Martial law archives may be in danger

Monuments have been toppled, statues dismantled. Recent world history has chronicIed popular actions in countries where people power has overturned overstaying, repressive and corrupt regimes. In the United States, physical reminders are being eliminated of the hateful years of Black slavery.

But this week, international attention has turned to the Philippines as Ferdinand Marcos Jr. prepares to become the country’s next president. Instead of stamping out reminders of tyranny, will there be a restoration? With an ousted dictator’s son taking power, will historical documents be destroyed? Will the memories of victims be forcibly erased?

The Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission was created by law in 2013 to safeguard the written personal accounts of more than 11,000 victims of atrocities committed under the Marcos dictatorship. The accounts had been submitted to, and vetted by, a Human Rights Violations Claims Board that awarded recognition to each applicant and given financial compensation corresponding to the atrocities inflicted by state security forces.

Last week, the British international daily Guardian reported on the little-known commission’s efforts to protect its holdings.

Fearing that the written accounts, properly classified and archived, may be seized and destroyed by the new dispensation, the Commission has been collaborating with certain universities, whose students are helping to digitize the case files for better protection and wider accessibility to researchers.

“(The students) were aghast. There was a sense of anger,” the Commission executive director Carmelo Victor Crisanto observed. They were horrified, he said, to find out that many of the victims were of the same age as them.

But he has a more telling observation about the state of fear that the relentless and reckless red-tagging by the Duterte regime has inflicted on families: Some parents, Crisanto lamented, didn’t want their children to take part in the project, fearing they could be red-tagged.

There’s another cause for concern. Besides the archived case files, the Commission is mandated to oversee the construction of a memorial museum where the exhibits aim to educate the Filipinos on the facts and effects of martial law. The museum building was set to be built this year on the grounds of the University of the Philippines Diliman campus. But now doubts are being raised if it will go ahead.

“If I show [the construction plan] to president BBM, will he stop me or allow me? By law this is my mandate, but it showcases the atrocities of [Marcos Jr’s] dad,” the Guardian quoted Crisanto as telling them in an interview.

A check made on the museum project yielded the information that the construction firm hired to build the edifice had withdrawn, returning the advance payment it had been given.

Also last week, The New York Times reported about a similar problem confronting the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Memorial Center in Quezon City, built in 2007 by a foundation led by the late former Senate president Jovito Salonga. Its mission, the report noted, was to make sure people did not forget the “sacrifices made for democracy” by many Filipinos during the years of dictatorial rule.

The center has two memorial components.

One is a museum and library offering various materials pertaining to the martial law dictatorship. One popular feature is the reproduction of a prison cell representing the experience of thousands of political detainees locked up (and tortured) during that time all over the country. The Bantayog library offers a wide range of reading materials – books, newspapers, magazines, journals, pamphlets, that document the period, including some publications that have become rare.

There is also in Bantayog ng mga Bayani a black granite Wall of Remembrance on which the names of more than 300 heroes and martyrs (thus far) are now engraved in golden letters. The Wall stands on the center’s grounds where rites and various activities are held. Every year a batch of nominees, who had fought the Marcos dictatorship, is vetted for inclusion in the expanding row of names on the Wall.

Well ahead of the May 9 elections campaign, Bantayog executive director May Rodriguez already initiated the effort to digitize the museum’s documents, while making arrangements to ensure the safe-keeping of the original materials. Volunteer students have come forward to help in the project for free, since the Center is running short of funds – mainly coming from donors.

Rodriguez told the NYT that the Bantayog administration isn’t only concerned with safeguarding the museum’s memorabilia, but with the probable prospect that the entire Bantayog project could be shut down or demolished. That could be done should the Marcos Jr. administration opt to take back the government-owned land on which the Bantayog Center stands.

But retaining a positive outlook, Rodriguez told the NYT that if enough financial support would come in, the administrators plan to make the museum more interactive. This would be done with video clips so visitors can “deconstruct the half truths” online. “When they come into the museum, I want them to understand that the last two or three years – maybe even longer – has been a battle for truth against lies,” she said.

On May 21, relatives of the heroes and martyrs whose names are enshrined on the Wall of Remembrance gathered at the Bantayog grounds and read a declaration. It said in part:

“Mabigat ang aming damdamin, hindi lamang sa mga implikasyon ng halalan sa alaala ng aming kaanak kundi sa hinaharap ng ating bayan.

“Paanong sasang-ayon sa panawagan ng pagkakaisa kung ito ay nagtatakip sa mga krimen at pandarambong, at tumatakas sa katarungan? Paanong makikipagkaisa sa isang nakaraang tigmak ng dugo?

“Mga tanong itong aming taglay, at tataglayin habang binubungkal ang kahulugan ng mga nagaganap sa bayan, ang bayang sukdulang minahal ng aming mga kaanak na nakipaglaban sa diktadura.

“Huwag nating isuko, huwag nating ipanakaw, ang kanilang alaala. Gunitain natin sila, at kung gayon ay patuloy na igiit ang matwid, ang katarungan, ang katotohanan. Gunitain natin sila, huwag nang magdalamhati, nararapat magtagumpay.”

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Published in Philippine Star
June 11, 2022

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