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The struggle for historical symbols

Interesting times we live in. The push and pull of historical memory—of amnesia, on the one hand, and its reclaiming, on the other. But who does the writing of history actually serve?

Witness the series of historical revisionisms going on in the Philippines today. Like President Duterte’s son and Deputy Speaker Paolo Duterte wanting to change the name of Naia in an effort to erase Ninoy Aquino’s legacy. Marcos being buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. The Department of Education (DepEd) unwilling to include the history of martial law in our textbooks, despite repeated efforts to engage them.

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While the Aquinos were not perfect (and heroizing them or anyone else is deeply problematic), these are obvious efforts at historical erasure. For short-sighted political ends.

As I all too vividly recall, some in the Department of Foreign Affairs during my time also went to great lengths to take down the statue of a “comfort woman” on Roxas Boulevard so as not to aggravate Japan. As if these stories had never happened.

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While Noynoy Aquino prosecuted Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and hounded Chief Justice Renato Corona, he at least did not attempt to distort history. In fact, my criticism of DepEd at the time (and during that of Cory Aquino) is that it failed to ensure that martial law’s atrocities were remembered in school textbooks. They took the notion of “change” for granted, as if dictatorship could not return. Many in the leadership, in my experience, were elitist and self-congratulatory throughout.

But these are not the only narrative arcs here: There are now welcome moves all over the world to take down historical monuments, in an effort to reframe dominant “master narratives.”

There are obvious differences between erasing Ninoy Aquino and tearing down Confederate monuments. Simply put, the Duterte administration is using its power to erase the legacy of a critique of the Marcos dictatorship. The Black Lives Matter advocates, in contrast, seek to take down Confederate statues as part of a larger movement for racial justice and, in the case of colonial monuments, decolonization. They are demanding that history now be reframed. That their voices now be heard. So it’s a matter of social positionality.

Walter Benjamin once wrote that “the history of civilization is the history of barbarism.” The writing of history is generally dominated by those in power. They “heroize” the victors, most of whom are white and male. While Unesco has made it a point to remember Auschwitz and Birkenau, which is deeply important, its description of the pyramids of Egypt, for example, is all about their Outstanding Universal Value, “integrity” and “authenticity.” There is little discussion about the fact that they were built by slaves.

Indeed, monuments themselves are another problematic form of heroizing. What is a monument, who does it represent, and what political purpose does it serve? Do they only serve the interests of social elites?

Do they also perpetuate romantic narratives? Dr. Stephen Acabado, for example, has drawn attention to the “dating” of the rice terraces (a Unesco World Heritage site). The notion that they were 2,000 years old, he observes, is a form of romanticizing an idyllic, precolonial past. But his research has been mostly ignored because there were fears of a Unesco delisting, which were, in my view, largely unfounded. Most of the reactions were merely political, with little academic heft. Perhaps we need to reconsider our ideas about “heritage” and start looking at its ideological moorings. To what extent is our view of “heritage” primarily Eurocentric and colonial?

Now, of course, there are new global hegemons, like China, toward whom the Philippines is currently genuflecting. This may explain much of the official prevarication I sadly encountered regarding the China-funded Binondo-Intramuros Bridge’s possible impact on the buffer zone of San Agustin church (a Unesco World Heritage Site, along with other Baroque churches). My repeated efforts to bring the issue to the attention of higher-ups in different agencies were dismissed. Preserving our cultural heritage was clearly not much of a priority.

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My larger point? Whether we preserve or tear down monuments, we need to reconsider the act of monumentalizing itself, recognizing that it remains deeply fraught and political.

Lila Ramos Shahani is the former secretary-general of the Philippine National Commission for Unesco. She has served the Philippine government for 13 years under three presidential administrations.

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TAGS: DepEd, DFA, Duterte, History, Libingan ng mga Bayani, Ninoy Aquino, Noynoy Aquino, Paolo Duterte, Renato corona
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