Suharto and Marcos beyond the grave
They are both dead, but Indonesia’s Suharto and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos continue to inhabit the politics of the countries they once ruled with an iron fist. Moreover, their very memory—their place in history—remains contested ground.
In Indonesia, there have been recent attempts to declare Suharto, who died in 2008, a national hero. In the Philippines, the remains of Marcos, an apparent wax replica of whom had lain for over two decades in a mausoleum in his home province of Ilocos Norte, had just been buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, with the government’s blessing.
In both countries, human rights activists are crying foul. Indonesian critics point out that far from being a hero, Suharto was a tyrant who presided over human rights abuses and corruption. Exactly the same arguments are being raised in the Philippines, where Marcos’ surprise burial has been received with nationwide protests and outrage. But others reject these protests and the overwhelming evidence to support them.
To the beneficiaries of both strongmen, they have always been heroes. Add to them the growing number of people—including many among the young who have no memory of the strongmen—who tout their eras as a “golden age” for their countries.
Many acknowledge the abuses, but quickly point out that they had “good deeds”—Suharto (1967-1998) “modernized” and “brought stability” to Indonesia, and Marcos (1965-1986) built a lot of infrastructure. Others invoke the need to move on for the sake of “national unity.” Imee Marcos, the dictator’s eldest child, has gone as far as to seek “forgiveness” for her father—a first for the unrepentant family. Naturally, many others feel that far from unifying each nation, giving honor to them will just reopen old wounds.
What can we learn from these parallel developments in Indonesia and the Philippines?
First, that history is a fragile thing, and humanity has a poor track record in remembering. The fact that a denial of the Holocaust is even possible means that humanity can never take history for granted: It must constantly be upheld and defended. Filipino novelist F. Sionil Jose laments that Filipinos suffer from “a lack of memory,” but he is actually citing a universal human trait. Indonesian pundit Pangeran Siahaan could be speaking of either country when he says that “our failure to preserve the memory resulted in collective ignorance.”
Second, in both countries, a “national consciousness” continues to be undermined by regional loyalties and factions. Perhaps this is partly a consequence of both countries’ archipelagic geography and fractured, colonial past.
In the Philippines, Northern Luzon—the Ilocos region in particular—continues to be a bastion of the Marcoses. The dictator’s eldest child is the governor of Ilocos Norte, and his widow, at 87, its representative in the House. In Indonesia, Suharto is seen as a son of Central Java, whence came the proposal to make him a national hero. Alas, for many who live in these regions, the rest of their respective country’s experiences are insignificant compared to the benefits they have gained from their native sons.
But neither a strong regional following nor a lack of collective memory can canonize the dead; someone has to perform the act of canonization. In this, we have to implicate the present-day leaders of both countries. In Indonesia, Suharto’s own party has remained sufficiently influential to push for such a canonization. In the Philippines, President Duterte has openly expressed admiration for the dictator and has sided with his son and namesake who narrowly lost the vice presidency in the May elections. Mr. Duterte has also spoken highly of Marcos’ draconian policies.
Lamentably, much of the political class in both countries, despite being intimately aware of the strongmen’s records, have yet to speak forcefully to address the insidious, ominous revision of history. To what ends are they keeping quiet? More deafening than the 21-gun salute in Marcos’ burial is their silence.
Gideon Lasco (www.gideonlasco.com) is a medical doctor and anthropologist.
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