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Imelda Marcos and the seduction of time

Fatima Measham |  28 August 2014

Imelda Marcos illustration

The persistent pattern of enforced disappearances around the world provides a critical backdrop for historical revisionism in the Philippines. Nearly 30 years after Ferdinand Marcos and his family fled the country – the climax to the first modern 'People Power' revolution – the consensus on the dictatorship seems to have become diluted.

Making people 'disappear' is both an exercise of power and the entrenchment of it. It is a practice associated with regimes in the 20th century, such as those in Argentina, Chile and El Salvador. Dissidents and political rivals were abducted or arrested, never to be seen again. The object is to cultivate fear and insecurity. These were features of martial law under Marcos.

Many Filipinos who had been part of the resistance are still alive. Some of them are survivors of torture or relatives of the 'disappeared'. According to human rights group Karapatan, the bodies of 759 who were 'disappeared' have never been found – a portion of over 3000 extrajudicial killings.

Yet as the world marks the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance on August 30, post-1986 generations find it hard to grasp what it meant to express dissent or join opposition groups when Marcos was president. Some now assert that, compared to the current standard of governance and politics, life must have been better under Marcos.

Such perceptions are validated when trusted institutions invite Imelda Marcos as guest of honour. She appeared in July at a dinner hosted by the Ateneo de Manila University scholarship foundation, ostensibly due to the fact that the foundation began with proceeds from a Van Cliburn concert that she had organised in 1974. Students posted jocular 'selfies' with her on Instagram.  

The optics caused considerable pain and outrage. There are staff members at the Jesuit university and its institutes who went 'underground' during the dictatorship. One of its former students, Edgar Jopson, was summarily killed along with many activists. Benigno 'Ninoy' Aquino Jr, the opposition senator who was assassinated at the airport on his return from exile, was also an alumnus. After the dinner, a faculty member posted a Facebook update – widely shared – in which he points out the incongruity of teaching Catholic social values while giving Imelda Marcos a place at the table.

It is an episode that demonstrates the tension between living memory and the apparent distance of history. The university president was compelled to offer a public apology, though the scholarship foundation itself operates autonomously. His statement reads in part: 'Please know that in the education of our youth, the Ateneo de Manila will never forget the martial law years of oppression and injustice presided over by Mr Ferdinand Marcos. We would not be catching up on nation building as we are today, had it not been for all that was destroyed during that terrible time.' A little more than a month later, the Ateneo School of Government was renamed in honour of Ninoy and Cory Aquino.

In brief, there is no such thing as moving on. History is something that we live with. In truth, it is usually those with the least means or culpability who have to live with it.

Last year, the government response to typhoon Haiyan was hampered by the dynamics between a president who happens to be an Aquino and a mayor who happens to be a relative of Imelda Marcos. The sensitivities around who was in charge in the aftermath were grotesque against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis.

In other words, the shadow of dictatorship looms far longer than is ever acknowledged. In Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, a four-hour Philippine film often described by critics as having shades of Dostoevsky, the central character Fabian pontificates frequently on matters philoso-political. At one point he asserts to a group of friends that the mistake that Ferdinand Marcos had made was to democratise corruption.

It is an acerbic observation that calls to mind the current scandal over the Priority Development Assistance Fund, in which certain members of Congress have allegedly participated in a scam to divert pork barrel funds into their own pockets, away from projects to improve local services and infrastructure. This is only one of the ways in which traces of the Marcos regime are manifest in the current political landscape.

While the English translation for the title of the aforementioned film is 'Norte: The End of History', the Filipino word 'hangganan' can also mean 'limit' – the limits of history. These limits are defined by collective memories, the contours shifting according to the intensity in which Filipinos remember life under dictatorship.

Such memories are supposed to strengthen efforts to transcend the past, and indeed there have been touchstones such as the passing of freedom of information (FOI) legislation this year. But as the brutality of the Marcos regime fades with time, so much so that its chilling effects are now misremembered as peace and order, the work of nation-building remains as daunting as it was in the days after the Marcoses fled.

Fatima Measham

Fatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. She tweets as @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.

Image via shutterstock.



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Submitted comments

Thank you for writing about the Marcos dictatorship and the dark years of Martial Law. We must keep reminding our people because people easily forget, perhaps as easy as they forgive. Yet, the same practice of brutality and impunity continues on today under President BS Aquino III. Another dictatorship looms in the horizon.

Berlin Guerrero 29 August 2014

While Imelda Marcos was certainly a beneficiary of the Marcos regime, it is not so evident how much she was responsible for any of the crimes it committed. 'Living with history' can be avoided with 'mind games'. Christianity, as portrayed in Acts, began with a group of volunteers exercising Love towards all, especially those in need. When it acquired political power in the Roman Empire, it began burning the writings of any dissenters. Later it moved to burning (alive) the dissenters themselves. With the Crusades, it moved to slaughter men, women and children who were seen as dissenter. We gloss over these facts by pushing thoughts of them away and finding feeble excuses for them. The same, in time, will no doubt happen with the child abuse problems.

Robert Liddy 29 August 2014

In my Ateneo de Manila days, the campus was a hot bed of anti Marcos insurgence. I sat beside Cory Aquino in the EAPI affiliate institute[the rector was the present Jesuit Superior General Fr Adolfo Nicolás Pachón I recall the story that during St jp2 Manila Visit, Madam 'butterfly' Marcos escorted him everywhere, to nervously keep track of his comments. A legendary photo did the rounds of Manila, of Imelda addressing millions at microphone,while Pope sat directly behind her, with his finger planted ftrmly on his nostril !!!!!!

Father John George 29 August 2014

One of the best I've come across on the flaws inherent in memory.

mary long 29 August 2014

Mr Liddy forget canonisation of Imelda Marcos at present.. Imelda still has 10 pending criminal cases remaining before the Sandiganbayan Courts,despite 1991 presidential pardon by Cory Aquino. And there is the little matter of US$350-million allegedly held by the Marcos family in Swiss banks, in aftermath of the conjugal dictatorship..

Father John George 29 August 2014

A very insightful account of how the ugly face of a brutal dictatorship is blurred in the collective memory of a people with the passage of time. That should not happen. It is tragic that it should happen in the Phillipines after what the people there had gone through under the Marcos dictatorship.My awareness is in part from the book Waltzing with the Dictator. I can relate to what Fatima is saying because we in Fiji have gone through a not dissimilar experience since our first military coup of 1987. Today many praise the military as if it is the saviour of the country conveniently forgetting that the military has once again grabbed power for its own advancement.

rajend naidu 30 August 2014

Why have none of the alleged human rights abuse, corruption and other evil works of Marcos been proven in courts especially in the supreme court and in the court in New York in 1990 trial? Why were the crimes of Cory Aquino administration such as the massacre of farmers in Hacienda Luisita and in Mendiola and also the releasing of communist prisoners during her rule never been an issue? Why is the sin of the present administration being blamed to Marcos who is dead for almost 30 years? This makes me conclude that this report is nothing but one-sided in favour of the true evil in the history of the Philippines.

Jake 30 August 2014

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