Last Friday, November 18, the family of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos secreted his body into the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) for a long-contested burial. The Philippine National Police and the country’s armed forces secured the area, and a chopper from the national air force flew the strongman’s body down from Ilocos to be interred among the nation’s most revered citizens.
Look, I’m not highlighting the government’s role in this to be petty.
No, I’m pointing it out to underscore how the converse can also be true: just as the participation of government assets helped the event take place, a hero’s burial for Marcos enables certain possibilities for the government, too.
Martial Law is the picture of authoritarianism for the Philippines, and certainly the country’s most recent and most visceral experience of authoritarian rule. The Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board, created specifically to address the abuses wrought during that era, will be processing over 75,000 cases well into 2017. The country itself has been paying off Marcos-incurred foreign debt since the dictator’s ousting, and will continue to do so until 2025. The Martial Law period is a weight we struggle under to this day, and its memory is the strongest cornerstone in any conceptual defenses the country has against the idea – and appeal – of dictatorship.
In that sense, enshrining Martial Law’s chief architect in our Heroes’ Cemetery is exactly the kind of blow that accelerates what seems to be the steady rhetorical erosion of those defenses. For a long while now, various members of the current administration have, in one way or another, presented an increasingly chilling picture of the kind of leadership that they deem necessary to, as they say, “save the country”: disregard for due process and basic rights, especially if “required” to secure the “greater good” (i.e., national stability and progress); awesome executive powers concentrated in one office; ruthless policies, often carried out by emboldened law enforcement and armed forces; unquestioned and unaccountable authority. In that light, the rehabilitation of Marcos’ legacy seems not only understandable but essential.
This sudden hero’s burial is the gravest instance thus far, but this is not the first time that President Duterte and his surrogates have attempted to reframe our understanding of leadership.
- Much of his presidential campaign hinged on the idea of ruthless killings as the solution to the misery of the Filipino people (25 May 2015), with the Davao Death Squad held up as a shining example of this method.
- Despite his insistence that the killings under his watch were responses to armed resistance, and Malacañang’s statement that extrajudicial killings are “not [his] policy,” he has consistently endorsed killings as policy (31 Jan 2016).
- In fact, he has promised to make it law (16 May 2016). The legislature rushed to make good on that promise before the 2016 holidays.
- In disturbing disregard of both human rights and rule of law, he has cast civilian casualties as acceptable by guaranteeing pardons for policemen who might be grilled by “Congress, the Ombudsman, and the Commission of Human Rights” about people they kill in the line of duty. (11 Feb 2016)
- On his first official day in office, he told the Philippine National Police, “Do your duty and if in the process you kill 1,000 persons because you were doing your duty, I will protect you.” (1 Jul 2016)
- Later on, he told soldiers that massacring 100 people would earn them a full pardon and a promotion. (21 September 2016) In the same speech, he claimed he would never order soldiers to do anything illegal (implying, I suppose, that murder ceases to be a crime when the victims are suspected of having done wrong).
- Once more for the people in the back: the President recently called innocent people and children “collateral damage” in an October 2016 Al-Jazeera interview, reasserting the new calculus of acceptable costs for his war on crime.
- In a similar vein, he asserted that he would only “stop criminality and corruption…[and] fix [the] government” by breaking the rules (27 Aug 2015).
He points to his push for federalism as proof that he doesn’t desire power, but it’s worth noting that one of the methods he often talked up to achieve this goal was the formation of a revolutionary government – a process that dismantles our current system and Constitution, at that point essentially making him the government.
- Prior to his presidential campaign, he outright declared that he was and would be a dictator. (25 Oct 2015)
- “It’s going to be a dictatorship,” he added. “It’s the police and the military who will be the backbone. If they agree with you – if the right-thinking policemen and military men agree with you – then after 6 years, there will be a new set-up: maybe a federal type, less corruption, and a fresh air for the next generation.”
- Incidentally, for those who would like to brush off these statements as pure hyperbole, it’s worth noting that Mr. Duterte kicked off his presidency by visiting at least 14 military camps in less than a month.
- Since assuming the presidency, he has also gone out of his way to air unequivocal support for the police many times, even in controversial cases that placed him squarely against public outcries.
- At another speech in a military camp (not counted in those prior 14!), he voiced his desire to revive the Philippine Constabulary, which carried out numerous human rights abuses when the dictator Marcos used it to cement his authoritarian rule.
- His declaration of a state of lawlessness naturally involved an increase of police and military presence throughout the country. (7 Sept 2016)
- He has also purged the government of prior presidential appointees (21 Aug 2016), in a move that Rep. Edcel Lagman has compared to Marcos’ firing of officials during Martial Law (23 Aug 2016).
- His allies also seem to have received the dictatorship memo, with people like his chief legal counsel floating the idea of a “constitutional dictatorship” (17 Sept 2016)
- He has consistently voiced – and demonstrated – a readiness to shut down or discredit his critics, undermining many traditional channels of accountability.
