This summer, I finally decided to go back to the Philippines for a holiday after three years of being away. My hesitation to go back was fuelled by reasons which were inherently political. I have old-time friends in London who would often travel there for short vacations, only to come back and say that things have not changed much. It was very much the same Philippines I left almost four years ago, they said.
I decided to go to back because I thought I was ready. I am graduating with a politics degree in 2017, which equipped me with the necessary knowledge to look at my country with a more critical lens. My long-awaited arrival just so happens to be a few months after Rodrigo Duterte was elected president. Likewise, the rest of the world was experiencing its own turbulence: Brexit and the Republican nomination of now President-elect Donald Trump all seemed so timely. This was also around the time when the Supreme Court decided to extend talks on the burial of the former president Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Burial of the Heroes). Marcos was a politician notorious for being the second most corrupt political leader in the world alongside Haji Mohammad Suharto (1st) of Indonesia and Mobutu Sese Seko (3rd) of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There had been a lot of tension since discussions regarding his burial were brought up, so to hear such optimistic news one morning - that Filipino bureaucrats have, for the first time, finally decided to discuss things empirically, rationally and decisively - was celebrated with such jubilation.
Months have passed and I am back in London. Absorbed by the demands of my studies, I became disconnected from the affairs happening back home. However, one day, my social media feed erupted with images of mass peoples protesting against the private burial of Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, organised by his family. Horror filled the airwaves. Nostalgia revisited. My heart was heavy, but my anger raging. Words were not enough. But perhaps the most eloquent description was one made by Philippine Vice President, Leni Robredo, who described the deceased dictator "like a thief in the night."
However, an issue such as this does not get away without its critics. While many supported the protests, others felt annoyance - perhaps stemming from a feeling that all this seemed unnecessary. "You're standing up for what you believe in," one Facebook user said, "I can admire and respect that... but please, try to not inconvenience the rest of us. Some of us have chosen to continue being productive the way we see fit our daily lives." Likes and hearts galore. Another user followed with a comment saying, "Tell 'em to move on already! It's not that hard."
Others chose to respect the country's so-called "rule of law" that made Marcos's burial a legitimate one: "The Supreme Court of The Philippines ruled that it is legal and I will follow and respect the rule of law," another Facebook user said, "I don't understand why people cannot. Law is not sentiment."
There seems to be some general consensus that all this is something that can be easily overcome, and that the protests will have no impact on outcomes whatsoever. "Whatever you want to call him", another user commented, "the truth of the matter is: he is dead. He and his family already suffered the shame and the hate of this nation. What more do you ask from a dead person? Can he answer you from the grave?" To follow, someone else had brought up the idea that if the burial ground had been renamed to its original title - the Republic Memorial Cemetery - would things have been a little bit different?
Perhaps. But it is here where we come to the root of the problem. The burial of Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani is of such symbolic importance because it implies that Marcos was, indeed, a bayani - a hero. True, what constitutes a "hero" is a highly contested topic - one in which the Supreme Court has yet to conclude. But perhaps what makes history such interesting case study is that, through our mistakes, we are able to learn from the past. And surely what the past has to say has a lot to do with how we have come to our present terms. So how has history defined this debated term, the hero?
The etymology of the word hero comes from the story of Heracles - popularly known as Hercules - which in Greek translates as "protector" or "defender". Seth Schein, in his book, The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer's Illiad, describes the hero as "a warrior who lives and dies in the pursuit honor and glory" - both terms suggesting a sense worthiness in one's actions. Perhaps we can all agree that a hero is one that sacrifices his own personal prejudices for the greater and grander good, a move which would become the greatest act of altruism.
Given this, could we say that Marcos was a hero? Many who will argue for Marcos will quote his service as a soldier, as a protector, of his fellow countrymen. This, some will contest, makes him quintessentially heroic.
His service in public office and, indeed, as president implies some sacrifice to serve the public. As the symbolic defender of the country's constitutional rights, this, perhaps, makes him characteristically heroic.
Yet these roles - of the soldier and the bureaucrat - carry great paradoxes. What makes them heroes are often based on some zero-sum game where gains are made at the expense of a sore loss. If a promise was made and it is broken, how easy can it be to just forget? Given that the person was aware of his actions, how quickly can trust be restored?
Marcos was a veteran, yet through this same military power destroyed the bodies of thousands of Filipinos. Over 50,000 opposition members were detained after the imposition of martial law, where individuals were subject to various forms of torture: rape, electric shocks and violent beatings. Disappearances were rampant and some people - thirty years later - are yet to be found.
Marcos was a public servant, yet he served the minute interests of the minute public. He embezzled over $10 billion worth of public money only for it to be lost within the one's and zero's. Marcos abused the rule of law by compromising the bureaucracy for vested foreign interests. Speaking on the Presidential Decree No. 3 - a mandate aiming to improve public infrastructure - the Philippine government launched an advertisement on The New York Times in 1974 which urged US investors: "We'll pass the law you need, just tell us what you want." The decree gave leeway for foreign companies to engage in oil exploration under Filipino service contracts, where foreigners were able to retain over 40% of its oil profits while exploiting a wealth of other benefits not experienced by normal Filipinos: tax concessions, cheap labour and product sharing benefits.
His eagerness to make the Philippines a favourable investment attraction was at the expense of much-needed infrastructure. In 1975, instead of spending public funds on low-cost housing, Marcos built thirteen new five-star hotels in preparation for the International Monetary Fund-World Bank conference (IMF-WB). Indeed, his incestuous relationship with the IMF resulted in the millions of dollars being wired into the public current account. He then failed to deliver sustainable development programmes, which later spurred the devaluation of the peso and a dip in economic growth by 484.2%. It would take years for the Filipino taxpayer to bail this out.
You say these protests were an inconvenience. What about the thousands of martial law victims who, little did they know, had their lives taken away from them? What about their families? What kind of inconvenience was it to have to tell those stories to their children, their grandchildren? How can anyone sleep at night knowing that someone out there couldn't "continue being productive" in the way they see fit their daily lives because of the incompetencies of Marcos? What does this say about the poverty so rampant in our country? What kind of inconvenience is it to have an education system which selectively propagates narratives from the martial law years, only to praise him for his alleged 'good'? This shows the country's education system's failure to engage in critical thinking - a form of censorship - as if putting a band-aid will be able to cover a lesion on the brain.
How can you respect the rule of law when the rule of law, in itself, is unable to function accordingly? What does the rule of law have to say about the lawlessness of Marcos's actions? You say the law has no sentiment, but what about the disgusting corruption and cronyism under Marcos - an act of manipulation of the rule of law? Does that still make Marcos a defender of the Constitution? A hero?
What more can the Filipino ask from the deceased Ferdinand Marcos? Sure, he cannot speak from his grave, but his burial in a funeral of heroes speaks volumes. It suggests the failure of the government to serve justice to those who have suffered under his regime. It failed to acknowledge the delinquencies of Marcos and his cronies, reinforced by the stubbornness of his family and our inept education system. The burial of Ferdinand Marcos fortifies a cancerous legacy which now plagues not only our current political system but our entire social culture.
And so this is why we cannot forget. This is why it is hard to move on. Marcos is not only buried in his grave but still lives amongst us, and so these protests, like his burial, is a voluminous symbol in itself: a display of solidarity amongst those who seek refuge. Through this act of protest - a challenge to the mind - it may convince others to re-evaluate themselves. An impact on one is an impact towards thousands moreover, and so the glue of our society strengthens.
This solidarity is something our country so needs. I stand amongst many Filipinos today who revoke Marcos's hero status. Marcos is not our hero. We shall never forget.