If you don’t think history should ever be revised, perhaps you should become reacquainted with the leader of Myanmar, a certain Nobel Peace Prize winner by the name of Aung San Suu Kyi. Aung has long been venerated in the Western world as the very personification of freedom, democracy and human rights —sort of like a Buddhist, Indochinese Cory Aquino.
Until recently, of course, when Aung was accused of allowing the commission of atrocities against the minority Muslim Rohingya population, who are being slaughtered by the military under Aung’s command. Nearly half a million people have already signed a Change.org petition to strip Aung of her Nobel award for allegedly not doing anything to stop what some are already calling the “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya.
The United Nations, which backed Aung’s release from prison in the early nineties, when she was hailed as an Asian Nelson Mandela, has already been calling the Rohingya situation a “humanitarian crisis.” That’s exactly what the UN said the Burmese generals who imprisoned Aung had caused in very recent history, when she was still their favorite democracy icon.
But history, like most political spoils, always belongs to the victor. And in the past three decades, our own official history has followed the narrative established by the political faction that ousted Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Marcos, of course, was also a reviser of the historical narrative of his time. During his reign as dictator during the martial law period, especially, Marcos sought to make history conform to his own vision of it, with his establishment of what he called the New Society (coinciding with his declaration of military rule) as its most crucial moment.
The dominant political faction that succeeded Marcos decided that the February 1986 revolution that ousted the dictator was the defining historical moment. Except for the abbreviated presidency of Joseph Estrada, that narrative has gone mostly unchallenged until last year, with the election of Rodrigo Duterte.
With Duterte’s ascendancy, post-1986 history seems to be undergoing a serious, if totally unplanned, revision. For the first time since Estrada, after all, a “Marcos-friendly” president is once again in power—and the remnants of the political forces that were instrumental in demonizing the old dictator are quite naturally alarmed.
I say unplanned because am convinced that Duterte is not the sort of leader who does things with an eye towards leaving a historical legacy. The man seems to live totally in the present, wrestling with problems in the here and now, like illegal drugs and corruption, as befits his own description of himself as “mayor of the Philippines.”
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But Duterte is also an admirer of Marcos—as many who subscribe to the theory of the strong leader are—and a very practical man, besides. So I think he honestly doesn’t care how history will judge him, except to say that he did not care for the political niceties and the ideological baggage that consumed and paralyzed his predecessors in the contemporary period.
For instance, Duterte’s expressed willingness to settle with the Marcos family is, in my opinion, grounded on his belief that he would rather have money from the dictator’s kin to spend on his own projects rather than to keep fighting them in court, with no assurance that they will ever be forced to pay up.
To the believers of the Aquino version of Philippine history, even Duterte’s pragmatism with regards a settlement is unacceptable because it means a softening of the official position on Marcos. After all, if the Marcos family settles, charges will have to be dropped and no admissions of any guilt will be forthcoming.
(Why practically all of Marcos’ cronies were allowed to settle with the government in exchange for the dropping of cases against them—and with them being allowed to hold on to sizable portions of presumably ill-gotten wealth—when the man who was their principal is denied it is one of the things that has always bothered me. Perhaps, this is also why Duterte thinks he can pull off a Marcos settlement; he is totally focused only on the practical, here-and-now side of things.)
Duterte, like Estrada before him, is in a perfect position to change the old Aquino family narrative simply because he is not beholden to their historical line. And Duterte is rewriting history once again simply because he believes his practical, present-day concerns outweigh any compelling reason not to —especially if that reason if simply to preserve the status quo to keep Aquino admirers happy.
I’m betting that majority of Filipinos, who have grown weary of the Aquino-style politics that has kept them as poor as they were three decades ago, also believe that Duterte should be allowed to revise history, if it means that they will have a better life. And if that means letting go of the Marcos bogeyman that has kept an entire nation under the Aquinos’ spell for so long, then so be it.
History is always being revised and shifts of the historical pendulum can happen right before our eyes, as we can see happening in Myanmar. Perhaps it’s time for us to consider doing the revising ourselves, a hundred years after Marcos was born.