Laban Para Sa Katotohanan

Today we are embroiled in a battleground of memories.

On one hand is the narrative repeated of late, with strident resurgence, that extols the Marcos dictatorship.

According to Mrs. Imelda Marcos, Martial Law “was one of the best things that happened in Philippine history. It was a peaceful provision to ensure peace for our country.”

Of the late dictator’s role, she asserted: “We were the saviors of democracy.”

In 2010, Mr. Marcos’s son, Ferdinand Jr., told the press that his father a much better president than any the Filipino people have had. That the Marcos family never stole money. And that human rights abuses were insignificant during Martial Law. Perhaps just the occasional drunken soldier, beating up a civilian.

Certainly, according to Marcos Jr., these abuses “were not part and parcel of government. It was not national policy to commit human rights abuses.”

On the other hand, are thousands of narratives of killings, tortures, involuntary disappearances, illegal arrests and detentions, and the denial of our rights and freedoms that were the cornerstone of the Martial Law Constitution, and the bedrock of the dictatorship.

During the oral arguments last year, on the petition opposing the burial of Mr. Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the petitioners, most of them women, recounted one by one their harrowing experiences at the hands of the dictatorship. In truth, their stories were not unfamiliar to me. But to hear them told in person, firsthand, in naked detail, was a profoundly moving experience.

What I witnessed that afternoon was neither pain nor rancor. But rock-solid strength, and faith, and hope that I have yet to see or hear in the narratives that exalt the dictatorship.

Simply put, the question before us: Whose memories are we to privilege? Those who abused power, or those whose rights were trampled upon?

I realize that framing the history of Martial Law in this dichotomous manner might appear to some as a simplistic, reductionist, or perhaps even biased description of the period. Yet we are all aware that even as the claims of those who were tortured and harmed by the dictatorship are being processed, in accordance with the Human Rights Compensation Law, the rehabilitation of Mr. Marcos has taken off, aided and abetted by the Duterte government.

Like it or not, this dichotomy is out there, in the public arena. And to deny its existence is to fool ourselves into a state of mindless oblivion, or deliberate forgetfulness.

For this reason, your effort of creating a museum that memorializes the shared experience of oppression and resistance to oppression is laudable. Absolutely necessary. And immensely significant.

And I congratulate the Ateneo de Manila University for taking this step.

If you aren’t comfortable with this dichotomy, another way of framing the history of Martial Law is from the standpoint of memory. The 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner, Viet Than Nguyen, explains that his book on the Vietnam War “proceeds from the idea that all wars are fought twice: the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”

Scholars who engage in memory accept from the outset that it is, in the words of Niamh Stephenson, “politically engaged social research.” With a distinctly liberating aspect.

French historian, Pierre Nora puts it best when he says: “To claim the right to memory is, ultimately, to call for justice.”

So, as one end of the historical spectrum seeks vindication, honor even, for the late dictator, the other end chooses to remember in order to heal still-raw wounds. Or take closure. Maybe solicit atonement—although that does not seem at all likely. Or make any repetition of the past impossible, as expressed in the phrase never again.

Whatever the desired outcome, remembering is a powerful act, a counterforce that is proactive rather than reactive. Current efforts to move us, to have us “move on,” are in my view, failed attempts at subverting our memories, denigrating our right to remember, and forestalling any future action on our part, against the excesses of power.

Let us look at some examples.

First is the majority decision of the Supreme Court, allowing the burial of Mr. Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

“To move on,” says the majority decision, “is not to forget the past. It is to focus on the present and the future, leaving behind what is better left for history to ultimately decide.”

“There are certain things that are better left for history—not this Court—to adjudge.” So in effect, “in the meantime, the country must move on and let this issue rest.”

So here is Version 1. The Court cites the law, but says eventually history will decide. Meanwhile, chill lang kayo.

Version 2 is from the Palace Spokesman given last February on the anniversary of EDSA. And he says, “It’s time to move on from just celebrating the past, remembering the past, and to move on to the whole aspect of nation building to give it a more positive outlook and give it a more positive understanding.”

And he concludes, “We can’t get stuck in the past.”

And, of course, the last comes from the one and only person. Duterte said: “Marcos was a president”—he just said this a couple of days ago—“and he was the best president to the Ilocanos. Why do we have to debate on that?”

And to those of us who still want to remember, he says, “For those who cannot forget, you are condemned to enjoy your grief until you die.”

All these efforts at getting us to move on are part of a larger project to rehabilitate the historical role of Mr. Marcos. Just last month, the board of the National Historical Commission of the Philippines—I cannot imagine that I used to chair it—the very same board that studied Mr. Marcos’s war-time record last year, called him a liar, and opposed his burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, approved the installation of a historical marker in Batac, as a centennial birth activity in honor of Mr. Marcos.”

As noted by the tourism officer of Ilocos Norte, they were made to understand that the NHCP mandate is to “see the centennial anniversary of the birth of Marcos as a historical milestone.”

And that’s the marker. I can almost hear the justification of the current board.

