coupled with the onslaught of disinformation, allowed the Marcos Jr. campaign to rewrite history with the father portrayed as a benevolent leader.
Bawagan told The News Lens, “If proven historical facts are changed with no clear evidence then it is historical distortion. If that is denied us that martial law was a period of gross human rights violations, then that is also denialism. Some countries punish people who deny events like the Holocaust. In the Philippines some kind of law like that should be in place.”
Marcos Jr’s running mate Sara Duterte, daughter of strongman Rodrigo Duterte, will take up a post as chief of education in addition to the Vice-Presidency. Bawagan fears that more historical distortions will follow.
Edita Burgos has already lost so much. Her family has been fighting for free speech for decades. Burgos and her late husband Joe Burgos publish the broadsheets WE Forum and Malaya (Free). During martial law, they directly felt the attacks on the press. “They raided our office, took away everything, even the rice and all the vehicles. We couldn’t buy food the next day. We lived on a day-to-day basis. My husband was jailed. I was jailed on libel cases. I think to myself after all these years, that feeling can still haunt you,” she said.
Burgos added that this torment happened to her again when her son Jonas was kidnapped by alleged state forces and never found again. Jonas was kidnapped “only because he followed his father’s footsteps in trying to help farmers,” she said.
Lighting candles for the fallen at Bantayog, she says her hopelessness is drifting away. For the sake of her children and grandchildren, the 78-year old looks for reasons to be optimistic. “I feel alive on days like this, in activities like this. My kids and grandkids need to know what we did so they can follow,” she said.
Celebrated playwright Bonifacio Ilagan lost his sister to state-backed violence during the martial law years. An activist and artist, Ilagan himself was jailed and tortured by state agents. Today he is one of the convenors of the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses and Martial Law (CARMMA). He recalled the efforts by his group to prevent this restoration.
“I was one of the petitioners for the disqualification of Marcos. Of course the Commission on Elections junked it so we went to the Supreme Court to appeal,” Ilagen said. The disqualification cases hinge on Marcos Jr.’s failure to file income tax returns during his time as governor when his father appointed him. Ilagan knows it’s a long shot, especially with the political inclinations of the courts and agencies being decidedly aligned with the Marcos allied Duterte administration.
Ilagan added, “We have very little hope that it will prosper. At any rate, we’re exhausting all ways and means to pursue our purpose to prevent the Marcoses but everything is stacked up against us.”
What he fears most is not a Marcos revival per se but what shape his authoritarianism will take. “He may not declare martial law in the same manner. He need not do that because there is already the anti-terror law which provides a mere council under the president to practice dictatorship without proclaiming it,” said Ilagan.
The Anti-Terror Law was passed under the Duterte administration as a means to quell critics and silence dissent. In the post-people power period, it is regarded as the closest the Philippines has gotten to an all-out dictatorship. It has been criticized for allowing warrantless arrests on mere suspicion of what can be broadly construed as .
Ilagan and the other survivors are all in their seventies. Their stories need to be documented for future generations. But he stresses that accounts of the truth behind this dark period in Philippine history need also be taken as lessons for today. “The bleak future I’m worried about is for the young people.”
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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