Digging up the past: How the Marcos years can’t be laid to rest

PROTESTS and legal challenges show no signs of abating following the controversial burial of former president Ferdinand Marcos.

The preserved body of the former leader was recently taken from his mausoleum in Ilocos Norte and buried at the national heroes’ cemetery in Manila.

Many were angered at how the Marcos family had kept the timing of the burial secret, including Vice President Leni Robredo, who likened the ceremony to “a thief in the night”.

Street protests erupted across the Philippines, spreading to expatriate communities and also trending in cyberspace. Others, however, have spoken out in support of the burial, pointing to the leader’s service during World War Two and the need to “move on”. Among these is current president Rodrigo Duterte.

“Motion for exhumation”

Now a legal action has been launched to exhume the body. Petitioners say they weren’t given enough time to appeal against the supreme court decision to allow his burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani cemetery.

During Marcos’ rule, and the years of martial law that came with it, the Philippines witnessed the death of 3,240 people, imprisonment of 70,000 and torture of 34,000, according to Amnesty International. Questions also remain over the vast fortunes the leader is alleged to have stolen from the country.

“How can a plunderer and despot and violator of human rights be given the honour of being buried in the memorial of good men?” said Edcel Lagman, a congressmen and brother of an anti-Marcos dissident, who was ‘disappeared’.

Lagman, an opposition member of the house of representatives, has filed a “motion for exhumation”, arguing that the court ruling was flawed because opponents hadn’t been given the statutory 15 days to appeal.

An armed forces full hornor departure ceremony for Philippine President Ferdinard E. Marcos takes place with Secretary of State, George Shultz, in attendence.
An armed forces full hornor departure ceremony for Philippine President Ferdinard E. Marcos takes place with Secretary of State, George Shultz, in attendence.

The popular protests that have erupted across the country and beyond have been compared to the “people power” protests of 1986, which helped topple Marcos, who then went into exile in Hawaii.

After he died three years later, his body was repatriated and put on public display in a family-owned mausoleum — as previous presidents had refused to allow his burial at the heroes’ cemetery.

The response to the burial, both for and against, has cast fresh light on how the former leader continues to polarise public opinion in the Philippines.

Award-winning movie director Pepe Diokno is among those angered by the burial. He said: “If people cannot understand why we stand up against Marcos, should we rephrase, and tell them what it is we stand up for? These protests should not simply be anti-Marcos. They should be for justice — justice for victims and the millions stolen.”

Many other celebrities have voiced similar opinions, often critical of President Duterte’s decision to allow the burial to go ahead. TV personality Atom Araullo was among them. Writing on Twitter, he said: “Mr President, this is on you. #MarcosNoHero”

Television host Bianca Gonzalez was among many critical of the apparently clandestine nature of the reburial, writing: “‘Like a thief in broad daylight’ is the new ‘Like a thief in the night’.”

However, other public figures, such as boxer turned senator Manny Pacquiao support the decision. The Duterte ally said: If we don’t have forgiveness in our hearts, we cannot move on. We need to have forgiveness so we would be saved. So it’s okay to forgive him.

“We should also count what he did. What’s important is he was elected as president.”

Other celebrities, such as actor and director Robin Padilla, agree, pointing to Marcos’ wartime service.

He is a soldier

While not so vocal as the protesters, many private citizens also take this view. ‘Ferdy’, a government employee from Tacloban, shared his opinion with UK newspaper The Guardian. He said: “He deserved a hero’s burial. He is a soldier who almost died in the Bataan death march during World War Two.

“Also, God forgives sinners. Some of the accusations made against him have not been proven, there are so many ambiguities and theories going around that it should be left alone. People should move on”.

‘Venz P’, a food chemist from Pampanga agreed, saying: “Marcos built a lot of our present day infrastructure, be it the LRT, Cultural Centre of the Philippines, or National Arts Centre, etc. The burial has been long overdue. He fought as a guerrilla in the second world war.

“Proud and patriotic as a Filipino, he lived his life serving the nation. I agree with Duterte allowing him his deserved burial. We need to move forward, heal the wounds and learn from the ugly past”.

However, for many people the wounds of the Marcos years run too deep.

Mila D Aguilar, a poet from Quezon City, is among them. She says that during the Marcos regime, she spent 13 years in hiding and 18 months in prison, including long periods of solitary confinement.

She described her life at that time: “I graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman in 1969 and went on to teach English there. During this time, I was a contributing editor at a magazine and wrote articles attacking Marcos, beginning with the “first quarter storm” in 1970 [an uprising against Marcos led by students and workers].

“In 1972, my husband and I were accused of subversion and and had to go into hiding. I had to leave my son with my mother – he was only 18 months old. When I finally saw him again he was 17 years old. In 1984 I was arrested and imprisoned. I was freed in 1986 through the auspices of President Cory Aquino.”

For people like Mila, Duterte’s decision to allow the burial has revived painful memories of his rule. “There are many families who have not had closure from the years of martial law,” said ‘Marah’, a brand manager from Quezon City. “Some of their family members or friends are yet to be found”.

Whether for or against, the idea of finding “closure” has been an underlying theme for most commentators.

For supporters of the supreme courts’ decision, the burial heralds a new era, when the past itself can be symbolically laid to rest. For opponents, on the other hand, it is a reminder of just how far the country has yet to go in facing up to its past.