At Large

What the money means

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If money is paid out for it, does it mean it really happened? That seems to be the current thinking, especially in this age of deniers and revisionists, with people believing that if you deny or doubt something often enough, the public will start questioning even their own memories or the historical record.

For many human rights victims of martial law, the soon-to-be-passed legislation requiring compensation for the abuses they suffered may come too late. Some have already died, while others have since moved on. For many others, the mental torture and trauma they suffered will continue to haunt them long after their share of the P10-billion loot confiscated by the government has been used up.

Still, a number of them could use the money. Some need financial support for their health problems, many of them traceable to the torture they endured and the hard life they led. Many others could put the money to good use by supporting the education of family members, or providing them with such basic comforts as housing, a source of income, and insurance against catastrophe.

But more than providing material compensation for victims of martial law, what the prospective law does, says the former detainees’ organization Selda, is to finally establish in the historical record that, indeed, human rights violations took place under the sponsorship of the Marcos government. “More than the monetary compensation,” says Selda, “the bill represents the only formal, written document that martial law violated the human rights of Filipinos and that there were courageous people who fought the dictatorship.”

No more room for Marcos relatives, such as Rep. Imelda Marcos or Sen. Bongbong Marcos, to assert that martial law under Marcos’ rule was benevolent and progressive. No more room for hawks in the military and government to insist that martial law “saved” the Philippines from a communist insurgency (indeed, recruitment to the ranks of the New People’s Army surged during the martial law period).

And as Akbayan Rep. Walden Bello declares: “Finally, after over two decades after the fall of the dictatorship, we will have a law that puts the responsibility for human rights abuses square on the shoulder of Marcos and provides justice for all those who suffered under his reign.”

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While the number of possible beneficiaries of the law still remains in dispute, an estimated 16,000 individuals have been identified, some 10,000 being the plaintiffs in a Hawaii class suit against the Marcoses and 6,000 more documented by the Commission on Human Rights. Even so, CHR Chair Etta Rosales is encouraging other claimants to come out and be recognized, subject to screening.

I’m just hoping the effort doesn’t end up in the same mess created by the “war damages” or reparations claims filed against the Japanese government shortly after World War II. In those years, a cottage industry of fake and falsified claims and bogus claimants blossomed and, if we recall right, some so-called “collaborators” of the Japanese military even managed to get elected to office.

Already, there have been reports of falsified claims among the martial law victims, with the identities of some usurped by the undeserving.

I hope everyone involved in managing and disbursing the funds keep in mind that the millions represent not just compensation but is actually “blood money,” amassed at the cost of many lives lost, futures compromised, and a generation lost.

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The bill, which goes through the final bicameral conference meeting today, is the last of a raft of bills championed by Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman who is bowing out of legislation, if not politics, at the end of this, his third term.

The bearish, fatherly Lagman, whose hair was still black when he started filing bills upholding the rights of students, workers and women, as a website avers, has racked up an impressive array of legislation.

He is most famous for sponsoring in the House (and shepherding through it for more than a decade) the newly-passed Reproductive Health Law (his Senate counterpart is Sen. Pia Cayetano). But he can also boast of being the sponsor of such laws as the “desaparecidos” (disappeared) law, which identifies as a crime the act of making criminal suspects “disappear” (through summary executions) while under custody; the law criminalizing the use of torture by agents of the State; and now this law on compensation for human rights victims of the martial law regime.

In recognition of his steadfast work on the RH Law, Lagman will be named today an “Eminent Person” of the Forum on Family Planning, an honorific post created by the Forum for individuals who have proven to be outstanding supporters of reproductive health and rights in the country.

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But more than recognitions or awards, I think what sustained Lagman through this dark night of struggle—including his loyalty to former President Gloria Arroyo who ultimately betrayed him—was knowing what his legislative work was rooted in.

And that is his own painful family history, with one brother wrongfully picked up, tortured and killed by the military at the outset of martial law, and another brother (labor and urban poor leader Popoy) gunned down on what is believed to be the orders of the communist leadership.

He may be best known for the battle he led for the passage of the RH bill, but I bet it is the human rights legislation that most warms the heart of “Cong Edcel,” representing a personal vindication and compensation for his own family’s long dark night of struggle and grief.

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