When Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jnr. met US President Joe Biden in New York last week, there was an uneasy sense of deja vu for some older Filipinos.
But it was not so much that the visit came 40 years after Marcos’ father and namesake was received in Washington by President Ronald Reagan.
It is that it also arrived 50 years -almost on the same day- after Marcos Snr. placed his country under martial law, beginning a notorious 14-year period in which thousands of people were killed, tortured and imprisoned.
As Marcos Jr. went on a six-day charm offensive, attending the United Nations General Assembly and meeting with the world Bank Y business groupsBack in the Southeast Asian island nation, thousands of people gathered to remember the victims who had suffered under their father’s watch. They held exhibitions, documentary screenings, and seminars to tell the stories of abuse that took place after martial law was imposed on September 21, 1972, and were announced to the public two days later.
Their main hope was to make sure those atrocities are never forgotten or repeated, but many of them fear that Marcos Jr.’s rise to the world stage is just one more step in the rehabilitation of the family name, and that not only the crimes are of his dictator father being swept under the rug, but that the most recent abuses are also being ignored.
Loretta Ann Rosales, history teacher and human rights activist, recalls being tortured by police and military during the period of martial law.
She was arrested twice in the 1970s for participating in street protests after some of her students reported to the authorities that she had criticized the Marcos Snr regime.
Her captors poured wax from burning candles onto her arms, partially suffocated her with a belt, and subjected her to simulated drowning for hours on end.
In his worst experience, his torturers attached wires to his arms and feet and applied electric shocks that caused his body to convulse.
Now 83, she considers herself lucky to have survived and has dedicated her life to human rights activism and making sure such atrocities never happen again.
The Philippines has officially acknowledged that 11,103 people were tortured and abused during the period of martial law. There were also 2,326 murders and disappearances between 1972 and 1986, before Marcos Sr. was overthrown in a popular uprising. They are commemorated by government funded Memorial Commission of the Victims of Human Rights Violations.
But the real number of victims could be much higher. According to International Amnestyat least 50,000 people were arrested and detained under martial law between 1972 and 1975 alone, including church workers, human rights activists, public defenders, union leaders and journalists.
What Rosales and other survivors fear is that the lessons of that time are in danger of being forgotten.
Marcos Jr., who was democratically elected in May with a large majority, defended his father and refused to apologize for his actions. He has said that it is wrong to call his father a dictator and, during his campaign for the presidency, he praised Marcos Snr. as a “political genius”.
“The fight for human rights in the Philippines began 50 years ago and continues today,” Rosales said.
“What we are fighting against is historical distortion, so as not to be silenced, so as not to be forgotten,” he added.
Survivors fear that not only the past will be distorted, but also the present.
Marcos Jr.’s predecessor as president, Rodrigo Duterte, has been widely criticized by human rights groups for his war on drugs, in which Philippine police have allegedly carried out 6,235 extrajudicial executions since 2016, according to a report. government report
Duterte removed the Philippines from the International Criminal Court in 2018, weeks after his prosecutor said he planned to investigate drug war killings. Marcos Jr. – whose vice president is Duterte’s daughter Sara – has refused to rejoin the court.
Meanwhile, rights groups say independent activists and journalists continue to be the targets of violence and threats in the country.
from Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia Phil Robertson warned the United Nations General Assembly not to believe the “misleading image of human rights in the Philippines” Marcos Jnr. had raised since he won the presidential election.
“UN members should resist swallowing sugar-coated human rights banalities,” Robertson said.
“The human rights situation in the Philippines continues to be bad, and so far Marcos has shown no inclination to change it in any substantial way,” he said.
When Marcos Sr. visited Reagan in 1982, there were protests over his human rights record, but they fell on deaf ears. It was the height of the Cold War and at the time Washington saw the Philippines, home to US military bases, as a key ally in Asia.
Forty years later, when Marcos Jnr. arrived last week to attend the United Nations General Assembly, there were protests again, with activists chanting “Marcos, never again” in front of the New York Stock Exchange and the UN headquarters in New York.
Relations between the United States and the Philippines remain strong. And with China challenging US military dominance in Asia, the importance of that relationship has taken on renewed significance in recent years.
The reading of the White House meeting spoke of Biden reaffirming the “iron” commitment of the United States to the defense of the Philippines and of Biden and Marcos Jr. discussing the South China Sea, where Beijing is accused of invading the territory of the Philippines. and the maritime territory of other Southeast Asian nations.
Given the strategic importance of the relationship, activists have little hope that the US will put pressure on Manila to denounce the violence and economic looting that occurred during the Marcos Snr administration.
They point out that he went to Hawaii where Marcos Snr. and the family fled after being deposed in the People Power revolution (after Marcos Snr.’s death in 1989, other family members were allowed to return to the Philippines).
In their September 22 meeting, Biden referred to Marcos Jr.’s landslide election victory as “a great victory” and spoke of the “critical importance” of the US-Philippine alliance.
A readout of the White House meeting also said the pair had discussed “the importance of respect for human rights,” but Rosales was not impressed.
“(Marcos) never mentioned martial law and the atrocities of the military against the people… much less the murders of innocent people suspected of selling drugs. Those are the concrete realities on the ground,” Rosales said.
What Rosales and others would like to see is an acknowledgment of Marcos Jnr. of the mistakes that occurred under his father’s watch, and the certainty that it will not happen again.