No good deed goes unpunished–and may I add that all evil is either immediately or eventually rewarded. Although many of us suspect that this is true only of the Philippines, this may be a rule of life and an existential truth for all of humanity. The original quote about good deeds is after all attributed to Claire Booth Luce, an American who was as privileged as they come.

It is understandable, nevertheless, why Filipinos should think that injustice reigns only in these islands, and that it is the lot of Filipinos mostly or exclusively and not of others.

Philippine jails are crammed with people whose only crime is poverty, a state which prevents them from defending themselves with good lawyers, or even from knowing their rights. At any given time of day, Philippine five-star hotels are filled to the rafters with crooks and various scoundrels whose crimes beggar description.

Many victims of torture during the martial law period, as well as the kin of the disappeared and the murdered, eke out their lives in poverty, each day bringing them closer to the inevitable end. Many of their tormentors are now police and military generals, senators and congressmen, or soon-to-be department secretaries, and generally living out their days in comfort and respectability if not in luxury.

As far as luxury goes, of course, there are the heirs of Ferdinand Marcos, who continue to inflict their presence and vices on this theater of the absurd. They’re in government, or close to the powers-that-be, and they continue to enjoy the fruits of the vast evil that martial law was.

The sins of the fathers may not be punished through the sons and daughters, but the sins of wives are something else. Imelda Marcos was more than Ferdinand Marcos’ wife; she was his partner in crime, and continues to be his partner in deceit, by, among other acts, proclaiming that the martial law government never tortured anyone.

Mrs. Marcos would have us believe that the records of some 25,000 people in the custody of human rights organizations are mythical, that the accounts of Amnesty International of torture in the Philippines from 1972 onwards were figments of the imagination.

The torture was real and began on the very first days of martial rule. It was a reality for the 200 detainees at the Camp Crame gym in October, 1972, who saw high school students with arms broken during military interrogation; or who bunked with people who had been made to sit naked on blocks of ice while air conditioners were turned up full blast . It was real for those who ended up in military safehouses where women were routinely molested and/or raped, and men beaten senseless with clubs and gun butts.

But Mrs. Marcos knows her public relations if she knows nothing else. To a new generation of Filipinos, specially the children of the middle class, it is inconceivable for a government to torture on such a scale, specially one whose only fault, according to the error-filled textbooks they read in high school, was to have temporarily suspended the Bill of Rights to “save the Republic and reform society.”

As a result, those who were tortured, or whose rights were otherwise violated, have become quaint throwbacks from a period that, in the shallows of Filipino perspectives, is now part of antiquity, like the Second World War or the Commonwealth Period.

A new generation wonders who they are, and what the on-again, off-again fuss over their indemnification is all about. Conservative to the core, and as unaware of the past as they’re familiar with the latest from Hollywood, this generation looks at the martial law period through a fog of ignorance.

Remembering the past is the only antidote to history’s repetition. But the lack of memory and knowledge is the singular quality of the young today, thanks not only to the opiate of the global and local media, but due as well to the failure of their antecedent generation to impart to them not only the details, but also the meaning of their experience.

Among those who survived the martial law experience and who fought the regime with the tenacity of their convictions are people who have been the most reluctant to pass on to their children the knowledge that had led them to the struggle.

Part of the reason is the fear that their children, thus armed with the same vision for the future that drove them in the 1970s, would end up victims of the same suffering. It is a reason grounded in the pessimism of the defeated, in the context of the most protracted war on record, and whose reward for the suffering they underwent for the country and people they loved has been decades of being ignored, of being dismissed as political deviants who must have deserved being imprisoned and tortured–and, whenever the compensation issue is resurrected, of having been in it for the money.

Sure, now and then someone pays the tribute, now de rigueur in respectable Philippine society, to the victims of martial law. Sure, the Arroyo government has promised to support through Congress a bill setting aside the funds and establishing the mechanism for their compensation.

But take note of the media comments and the letters to the editor, which are running eight to two against the 10,000 people who won that billion class suit in Honolulu. Some argue that since all the Filipino people suffered during the martial law period, no “special group” of people should be compensated. Others say the martial law victims are demeaning themselves by putting a price tag on their sacrifices. Still others argue that all victims of human rights abuses after Marcos should similarly be compensated.

They forget–or have never really understood–that while every Filipino suffered during the martial period in various ways, this “special group” suffered directly and most cruelly precisely because they were “special”.

Their being special was due to their resistance, long before it became fashionable to be anti-dictatorship. They were special because unlike the vast middle class majority that welcomed martial law upon its declaration, they refused to be deluded, and instead saw through the Marcos subterfuge.

But they were also special because they fought back, whether by taking up the gun, writing for the underground press that fought the regime’s propaganda machine from the very beginning of martial rule, organizing various sectors, attending the lightning rallies that periodically took place in Manila and elsewhere, or acting in hundreds of other ways that made the anti-dictatorship resistance a broad movement.

The argument that all other human rights victims should be compensated as well is sound–but for that the succession of governments after Marcos bear the responsibility. It is Marcos-era victims who filed suit, and part of the Marcos assets specifically that they want as compensation.

As for argument that the demand for compensation is “demeaning”, no one who fought the martial law period ever thought of being paid for it; many in fact wondered if they would even survive at all, given the unrestricted power of the martial law regime and the support it enjoyed from a succession of US administrations.

Certainly no price can be attached to the loss of liberty, loved ones, and even one’s own life either. But certainly the country and the world needs to be reminded, and the fact put on record, that despite Imelda Marcos’ fantasies, thousands were tortured, were made to disappear, or were killed while in the tender mercies of the Marcos military terror machine.

That is in fact the point of the entire business. It is to remind those who already know, and to inform those who don’t, that once upon a time there was a dictatorship in this land, and that dictatorship stole not only treasure and power from us, but also, and even more cruelly, the brightest and the best of an entire generation of young men and women.

Compensation must be paid for this reason, which is why the legal tangle in which the issue has been enmeshed must be resolved. But it must also be paid as a matter of simple justice–and incidentally to give the lie to the widespread belief that justice in these parts is as rare as rubies, and that it is not the good but the evil at heart who inevitably thrive.


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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