Dark legacy

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“THIS BILL should make us realize that never again should we allow the atrocities of the Marcos regime to happen in this country.”

The “bill” Senator Francis Escudero was referring to is the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013, which both houses of Congress had ratified as of last Monday. Some 10,000 complainants in a class action suit filed in Hawaii, USA against the Marcoses will be compensated for the illegal arrest, detention and torture they suffered during the martial law period.

The funds will be sourced from the billions in Swiss bank accounts the Philippine government has recovered of the wealth Ferdinand Marcos amassed during the 14 years (1972-1986) he wielded absolute power by placing the country under martial rule, abolishing Congress, suspending the Bill of Rights, and suppressing all opposition with the collaboration and support of the military and the defunct Philippine Constabulary of which the Philippine National Police is the successor.

Because it took 27 years from the declaration of martial law in 1972 before the Act was passed, however, many of those subjected to various abuses, including rape, beatings, water-boarding, electrocution, and injections of truth serum, have since died. University of the Philippines Professor of Filipino and Philippine Literature Monico Atienza, for example, who was detained for years and tortured while in the hands of Marcos’ military thugs, died a few years ago.

Although Atienza was among the most severely tortured martial law detainees—he was beaten, injected with truth serum, his genitals burned among other atrocities—he refused to be a complainant in the Hawaii class suit because, he once said, he fought the Marcos regime out of principle, and not in expectation of any reward.

Most of the 10,000 complainants did not expect any reward either. But they filed the complaint to put it on record and to contribute to the imperative of seeing to it that the detention and torture they suffered, and the enforced disappearance and murder of their fellow activists, do not happen again.

Unfortunately, however, they do happen still. Senator Escudero’s statement and that of other government officials, congressmen and even NGO personalities assume that the violation of human rights—the illegal arrests, detention and torture, the enforced disappearances and the murder of activists—have stopped since the end of the Marcos period. The fact is that they have not, despite EDSA 1986, the restoration of the Bill of Rights, and the succession of administrations after Marcos that were supposed to have presided over the restoration of democracy.

Political prisoners are still in the country’s prisons. The most recent count says that 385 are detained in various detention centers all over the Philippines. Of this number, 170 were arrested, many charged with common crimes, during the last two years since Benigno Aquino III came to power.

The son of press freedom icon Jose Burgos, Jonas Burgos, was abducted and has since been unaccounted for since 2007. University of the Philippines students Karen Empeno and Sherlyn Cadapan, abducted in 2006 and whose fate is still unknown, underwent unspeakable torture including gang rape, according to a worker-witness who managed to escape from his military abductors.

Almost routinely are remote communities occupied by troops, their residents harassed and threatened, tortured and even killed. Students from the University of the Philippines on field work have also been singled out for verbal and physical abuse by the troops of the very same Armed Forces of the Philippines that claims to be “human rights advocates and protectors.”

And yet Mr. Aquino has declared that human rights violations are the products of “leftist propaganda,” in apparent ignorance of what the military and police—whom even the US State Department has identified as responsible for most of the violations of human rights in the Philippines—are doing.

The key to understanding why the most vicious feature of the martial law period—the widespread violation of human rights—has survived is the understanding of the methods, perspectives, and material interests of the police and military bureaucracies as the sole custodians of the use of State violence in preserving an unjust order. Those methods, perspectives and interests are themselves derived from the fascist ideology and organized violence of the martial law period, which neither the police nor the military has questioned, much less deviated from despite the passage of 27 years.

The martial law period’s legitimization of State violence as the first and last recourse in addressing dissent, protest and social unrest invested the police and military with unprecedented power during the 14 years of Marcos and military rule. In the process the reality of unlimited power inculcated in the police and military bureaucracies a sense of entitlement as well as exemption from accountability.

The impunity—exemption from punishment—to which they have been accustomed has emboldened the police and the military, despite EDSA and the restoration of the Bill of Rights, to continue in their accustomed paths of violating human rights, in addition to engagement in the corruption that surged during the martial law period and that’s continuing today—but about which nothing is being done.

As in the killing of journalists and other citizens, exemption from punishment has become so common citizens are no longer shocked when the perpetrators literally get away with murder. No human rights violator—neither rapist nor torturer, murderer or abductor—has ever been punished for his crimes against this country, its people, and humanity. A particularly foul specimen of this kind of criminal, for example, is even now continuing to elude arrest under the protection of his fellow brutes.

And yet only the dismantling of the culture of impunity by punishing the police and military thugs who killed and tortured then, and their present-day successors who today are the leading violators of human rights, can begin the process of finally putting a stop to the atrocities of the martial law period that continue to this day.

It is all very well to compensate the victims of martial law abuses. But what would really mean something is putting a stop to the violations of human rights that have become, in many communities and even in the heart of Metro Manila itself (Jonas Burgos was abducted in Quezon City), so common in this land of tears.

Luis V. Teodoro is a former political prisoner and is among the 10,000 complainants in the class suit against the Marcoses.

(BusinessWorld)

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