The Libingan ng mga Bayani is not, as it name suggests, literally a heroes’ cemetery. Soldiers, policemen, and former Philippine presidents can be buried there, apparently on the tenuous presumption that by having worn a police or military uniform, or being elected to the Philippine presidency, an individual becomes a hero — meaning an exemplar of humanity, and worthy of emulation for, presumably, having risen above the limits of personal, familial and class interests in behalf of country and people.
Most dictionaries define heroes and heroism in less socially redeeming terms. A hero, says the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities,” or “a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability.”
These definitions are unfortunately based on the pretensions of “popular” culture (a basketball star can in these terms qualify as a hero. So can mythical figures like Hercules, and such US pop culture creations as Batman, who is in fact described as more than a hero, he being a “superhero”).
These definitions also ignore what makes an individual a hero in societies struggling for freedom, democracy and authentic development, and deny the contributions to humanity of those men and women who, at the cost of their fortunes and even lives, commit themselves to the making of societies better than those that have been imposed on their peoples by colonial and imperial rule and/or by homegrown tyranny.
Like many other concepts, what heroes and heroism are can only be meaningfully understood in their historical, political and social contexts. In countries like the Philippines, heroism consists of the capacity to transcend one’s interests in behalf of the greater good — the hero is an individual who contributes to the betterment of the lives of his or her people through whatever means including, although not limited to, the use of arms.
Neither under the dictionary definition nor the more nuanced one above does Ferdinand Marcos qualify, being not of divine descent, of noble qualities, or of mythological dimensions, and given his villainous assault on the Filipino people. Even his claims to having been an exemplary soldier have been exposed as fraudulent, and the medals he claims to have amassed while fighting the Japanese invaders during World War II exposed as nonexistent by, among other authorities, the late military intelligence officer Bonifacio Gillego.
But what’s even worse is Marcos name’s being indelibly linked with the darkest period in recent Philippine history: the martial law terror regime during which the dictatorship Marcos erected on the ruins of the first Asian republic savaged the bill of rights, imprisoned a hundred thousand men and women, drove the country into even worst poverty, provoked civil war, transformed the military into a power broker, and destroyed countless lives while he plundered the treasury and amassed wealth almost beyond imagining. He was thus no hero, and was in fact the quintessential villain against whom the many real heroes of the anti-martial law resistance fought.
But while only in name is the Libingan a heroes’ cemetery (it was so grandiosely renamed only during the Ramon Magsaysay presidency), by having Ferdinand Marcos buried there the Marcoses, their cronies and allies and their clueless northern hordes nevertheless hope to revise history by burying their dead patriarch’s foul deeds in what many people mistakenly presume to be grounds reserved only for individuals in the same league as Andres Bonifacio and Jose Rizal.
One suspects that these creatures are more than aware of that grand conceit, the haste and near secrecy with which they caused the burial to take place last November 18 being its outstanding indicator. Although carried out at high noon and accompanied by the usual 21-gun salute, the burial might as well have been done in silence and at midnight, conspiracy — among the Marcos heirs, the Duterte administration and the military — being writ large in it.
President Rodrigo Duterte has himself argued that by allowing the burial he was only implementing the law, but it’s an odd argument from a chief executive who, in various ways, has practically given the police license to ignore such Constitutional niceties as the presumption of innocence and due process. Of even more import is the fact that the Supreme Court decision allowing the burial, because still under appeal, is yet to be final and executory, which makes the legality of the burial at least debatable.
For this travesty the Duterte administration must be held to account. The burial, for both its symbolic and literal worth, would revise history and bury the past under a ton of lies as well as marble and concrete. But recent events indicate that the Marcoses and their co- conspirators may have outsmarted themselves.
Their subterfuge is creating — or at least contributing to — a vast re-awakening among so-called millennials, particularly students from the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila, Miriam College and even the University of Santo Tomas, and driving the making of a broad national united front not only against the burial but also against the return of authoritarian rule.
The latter has emerged as a distinct possibility less than six months into the Duterte administration, which has proposed the suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus supposedly as an option in its war on drugs.
This is as deceptive as well as ignorant and neglectful of the lessons of history as the Duterte administration’s allowing the burial of the Marcos remains in the Libingan,
In 1971 Marcos suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus so his administration could arrest dissenters without charges. It turned out to be the prelude to his declaration of martial law in 1972.
These unheroic deeds led to the arrest of, initially, dozens of individuals, and later, tens of thousands, many of whom were tortured, detained for years at a time without charges, or summarily killed. But these same travesties also provoked the most heroic acts of defiance and opposition, among them demonstrations conducted at the risk of life and limb, the publication and distribution of clandestine newspapers, and armed resistance,
The real heroes were out there, fighting the villains and the villainy of the Marcos dictatorship, and demonstrating in the process that authentic heroism can and will arise when most needed by this country and its people. The heroes of the people will surely rise again, this time from among the mass opposition to the Marcos burial at the Libingan and from those determined to prevent the return of authoritarian rule. Ignorant of the lessons of history, the Marcoses and their co-conspirators have won only a temporary and deceptive victory.
First published on BusinessWorld. Photo by Boy Yñiguez from “People Power: The Philippine Revolution of 1986: An Eyewitness History.”