By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter
NERI J. COLMENARES was 18 when he was jailed and tortured by agents of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, Sr. in 1978, six years after he placed the country under military rule.
While in prison, one of the guards played a potentially deadly Russian roulette game by placing a revolver with a single bullet into the student activist’s mouth, spinning the cylinder and forcing him to pull the trigger.
He also endured mental torture as a prison guard made him watch a fellow detainee get electrocuted by a wire inserted in his genitals.
“I spent four years in prison because I was demanding the return of student councils and the school paper,” he said by telephone. “I was heavily tortured.”
Mr. Marcos on Sept. 23, 1972 announced on national television that he had placed the country under martial law, citing an alleged communist threat. Proclamation 1081, which was dated two days earlier, abolished Congress and allowed him to consolidate power by extending his tenure beyond the two presidential terms allowed by the 1935 Constitution.
More than 70,000 people were jailed, about 34,000 were tortured and more than 3,000 people died under martial rule, according to Amnesty International.
Mr. Marcos ended martial law in January 1981, but it wasn’t until five years later that he was toppled by a popular street uprising that sent him and his family into exile in the United States.
Half a century later, his son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., who was among the first to return to the Philippines from exile in 1991, is gunning for the presidency next year.
His sister Imee is a senator, while their mother Imelda had been a congresswoman who represented their hometown in Ilocos Norte for most of the time since she came back three decades ago.
Marcos Jr.’s son Sandro had said he would run for congressman representing Ilocos Norte’s first district, a position that his grandmother held for 24 years.
The Marcos clan did not return because they never really left, said Cleve V. Arguelles, a political science lecturer at De La Salle University.
“In the popular national imagination, we have maintained spaces for a fragmented memory of the Marcos rule, with the Marcoses themselves contesting official narratives to their advantage,” he said in an article sent to BusinessWorld.
A celebrity got flak after posting a YouTube video of her interview with Marcos Jr. days before the 49th anniversary of martial law. In the video, the former senator talked about the “lies” spread by people about his family.
The Ateneo de Manila University’s Martial Law Museum called the video propaganda that tried to present Mr. Marcos as an amiable and approachable figure. “This is also an outright attempt at whitewashing. Mr. Marcos is not and will never be ‘ordinary’ or ‘one with the people,’” it said.
It added that the Marcos family and their allies continue to benefit from the billions of pesos stolen from public coffers during his father’s dictatorship and “they continue to escape accountability for their actions.”
“What do the Marcoses want to say now, that we just invented torture, the forced disappearances and the crimes committed?” Mr. Colmenares, a former congressman, asked.
Human rights violations during the martial law era were barely tackled by his successor, the late President Corazon C. Aquino, because her administration had been weakened by coup attempts, said Michael D. Pante, an associate professor at Ateneo’s Department of History.
“In such a climate, it was hard to put forth a comprehensive retrospective take of the martial law regime, whether in academia or public discourse, that could define the Marcos years as a particularly oppressive regime because it seemed that nothing much has changed after 1986,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.
Ms. Aquino oversaw the drafting of the 1987 Constitution, which limited the powers of the President and restored the bicameral Congress that her predecessor abolished.
“Cory was the symbol of people’s outrage against the Marcos regime,” Mr. Colmenares said. “But many things had been compromised and many of the people who played big roles in martial law were still in power. Marcos cronies also remained powerful.”
After the EDSA uprising, elite rule remained dominant, paving the way for the return of the Marcoses to power, Liza A. Maza, a martial law survivor, said in a Messenger chat.
“Because of their immense wealth, the Marcoses, their relatives and their allies, through an electoral exercise that is characterized by guns, goons and gold, were able to return to power,” the former congresswoman said.
“The elite remained in power and the politics of accommodation persisted. Every administration after EDSA accommodated the Marcoses,” she added.
Ms. Maza said the state did not institute measures to bar the Marcoses from holding public office.
Aside from her congressional seat, Imelda Marcos ran for President during the first presidential election under the post-dictatorship Constitution despite pending legal cases against her. Juan Ponce M. Enrile, the dictator’s Defense minister who implemented martial law, later served as a senator for more than two decades.
“Martial law is a story of unbridled military power, and we have published narratives of how the Philippines became an archipelago of detention centers and secret torture sites,” Mr. Pante said. “And yet, we don’t know of anyone from the top brass during the martial law era who was actually punished for all these barbaric acts.”
The history professor said the absence of a well-publicized trial, let alone a convincing conviction of top military personnel “makes it easy for historical distortion to creep in.”
“How could one say that martial law was repressive when we don’t have a list of these supposed torturers and murderers? Was martial law a crime without a criminal?”
Ms. Maza said there was no systematic program in the country’s schools that propagated the lessons of martial law and the economic and political realities during that time.
Contrary to claims by people with a sinister plot to revise history, the Philippines became the fourth-worst economic performer out of 22 Asian countries from 1965 to 1986, said Sonny A. Africa, executive director at Ibon Foundation.
“The rise of social media as a major source of information for the public has given them a huge opportunity to use their wealth in a massive disinformation drive on top of the ground propaganda wars they never stopped doing,” he said via Messenger.
“This exploits another weakness of all post-EDSA administrations — the failure to properly educate the public on the dark Marcos dictatorship,” he said. Their disinformation would not get much traction if the people were not so poorly educated about it.”
Mr. Africa said the Marcoses’ “vast unrecovered wealth” let them go beyond local government posts and congressional positions to take national office, including shots at the vice-presidency and presidency.
Ferdinand Marcos stole as much as $10 billion (P503 billion) from the Filipino people, according to government estimates, earning him a Guinness World Record for the “greatest robbery of a government.”
The Presidential Commission on Good Government, created in 1987 to recover ill-gotten wealth of the family and their cronies, has recovered about P171 billion.
“This huge stash of plundered wealth gives the Marcoses enormous room to buy electoral victories, make political allies, co-opt bureaucrats and block legal efforts against them,” Mr. Africa said.
Senator Maria Imelda Josefa “Imee” R. Marcos did not immediately reply to two text messages seeking comment. Mr. Marcos’s spokeswoman also did not immediately reply to two text messages seeking comment.
Although Imelda Marcos lost to Fidel V. Ramos in the 1992 elections, “she still had access to economic and political power through various connections with the landed and political elite,” Mr. Pante said.
The family continued to form alliances with politicians seeking national posts, he said. “As a result, the successive administrations could not afford getting into an open battle in prosecuting the Marcoses for their crimes lest they lose backing in these localities.”
In 2016, President Rodrigo R. Duterte, whose presidential bid was backed by Marcos loyalists, allowed a hero’s burial for the late dictator. A year later, he declared Sept. 11, 2017 — Mr. Marcos’s birthday — a nonworking holiday in Ilocos Norte to honor him.
During a coronavirus pandemic, his allies at the House of Representatives pushed for a bill declaring Sept. 11 as President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos Day.
“Right from the beginning, Duterte has been very vocal of his support for the Marcoses and the reciprocal relationship that existed between the two camps,” Mr. Pante said.
“For one, Duterte wants to present himself as another strongman, a resurrection of the manly, iron-fist style of governance of the dictator, he said. “This kind of image was popular with voters and was an important factor behind his electoral victory.”
“The martial law era was far from being the golden age of the Philippines,” Mr. Colmenares said. “We experienced the Marcos regime’s brutal atrocities, and we don’t want the next generation of Filipinos to experience that.”