Twenty-five years after being deposed, the reputation of the late Ferdinand Marcos is on its way to rehabilitation. Can the Philippines forget its past so easily?
Filipinos want Ferdinand Marcos's body buried in heroes' cemetery
February carried a special significance for Filipinos this year. It was the 25th anniversary of the EDSA People Power Revolution of 1986, during which peaceful protests in Manila's Epifanio de Los Santos Avenue brought an end to the 21-year rule of Ferdinand Marcos.
Only hours after Marcos was reinvested as president following another rigged vote, the ailing dictator and his notoriously extravagant wife, Imelda, fled the Malacanang Palace for exile in Hawaii. Crowds stormed the residence and made off with personal belongings of the couple, who were accused of looting $10 billion from a country they left bankrupt and divided.
How fitting that the president overseeing the silver jubilee celebrations - which included pop concerts, book launches and the dedication of a museum at Camp Aguinaldo, where the tiny band of armed forces whose rebellion against Marcos was crucial to the uprising's success made their stand - should be Benigno Aquino III. For "Noynoy", as he is popularly known, is the true heir to that revolutionary uprising. It was the assassination of his father, opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, in 1983 that set in motion the events that led to Marcos's ousting, while his mother, Corazon, was the self-declared "plain housewife" who became the revolution's figurehead and the keeper of its flame. Her death in 2009 was marked by 10 days of mourning across the Philippines.
Just days before the anniversary, however, there was a call for remembrance of a very different kind. On February 16, Marcos's son Ferdinand Jr, or "Bongbong", told reporters that his father ought to be honoured with a burial at Libingan ng mga Bayani, the country's official heroes' cemetery. His father's embalmed body should be moved from the refrigerated crypt in Batac, Ilocos Norte, where it has been on display in a glass case since 1993, after the Marcoses were allowed to return, and be interred in the manner befitting a former president and decorated soldier. "It is his right," said Marcos Jr. "The lessons that needed to be learned have been learned. It is time to close this chapter."
Far from being drowned by a chorus of consternation, in March Marcos Jr's call was followed by a resolution in Congress backing the move. "Ferdinand Marcos gave invaluable service to his country as soldier, writer, statesman, president and commander-in-chief," it read. He "remained a Filipino patriot to the end of his life and in death deserves to be honoured as such". So far 219 representatives - more than 80 per cent of the chamber - have signed. Human-rights groups and church representatives have expressed outrage; it was only this year that victims and families affected by the torture, summary executions and disappearances for which a Honolulu Federal Court found the Marcos estate liable in 1995 began to receive payments. (The class action awarded 9,539 plaintiffs a total of $2 billion in damages.)
President Aquino has "inhibited" himself from the decision and asked Jejomar Binay, his vice president, to make a recommendation instead. That may be understandable, given that he still believes Ferdinand Marcos was responsible for his father's shooting. But many view it as a convenient excuse all-too-typical of a vacillating president whose pledges of reform have yet to yield much in the way of substance. Both sides insist the issue is clear-cut: either that Marcos more than fulfils the conditions for burial in the hallowed cemetery, or that even to contemplate bestowing the honour is an insult to those who fought for the restoration of democracy. As the conclusion will upset significant numbers, far better to let the vice president take the fall.
Handed the poisoned chalice, Binay has attempted to share the responsibility by asking political parties, NGOs and the public to let him know their thoughts, prompting thousands of texts and e-mails. The vice president promised an announcement in the first week of June, saying: "We will act based on the result of public opinion." If so, the hero's burial could well go through - two recent opinion polls showed a majority in favour. Meanwhile, Marcos Jr is in the country's Senate, his mother Imelda a congresswoman - and as unrepentant as ever - while his sister Imee was elected governor of the family home province of Ilocos Norte last year. A mere quarter of a century after he was deposed, a man who regularly used to make lists of the world's worst dictators is well on his way to rehabilitation. Have Filipinos forgiven? Have they forgotten? Or could it be that the EDSA Revolution didn't really change anything at all?
That was not the impression at the time. The images of rosary-clutching nuns standing in the paths of tanks went around the world. EDSA became sealed as the first of a series of people's uprisings in that decade, when a populace declared en masse that it could endure tyranny no more, backed by the moral authority of the Catholic Church headed, in the Philippines, by Cardinal Jaime Sin. Corazon Aquino's homeliness stood in perfect contrast to the ostentation of the Marcos family; one of her first announcements was that she would not live in the opulent Malacanang but in a more modest residence. But she could not live up to the initial promise that led Time magazine to hail her as its "Woman of the Year" in 1986. As the US academic David Wurfel, author of numerous books on the Philippines, put it: "Aquino's personal reputation was as pure as the driven snow, and she came to office apparently determined to bring Marcos and his cronies to justice and pledged to uphold high standards of honesty for her own administration. Unfortunately she achieved neither goal."
