Zany Mique needs little reminding of the dark time in Philippine history 45 years ago when dictator Ferdinand Marcos placed the nation under martial law. She was imprisoned twice during that nine-year period – an era marked by widespread human rights abuses including extrajudicial killings, torture and incarcerations.
But she is worried others might forget just how dark that period was – particularly given President Rodrigo Duterte’s announcement that he is considering granting immunity to the late dictator’s family for their role in the martial law regime. Duterte said he might prod Congress to craft a law to protect the dictator’s remaining family members on the provision they return “some of their gold bars” and a portion of the ill-gotten wealth they amassed while Ferdinand was in power.
Mique, 65, who joined thousands at a protest on Thursday to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the declaration of martial law, has been at the forefront of a years-long legal battle against the powerful Marcos family. She is the executive director of Claimants 1081, a group of 7,500 Filipinos seeking compensation for the suffering and loss they experienced under martial law. The group has filed a class suit against Marcos’s wife, Imelda, and son, Bongbong, after the two refused to comply with a US court ruling ordering them to pay victims US$353.6 million in damages. The Marcos family faces at least 15 civil and criminal cases.
Were Duterte to follow through on his suggestion and the Philippine Congress pass a law granting the family immunity, Claimants 1081 would “question the law before the Supreme Court”.
“The Marcoses committed a crime; they should pay for it,” she said.
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To some, the prospect of that happening seems far off. Despite the atrocities that occurred under martial law, the family retains a powerful influence that was built over the 20 years of Ferdinand’s rule before he was toppled by a People Power movement.
Ferdinand won the presidency in 1965 and caught the imagination of the public early in to his term by ushering in economic progress. Seven years later, growing communist and security threats gave him a pretext for introducing martial law nationwide. In so doing, he was able to control not only the military, but Congress too. He shut media organisations and suspended the writ of habeas corpus, enabling warrantless arrests of anyone who opposed him. And the longer he stayed in power, the more he became prone to corruption – his wife Imelda lived an ostentatious lifestyle and was said to have a collection of 3,000 pairs of shoes.
That long period of near-absolute power has left a legacy. “The Marcos support through the years is based on their maintaining the Marcos loyalists, largesse to Ilocos Norte bailiwick [Ferdinand’s political district] and cultivating the myth of a golden era during the Marcos regime,” said political scientist Ramon Casiple.
With their political and financial power bases still intact, the Marcos family has been to dissuade those in power from risking their political capital by putting them behind bars. Having Duterte as a loyal friend has only boosted their stock. Even so, the family is vulnerable – the Presidential Commission on Good Government is trying to recover US$5 billion-US$10 billion of public funds the Marcoses are accused of pocketing under martial law. The closest to being sent to prison is Imelda Marcos, whom the Office of the Ombudsman has found guilty in 10 graft cases linked with the Swiss foundations she allegedly established during her term as Batasan assemblywoman and Metro Manila governor.
Duterte appears to have the numbers in both houses of the legislative chamber if he wishes to proceed with granting immunity. Both houses have supported some of his priority measures, blocked the appointment of those who fell out of grace with him and stripped his critics of committee chairmanships. The lower house even spearheaded a probe against one of Duterte’s most vocal opponents, Senator Leila de Lima, who was accused of benefiting from the drug trade when she was the secretary of the Department of Justice. The opposition said this was political persecution: De Lima had been heading a probe into Duterte’s war on drugs.
But even if Congress kowtows to Duterte this time, crafting a law favouring the Marcoses is no easy task.
Legal expert Dean Antonio La Vina said such a law would need to apply to anyone who agreed to return ill-gotten wealth. “It can’t be just a law for the Marcos family but all similar situations. Otherwise it violates equal protection,” he said. Another lawyer added: “If a law is passed to favour a specific group or person, it may be unconstitutional as class legislation.”
However, Marlon Manuel of the Alternative Law Groups, said immunity was not the only legal option open to Duterte. The president could choose to grant the family amnesty instead. While amnesty has mostly been granted by presidents to those who committed acts of rebellion, the wording of the 1987 Constitution was general enough for it to be used to cover the Marcoses.
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In addition to legal issues, some Congress members may stand against Duterte.
“As they say it’s ‘ill-gotten wealth’, that means there was a crime committed. Crime against the Filipino people cannot be compromised by any amount,” said John Bertiz of the ACTS-OFW partylist group.
The Makabayan coalition of left-leaning lawmakers has also said it is considering abandoning its alliance with the president due to his war on drugs.
Political scientist Richard Heydarian said the Senate could also throw up problems for Duterte, as unlike the House of Representatives it enjoyed a level of independence from the executive. “There may be some sycophants when it comes to his war on drugs, but Congress may not be a rubberstamp after all,” he said.
There’s something else that could get in the way of Duterte plans: public opinion.
Heydarian said some Filipinos still suffered “autocratic nostalgia”, craving for military rule because of “distorted memories of a golden era” – as was evident when Marcos supporters cheered for the burial of the late dictator in the national shrine for heroes in 2016.
But having the Marcoses go unpunished over the billions of pesos allegedly stolen from public coffers may be a different story. “It may be a rallying point for the opposition,” said Heydarian. If the public were to say no loud enough, Congress may listen. “They may give in to public pressure. They are now wary of the backlash.”
For Mique and her fellow protesters on Thursday, the sentiment was clear, fierce and unforgiving, carried in a torrent of chants. “Marcos is a thief, Marcos is a thief,” they cried. If a law favouring the Marcoses is passed, according to Mique, they will shout the same when they storm Congress. ■