- And finally, of course, there’s the close friendship and loyalty to the Marcoses
- Bongbong Marcos, son of the late dictator, asked Duterte to run for office during the 2016 elections (1 Oct 2015)
- Duterte has declared the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos the country’s “best president” (10 Feb 2016)
- Giving the dictator Marcos a hero’s burial was one of his main campaign promises (19 Feb 2016)
- There’s also this fluff piece about Bongbong Marcos writing a limerick for Duterte’s birthday, if you doubt their friendship (30 March 2016)
- He resisted giving a Cabinet position to Vice President Leni Robredo, declaring that he needed to fill spots with friends to whom he owed debts of gratitude (29 May 2016). He later admitted that he refused to give VP Robredo a post because he didn’t want to hurt the feelings of his friend Bongbong Marcos, who lost the VP race (31 May 2016).
- The President also identified Governor Imee Marcos, daughter of the late dictator, as a key campaign contributor (11 Oct 2016), despite her not being listed in his statement of campaign expenses (12 Oct 2016).
- Bongbong and Imee Marcos accompanied the President on his visit to China, where he introduced Bongbong as potentially the new vice president should he win his electoral protest (20 Oct 2016)
- Following a controversial Supreme Court decision, he reaffirmed his order to lay the dictator to rest in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (9 Nov 2016). He has since defended the stealthy, government asset-aided funeral that he claims he didn’t know about (18 Nov 2016)
And so we arrive, again, at the Marcos burial. Intended or not, it can – perhaps it already does; who knows? – serve dual purposes: erase one of our key reasons for resisting authoritarian rule, yes, but retroactively create a precedent that affirms our current administration’s predilection for strongman rule, too.
Many of the President’s supporters spin the above statements as misquoted or misunderstood; as off-the-cuff pronouncements that shouldn’t be seen as indicators of policy or intent; or perhaps worst, as jokes. But the President himself hasn’t made a secret of his beliefs and methods, and he has a long and public record to belie the assertion that his recent pronouncements don’t hold any kernel of sincerity or truth.
As the Communications Secretary has said: “He already warned the electorate that if you vote for me, there will be bloodshed. …[He] was voted.” In other words, we knew what we were in for.
Besides, campaign promises aside, we have had enough time to see for ourselves. Even prior to assuming the presidency, before he had any 2016 election voters to supposedly woo with promises of swift and total “justice,” Mr. Duterte already defended the kind of governance that deemed shoot-to-kill orders as legal, proper, and moral. As far back as 2001, assassination and targeted killings have been Mr. Duterte’s answer to crime, an approach driven by the idea of “[serving] the greater good no matter what it takes”; unsurprisingly, the Human Rights Watch notes that his political rise “coincided…[with] city mayors [gaining]…greater operational control over their police forces.”
And so on, and so on.
So, pause. Go back. Take a look at those dates. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it is a far-ranging one. The fact is, for all of his apparent inconsistencies, his volatility and his habit of veering off-script, certain key aspects of the President’s statements and behavior have remained unchanged. Indeed, they have been taken up and amplified by many members of his administration, from Cabinet members like Andanar and Aguirre to his many allies in the Congressional supermajority. If these statements are all jokes, un-meant, of no consequence, then we should worry about how much time and vehemence our government has poured into repeating them. And if these aren’t jokes, then we should worry even more.
Either way, intended or not, all of these instances add up. Taken together, these pronouncements can redraw – have perhaps already started redrawing – the lines that delineate what actions and decisions we deem acceptable, even necessary, for the good of the country.
We can quibble about questions of intent and interpretation; it’s tempting to refrain from even mentioning any of these instances in the same sentence as “dictatorship.” Sure. Okay. Nobody wants to be the hysteric. But refusing to even consider these instances in aggregate and to think about what they might mean for the future of our country contributes, in its own way, to the same erosions of memory and resistance that these events are helping along.
By opting for the supposed objectivity of “wait and see,” or by dismissing these statements as jokes or hyperbole, we are not being charitable. Instead, we’re giving a pass to these words and actions – as well as to the particular brands of history, values, and outlook that come with them. Too “trivial” to be engaged with, too frivolous (or alternatively, too important to national welfare) for critique, let alone alarm. In short, we’re letting potential seeds of dictatorship live.
The motto of dictatorship, as authoritarianism scholar Sarah Kendzior notes, is: “It can’t happen here.” But it has happened. Dismissing the possibility of it happening again only makes us blind to recent rhetorical trends that could easily be transformed into the conceptual foundations of a new regime. When we file our own dark history as unthinkable – or worse yet, as desirable – then we unmoor our present from the hard-won anchors that can keep us from being swept away. By forgetting, by agreeing again and again to let things go, we diminish our capacity and willingness to resist.