Mr. Marcos was, after all, the country’s longest-serving President. It was a mere biographical marker. Of course, they don’t tell us that every marker carries a presumption of significance. They will say it is factual, not judgmental.

But all historians know—or historians of any worth know—that facts do not speak for themselves. Facts are selected. And facts are interpreted. This is the job of historians. This is what we do.

Look at the facts they state. Pangulo ng Pilipinas, 1965 to 1986. Tell me by what Constitution in the world, someone can be President for 21 long years. They refer to Bagong Lipunan, which Mrs. Marcos says is the best thing that ever happened.

So NHCP says, I think they will argue, that their marker is “fair” and “objective.”

As the NHCP Head was quoted to have pointed out during the unveiling ceremony several days ago, notwithstanding the conflicting views on Marcos’s leadership, he had a “great contribution to strengthening the nation.”

I prefer the marker of the group Baybayin, which was posted on their Facebook. And it sounds exactly like the marker that my sister had composed before we saw it on the Facebook page of Baybayin.

Some of you might ask, is this negative historical revisionism at work? Yes, it is, for negative revisionism seeks to distort the historical record by any of these means. It can minimize, as what we saw. It can embellish. It can deny, we see that too. Or it can ignore. It can inflate. It can twist. Solely for the purpose to make the past look better, or to make the present look good.

Worse, while attempting to be detached and objective, as in the NHCP marker, the end result is, to borrow the words of the intellectual historian Dominick LaCapra, “a numbing of trauma” or “anaesthetized repression.”

The NHCP marker is no different from the description presented by the Official Gazette last year to mark Mr. Marcos’s 99th birth anniversary. In 24 hours, they issued 4 versions.

Version 1, first paragraph is factual, no problem. Second paragraph, this got the netizens angry. Plus, he “stepped down” as in, you know, stepped down to avoid bloodshed, so magpasalamat pa tayo. Thank you, Marcos.

Later, in response to the netizens, they issued Version 2. This was the same, but they only removed the phrase “to avoid bloodshed.” Still the netizens were angry.

A few hours later, they issued Version 3. And in version 3, this is the new version, just factual—the “longest-serving President for almost 21 years.” Still, and the first 2 paragraphs were deleted, Marcos’s photo was restored. Netizens were still angry.

So, they had to issue another version. In 24 hours. The poor staff were working day and night. Up to one in the morning, they were posting on Facebook.

The only difference here would be “declaring Martial Law,” “went to exile in the US,” and was “succeeded by.” The NHCP marker is no better than that.

The NHCP marker is also no better than the school textbooks. I haven’t seen the new ones. I am still going to study them when I find the time this semester, but these are the pre-K to 12 textbooks. Look on the two chapters in Grade Five about Martial Law.

Panahon ng Batas Militar, Ang Bagong Republika. Bago. 1981-1988. And so of course your question is, bakit? Did Martial Law really end in 1981? Did it? Was the New Republic really new, like change is coming?

And, all of a sudden, EDSA disappeared. Buried. Between 1981 to 1988.

If you look at the textbook headings, these are the exact headings, per section of the textbook. Katahimikan at kaayusan. Reporma sa lupa. Pagpapabuti ng kalagayan. Everything is reporma.

So at the end of the chapter, these are the questions the student must answer. Ano ang natutunan mo? Ibigay ang mga katumbas na reporma? It’s a given. It’s assumed. No questions asked. Everything the textbook says, feed it back to the teacher. Under every heading, enumerate the reforms.

The textbook has, I think, about two paragraphs, devoted to opposition to Martial Law. But it doesn’t explain why they opposed Martial Law. Of course the question is, why is it that we are so divided over the memory of Martial Law?

As LaCapra explains, there are two kinds of trauma: structural and historical. Structural trauma is a transhistorical phenomenon to which all are subjected, although there are no identifiable victims. Because of its structural nature, the trauma is a non-event.

Historical trauma, on the other hand, is a specific event, or series of events, that affect particular victims. So you can trace trauma to distinctive times, places, and historical actors. In short, one feels or directly experiences historical trauma, while structural trauma is more subliminal—though no less real.

The fact that one did not feel the repression does not mean that it did not exist as a structural phenomenon.

Otherwise, for example, we would deny the reality of poverty or social inequity in our country, simply because we ourselves aren’t poor.

The trauma of Martial Law in the Philippines was both structural and historical.

Some Filipinos were directly affected, such as those detained, tortured, censored. While others chose to live with the structural denial of their freedom. The dictatorship very skillfully limited or expanded the radius of its victims, according to labels that conveniently played on public fears, and supplied a ready justification for Martial rule. Only Communists, Communist sympathizers, and destabilizers were rightfully jailed, according to the dictatorship. While ordinary, peace-loving citizens could expect to remain outside prison, even though in essence, they were not free.

This is why our memories of Martial Law are divided. The purposive selectivity in historical trauma. Some Filipinos seem to believe that they were not affected, and so didn’t have to care.

Listen to how today’s millennials explain the situation to their elders and peers.

