Manila, Philippines – In a small huddle with martial law victims and their surviving families in Manila’s Monument of Heroes memorial park, Joey Faustino wonders what has happened to the Philippines.
“Should I feel betrayed that the lies have prevailed? Or forgotten and neglected by our countrymen who believed these lies?” he asks, a week after voters elected Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son and namesake of the country’s former dictator, as its next president.
In the park, popularly known as Bantayog, stands the black granite Wall of Remembrance inscribed with the names of 320 Filipinos who fought against the Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s. They are but a fraction of those who suffered under his brutal rule – Amnesty International says more than 3,200 people were killed, 35,000 tortured and 70,000 detained during that period.
Gerardo T Faustino, Joey’s older brother, is among the names on the wall.
In July 1977, the 21-year-old University of the Philippines student was kidnapped along with nine other student activists in what is considered the single biggest case of abduction during the martial law era. He has been missing ever since and, along with thousands of desaparecidos (disappeared), is presumed to be dead.
Now nearly 50 years later, in a once-unthinkable development, another Marcos is president.
The landslide victory of Ferdinand Marcos Jr, better known as ‘Bongbong’, stunned a nation deeply divided between two clashing forces: one that chooses to remember and seek justice for the victims of its dark history versus another that favours putting the past to one side and moving on.
In between are many who cast doubt over the well-documented atrocities and plunder that took place under the elder Marcos, aided by the disinformation on social media that has helped drive the family’s path back to political prominence and the son’s triumph in the polls.
Human rights groups and martial law victims say a ‘Bongbong’ Marcos presidency signals not only more efforts to rewrite history, but also a further backslide in the country’s human rights situation. His vice president, elected separately to the president, is Sara Duterte, currently the mayor of the southern city of Davao and the daughter of Rodrigo Duterte, the controversial outgoing president.
Both have promised to continue the work of their fathers.
Without a concerted effort against disinformation and historical revisionism, experts warn the situation will get worse.
“That victory is not an affirmation of human rights, given their history,” Carlos Conde, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera. “[Marcos Jr’s] whole campaign is rooted in disinformation about human rights abuses, not just of his father’s regime, but of this regime … Some might find the notion laughable that he will, of all presidents, improve the human rights situation in the country.”
President Duterte, who will step down on June 30, leaves a bloody legacy from his war on drugs that mainly targeted the poor and is now the subject of an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation, to his crackdown on critics and activists.
For their part, despite lawsuits ordering them to pay compensation to the victims of human rights abuses, the Marcoses have refused to recognise the abuses or apologise for what happened.
In 1986, after thousands of Filipinos poured out into the streets in a ‘people power’ uprising, the Marcoses fled into exile in Hawaii, carrying crates of cash valued at more than $700m, on top of gold bars and jewellery. The deposed dictator is believed to have plundered as much as $10bn during his rule, while his wife Imelda became synonymous with greed and excess.
“What am I to say sorry about?” Marcos Jr said in an interview in 2015, when he launched what was ultimately an unsuccessful bid for the vice presidency against Leni Robredo. This year that outcome was reversed with Robredo, a human rights lawyer, finishing a distant second in the presidential race.
As a senator for six years, Marcos Jr has shown little inclination to uphold human rights, Conde said.
“Sara Duterte, on the other hand, had extrajudicial killings [happening in Davao City] during her watch as well, not just her father’s,” he added. She took over as mayor from her father who had held the post for more than 20 years.
“If she would be judged by that, then it’s a pretty damning kind of history as well,” he said.
Experts also warn that the incoming Philippine leadership is likely to resist the ICC investigation into Duterte’s drug war killings.
Human rights groups estimate that at least 27,000 people have been killed in vigilante-style drug crackdowns since Duterte took office in 2016. Government numbers are more conservative but still horrifying, putting the death toll from police operations at roughly 6,000.
In a recently published report, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights said the Duterte government consistently blocked its efforts to investigate the killings independently.
“It has encouraged a culture of impunity that shields perpetrators from being held to account,” the commission said.
Battle between truth and lies
Survivors of torture and wrongful imprisonment during the Marcos dictatorship have long sounded the alarm over the Marcoses’ attempt to rehabilitate their family name.
For much of his life, Nestor Castro, a cultural anthropologist and professor, chose not to talk about his painful experience during the Marcos era.
“After going through that experience, why would you relive it? To reminisce about what you went through, it is very hurtful,” he said.
But in 2016, when President Duterte allowed the burial of the elder Marcos in the Cemetery of Heroes, where deceased Philippine presidents and national heroes, scientists and artists are interred, Castro knew he had to speak up about his torture, especially to his young students.
In March 1983, the then 23-year-old was arrested without a warrant for opposing a violent dispersal of Indigenous students in Baguio City. In detention, state agents repeatedly slammed his head on walls, burned his chest with cigarettes and threw him in a cramped cell where he ate, slept and relieved himself.
He decided to tell his story on video and upload it to TikTok, a social media platform that has been heavily used by disinformation networks to spread false information and show the Marcos era as a “golden age”.
Trolls and Marcos supporters immediately spammed and mass reported his video, and TikTok took it down. Castro appealed to the social media site, but to no avail.
On Facebook, where the video is still available, the comments are peppered with hateful remarks.
“You were probably disobedient and that’s why you were jailed,” one read.
“You were probably doing something wrong. We did not violate any laws, so we really agree with martial law,” said another. “You cannot change our mind; we are BBM (Bongbong Marcos) and Sara straight from the heart.”
Back in Bantayog, May Rodriguez recalls how the wounds of the dictatorship’s survivors have been reopened several times in the past few years.
“For me, it’s not the physical memory of remembering the torture. It’s once again hearing the song ‘Bagong Lipunan’ [New Society]. That’s the most painful,” she said, referring to a propaganda song composed to extol the dictatorship. Marcos Jr revived the anthem during his campaign, remixing it to fit the 21st century.
“That song reaches my insides when I hear it,” added Rodriguez, executive director of the park.
As Marcos Jr prepares to take his oath of office in a few weeks, martial law survivors fear dark times lie ahead.
For veterans like Faustino, the battle to keep their stories alive, no matter how painful to recall, has become ever more important.
“This is another era where we will need to, more than just survive, but tell and hold on to the truth,” he said. “There is no other recourse.”