Better late than never—particularly about a project that has to do with “never again.” Heeding calls from various sectors worried about the growing blight of revisionism, the Senate has just passed a law that would create the Memorial Commission. The Commission will oversee the teaching of martial law’s atrocities in schools, and the heroism of those who fought it.
It’s a good idea, and one that should have been done long ago. Then one Juan Ponce Enrile might have thought twice about writing a memoir that makes him out to be the savior of the country. It’s a good idea for several reasons.
The first is that the teaching of the crimes of martial law, and those of one Ferdinand Marcos, in schools in the Ilocos in particular, is absolutely necessary. Ilocos Norte has pretty much seceded from the Philippine Republic at least ideologically if not politically, at least in mind if not in body. It’s not just because, as the joke goes, Marcos thought he was fleeing to Paoay and not Hawaii when he was plucked out of Malacañang in 1986 and spared the attentions of the ragged crowd rattling the Palace gates. It’s also, and far less facetiously, because the schools there have a different version of Marcos and martial law.
It’s a version that says Marcos was the best thing to have happened to this country. He was a brilliant man who saw farther and deeper than anyone—he had a photographic memory and was “always two steps ahead of you,” as his generals kept saying—who bucked the Left, the Right and the Americans, ending up much misunderstood, unappreciated and maligned. Martial law, for its part, far from digging the grave of democracy—an “elite democracy” in all its tyrannical contradictions—resurrected it in its indigenous, Pinoy, form.
The same things Filipinos in general were told during the 14 years of it, who were moreover made to celebrate Sept. 21 as Thanksgiving Day. Clearly, it’s not just Marcos’ corpse that has been preserved there, by formalin and other drugs, it’s his specter as well, by (mis)education and other dregs. It’s time Ilocano kids got taught the right things about the wrong things Da Apo did. Contrary to rumor, Ilocanos can handle the truth.
The second is the increasing disappearance of cruelty, atrocity, barbarity from the recollection of martial law. It’s a common thread in Philippine history. The Americans managed to wipe out all traces, or vestiges, of their horrific pacification campaign following its gratuitous occupation of a country trying to free itself, emphasized by Gen. Jake Smith’s orders to “turn Samar into a howling wilderness.” All we remember now is a benign rule that began with the coming of the Thomasites, the American volunteers that brought education to us. The Japanese managed to wipe out all traces or vestiges of their even more horrific attempts to make the Filipinos see the light of their being Asian, specifically the blinding light of bayonets glinting in the red sun while making a long and lethal march. All we remember now is that Japan gave us animé and Japanese restaurants, little helped by postwar action movies that turned mga Hapon into caricature.
If that could happen then, it can happen now. I don’t know that the Marcoses can develop the cheek to try to transform themselves, like Enrile, into the country’s benefactors. But I know that they can always take the sting out of martial law in time, with time, across the length of the long and lethal march of forgetfulness. Unless we do something about it.
Teaching the atrocities of martial law, indeed teaching the atrocity that was Marcos himself, in school, and to the kids in elementary school in particular—you can’t have more fallow ground than that—does something about it. It helps nip it in the bud. But here’s a rub, which the Memorial Commission would do well to address.
That commission is tasked with teaching the heroism of those who fought martial law, along with the villainy of those who wrought it. But who were the heroes of that time? That is a vital question particularly in light of this country’s allergy to the Left, the communists, the “outsiders.” They tend to be erased, deleted, blotted out from the story the way “ideological deviants” tended to be erased, deleted, and blotted out from the annals of Soviet history.
Yet if you come right down to it, they were the heroes of the greater part of martial law. In the same way, or more, that the French resistance fighters, many of whom were communists and many of whom died, were bona fide heroes of the German Occupation. The students, teachers, human rights lawyers, nuns, priests, bishops, workers, peasants, urban poor, rural poor, indigenous people, ordinary folk who went to the hills or stood right where they were to fight it.
They were the heroes of the time, particularly during the 1970s, well before Ninoy Aquino was assassinated, well before Enrile fell out of grace with Marcos and plotted against him. Not the steak commandos, they in restless exile abroad desperately fighting, well, steaks. Not the ex-politicians who belonged to ex-political parties who had become ex-oppositionists for the most part. Not even the Yellow Brigade, that would come much later after Ninoy fell at the then Manila International Airport.
Not to tell their story, not to tell their heroism, not to tell their living—and dying—during the pit of martial law, when few others, if any, were there to fan the embers of freedom, that would be revisionism, too. No more and no less than forgetting martial law’s atrocities. No more and no less than accepting Enrile’s rewriting of history. No more and no less than tolerating the Marcoses’ efforts to reinvent themselves.
By all means let’s tell the truth. But the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.