Marcos died three years into his exile. In a rather over-magnanimous gesture considering all he stood accused of, including the murder of her husband, Aquino had the flags flown at half-staff. But maybe the honour could not reasonably be denied. Then as now, not one of Marcos's circle has ever been conclusively brought to justice, while accusations against Aquino's own relatives were already rife shortly into her presidency. When considering whether the oligarchic and dynastic nature of Philippine society was even slightly disrupted by EDSA, it is instructive to take the example of Eduardo "Danding" Cojuangco. A provincial governor in the 1980s, he ran the national coconut monopoly and was widely considered to be Marcos's closest economic crony. He fled with the deposed president in 1986 when his cousin, Cory Aquino, succeeded; but his star did not wane for long. He made a bid for the presidency himself in 1992, and in 2010 Forbes magazine rated him as the 10th wealthiest person in the Philippines, with a fortune of $760 million.
Among the upper echelons of Filipino politicians, Cojuangco is far from alone in having roots that reach from the present, through the Marcos era, back to the post-war independence period. Four of the five post-EDSA presidents - both Aquinos, Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo - have come from landowning or political families. No wonder that Senator Gregorio Honasan, a key member of the army faction that rebelled against Marcos in 1986, lamented in an interview five years ago: "Can you imagine how stupid and romantic and impractical we were? Only the dates and personalities have changed."
The return of democracy has not brought greater stability. There were a series of failed coups against Cory Aquino. The 1986 revolution has been followed by EDSA II and III (the eviction and subsequent attempted reinstatement in 2001 of President Joseph Estrada, later to be convicted of corruption), while a fourth sequel appeared quite possible during the previous administration of Arroyo, herself investigated for vote-rigging. "People Power" was still proudly evoked, but its moral authority was not that of 1986; it had become dangerously close to a form of instant semi-democratic decision-taking in which the will of the masses overrode the constitution that was supposed to protect the country against unmandated power.
Neither has democracy proved an elixir for prosperity - or not so far as the 40 million out of the 94 million Filipinos who live on less than $2 a day will have noticed - nor for the regional status the country used to enjoy. In the early 1960s the Philippines' economy recorded growth second only to Japan in the region. President Macapagal could demand the "return" of part of North Borneo from the newly created state of Malaysia while talking grandly of a "Maphilindo" that might combine the two countries with Indonesia - and be taken seriously. Today the government's clout is such that when it begged China to spare the lives of three convicted drug traffickers this year it was humiliatingly ignored.
If some now look back at the Marcos era with a fondness that surprises the outside world, it raises fewer eyebrows in the country that now seems ready to elevate him to the national pantheon. When he was first elected president in 1965, Ferdinand Marcos was a dashing, charismatic figure who proclaimed he wanted to reform a rotten, cosy system that benefited only the old elites. His predecessors, he remarked, "were just front men for the oligarchs". He would be different. "The Filipino has lost his soul, his dignity and his courage," he said in his inaugural speech. Pledging to fight lawlessness, corruption and poverty, he said his government would act "as the guardian of the law's majesty, the source of justice to the weak and solace to the underprivileged ... Not one hero do I ask from you - but many; nay all, I ask all of you to be heroes for our nation."
The president led by example. A keen sportsman and crack shot, he had a distinguished war record (challenged as fiction later, but not at the time) and a brilliant career in the Congress and Senate before defeating Diosdado Macapagal in 1965. He and his former beauty queen wife, Imelda, made a handsome, modern couple and were compared with the Kennedys, while Marcos's oratory, with its stress on an "internal revolution" for the Filipino and on "Asian freedom and self-respect", aimed to restore pride. He initiated massive infrastructure development programmes, attacked the landowning establishment, took a more prominent role internationally, such as in the formation of the Association of South East Asian Nations in 1967, and two years later became the first Philippine president to be elected to a second term.
To the West, and to the US in particular, he was a key ally in the struggle against communism. In 1972 he imposed martial law, nominally to save the country from Marxist and Muslim insurgencies and "leftist subversion". The comments on a visit to Manila by then-US vice president George Bush after the emergency law was lifted in 1981 - "we love your adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic process" - have been justly ridiculed. More to the point was the conclusion of a US Senate report soon after its imposition: "Military bases and a familiar government in the Philippines are more important than the preservation of democratic institutions which were imperfect at best".
Marcos's daughter, Imee, is a vigorous defender of her father's time in office, even of the period that earns him the most opprobrium. "The best roads and bridges were built during martial law," she has said. "Even the movies were better then." Last year she added: "You have to judge it in its context, in its time. That was a period for strong leadership, which became very apparent in South-east Asia ... Whether you agreed or didn't agree with my dad, he had a vision; he knew where he wanted to go." Her support for her father is perhaps to be expected. Greater weight might be given to the assessment of Juan Ponce Enrile, currently the president of the Philippine Senate. He, along with Fidel Ramos, led the armed forces to the side of the EDSA Revolution in 1986. If martial law had ended in 1977, he said, Marcos "would have been enshrined as the best president the country ever had".
