He’s been dead for 22 years, having died in Honolulu, Hawaii on September 28, 1989 at the age of 72, but Ferdinand Marcos haunts us still.

The most recent manifestation of the ghost of atrocities past came in the form of his children’s pushing a resolution in the House of Representatives, with former Marcos acolyte Congressman Salvador Escudero as pointman, asking the Aquino III administration to allow the burial of the Marcos corpse in Manila’s Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery).

The apparently well-orchestrated campaign provoked a three- month-long debate, one of the wonders of it being that there should have been a debate at all, and the other that of the hero’s burial for Marcos’ being supported by Vice President Jejomar Binay.

A human rights lawyer in a previous life, Binay had been asked by President Benigno Aquino III, who declared that he was “too biased” to decide it objectively, to help him (temporarily) settle the issue. In his most recent reincarnation, however, Binay is more a likely presidential candidate in 2016 than anything else.

Given not only the Marcos’ name’s continuing popularity in certain northern Luzon provinces, but also the infinite possibilities the family’s vast wealth offers, Binay’s support for his burial at the Libingan wasn’t too surprising after all, except insofar as it indicated how much ambition can drive that creature known as the Filipino politico into making deals with anyone, including the devil himself.

As far as principles rather than expediency’s concerned, however, at the heart of the debate was disagreement over the definition of “hero” and what exactly Marcos did in his near lifetime reign as President to this country and its people.

Marvel Comics and pop culture equates heroism with personal courage. But that’s only as far as the comics are concerned. Personal courage may have something to do with heroism, but even more importantly involves the capacity to transcend the self and even to die in the service of country and nation.

Assuming the sincerity, untarnished by self interest, of his and his family’s supporters, their argument that Marcos was indeed a hero seems to be based on Marcos’ supposed World War II record, even more specifically his accumulation of 32 medals from both the Philippine and US governments. Unfortunately for his partisans, Marcos’ ever getting those medals has been debunked often, by, among others, former Congressman Bonifacio Gillego, who published his findings that the medals were bogus during the martial law period in We Forum, for which act the newspaper was shut down for “subversion.”

Marcos’ medals, however, are less at issue than the way he governed this country. If heroism is more than courage, but even more importantly consists of acting in behalf of others, and as a form of unselfishness that transcends self-interest, then Marcos is no hero. His acts as President were hardly unselfish, and on the contrary focused on remaining in power and on self-aggrandizement. In behalf of that intent he placed the country under martial rule, unleashed the military on the citizenry, over a hundred thousand of whom were illegally arrested and detained, of which over 10,000 were tortured, with hundreds summarily executed and forcibly disappeared.

Among the consequences of the Marcos despotism is the military’s transformation into a major political player whose allegiance is until now crucial to the survival of governments. It has also become a power unto itself, as well as a vast center of corruption and lawlessness.

If these were Marcos’ only offenses they would suffice to consign his corpse to some other place than a heroes’ cemetery. But there was more, among them the rapid impoverishment of the country, the world-class corruption and theft of the country’s resources and treasury, the murder of its best and brightest sons and daughters, the country’s descent into chaos, violence and barbarism.

Thankfully Mr. Aquino III has rejected the Binay recommendation. It would have been more than ironic if he had not, his father having been not only among the many victims of Marcos’ unbridled lust for pelf and power, but also an authentic hero for giving his life to the anti-Marcos resistance. If hero Ninoy Aquino truly was, how can his adversary be a hero as well?

That the question doesn’t seem to have been asked is a failure of both logic as well as knowledge. But the latter failure is rooted in an even greater error: the absence of closure on the Marcos and martial law period through a national, mass understanding of what happened during those terrible years

It’s been said before, but deserves restating. The failure — the refusal and fear — of the governments that succeeded Marcos’ to put together an authentic truth commission that would provide the country an authoritative and documented account of the events, the root causes, the number of dead, disappeared, and tortured, and the people responsible for the martial law period, as well as an authoritative evaluation of it — these have prevented closure to that period. That failure continues to provoke the most meaningless debates on Marcos and the martial law period as well as the most ignorant claims, among them — as if there were something heroic in construction and in pretending to be a war hero — the suggestion that Marcos was a hero because of his 32 medals and his having built roads and bridges.

In South Africa and Chile and in those other countries that lived through and survived the dictatorships the United States put in place in Latin America in the 1970s, truth commissions have established what really happened. They have identified as people’s heroes those who fought back, and the villains those who murdered and tortured in behalf of the greed for wealth and power of local and imperial interests.

By making the truth about authoritarian rule available, these commissions have enabled their peoples to achieve closure and to move on. Neither closure nor moving on has been possible in the Philippines as far as the martial law period is concerned because there is no single, independent and authoritative account of what happened, why it happened, who suffered for it, and who were responsible. That is why the ghosts of Marcos and of that most terrible time in modern Philippine history so identified with him haunt us still.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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  1. Dear Prof. Teodoro,

    Thank you for putting this issue in a simple but enlightening perspective that people could readily grasp.


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