One Man’s Dictator is Another Man’s Hero

Today’s controversy revolves around the question of whether or not the former President of the Republic of the Philippines, Ferdinand Marcos, should be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery). Does it matter where the former president should be interred? Yes, it matters. It matters to those who opposed his martial rule over the Philippines, and it matters to those who supported his presidency. The Libingan is viewed as a place of honor. Is Marcos entitled to a hero’s burial?

Before you get to the point where you have to answer that question, however, it pays to look back on how the country got to this point. 

It all began in 1965 when Marcos was elected the tenth president of the Republic. In 1972, he declared martial law and began his one-man rule over the country. He replaced or displaced oligarchs, long the mainstay of the country’s political and the economic life, with his cronies. He arrested, killed and “disappeared” those that questioned, threatened or opposed his rule. Near the end of his rule, the economy was in tatters with the country asking its creditors for a moratorium on its debt payments. Then that singular event happened: Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., one of Marcos’ staunchest adversaries, came home to the Philippines, walked down to the tarmac of the airport that would later bear his name, and was shot dead by members of the security detail tasked with securing his person. The date, August 21, 1983. Thereafter, the people began to openly break away from the Marcos regime so much so that the strongman had to prove he was still in control of the country and called for a “snap” election: him versus anyone the opposition would like to throw at him. On 7 February 1986, Marcos ran against Ninoy’s widow, Corazon “Cory” Aquino, and lost. The Marcoses tried to make it appear that he won and held on to power for a few more days but by then he was so weak that two of his trusted allies, Police Chief, and later, President Fidel Ramos, and then Defense Secretary, later, Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, broke away and tried to conduct a coup. When they were discovered, they holed up in their camps along Epifanio Delos Santos Avenue (EDSA) and the Archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Sin, called on the people to surround and protect them and their men. The people came out in droves, stopped armored personnel carriers with their hands, showered soldiers with flowers and prayers, and won the day. The Marcoses and some of their cronies fled the country and the reigns of power handed to Cory. The triumph of the EDSA Revolution!

It’s a great story but it is not the whole story. Even as people celebrated the defeat of the Marcoses, one has to realize that in all his years in power, many have benefited, some illegally but, certainly, some rightfully, from Marcos’ reign. We cannot discount the fact that he was able to help others while others suffered under his dictatorial rule. They were able to give land and money for medicines and other needs, and enacted laws still in use today. To those they were able to help in one form or another, I am sure that they will have a more forgiving image of the late dictator. To them, he would be a hero.

It does not end there. If the last vice presidential elections showed us anything, then it is that a lot of people still root for the Marcoses regardless of how the rest of the country feels about them. It is for that very reason, I think, that there is still this question now before us. 

Had all these Marcos supporters disappeared in a blink of an eye after the EDSA Revolution, then I think there would have been no question as to what should be done about the body of Marcos now. But, no, a crony was given a passport to return to the country. His widow and children have returned, ran for public office, won, and are again very much entrenched in their bailiwicks, and the Government has mixed results in its efforts to prosecute the Marcoses and regain their ill-gotten wealth. All that has allowed them to come and stay as if nothing happened before. Again, you have to realize that not everyone was pro-Cory after the revolution. Political butterflies hop to whatever flower is sweetest at the moment and move on when it loses its sweetness. It remains true even today.

The Libingan is intended for Filipinos who have served their country as part of its military services. That means that anyone from the Commander-in-Chief, the presidents, Secretaries of the Department of National Defense, Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces and down the chain of command to the soldiers for as long as they were not dishonorably discharged from service or convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude can be buried at the Libingan. This now also includes statesmen who have served with distinction. National Arists and Scientists were also added to the list. 

The argument goes that since Marcos was a soldier and a president, facts that no one can deny, Marcos is therefore entitled to be buried in the Libingan. Could it be that simple? I wish. The list of people entitled to be buried there is qualified. They should not have been dishonorably discharged or convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude. Admittedly, Marcos, again, was neither dishonorably discharged nor convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude. So, it’s a go then? Not yet. The counter-argument goes that this cemetery is not just a cemetery. It is the cemetery for heroes. Marcos, they say, is no hero.

The problem with Marcos is that while he was in fact a president and a soldier, he was also a dictator. As former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay noted, the Philippine legislature had enacted a law that recognizes the rights of the victims of the Marcoses. Moreover, foreign courts have concluded that much of the wealth of the Marcoses were ill-gotten and should be given to their victims. Even the Philippine Supreme Court has said as much. The issue at hand, therefore, is whether or not it matters what kind of soldier or president Marcos was. Will that disqualify him from burial at the Libingan? If a soldier who has been dishonorably discharged or convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude can be disqualified from burial at the Libingan, then would such findings against Marcos be the equivalent of being dishonorably discharged from the presidency? One must note that he never did finish his presidency. Not in the way he would have liked, I’m sure. Does that matter? Does it matter that the reason why he didn’t finish it was that he was ousted from it?

If that is not enough, then one should also note that the Philippines has marked certain events in its calendar: August 21, the anniversary of the death of Ninoy; and February 25, the victory of the EDSA Revolution. Would those have to be revised as well?

The current president wants to bury Marcos at the Libingan. The followers of Marcos too. For them, his burial would bring an end to a sad chapter in Philippine history and allow its people to move on. On the other hand, the people opposed to it — especially the victims of the regime and their families — say that the Philippines has, in fact, moved on. It is the Marcos followers who have not. The burial, however, of one so hated by some in a place reserved for men of valor and those worthy of emulation would be a slap on the face of the countless victims of the old regime. It will, in fact, open old wounds and awaken old hatreds. Better for him to be interred in the land where he is still highly regarded: in the north where he was born, and, if things said are to be believed, also where he wished to be laid to rest.

The question has been raised before the Supreme Court, which is composed mostly of justices appointed by the Arroyo administration that is seen to be supportive of the current administration. That does not necessarily mean that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the burial but it does show that it is a slippery road ahead for those who oppose said burial. Beyond the emotions behind the parties’ motivations, it would be interesting to hear the legal arguments for and against the burial.

Personally, I think this situation is one of those “just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should” situations. Can they bury Marcos in the Libingan? Yes, they can. Should they? Ah, that, for me, would be a no. As Ex-SolGen Hilbay noted, Filipinos live by symbols and the burial of Marcos in such hallowed ground wouldn’t go unnoticed. We would truly be a miserable lot if we allow the body of a man whose presidency has meant nothing more than pain and suffering to many Filipinos be buried in the Libingan. Yes, we have allowed his family and cronies back. Yes, we’ve allowed them to reintegrate into our society but it does not mean, and it shouldn’t mean, that they are free to do anything they want. No, you can’t bury him in the Libingan. That would be too much already…

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