Many Filipinos appear to be willing to omit even that caveat. In a 2005 poll, they rated Marcos higher than any of his successors.
But he did not lift martial law then, nor did he stand down until he was old, ailing and had finally been told to go by Ronald Reagan. He had lost the support of the Chinese business community, the entrepreneurial middle classes, the poor whom he had failed to protect against the caprices of crony capitalists and the excesses of the military, and then ultimately the army he had built up into such a powerful force. Cory Aquino's best line in the election campaign - "I concede that I cannot match Mr Marcos when it comes to experience. I admit that I have no experience in cheating, stealing, lying or assassinating political opponents" - resonated throughout the country Marcos had tried to make into a "New Society". It was not just the collapse of the economy, weakened by years of kleptocracy, that did for Marcos in the end. Estimates vary wildly, but up to 35,000 people may have been tortured during the martial law years, 120,000 subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention and nearly 1,000 simply "disappeared".
Could the truth about Marcos's misdeeds - the tyranny, corruption and violence - really soon be laid to rest along with his body in Libingan ng mga Bayani? To those who suffered, putting such a harmonious gloss on history is intolerable. "A fascist dictator is never a hero, especially to the thousands of victims of human-rights violations under the Marcos regime," said Marie Hilao Enriquez, chair of Selda, a victims' rights group Selda last month. He had fought "a dirty war" against his own people. "We will never forget the horrors that the Filipino people endured."
Others have voiced their disgust at the proposal equally strongly. In the opinion of the veteran journalist Amando Doronila, author of Afro-Asia in Upheaval: A Memoir of Frontline Reporting: "Marcos's case is extraordinary. What makes it extraordinary is that he was the only Filipino president who destroyed a functioning democracy and imposed a dictatorship. His crony and corruption-ridden regime made the country an Asian basket case." Burying him in the heroes' cemetery would turn it into "a shrine of national shame".
Some, such as the sponsor of the congressional resolution, Salvador Escudero, claim that the move is meant to promote forgiveness and reconciliation. That brought a tart response from Father Gregorio Banaga of the Catholic Educational Association. "Who doesn't want to be reconciled?" he said. "But let it be true reconciliation based on justice. Is there ever a statement by the Marcoses admitting that they repressed human rights? Are they repentant?" He lamented: "Filipinos easily forget the past."
William S Esposo, a former media executive and political strategist who was awarded the Presidential Legion of Honour in February as part of the EDSA 25th anniversary celebrations, agrees. He calls the tendency to forgetfulness a "national malady". This is why, he wrote in his Philippine Star column, "public officials who were already disgraced in the past are able to recycle themselves". There are many he could have been thinking of, not least Senator Enrile. He may be a genuine hero of the restoration of democracy; but he was also Marcos's long-term minister of defence, and it was a staged attempt on his life - in which he connived - that provided the excuse to impose martial law in the first place.
Such a compromised past may well prompt a longing for the healing balm of amnesia. But not just in the Philippines; it is widespread throughout South-east Asia. Few young Cambodians are encouraged to learn the history of the murderous Pol Pot years, and the government has made clear it has little appetite for the UN-backed tribunal in Phnom Penh to extend its remit beyond the five Khmer Rouge leaders it has concentrated on so far.
Marcos's rehabilitation is almost a duplication of the proposal last October, by a government department, to raise Indonesia's former dictator Suharto to the status of "national hero". At the time I spoke to Tash Aw, an award-winning author whose first two novels deal with Malaysia and Indonesia in the pre- and post-independence years, but his comments apply equally well to the Philippines. "The newspapers are full of comments like 'sure, mistakes were made' and 'no one is perfect'," he said. "You hear echoes of this all throughout the region. It's as if we can't bear to confront the brutal reality of what we have inflicted on ourselves, and we need to gloss over things and concentrate on the present."
Suharto and Marcos had the distinction of being listed by the NGO Transparency International as the first and second most corrupt leaders of all time in 2004. Since their depositions, however, both countries have suffered rampant corruption, unstable government and the swift emergence of dynastic tendencies at the top of politics. A need to regard the towering figures of their post-independence histories more kindly is partly understandable. "People in South-east Asia recognise that these leaders stole their money and with relative impunity," says Bridget Welsh, a politics professor at Singapore Management University. "But there comes a point when these individuals become part of the national story and defined as part of the country's development." The alternative, maybe, is to accept the verdict of a US official in the 1970s. The Philippines, he said, had become a country of "40 million people afraid of one son of a bitch".
Few would find that view particularly palatable. Certainly not Marcos Jr, who knows well how few unalloyed heroes his country has. This year Angelo Reyes, a former cabinet minister and army chief of staff, committed suicide days after being accused of corruption in testimony before the Senate. He was buried, with full military pomp, in Libingan ng mga Bayani. As Marcos Jr asked: if Reyes, who was neither a former president nor a war hero, deserved such an honour, then why not his father, who is still officially both? Most Filipinos, it seems, are not inclined to disagree.
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman and a frequent commentator on South-east Asian politics and religion.