Setting history right
That was an interesting letter Joker Arroyo wrote P-Noy on the eve of the 28th anniversary of Edsa. Joker has a complaint, and that is the appointment of police general Lina Castillo Sarmiento as chair of the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board.
Sarmiento herself has asked critics to give her a chance as she has a track record to show she is a meritorious choice. Etta Rosales, human rights chair, agrees, saying Sarmiento is a decent military official who has helped to “civilianize and democratize” the police force.
Joker disagrees. The law, he says, requires that the members of the Board, quite apart from its head, should have “a deep and thorough understanding and knowledge of human rights and involvement in the efforts against human rights violations committed during the regime of Ferdinand E. Marcos…. General Sarmiento, whatever her qualifications in the field of human rights violations might be today, [does not meet that requirement].”
Moreover, “the human rights violations [during martial law] were perpetrated by the certain members of the AFP and the defunct Constabulary. The appointment of a general from the uniformed services to preside as chair over the adjudication of the claims for reparation and recognition of the human rights victims is a stinging repudiation of our 15 years of struggle for freedom and democracy.”
I agree completely with Joker here.
Whatever Sarmiento’s credentials, she is ill-suited for this job. We want to reward her for her performance in advancing the cause of human rights among the cops, then promote her, then give her a job promoting human rights among the soldiers as well. But not this job. This job requires an understanding of what the martial law victims went through that’s not just intellectual but also experiential. And this job requires a sense of having a stake in the outcome of things. Appointing General Sarmiento to be its prime mover is like appointing Teddy Casiño, a decent and level-headed ex-congressman, to head an oversight committee to look over the budget of the military. See if that doesn’t raise a howl from the uniformed rank and file.
It sends all the wrong messages to the nation, hammered home by those messages being delivered during Edsa. At the very least, that the government isn’t serious about human rights, a particularly horrible message given the tenacity and spread of the culture of impunity, when someone like Rodrigo Duterte can propose in the very halls of the Senate to rid the world of vermin, social dregs, and rice smugglers, not necessarily in that order.
More than this, it sends the message that the government isn’t serious about the victims of martial law getting their due. The appointment of someone who never really went through what the victims did, or knew those that did, or took part in the fight against martial law, represented above all by the generals, suggests a cavalier attitude toward them.
Which is deeply unfortunate and hurtful. I’ve always thought that what made the celebrations of Edsa less and less resonant over time was not just the passage of time, though that clearly matters in a country that is hard put to remember things that happened only yesterday. It is also the way the Edsa story has been told again and again. It is a story that begins with Aug. 21, 1983, with much of what happened before ignored or forgotten.
One would imagine that time would have given us a better perspective on things, enough for us to see that the events before the assassination of Ninoy Aquino were just as important, if not more so, in the creation of people power. Indeed, enough for us to see that those events, which point to an arduous and epic struggle against martial law, were what gave the assassination of Ninoy Aquino the impact that it had. That arduous and epic struggle was the one waged by the victims of martial law, who now wage an equally arduous and epic struggle to get recognition for their contribution to history, never mind monetary recompense for it.
The deleting of that history, willfully or not, has given Edsa a jaded feel in the retelling. In the beginning was the assassination of Ninoy, the story unfolds like ritual catechism. That was what started it all, the rousing of the people from their stupor, the coming of Cory from the shadows, the rise of the Yellow Brigade, the RAM mutiny that triggered things, Cardinal Sin summoning the horde to Edsa, the flight of the Marcoses, the triumph of People Power. Before that, there was nothing. Or next to nothing.
I’ve been saying that all these years but especially so a year and a half ago, during the 40th anniversary of martial law: The Edsa story, as it has been told, as it continues to be told, tells only half the story. The other half, if not more than half, of the story was what happened before. The people who kept the spark of freedom alive, the people who risked life and limb when it wasn’t fashionable or safe to do so, the people who paid the price of raising a fist at martial law, some of whom were tortured beyond imagining and some of whom never lived to see the dawn: Without them, there would not have been people power. Without them, there would not have been Edsa.
The Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board is not just there to distribute the reparations from the Marcos estate reasonably and equitably, a general impression that has succeeded only in reducing the martial law victims to a materialistic and mercenary lot. It is there to bestow recognition and honor to those who, like Nelson Mandela, took the long walk to freedom, far longer than those who preen and strut and parade their Galils and their medals each time Edsa comes around with the air of battle-scarred veterans.
The head of that Board is there to make sure that it is done.
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