By: Miguel Syjuco
MANILA — Mornings in the Philippines reveal bodies dumped outside slums. Averaging 13 a day, nearly 2,000 in the last two months, the bodies are hung with cardboard labels: purse snatcher, drug pusher, addict. The authorities decline to investigate. These are the casualties of a controversial crusade against crime that was the subject of the recent spat between the country’s new president, Rodrigo Duterte, and Barack Obama, which devolved into crude insults (by Mr. Duterte) and canceled meetings (by Mr. Obama).
These corpses aren’t the only ones in the spotlight. Mr. Duterte, making good on a campaign promise, has ordered the mummified body of our former dictator, Ferdinand E. Marcos, transferred this month to the Cemetery of Heroes here in Manila, the capital.
Marcos is notorious as one of history’s great kleptocrats. After declaring martial law in 1972, during his final term, he suspended democracy until his ouster 14 years later. His regime is remembered for its summary executions, torture, rape, enforced disappearances, censorship, electoral fraud and epic corruption. The Marcos family is believed to have plundered as much as $10 billion, only a portion of which has been recovered.
This hero’s burial is the latest move to whitewash the Marcos regime’s crimes. In the years since the dictator’s death in 1989, his family has returned from exile unpunished. His wife, Imelda, is a congresswoman; their daughter is a governor. This year, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known as Bongbong, a former senator, lost by less than a percentage point in his bid for the vice presidency, which is elected separately. His supporters say that the father’s sins are not the son’s, but the younger Mr. Marcos is reported to have blocked attempts by the government to retrieve the missing wealth while at the same time campaigning to regain power and gild his father’s legacy.
Several groups of human rights advocates and torture survivors have filed cases against the burial, prompting the Supreme Court to order a 20-day injunction. It will end nearly a week before the proposed Sept. 18 funeral date. Thousands of Filipinos have protested across the country. Walden Bello, a former congressman, warned against what the burial would represent: “Its message,” he said, “would be that dictatorship is O.K.”
How have so many Filipinos forgotten? Disillusionment with the presidents since Marcos’s ouster, as well as censorship and propaganda during his two-decade rule, probably explains his popularity with many middle-aged voters. Meanwhile, history textbooks have not been thoroughly updated since Marcos left office, leaving those born after his death, more than half the population, susceptible to miseducation.
Recently, slickly produced videos have recast the Marcos dynasty as victims of the Aquino family, its longtime rival. Anonymous blogs and specious news sites manufacture articles supporting the Marcoses and their political allies. People who speak against Mr. Duterte and the Marcoses have had Facebook posts removed.
Many Filipinos now claim that Marcos made the country safer, forgetting that dictatorships suppress democratic rights along with crime. Many trumpet his ambitious building projects, forgetting that development and graft went hand in hand. Others claim that Marcos stewarded the country toward prosperity, ignoring how the initial economic gains of his dictatorship led to crippling foreign debt, poverty and crony capitalism.
How can a plunderer get a hero’s burial while petty criminals are shot and dumped in the streets? Mr. Duterte speaks admiringly of Marcos, and some of his actions are reminiscent of the strongman’s. After a deadly bombing in his home city, Davao, Mr. Duterte declared a national state of emergency, further empowering the police and military. His chief legal counsel later revealed that the declaration was being drafted even before the attack.
Most telling, however, is Mr. Duterte’s relationship with the younger Mr. Marcos. During this year’s election, Mr. Duterte said that if he failed to “get rid of corruption, drugs and criminality” he would cede the presidency to the younger Mr. Marcos, who was running for a rival party. After Mr. Marcos lost the vice-presidential election, Mr. Duterte initially refused the winner a cabinet position typically given to vice presidents, saying, “I don’t want to hurt the feelings of Bongbong Marcos.”
Mr. Duterte claims that burying Marcos, 23 years after he was embalmed and refrigerated under glass, will promote national healing, even though the wound was inflicted by the dictator. The president also says the law mandates that Marcos, a former soldier and president, must be buried in the Cemetery of Heroes, despite a 1992 agreement allowing for the repatriation of his body from Hawaii to the Philippines on the condition it be quickly buried in his home province.
Mr. Duterte insists. We must ask what he gains. And what we all are losing.
Last month, I took my niece and nephew to the Cemetery of Heroes to teach them about the patriots who nobly served our country. We went nowhere near the high walls surrounding Marcos’s future grave site, but we were harassed anyway by soldiers who demanded our names and made us delete our photos. We were unable to continue our discussion of our history. “So this is what a dictatorship feels like,” my nephew said.
As we drove away, we looked back. On the cemetery gates, an inscription is written: “I do not know the dignity of his birth, but I do know the glory of his death.” Soon, Mr. Duterte will be burying a dictator there.