Marcos’s journey from dictator to hero is complete

The reburial of Ferdinand Marcos reveals the strange relationship the Philippines has with its political past, writes Sholto Byrnes

The long campaign to rehabilitate the reputation of the late Ferdinand Marcos has just received a massive fillip. The former president of the Philippines was internationally reviled when he was forced from office in the People’s Power Revolution of 1986. In 2004, the NGO Transparency International declared him the second most corrupt leader of all time, accusing him of having embezzled up to US$10 billion (Dh 3.67bn) from his people.

Five years ago, over 7,000 Filipinos began to receive small payments from a class action brought in Hawaii, where Marcos spent his last years, after the courts found his estate liable for torture, extrajudicial killings and other atrocities. The estimates vary, but the victims of torture after Marcos imposed martial law in 1972 may number up to 35,000, with 120,000 subjected to arbitrary arrest and another 1,000 who just “disappeared”.

But soon, announced the new Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, Marcos will posthumously receive the highest of honours. His embalmed body will be moved from the family fiefdom of Ilocos Norte and buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani – the national Heroes’ Cemetery in the capital, Manila.

This is due to happen next month, thereby allowing one of the most notorious dictators of the late-20th century to continue his transformation from kleptocrat, liar and human rights abuser to strong leader and father of development; a man who, if you believe his daughter Imee, deserves the credit for the fact that “even the movies were better then”.

Marcos’s family may be delighted. But many others are not. “How can we allow a hero’s burial for a man who has plundered our country and was responsible for the death and disappearance of many Filipinos?” said vice-president Leni Robredo (who was elected separately from president Duterte, not, as in the United States, on the same ticket). Marcos’s heirs, she said, “continue to deny that these sins against our people happened. They continue to have no remorse and still prevent the return of the wealth that they stole.”

Technically, it appears that the late president does qualify for the burial. The law establishing the Heroes’ Cemetery declares it should “perpetuate the memory of all the presidents of the Philippines, national heroes and patriots”.

But even some Duterte allies, such as senator Alan Peter Cayetano, have made it clear they disagreed with the decision. “Unless we change the name to Cemetery of Heroes and Dictators,” said senator Cayetano, “then we would not have a problem.”

Nevertheless, there has consistently been plenty of support in the Philippines for a more charitable revision of Marcos’s record. When there was a move to allow him to be buried in the same cemetery in 2011, more than 80 per cent of the country’s House of Representatives signed a resolution praising the “invaluable service” he gave “as soldier, writer, statesman, president and commander-in-chief”.

Opinion polls at the time were in favour. Indeed, it did not take that long for popular sentiment to take a laudatory view of the former president. In a 2005 survey, Marcos was rated higher than any of his successors.

This take on Marcos, however, is also consistent with the lack of blame that appears to attach to his family. Ferdinand Marcos Jr, or “Bongbong”, was a senator and recently only narrowly lost the vice presidency to Ms Robredo. His sister Imee is governor of Ilocos Norte, and a former member of Congress for a seat now held by their mother Imelda.

There may be all sorts of reasons why Marcos’s misdeeds are being overlooked. Mr Duterte is close to the family, and his father served as cabinet secretary under the late president.

Many commentators from the region have remarked on the tendency of South East Asians to “forget” parts of their histories they would rather not dwell on, from the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia to the massacres of alleged communists in Indonesia; and to remember their strongmen leaders, chiefly Marcos and Indonesia’s president Suharto (who made the number one slot on the most corrupt leaders’ list), for the undoubted advances in infrastructure, education, health care and poverty reduction that took place during their time.

What is clear, however, is that there is a chasm between the court of liberal international opinion, which never hesitates to judge these leaders in the harshest terms, and the substantial bodies of local people who take a kinder – in some cases, a far kinder – view. Condemnation, both of the individuals and their supporters, comes too easily. Understanding is far harder, but it is necessary.

Given the failure of the vast majority of western opinion-formers to grasp the genuine popularity and democratic mandate of firm leaders such as Russia’s Mr Putin and Turkey’s Mr Erdogan, I fear we have a long way to go. But if they wish to see the past and present as millions of Russians, Turks, Filipinos, Indonesians and many others do, they must make the attempt. Foreigners in faraway continents bewildered by the honour bestowed on Marcos need to wake up. The age of imposing outside narratives is over.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National