The long shadow of Ferdinand Marcos

“[It is] wrong, denies our history, erases the memory of lives lost and destroyed, mocks the collective action we took to oust the dictator, and denigrates the value of our struggle for freedom.”

That was the reaction of Maria Serena Diokno, the Philippines’ top government historian, to President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision allowing Ferdinand Marcos’ burial in a military ceremony. Diokno resigned in protest, and she is not the only one critical of what opponents allege is a campaign to rehabilitate the late dictator.

Since Marcos’ death in 1989, successive governments have sought to prevent him from being buried at the “Heroes’ Cemetery”, the traditional resting place for soldiers, political leaders and other prominent Filipinos. After his election as president in May 2016, Duterte pledged to fulfil the Marcos family’s wishes by allowing the former leader to be given a military burial, “not because he was a hero but because he was a Filipino soldier.” Marcos fought alongside US troops during the Second World War.

But Marcos is more than just a historical figure. His widow, 87-year-old Imelda, is still a member of parliament. His son, Ferdinand Jr, known as “Bongbong”, was elected to the Senate in 2010, and was a candidate for vice president in the same election that saw Duterte win the presidency. (In the Philippines, the president and vice president are elected separately.) Bongbong presented himself as a “get-things-done” leader who would cut through the bureaucracy of democratic institutions.

Bongbong’s campaign had a receptive audience in a country where supercharged economic growth has tended to benefit only the country’s entrenched elites. By polling day, he was regarded as the favourite to win. When the votes were counted, however, the winner was Leni Robredo, a social activist affiliated with the Liberal Party. Her margin of victory was narrow – 260,000 votes, less than a percentage point – and the Marcos campaign alleged that there was irregularity in the vote count. It is against the backdrop of this bitter and divisive election that the issue of burying the elder Marcos has been debated.

Although Robredo was appointed to serve as housing secretary in Duterte’s cabinet, she and the new president have almost nothing in common. The president and vice president were inaugurated in separate ceremonies for the first time in Philippine history, and the Marcos burial has become one issue of contention among many for the two leaders – Robredo has also criticised the extra-judicial killings of suspected drug dealers which have taken place on Duterte’s watch.

The president’s decision to permit the burial of Ferdinand Marcos has served to prolong the recriminations over the vice-presidential race. While he pursued a legal challenge to the results of the election, the burial provided Bongbong Marcos with a platform to rally his supporters. Marcos and the president have long been friends, and he has repeatedly thanked Duterte for his “unifying and healing” attempt to secure the burial of Ferdinand Sr. With the last three Philippine presidents having faced impeachment proceedings before parliament, cultivating such alliances has obvious potential benefits for Duterte.

The burial, which took place on 18 November after being permitted by the Supreme Court, was simple and occurred in secret. It was met with considerable opposition, from the vice president as well as Roman Catholic clergy and left-wing activists. In a statement on Twitter, Robredo said “[Marcos] is no hero. If he were, obviously his family would not have to hide his burial like a shameful criminal deed.” The president brushed off this criticism, while one of his aides described protestors against the burial as “temperamental brats”.

In the midst of this polarisation between president and vice president, Duterte began to wade into the continued wrangling over Robredo’s narrow election victory. Bongbong joined the president on a state visit to China in October, and was on stage with him when he suggested that “if [Bongbong] wins in his election protest, maybe we will have a new vice president”. It later emerged that Duterte had also asked Robredo to stop attending cabinet meetings.

Citing irreconcilable differences, Robredo resigned as housing secretary on 5 December, though she is still vice president. Speaking to the media after stepping down, she pulled no punches, warning of a “plot to steal” the vice presidency. Later, she said she hoped to unify the opposition to Duterte and to “make the president listen”. Robredo’s task is a difficult one, however, because the president’s approval rating remains over 80 per cent.

It seems that the burial of Ferdinand Marcos has opened a fault line in Philippine politics. President Duterte has abandoned his intent to unify the country and has instead hitched his political fortunes to those of the Marcos family, perhaps in the hope of isolating his relatively weak liberal opponents. Some speculate that he is playing a long game, and that he will step aside once constitutional reforms are completed so that Bongbong can become president. What is certain is that the political potency of the Marcos name is not yet lost to history.

Joseph Aivalikli

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