“BEHIND every great fortune,” said the French novelist Honore de Balzac, “is a great crime.” The Marcoses most certainly have a great fortune, estimated at somewhere between US$30 to US$50 billion — much of it acquired, despite claims otherwise, during the martial law years from 1972 to 1986, which in both this country and elsewhere was also a period of great crimes.
Because of their enormity, no one should need reminding what those crimes were. But not only do many Filipinos not remember what they were; they’re not even aware of them. After all, no attempt has been made to systematically look into the period, which would have included a catalogue and description of the means the Marcos regime used to stay in power, including the human rights violations that among others characterized it.
That is why it was puzzling among the poorest Filipinos how some of those in the initial group of Marcos-era victims of human rights violations could describe the US$1,000 (about P43,000, imagine that!) they received this week as merely symbolic of their decades-long pursuit of justice for what they had suffered at the hands of the Marcos regime’s military thugs. The entire period, despite (or even because) of the recent hype over the 1986 People Power revolt that overthrew the Marcos regime, is in fact already in the limitless zone of forgetfulness for which Filipinos are notorious.
Because it has never been explained to them, among those who never lived through the Marcos dictatorship, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s recent claim that his father would have turned the Philippines into another Singapore had he not been unseated in 1986 has found the usual advocates. They compare the awful present, with its runaway corruption, incompetence in the highest places, mass hunger and growing poverty, limited livelihood opportunities, police and military brutality, and the impunity of criminal gangs and syndicates, to the Marcos past in which, so their elders tell them, there was peace, order and prosperity.
Unfortunately for them, that past is mostly mythical, the myths being the creation of the controlled media. Under government scrutiny, the media hardly reported, or completely ignored, the war in the Philippine south, the rice and energy crises, the burgeoning resistance to the regime, the growth of the country’s foreign debt, the misuse of foreign loans to line private pockets, and the human rights violations the regime was systematically committing to silence all opposition. Except for the underground and semi-legal press, the media were focused on being “positive,” and trumpeting the regime’s bogus achievements.
As for turning the country into another Singapore, it was already one–not in the sense that it had prospered, but in terms of restrictions to free expression, the curtailment of civil and political rights, and the dominance of one party. Singapore was in fact in Marcos’ pantheon of models for emulation (Suharto’s Indonesia and his military goons were also among those models), which he surpassed many times over, and for which he earned the approval of its then prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.
To Marcos Jr.’s claim about his father’s turning the country into another Singapore, President Benigno Aquino III has retorted, saying that had the older Marcos remained in power, the country would have instead turned into another Libya.
Aquino III is as mistaken as Marcos Jr. By the time Marcos was overthrown in 1986, the Philippines was already another Libya, not in oil resources of course, but in the government’s having institutionalized arbitrary imprisonment, violence, torture, and murder to quell resistance and to silence opposition. If the government of Muammar Gadafi had secret prisons, so did the Philippines. If the Libyan military maintained torture chambers, so did the Philippine military maintain torture safehouses all over the country. And if Libyans could be imprisoned for a demonstration or any kind of gathering that could be construed as a form of protest, so could Filipinos.
Marcos may not have been as daffy as Gadafi, but he did have the same focus on staying in power and in the process amassing one of the world’s great fortunes. In other ways he, Gadafi and such other US-supported tyrants as Egypt’s Mubarak shared an unlimited capacity for enhancing personal fortunes at the expense of their respective peoples, and without delivering on those promises of change and reform for which he justified making himself dictator.
Marcos claimed to have declared martial law to “save the Republic” and “reform society,” and suggested that the suspension of the Bill of Rights was a small price to pay for development, the tasks of which he asked Filipinos to leave to him. Instead of saving it, he destroyed the Republic, and instead of reform, deformed society. By the time he was overthrown, the country was heavily in debt, the economy in shambles, Filipinos poorer than ever and devastated by levels of corruption and brutality that have since been surpassed, and the country burdened with a military establishment that, having tasted power and pelf, believes both to be its entitlement.
As different from Marcos as Corazon Aquino particularly may have been, Marcos’ successors have uniformly failed to deliver the progress and prosperity many assume is part of the Singaporean model. At least one has overtaken Marcos in corruption, and, by buying them off, has practically completed the destruction of the political, civil and even religious institutions that came under assault during the Martial Law period.
The implications are chilling enough to drive the most optimistic to suicide. Lee Kuan Yew may have been a despot. But he did transform Singapore into a prosperous city-state, much of whose population willingly paid the price in restrictions on civil and political rights. Suharto may been a thief, but he did plow back into the Indonesian economy some of the millions he had amassed.
If Marcos and his successors are any gauge, the Filipino ruling class is entirely different. Its leading members and henchmen buy houses abroad, and stash currency and jewelry in Swiss bank accounts and Australian vaults, in a display of total contempt for this country and its people. They have amassed great fortunes, and behind the rhetoric about “reform” and the “strong republic,” are no more than thieves.