Monday, October 6, 2014

Speak memory

In his book “Speak Memory,” novelist Vladimir Nabokov writes: Awakening of consciousness is a series of spaced splashes... until bright blocks of perception are formed affording memory and a slippery hold.  That aptly sums up the 42nd anniversary of martial law imposition where creeping amnesia seems to blot out memory.

“It was one of the best things that happened. Tayo ang nagligtas ng demokrasya,” Imelda Marcos insists. “We saved democracy”.   The Marcoses have always tried to scrub blank a nation’s memory.  Amnesia anchors Marcos Jr’s hints he may run in 2016.

The   reality is something else, University of Wisconsin-Madisons Alfred McCoy told the Conference: Legacies of the Marcos Dictatorship at Ateneo de Manila. Excerpts from his paper “Dark Legacy” include:

The Marcos regime's tally of 3,257 extra-judicial killings   exceeds the 2,115 extra-judicial deaths under General Pinochet in Chile. There were 35,000 tortured and over 70,000 imprisoned. And there were 737 Filipinos desaperecidos or the disappeared between 1975 and 1985. That includes Redemtorist priest Fr. Rudy Romano.

Marcos's regime intimidated by random displays of its torture victimsbecoming thereby a theater state of terror. This had a profound impact upon the Philippine military (think Gen. Jovito Palparan) and its wider society.

From 1972 to 1986, the Philippine military was the fist of Ferdinand Marcos's authoritarian rule. Its elite torture units, notably 5th Constabulary Security Unit and the Metrocom Intelligence and Security Group became his instruments of terror.

They “practiced a distinctive form of theatrical torture”. Call it “social inversion”.  Through psychological manipulation and sexual torture, these young Filipino officers broke their social superiors, priest and professors. “They gained a superman sense that they could remake the social order at will.”

Exhibit one on the impact of torture on the Armed Forces is Philippine Military Academy's Class of 1971. These young lieutenants, Gringo Honasan became “the fist” of Marcos repression.

Whether they became Marcos loyalists or Reform the Armed Forces Movement rebels, officers in these elite anti-subversive units, regularly tortured suspects, were   transformed by the experience. “Then Lieutenant, now General, Panfilo Lacson, for example, joined the MISG right after graduation. He spent the next 15 years in this elite torture unit, rising to deputy command.

“When torture becomes duty and officers spend years in a daily routine of terror, the experience becomes central to their socialization. They infuse an inflated belief in the efficacy of violence and transforms them from servants of the state into its would-be masters.

“At the 5th CSU, Lt. Aguinaldo (PMA '72) worked with his classmate Billy Bibit and Vic Batac ('71), beating victims together and forging bonds that later knitted into the RAM.  At the MISG, Colonel Rolando Abadilla, Robert Ortega and Panfilo Lacson, tortured together for over a decade, forming a tight faction that would rise together within the police after Marcos’ downfall.

After a decade as understudies in Marcos's theater of terror, the RAM colonels emerged on the national stage in the late 1980s emboldened by the sense of mastery to launch six coup attempts. “No other military in the world launched so many coups with so little success.”

Impunity is a little understood process with far-reaching ramifications. The VI International Symposium on Torture at Buenos Aires noted, delegates even in countries where dictatorship has given way to democratic rule, many torturers and other violators of human rights go unpunished. More than any other nation, the Philippines provides an example of extreme impunity.

Different countries have tried different ways coping with the collective burden of a traumatic past. South Africa confronted the past with a non-punitive Truth Commission. South Korea imposed harsh prison terms upon former presidents.  Argentina was forced to form a truth commission that produced the famed report Nunca Mas, or Never Again.  And the Philippines has tried to forget—until President Aquino in 2013 signed the Human Rights Reparation Act. 

Impunity  left what University of the Philippines historian Maris Diokno has called the entrenched legacy of martial lawa lingering collective malaise that, subtlety but directly, shapes and distorts the nation's political process.

Battered by repeated coup attempts, President Corazon Aquino abandoned attempts to prosecute the military. President Fidel Ramos, transformed impunity from a de facto to de jure status. Moreover, his this process by offering members of the Marcos regime both symbol and substance of exoneration. Erap coddled coup plotters.

In September 1992, the US District Court in Honolulu found Marcos guilty of systematic torture and held his estate liable for damages to all 9,541 victims—later awarding nearly $2 Billion in damages, the biggest personal injury verdict in legal history.

“This jarring juxtaposition—between the US granting justice to Filipino victims and their own government's attempt to deny it—indicates that the trauma of Marcos's terror remains deeply imbedded within society's collective memory and institutional fabric.”

Under impunity, culture and politics are recasting the past, turning cronies into statesmen, torturers into legislators, and killers into generals.  Beneath the surface of a restored democracy, the Philippines, through the compromises of impunity, still suffers the legacy of the Marcos era—a collective trauma and an ingrained institutional habit of human rights abuse.

As the Philippines reaches for rapid economic growth, it cannot, McCoy argues to afford to ignore the issue of human rights.   If the Philippines is to recover its full fund of social capital after the trauma of dictatorship, it needs to adopt some means for remembering, recording, and, ultimately, reconciliation.


No nation can develop its full economic potential without a high level of social capital, and social capital cannot, as Robert Putnam teaches us, grow in a society without a sense of justice.  So, speak memory.

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