“Cemetery of Heroes” is the English translation of “Libingan ng Mga Bayani,” where burying the remains of the late Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. has been resisted for years by most of the victims of the fascist dictatorship he erected on the ruins of the Republic in 1972.
That has not always been the Cemetery’s name. Established as the Philippine equivalent of the American Cemetery and Memorial in Manila where the remains of United States military personnel killed during World War II are buried, it was created in 1947 as the Republic Memorial Cemetery, and given its current name only in 1954, during the administration of then President Ramon Magsaysay — who is himself not buried there.
The implication that burying Marcos in the Cemetery would make him a hero is at the heart of the resistance to his finally being interred in the Libingan. Like many victims of martial law as well as other groups and individuals justly outraged by the excesses, corruption and violence of the Marcos terror regime, outgoing President Benigno Aquino III has criticized President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s agreeing to Marcos’ burial in the Libingan, arguing that the latter is “a place where you acknowledge service to our people and to our country. (Being buried there) is an honor reserved for people worthy of praise and emulation.”
If Aquino III and those others who by implication agree with him are correct, every single individual buried in the Cemetery would be worthy of emulation as a hero, and the Cemetery would be the proper place for the remains of the country’s greatest heroes as well. Jose Rizal’s remains, however, are in his monument at the Luneta; Andres Bonifacio’s bones have yet to be found; and Apolinario Mabini is interred in his hometown in Batangas. Neither is Benigno Aquino Jr., Aquino III’s father, buried in the Libingan.
But among those who are, are former Presidents Elpidio Quirino, Carlos P. Garcia and Diosdado Macapagal; former Vice Presidents Arturo Tolentino and Salvador H. Laurel; Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Angelo Reyes; and Senator Blas Ople .
The Cemetery is primarily a military cemetery, although, according to an order issued by then President Corazon Aquino in 1986, the following individuals are also entitled to a plot there:
(1) Presidents of the Philippines; (3) Secretaries of National Defense; (3) Veterans of the Philippine Revolution of 1896, the First and Second World Wars, as well as recognized guerrillas; (3) Government dignitaries, statesmen, national artists and others whose interment has been approved by the President, Congress or the Secretary of National Defense; and (4) widows of former Presidents. This is in addition to former AFP Chiefs of Staff, flag officers, and active and retired military and police officers.
The questions that these provoke are: Are all these distinguished personages who are either buried in the Libingan or are entitled to a plot there heroes? And, What is a hero in the first place?
In answer to the second question, a group of high school students who were the subjects of a University of the Philippines study in the 1990s implicitly defined heroism as the possession of superpowers by naming as their heroes Batman and Superman, who have many times saved the world in films and comic books. Heroism, however, is rooted in the realities of countries and their peoples. The artifacts of the aptly named “culture industry” based in the Western countries gloss over that fact for the sake of the profits they generate across the planet by lulling millions into the near-hypnotic state their “avengers” and “justice league” characters encourage.
And yet heroism is neither fiction nor make-believe—and certainly not driven by profit. What define heroism are the deeds of those whom, without question, we consider as heroes because those deeds were timely and necessary responses to the needs of both country and people. Rizal risked fortune and life itself to expose the ills of Spanish colonial society, and indeed paid for his life for it. Bonifacio organized and led the armed workers’ uprising that gave birth to the Republic, although, betrayed by gentry treachery, he did not live to see it. In more recent times, Benigno Aquino Jr. returned to the Philippines despite the probability of either his imprisonment or death to add his voice and influence to the burgeoning resistance against a brutal tyranny.
What unites all three despite their disparate backgrounds and personal histories, the differences in their contributions to the nation, and the decades that have passed since Rizal published his novels and Aquino returned to the Philippines, is their common allegiance to country and people and to an alternative state and future: to something bigger than themselves, and larger than fortune—and life itself.
The answer to the second question suggests the answer to the first, although empirical evidence does as well. While heroes in the same mold as Ninoy Aquino and even Rizal and Bonifacio could conceivably be buried in the “Cemetery of Heroes,” it’s not likely that all of those buried there qualify. Among the latter are, after all, a former President accused of a level of corruption unequalled in his time; a general who took his own life because of the likelihood that his participation in military corruption was likely to be exposed; and a martial law era minister labor who crafted the anti-worker rules that among others banned strikes during that period. And given the values, the indoctrination, and their role as members of internal pacification forces before, during and after the martial law period, who can say without a doubt that no torturer or mass murderer from the Philippine police and military — with whom Marcos Sr. would be only too comfortable — is buried there?
In this dysfunctional society where words seldom mean what they’re supposed to, “Libingan ng mga Bayani” is a mere phrase — a term and a name rather than a reference to reality. Too many of the real heroes of the Filipino nation are in fact buried elsewhere, although, dead as they may be, they live still in the memories of a country and people to whose lives they made such a difference.
Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. is on the other hand literally, figuratively and truly dead: the judgment of history, and not where he will be buried, will see to that. His kin and cronies may be walking around and wallowing in the wealth their patriarch extracted from the blood and marrow of the Filipino people. But as his beneficiaries and collaborators, they do not have to wait for history’s judgment, they being, at least figuratively, dead themselves now, in this time and in this place. Let the dead bury their dead, and be done with it.
(First published in BusinessWorld. Image from Makati City website)