A History Of Forgetting

Hindi tayo ang nakaraan (We are not the past),” the man in the video states. It’s a clever advertising trick: recognizing the competition’s attack while casually tossing it away. It’s offense as well as defense; a move befitting the son of one of the most cunning political players in world history. 

It must be tough sharing a name with an infamous dictator, on top of actual blood ties. So it is no surprise that Bongbong Marcos (Ferdinand Jr., currently running for Vice President), or more likely, his campaign team, would adopt the strategy of brushing aside the tainted past to focus on a bright future. 

“You may say the past is problematic but the past is irrelevant,” Bongbong’s campaign implies, as if overcoming poverty, disaster, or disability were akin to shrugging off a tarnished inheritance whenever it becomes a liability. 

It’s an approach that has been met with disgust and disbelief by human rights defenders and Martial Law survivors. “Does anyone really believe this nonsense?” they ask after every new PR move by the Marcos camp; “Can uplifting music and multi-sectoral spokespeople really lull viewers into forgetting the darkest days of Philippine democracy?” 

The release of the latest Bongbong video would just have been another blip in the graph of Marcos-related outrage if it were not for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clip towards the end which revealed that in trying to whitewash Marcos history, they had literally covered up another man’s legacy.

The section of video was barely a second long but the background was instantly recognizable. The “d” had been crudely transformed into a “y” and the iconic face was completely missing but the shape and stroke of the words were unmistakable. There it was, the “Tado, Salamat!” mural, distorted to serve as the backdrop to Bongbong Marcos’ latest campaign commercial.

The memorial of a beloved human rights activist had been desecrated to promote the political aspirations of a family held responsible for countless human rights abuses. If irony were convertible into pesos, that one clip could have paid off a massive chunk of the Philippine national debt.

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Above: A scene in Bongbong Marcos’ campaign video.
Below: The original "Tado, Salamat!" mural.

 

The memorial honored a man who had been born a little too late to bask in the glory of the 1986 EDSA Revolution, but grew up in time to taste the soured hopes of its aftermath. When Arvin “Tado” Jimenez entered the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP), “salvage” and “curfew” had already been replaced by “brownout” and “kudeta”/ “coup d'état” as the buzzwords of the day. 

It was becoming painfully obvious to People Power idealists that ending Martial Law and toppling a dictator would not be enough to cure the cancers of the nation. Many abandoned the cause, leaving the movement to start fresh in the corporate world or abroad. Others doubled down on traditional activism, adapting the old tactics and slogans to each new passing political issue. Neither of these appealed much to Tado.

He had tested out another option while in PUP. The student cultural organization that he led was called PANDAY PIRA (Pandayan ng Pilipinong Kultura), after a blacksmith who was the first Filipino cannon-maker. It was a fitting name for a group that aimed to forge new weapons in the fight against injustice. They would wage a revolution through art and disrupt the business-as-usual cycle of Philippine activism and politics. 

The PANDAY PIRA group itself was short-lived but the idea flourished in another incarnation. In 2005, DAKILA: Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism was born. Founded by Tado, Lourd de Veyra, Noel Cabangon, Buhawi Meneses, Ronnie Lazaro, Leni Velasco, and myself, DAKILA is now in its 10th year of redefining what it means to be an activist and an artist in the Philippines. It’s a milestone that Tado never got to see. 

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An alarming number of Filipinos like to point out that Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s presidency was a period of growth and prosperity unequalled in any other point of Philippine history. Hospitals and cultural institutions were built, not to mention other massive public works like bridges and highways.

Civilians enjoyed these new developments, mostly unaware or uncaring about the dirty reality: that these projects were smokescreens for the widespread practice of crony capitalism. These allies strategically placed in public and private institutions would siphon off funds for the benefit of those in power and their friends. It’s an all-too-familiar system of graft and corruption that’s been handed down through administrations of all sorts of political affiliations.

