Speak, Memory

“Awakening of consciousness is a series of spaced splashes … until bright blocks of perception are formed … affording memory a slippery hold,” novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote in his book “Speak, Memory.”

That aptly sums up the 42nd anniversary of the imposition of martial law (Sunday). Creeping amnesia is blotting out memory.

Ferdinand Marcos’ heirs try to scrub blank a nation’s memory. “One of the best things that happened.” “Tayo ang nagligtas ng demokrasya,” insists Imelda Marcos, now 85. “We saved democracy.” Amnesia anchors Bongbong Marcos’ hinted run for the presidency in 2016.

The Marcos regime’s 3,257 extrajudicial killings exceed the 2,115 extrajudicial deaths under Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Alfred McCoy told a conference on the legacies of the Marcos dictatorship at Ateneo de Manila University.

Here, 35,000 were tortured and over 70,000 imprisoned, McCoy adds in his paper Dark Legacy. Add 737 Filipino desaparecidos, or the disappeared, including Cebu Redemptorist priest Rudy Romano.

The Marcos regime intimidated by random displays of torture victims—becoming a theater state of terror. This had “a profound impact” upon the military (think Jovito Palparan) and society.

The military was the fist of authoritarian rule. The 5th Constabulary Security Unit and Metrocom Intelligence and Security Group developed “a distinctive theatrical torture.”

Call it “social inversion,” McCoy suggests. Through psychological manipulation and sexual torture, young officers broke their social superiors, priests and professors. “They gained a sense that they’d remake the social order at will.”

Exhibit A is the Philippine Military Academy’s Class of 1971, including Lt. Panfilo Lacson, in elite antisubversive units. “Torture became duty, and officers spent years in a daily routine of terror. The experience became central to their socialization” and produced “an inflated belief in the efficacy of violence.” They morphed “from servants of the state into would-be masters.”

At the 5th CSU, one Lieutenant Aguinaldo (PMA ’72) worked with classmates Billy Bibit and Vic Batac (’71), beating victims together and forging bonds that later knitted into the Reform the Armed Forces Movement. At the MISG, it’s said, Colonel Abadilla, Robert Ortega and Lacson tortured together for over a decade, forming a tight faction that’d rise together within the police after Marcos’ downfall.

RAM colonels drilled in inflicting pain emerged in the late 1980s. Egged on by cashiered Juan Ponce Enrile, they launched six coup attempts. “No other military in the world launched so many coups with so little success.” They got away scot-free.

Freed from judicial review, the torturers of the Marcos era have continued to rise within the police and intelligence bureaucracies, allowing the pervasive brutality of martial law to persist.

Impunity is a little-understood process with far-reaching ramifications, the VI International Symposium on Torture at Buenos Aires noted. To cope with a traumatic past, South Africa created a nonpunitive Truth Commission. South Korea imposed harsh prison terms on former presidents. Argentina was forced to form a truth commission that produced the famed report Nunca Mas (Never Again).

Battered by coup attempts on her administration, President Corazon Aquino abandoned attempts to prosecute the military. President Fidel Ramos, “transformed impunity from a de facto to a de jure status.” In boozy till-dawn sessions, Joseph Estrada let the rot continue.

Impunity left what UP historian Maris Diokno called “an entrenched legacy—a lingering collective malaise that, subtly but directly, shapes and distorts the nation’s political process.”

In September 1992, the US District Court in Honolulu ruled Ferdinand Marcos guilty of systematic torture. It held his estate liable for damages to all 9,541 victims and awarded nearly $2 billion in damages. It’s the biggest personal injury verdict in legal history. And in 2013, President Benigno Aquino III signed the Human Rights Reparation Act.

The trauma of Marcos’ terror remains deeply imbedded within society’s collective memory and institutional fabric. “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory,” historian Milan Hubl cautions.

Has memory of “death from a thousand cuts” been smudged out? Is Sept. 21, 1972, beyond our capacity to remember? Most students today, surveys tell us, have the sketchiest notions of Marcos’ “unanimity of the graveyard.” The sense of stewardship, for nurturing restored freedoms is patchy.

So we recall, maybe compulsively, especially for those too young to remember. Many of us who were first brutalized are now coming to our life span’s end.

Impunity here has recast killers into politicians. Despite the veneer of a restored democracy, an ingrained institutional habit of human rights abuse hobbles the country still. Those who coddle Palparan and Co. seem emboldened by the crumbling of Vice President Jejomar Binay’s reputation, Mar Roxas’ paralysis—and next-door Thailand’s rule by junta.

As the country grows economically, it must recover its full fund of social capital by remembering, recording, and, ultimately, reconciling, McCoy adds. A society cannot grow without a sense of justice.

Hence the crucial role played by today’s prosecution of those behind the pork barrel scam, as underpinned by a President, Ombudsman and Commission on Audit, flawed by errors yet bearing impeccable credentials that buttress ongoing trials…

So, speak, memory.

(E-mail: [email protected])

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