The question of impunity in the Philippines has a special meaning for Al Jazeera’s Veronica Pedrosa. In 1971 she and her family were forced into exile by the Marcos regime after her mother, also a journalist, wrote an unauthorised biography of the then first lady Imelda Marcos.
Imelda has never been successfully convicted despite hundreds of cases of corruption and human rights abuses being brought against her. A commission that was formed to find the missing millions allegedly stolen by the Marcoses will soon be abolished, partly because past commissioners themselves are said to have profited from their positions.
Recently, Imelda was elected to Congress and her son, Ferdinand Jr, is tipped to run for the presidency in 2016. With the Marcoses rising again in Philippine politics, Veronica Pedrosa tells the story of her family’s exile and their campaign against Marcos rule. She examines the Philippine authorities’ failure to bring the powerful to account for their alleged misdeeds and confronts Imelda herself about her past and her future political ambitions.
The programme will also examine the actual impact of relative freedom of expression in the Philippines. It is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work. The media have not strengthened democracy; instead they have become political instruments and pawns.
‘Her lies have become her truth’
By Veronica Pedrosa
Imelda Marcos has always cast a dark shadow over my life so making this film was a unique chance to confront her with her crimes.
There have been many times when I thought I hated her. I was furious at the obscene wealth her family amassed and disgusted by the litany of carefully documented cases of torture and disappearances that were delivered to us in exile in London and which formed a staple part of my diet of reading materials when I was a teenager.
I grieved too at what I never had: a life surrounded by extended family that is so much a part of Philippine culture, the culture itself and the native language that my mother dreams in but which I speak badly and with a distinctly London accent and syntax. Imelda and her coterie robbed me of part of my identity that most people take for granted – a sense of belonging.
In some ways of course Imelda’s attempts to intimidate our family turned out for the best. I probably would not be in the position of being able to write this story and make this film if she had not booted us into exile. It is a rather delicious irony that her attempts to shut us up only motivated us to speak louder and take action on the international stage.
The myth and the monster
Imelda and Me was my chance to confront the woman, the myth and the monster. But right until the last minute it seemed entirely possible that we would never actually be given the chance to meet her. I had already begun wondering how we could construct our film around her and build a story from her absence. Imelda’s children and lawyers, we were told, had ruled against her granting us an interview. So our only chance was to wait for her to arrive at Congress and ask in person.
You can watch the film to see how the interview went but what became clear is that Imelda is living in a world that does not exist. She has an idea about what she wants to stand for and she calls it “love” but is in total denial about the facts. So no matter how many times she speaks of love, her legacy is far too tainted with cruelty, lies and corruption for her to be love. Because that is what she says she wants engraved on the headstone of her grave, “Here Lies Love”.
It was a terribly frustrating experience to interview Imelda because she is so deluded. Despite everything, when I considered her in person it was difficult not to feel quite sorry for her. I was angry too, but it was very clear that her greed and ambitions have failed to make her happy. She seems doomed to strive like Sisyphus pushing and pushing but never getting whatever it is she really wants and so she has created some kind of alternate reality in which she is the victim.
It is as if she has completely forgotten her time in power. At one point when we were discussing the allegations that the Marcoses stole from the national coffers, I asked her if she had considered the possibility that, even if she believes in her heart what she says, (that Marcos was not rich because she has a Readers Digest article that says his tax returns were too low) that it might not be true. She looked completely baffled. I think her lies have become her truth.
Then again Imelda’s denial of any wrongdoing serves her children’s political ambitions very well. Her son was elected senator and under the Philippine constitution he is elected on a national basis – a kind of mini-president. There is a lot of speculation that Ferdinand Jr (known as Bong Bong) will run for the presidency in 2016. It is a real possibility that the Philippines will have another Marcos in the Malacanang Palace.
Impunity of the powerful
Imelda and Me is not just about the former first lady and the culture of impunity that has allowed those guilty of the worst crimes during Marcos’ martial law regime to go unpunished. It is also about the continuing inability of the justice system and other democratic institutions to sanction the abuse of power. There is a direct link.
In November 2009, on a hillside overlooking a valley in the southern Philippines, 58 people were killed – 32 of them were journalists. It is the Philippines’ worst political killing in recent history and the world’s worst ever killing of journalists. It was a cold-blooded ambush, carefully planned and executed by the most powerful political clan in the most deprived area of the Philippines. “Welcome to Maguindanao” the signs say as you drive into the province and are stopped at military and police checkpoints. Despite the security more than 100 suspects in the killings are still at large. Reportedly some have been seen playing basketball at military camps.
Meanwhile, in a prison in Manila I came face to face with some of the men who have been detained ever since. One told me he was a policeman who had nothing to do with the massacre but turned himself in to cooperate with the investigation. He still has not been charged. A group of other former policemen with him nodded their heads vigorously. They were being held down the corridor from one of the alleged masterminds of the massacre. Zaldy Ampatuan was in Manila at the time of the massacre, there is even a photograph of him meeting the former president, Gloria Arroyo, that day in his capacity as governor of his province at the time. But witnesses say he was also there when his father and brother planned the massacre over dinner and agreed with it. He has not been charged in connection with the killings yet either. When I met him in July he told me he was willing to cooperate with the government to link members of his family to the massacre.
But we also met the relatives of the victims who are afraid that they could be killed by the Ampatuan clan too because they are demanding justice. Several wept as we spoke to them, still unable to come to terms with their loss and struggling financially. Reginald is the youngest brother of Leah Dalmacio and he had to identify his sister’s body at the massacre site. He is still at college but takes on extra work driving a passenger tricycle so that he can help pay for Leah’s daughters’ needs. They say it is because the murderers are so powerful and enjoy the backing of top national politicians that they thought they could get away with the killings. And it does appear as if they are getting away with it because everyone agrees that it will take at least 10 years before verdicts are delivered.
Their outrage is the same as the victims of abuse during the martial law era in the 1970s. Still burning with indignation after all these years, film director Joel Lamangan told me about the four years of imprisonment and torture he endured because he was an activist in those days. He was raped, electrocuted and forced to sit on a block of ice. No-one responsible, he says, has ever been brought to account.
Imelda and Me is not just about my story but the stories of millions of others whose hopes for a just society are doomed because of a system that does not work.