The costs of this institutionalized plunder would be staggering. According to the Supreme Court, Marcos Sr. could have only legitimately earned 16 million pesos in his twenty years as President. But a check of the SALNs of Imelda Marcos and son Bongbong reveal a net worth that is as huge as it is unexplainable. In 2012, Imelda declared a net worth of 922 million pesos; in 2013, Bongbong said his net worth was 437 million pesos. Add to that the 188 billion pesos the PCGG estimates they've confiscated from the Marcoses and that’s a total of 189.3 billion pesos (that we know of) that the Marcos family amassed during Marcos Sr.’s tenure in Malacañang. Compare the figures: 16 million pesos versus 189.3 billion pesos. Even Ponzi schemes don't promise interest rates like that.

One of the earliest examples of this cronyism-slash-plunder scheme was the building of the network of highways that would become the NLEX (North Luzon Expressway) and the SLEX (South Luzon Expressway). Marcos Sr. favored building new toll roads over developing the once-thriving PNR (Philippine National Railways), because a crony had a construction company ready to benefit from the new venture. 

The rise in transportation and traffic problems we have today may be traced to this shift from train to automobile travel.  

I also can’t help thinking about another consequence of this instance of cronyism. Maybe if Tado had been on a train heading to Bontoc instead of a bus, he might still be alive today. 

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Tado lies in an unassuming tomb in a quiet grassy field not too far from the edge of his adopted hometown of Marikina. But an over-10-foot-high mural close to the famous shoe museum was his real memorial. The rest of the wall it was on was an evolving cacophony of colourful squiggles, gang tags and cartoon figures, but the face remained throughout the changes, looming over the city like its guardian angel.

The street artists UNIKO INDIO and SYLV had painted a section of Marikina's "Freedom Wall" with Tado’s likeness, along with words, "Tado, Salamat!" (Tado, Thank you!). Whether it was thanks for generosity, kindness, laughter or inspiration, it's not really clear. The show of gratitude was a comfort to Tado's friends and family regardless. 

There hadn’t been much to comfort them since Tado’s death two years ago. News reports had called it an “accident.” But that implies blamelessness. A rickety bus does not just crash into a ravine at full speed without someone at fault. Preventable mechanical problems and driver error had been unearthed; a bus operator temporarily suspended (but for far too short a time, some say); weak moves towards reparations made; and various government agencies held accountable. Still, people called the 14 deaths and 32 grievous injuries an “accident,” as if someone had slipped on a banana peel. 

It felt like a last twisted joke in the repertoire of a comedian whose radical politics were only matched by his radical creativity; who lived to champion biking and alternative transportation only to die on a gas-guzzling behemoth; who fought for justice and human rights only for his death to devolve into a mess of bureaucracy, finger-pointing, and outraged frustration. 

It was the kind of contradiction that Tado would have chuckled at, in the same vein of the kind of painful honesty he would be remembered for.

Tado was the kind of man you could praise and curse in the same breath. Even as his fans spoke of his genius at his wake, his friends would be laughing at their frustration at his stubbornness. Jokes and petty arguments were relished in equal measure. Forgetting one side of his personality over the other would be diminishing his legacy. 

It’s a practice that one hopes to be adopted by anyone talking about the complicated history of the People Power Revolution and the 30 years that have passed since then.

Mythologizing historical figures to the point of sainthood or supervillain only softens the edges of the past and removes any nuance or lesson to be gained. Hours are spent defending this little nitpick and questioning that little discrepancy. It's as if defending a long-dead "hero" will make or break the future of our nation.

Never mind that the idea of the "hero" swooping in to save the day is actually somewhat foreign to the Philippines. Our concept of "bayani" doesn't translate quite the same way. Its root word, "bayan" grounds it in the Filipino sense of homeland and community; its close relation, "bayanihan" reveals how it can soar. A bayani can only reach their full potential when united with other members of their community - other bayanis - towards a shared goal. 

This is the bayanihan spirit that united Filipinos to march in EDSA, 30 years ago. This is the bayanihan spirit that will not allow our shared history to be erased and remade for the glory of one man. 

This is the bayanihan spirit that fuels modern heroism in the Philippines today.

This is People Power.  

 

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Micheline Rama is the Co-Founder and Campaigns Director of DAKILA: Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism.

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