Tuesday, October 23, 2018
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Sisyphus’ Lament

To old Filipinos who knew martial law and dictatorship

SINGAPORE—The title is both homage and parody of “To young Filipinos who never knew martial law and dictatorship” (Inquirer.net, 9/12/12), Boying Pimentel’s popular response to recent historical revisionism. The persistence of revisionism hints that our People Power narrative must evolve to resonate with a new generation of voters. In particular, these narratives must avoid alienating younger Filipinos not yet born during the 1986 Edsa Revolution. They must avoid being trapped in #NeverAgain, in a negative that fails to present a vision to aspire to.

Pimentel would approve of recent University of the Philippines law graduate Jego Ragragio’s viral rebuttal (“Disingenuous,” ThePOC.net, 10/16/15) to an Ateneo professor who posited that criticism of vice presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. are ad hominem attacks on his last name. Far more frenetic debates are running in less visible channels.


An idealistic Ateneo student proclaimed on Facebook that she lost respect for her own sister, who posited that the Marcos dictatorship brought much-needed order despite the human rights abuses. In a UP Facebook thread, an older lady lectured that martial law was different in Ilocos, and law students should not believe what they had not personally experienced—including daughters of torture victims.

Our society’s increasing openness to revisionism warns that it is time to move from merely correcting facts to more critically reflecting on their meaning today.


For example, People Power should not become a generational divide. A Wall Street Journal feature on Bongbong’s candidacy sensed this and described: “[T]he Marcos clan is also widely reviled, especially among the generation that toppled the elder Marcos.” When a grandson of President Ferdinand Marcos graduated from UP Law in 2013, a UP Facebook thread degenerated into students in their 20s politely asking alumni in their 50s not to ask their classmate to denounce his own family.

Older Ateneo alumni criticized students for not knowing history when they took selfies with Imelda Marcos at a scholarship fund event. Students were frustrated at being told to “never forget” events that happened before they were born, faulted for not having raw emotional connections to these; and possibly alienated, as a result. Turning Edsa into a generational issue is pointless because 47 percent of voters were below 35 in the 2010 elections, or at most 10 years old in 1986.

“Never Again” is merely rejection. It is incomplete because it builds nothing and leaves revisionism and disenchantment to fill the void. Many frustrated voters, for example, do not disbelieve the thousands of deaths during martial law, yet entertain vague ideas of imposing a discipline associated with martial law. This is hardly unique. In last year’s presidential elections, Indonesia almost voted in the macho and “tegas” Gen. Prabowo Subianto, a former son-in-law of Suharto, who ruled for 31 years.

We unconsciously shroud the Edsa Revolution in myth. We risk overly romanticizing its events and demonizing less enthusiastic views as heretic. Unrealistic expectations fuel cynicism. For example, the term “necropolitics” was coined to criticize that Corazon Aquino and Sen. Benigno Aquino III would never have become presidents but for a famous relative’s death. Finally, myth is simply not credible to a critical YouTube generation who value authenticity and readily accept flawed heroes.

It is certainly too lavish to claim that regaining democracy has solved all our problems. “The patriarch is dead but members of his family are back in power. No one has been jailed for crimes committed in the name of martial law. The bulk of the money stolen from the Filipino people has not been recovered. This is not just a question of failed memory; this is the result of a flawed social system that remains vulnerable to the temptations of authoritarianism.” This was written not by a naive student but by Prof. Randy David.

“Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, still be considered for a national burial. Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics.” This was written not by a disenchanted Filipino but by Lee Kuan Yew.

Ultimately, we must more powerfully articulate how Edsa defines us, beyond honoring the long list of martyrs. I appreciate Pimentel’s biography of Edgar Jopson, “U.G.: An Underground Tale” (reissued last year by Anvil, with all royalties going to the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation for martial law victims) because it vividly portrays someone I relate to. It captures why a stereotypical Atenean transformed into a moderate activist and national student leader, and then into a head of the communist party.


Pimentel’s book pushed me to ask what conviction I might muster in a society descending into martial law. When the Ateneo Management Engineering alumni association belatedly recognized Edjop as an outstanding alumnus last year, it was important for me to hear his widow reread his The Outstanding Young Men acceptance speech from 1970, which captured Edjop’s values as a fresh graduate, and then read out the name of each Atenean killed during the dictatorship.

History must remain alive in the present, grounding our national identity and guiding us in keeping faith with our most enduring national values. The movie “Heneral Luna” hints that today’s critical voters must ask what our heroes died for, beyond how they died. Whatever we answer, it will be the surest response to historical revisionism.

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React: oscarfranklin.tan@yahoo.com.ph, Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan.

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