Burying the past

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 September, 2005, 12:00am

Here is a short Philippine morality tale. There was a president who turned himself into a tyrant, murdered thousands, stole billions and - together with his family and friends - broke the laws and ruled as they pleased.

After many bloodstained years he was overthrown, and died abroad. And if you know what's good for you, you will stop right there and be content with that ending. Otherwise, you would find out that the tyrant's family has lived happily ever after on their stolen wealth, and even won high political offices. And, oh yes, the dictator's corpse is even now awaiting a burial with honours.

It doesn't seem like much of a morality tale, does it? Actually, it is more like a continuing horror saga. The dictator, of course, was Ferdinand Marcos, whose over-embalmed body now lies in an air-conditioned room in his home province of Ilocos. His family refuses to have the corpse buried unless the government allows it inside the national heroes' cemetery. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo looks like she will agree.

Marcos' story is a reflection of this country's inability to come to grips with its past, and the ability of its villainous leaders to avoid accountability. It is hard to overestimate the effect that the dictator had on Philippine history. Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of his declaration of martial law, which let him establish a 14-year dictatorship. The Marcoses deprived Filipinos of their civil rights, arrested, tortured and murdered thousands, and divided up the economy. Just about every institution - the military, civil service, judiciary, legislature and even the media - was corrupted. Imelda Marcos used the national treasury as a piggy bank.

Martial law shaped a generation's cynicism about politicians and turned their distrust of government to disrespect. Filipinos were continually lied to by technocrats who spouted bogus development statistics, and odious presidential spokesmen who extolled the dictator's acts. Their crimes went unpunished, and memories of martial law are fading.

What is worse, Mrs Arroyo herself has come to rely on people who were notorious Marcos henchmen. One of them is an election commissioner who allegedly helped her cheat in last year's election. Desperate for political allies, Mrs Arroyo is using the tatty excuse of 'reconciliation' to strike a deal with the Marcos family. 'What's a criminal regime among friends?' you can almost hear her ask jauntily.

Personally, I have nothing against reconciliation. In fact I am willing to light an offering at Marcos' refrigerated bier. It's just that I am having such a hard time finding a flamethrower at the supermarket.