Let truth be the guide
How should we teach young Filipinos about martial law?
Elsewhere in the world, countries who went through a national trauma have tried to come to grips with their experience in a two-pronged way: with the truth, and with dispatch.
As soon as it could, Cambodia set up a Khmer Rouge Tribunal to exact accountability from those most responsible for the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime. A notorious prison, the site of the torture and death of countless ordinary Cambodians, was also turned into a genocide museum, its most haunting exhibit a collection of skulls and bones as a reminder of the unspeakable brutality that had occurred.
In South Africa, as soon as apartheid was dismantled, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed, where both victims of the former repressive white regime and its enablers and perpetrators were invited to testify to help in the healing of the deeply divided land. And in Argentina, a National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons sought to probe the abuses of a succession of military juntas—specifically, to help shed light on the fate of some 30,000 Argentines that disappeared during the country’s long night of state repression, called the “Dirty War.”
Meanwhile, in our part of the world, 26 years after the fall of the dictatorship and 40 years after the declaration of martial law, not only is the notorious Marcos family ensconced in power but an alternative history of the Marcos years also holds sway over a significant portion of the population (mostly in the north, where Ferdinand Marcos is seen as a hero or at least a misunderstood statesman).
His widow Imelda’s antics, such as designing tacky jewelry to make light of the enduring public disgust at her excessive ways, are seen as harmless, even endearing, gestures. And the strongman’s son and namesake, a senator of the realm, boldly twits victims of human rights abuse for their supposed temerity to demand justice and compensation for the violations they suffered under martial law.
President Aquino’s recent directive to the National Historical Commission of the Philippines to form a committee to compile the experiences and stories of those who suffered under martial law is a laudable move, if one that also begs the question: Why only now?
A full generation of Filipinos has grown up after the 1986 Edsa People Power revolt, and with each succeeding year, that singular achievement—the “grandfather” of people power revolutions, as Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Kim Komenich called it—has steadily lost its luster. Anecdotal evidence suggests the depths of ignorance and incuriosity many young people today hold about the Marcos years; it can only come from the paucity of truthful and complete information on that period in their history classes and, as well, from the larger sense of indifference and forgetfulness that afflicts the nation.
An anonymous axiom says “Happy is the country that has no history”—the happiness, of course, being the blithe simplemindedness of the fool with no memory of the actions and motivations that define his character and place in the world. This must be why Filipinos are invariably rated as the happiest people on earth; the dark side of our culture of levity is the tendency to let bygones be bygones too quickly, indiscriminately, the hard work of exacting justice given up for the soothing balm of forgiveness.
Or, if not outright absolution, a fuzzy “objectivity” that would let children decide on their own whether martial law was good or bad, if Education Secretary Armin Luistro would have his way. “If you already teach judgment or interpretation, I don’t think that’s education,” he said, adding that this approach would prevent a situation where students “imbibe the biases” of the historian who authored the book.
Let’s see. Under martial law there was indeed peace and order in the streets, the petty gangs were gone, long hair on men was abolished, calm came with the nightly curfew. But that peace came at a horrific price: 3,257 murders, 35,000 torture incidents and 70,000 incarcerations, among other things.
Would students on their own be able to make the connection? Shouldn’t a historian’s role, and a teacher’s, for that matter, be to extract insight from the facts? “History does not only consist of documents,” said historian John Lukacs. And “after the collection of facts, the search for causes,” reminded another, Hippolyte Taine.
Let truth, and nothing but, be the guide in teaching our kids the lessons of martial law. And none too soon, for we have a lot of catching up to do.
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