Martial law archives could be in jeopardy

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Monuments were toppled, statues dismantled. Recent world history has documented popular action in countries where popular power has brought down rampant, oppressive and corrupt regimes. In the United States, physical memories of the hateful years of black slavery are being eliminated.

But international attention turned to the Philippines this week as Ferdinand Marcos Jr prepares to become the country’s next president. Will there be a restoration instead of erasing memories of tyranny? Will historical documents be destroyed when the son of a deposed dictator takes power? Are victims’ memories forcibly erased?

The Memorial Commission for Victims of Human Rights Abuses was established by law in 2013 to protect the written personal accounts of more than 11,000 victims of atrocities committed under the Marcos dictatorship. The accounts were submitted to and reviewed by a Human Rights Violations Claims Board, which awarded each claimant credit and financial compensation commensurate with atrocities committed by state security forces.

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

Fearing that the properly classified and archived written reports could be confiscated and destroyed under the new exemption, the commission has worked with certain universities whose students are helping to digitize the case files to provide better protection and broader access for researchers guarantee.

“(The students) were appalled. There was a sense of anger,” noted Commission Executive Director Carmelo Victor Crisanto. They were horrified, he said, to find that many of the victims were the same age as himself.

But he has a more telling observation about the fear the Duterte regime’s relentless and ruthless red-tagging inflicted on families: Some parents, Crisanto lamented, did not want their children to participate in the project for fear they might be red-tagged will.

There is one more reason for concern. In addition to the archived case files, the commission is charged with overseeing the construction of a memorial museum whose exhibits aim to educate Filipinos about the facts and effects of martial law. The museum building was due to be constructed this year on the site of the University of the Philippines’ Diliman campus. But now there are doubts as to whether it will continue.

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

A review of the museum project revealed that the construction company contracted to construct the building had resigned and returned the deposit paid.

Also last week, the New York Times reported a similar problem at 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. His job, the report said, is to ensure that people remember the “sacrifices that many Filipinos made for democracy during the years of dictatorship.”

The center has two commemorative components.

One is a museum and library offering various materials related to the martial law dictatorship. A popular feature is a replica prison cell, depicting the experiences of thousands of political prisoners who were imprisoned (and tortured) across the country during this time. The Bantayog Library offers a wide range of reading materials – books, newspapers, magazines, periodicals, pamphlets documenting the time, including some publications that have become rare.

There is also a black granite memorial wall at Bantayog ng mga Bayani on which the names of more than 300 heroes and martyrs (so far) are engraved in gold letters. The wall stands on the site of the center where rites and various activities are held. Each year a number of nominees who fought against the Marcos dictatorship are examined for inclusion in the growing list of names on the wall.

Well before the May 9 election campaign, Bantayog CEO May Rodriguez initiated efforts to digitize the museum’s documents while taking precautions to ensure the safekeeping of the original materials. Student volunteers have signed up to help with the project for free as the center is running out of funds – mainly from donors.

Rodriguez told the NYT that the Bantayog administration is concerned not only with protecting the museum’s memorabilia, but also with the likely prospect that the entire Bantayog project could be shut down or demolished. This could happen should Marcos Jr.’s government decide to reclaim the state-owned land on which the Bantayog Center stands.

However, Rodriguez maintained a positive outlook, telling the NYT that administrators plan to make the museum more interactive if enough financial support arrives. This would be done with video clips to allow visitors to “deconstruct half-truths” online. “As they enter the museum, I want them to understand that the last two or three years – maybe even longer – have been a battle between truth and lies,” she said.

On May 21, relatives of the heroes and martyrs whose names are inscribed on the memorial wall gathered at the Bantayog compound and read a statement. It said in part:

“Mabigat the aming damdamin, hindi lamang à mga implikasyon halalan alaala of aming kaanak kundi à hinaharap ating bayan.

“Paanong sasang-ayon sa panawagan ng pagkakaisa kung ito ay nagtatakip sa mga krimen and pandarambong, and tumatakas sa katarungan? Do you want to do something good?

“Mga tanong itong aming taglay, attataglayin habang binubungkal 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, and kung gayon is patuloy na igiit the Matwid, the Katarungan, the Katotohanan. Gunitain natin sila, huwag nang magdalamhati, nararapat magtagumpay.”

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Published in Philippine Star
June 11, 2022

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