“Bes.” I cannot use this language. I am retiring in two years, so this does not sound like me. “Ang Martial Law parang bagyo.” Hindi ka naulanan, hindi ka nasalanta, so “wala ka nang paki?”

Or another one. This was at the height of the rallies last year. Sinabihan kasi sila, galit na galit ka, wala ka naman noong Martial Law. So ang sagot nila: “Eh ikaw, tuwang tuwa ka sa Pasko, wala ka naman dun sa Bethlehem.”

The structural state of unfreedom quickly became evident to my father after his release from prison in 1974, in a letter to a friend he wrote.

“I have found relatively few changes in the city in the 2 years I was in prison. The city is cleaner. There does seem to be better law and order. But then, cemeteries are also generally clean, quiet, and peaceful. Since my release, I have been nagged by the uneasy feeling that my release has really been merely a transfer from a smaller to a larger detention camp. For in Fort Bonifacio and Manila, the air seems fouled by the same faint odor.”

So how should we teach Martial Law? And is neutrality feasible? Or even desirable when we teach it?

Marcos Jr. offers one approach. He says, “What would vindicate my father will be the academics and the historians.” Maybe he was thinking ahead of the National Historical Commission, without me.

“What would vindicate my father will be the academics and the historians who will look back on his time in the cold light of days, and see his administration for what it was.”

But a cold approach, in my view, would be entirely meaningless because the dictatorship took away and destroyed human lives. And denied us our freedom, not for one day, but for 14 years.

These facts can never be treated coldly. Instead, I would suggest two approaches.

One is the path of historical empathy: the antidote to anaesthetized history, such as the kind as you see on the NHCP marker, or last year’s Official Gazette, or the old-school textbooks. Historical empathy enables us to go beyond our personal experiences and understand the situation of others which may be different from ours.

The other is the path of appeasement, not of the dictatorship, but in the words of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, memory that “does not seek to forget the evils suffered or committed, but seeks rather to speak of it without anger.”

In my view, both empathy and appeased remembrance are not pure feelings, but combine intellect and feeling. They are also morally directed. The growing sense of moral relativism alarms me. Let me give you an example close to home.

Months ago, well before they approved the historical marker for Mr. Marcos, the NHCP board approved a marker for my father, whose monument will be unveiled next week. However, when my family learned last month that the board had approved the marker for Mr. Marcos, my family decided not to accept the NHCP marker for dad. And we wrote them so.

Our thinking was simple. How can two diametrically opposed historical roles—one of a dictator, the other of a defender of freedom and rights—be rewarded equally by the nation’s historical body?

By conferring historical recognition upon both Filipinos, the NHCP board, in my family’s view, sets a moral equivalence between oppression and resistance to oppression. Between a denial of our rights, and the struggle for our rights. How can the two ever be morally equivalent?

This kind of thinking endangers our freedom. It isn’t just the case of moral relativism that equates right with wrong, and conflates past reality and contemporary political agenda. Jonathan Gold warns us also of the more subtle kind, that believes all opinions are equal, regardless of whether they are morally and empirically grounded or not, and therefore “tolerates all views, dismisses none, and dismisses none in fits of false equivalence and both-siderism.”

When you pretty up or soften Martial Law and Mr. Marcos’s role in it, you actually deny that we were deprived of our rights, and profess instead that our struggle was a needless, worthless exercise.

This kind of convoluted mentality also justifies today’s killings, violations of rights, and the denial of due process by the Duterte government, all in the name of the War on Drugs.

Well, today, thanks to one legislative chamber, that purports to represent us, our rights are worth protecting to the measly tune of Php 1,000 or a miniscule fraction of one centavo per Filipino.

Unlike Br. Armin who gave us a rather gloomy address, I have no doubt that we will prevail.

In her report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1962, political theorist Hannah Arendt remarked, “It is true that totalitarian domination tried to establish these holds of oblivion into which all deeds, good and evil, would disappear. But just as the Nazis’ feverish attempts from 1942 on, to erase all traces of the massacres through cremation, to burning in open pits, to the use of explosives and flamethrowers, and bone-crushing machinery, were doomed to failure, so all efforts to let their opponents disappear in silent anonymity were in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man, or woman, will always be left alive to tell the story.”

Arendt concluded that the lesson of these stories is simple, and within everybody’s grasp. Politically speaking, it is that under conditions of terror, most people will comply. But some people will not.

Just as the lesson to the countries, to which the Final Solution was proposed, is that it can happen in most places, but it did not happen everywhere.

Your museum demonstrates that holes of oblivions do not exist in our country. That there are Filipinos who still refuse to comply, and will not remain silent. Either about the past or about the creeping authoritarianism of the present. It is, in fact, this present that we live in that compels us to remember our past.

What you have established is not a mere pocket of memory. But an entire boundless chamber of remembrance that educates, empowers, and offers hope. Thank you, Ateneo.

Keynote Address of Maria Serena Diokno, Ph.D. during the Launch of the Martial Law Museum last September 16, 2018.


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