For supporters of former Philippine president Ferdinand E. Marcos (photo) yesterday was an auspicious day. It marked the centenary of his birth. Predictably, it was also an occasion for Marcos-haters to come out in force and once more condemn the late president for putting the country through nine years of martial law; for human-rights abuses; for grand plunder and for dictatorship.
Everything followed the usual script – it was another rerun of a remake of a remake of a rerun of a story that goes back to 1986 when Marcos was forced from power by a People Power revolution that remains the benchmark of all protests in the Philippines.
The disgruntled progressive Left united once more to denounce their bête noir, with the usual groups, including those from the 12 parties of the Makabayan politically progressive coalition well represented. There was the ubiquitous presence of students – most of whom would have been around the age of minus 30 when martial law was declared, and around minus 10 when Marcos died. They managed to vividly recall the horrors of that era though as if they’d lived through it.
But it wasn’t the late president they had on their minds. All they know about him is what they’ve been told; what they’ve been taught. It was the current one – Rodrigo Duterte; who allowed Marcos to be buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the Hero’s Cemetery in Taguig, Metro Manila at the end of last year; who speaks fondly of Marcos, revering him as a patriot and, in many ways, the nation’s “best president”. He’s who was really on their minds. The man who one week ago declared 9/11, Marcos’s birthday, a ‘Special Non-Working Holiday’ in the province of his birth, Ilocos Norte in the Philippines far north.
Ilocanos, according to Duterte’s declaration, should be allowed to celebrate Marcos’s “life and contributions to national development as [a] World War II veteran, distinguished legislator, and former president”.
All that was like salt in the wound for sure, but the real focus of their ire was Duterte, a man who’s close to the Marcos family and makes no apology for it. Imee Marcos, the late president’s eldest daughter and the Governor of Ilocos Norte, supported Duterte in his run for the presidency; her brother, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos is a close Duterte confidant. And if he’s successful in his challenge to reverse the May 2016 vice-presidential election result – he has a protest before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal alleging electoral fraud – he’ll become Duterte’s VP.
It was Duterte, then, who was on their minds and the real target of their anger; that’s who they were really talking and thinking about at their protest jamborees which they turned up to with their anti-Marcos signage. They were invoking the spectre of Marcos as a metaphor for Duterte. Ferdinand Marcos Snr has become the last real rallying cry for the Liberals and the Left. They believe that image is so powerful that it can destroy Duterte and bring them to power. And the image is a simple one – that Duterte is Marcos in the mirror.
Of course they’re wrong. Much as they want to keep all that alive, memories of Marcos martial law have become dim. On top of that, there are real and present threats which face the country, making – for most people – what happened in the 1970s virtually irrelevant. At this stage, three-decades-plus on, it’s a bleep in history which few can actually remember anyway. Furthermore, the thoughts of a new imposition of martial law is not seen as re-entering a dark age. For those who support this president, if that’s what he needs to do, so be it.
But for Duterte the Marcos era does remain relevant – though for very different reasons. For him there are clear parallels between then and now. And what propelled Marcos to invoke martial law could also make Duterte do the same. Let us digress for a moment.
The place, Southeast Asia; the time, the last third of the last century – a volatile period on the region’s socio-political landscape. To meet the challenges of that time, the people of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines chose leaders who they believed could quell the turbulence and bring order to their lands. They say history repeats itself – and it does.
For while Singapore and Malaysia – more or less – have continued to progress societally, Indonesia and the Philippines have not to anything like the same degree. Violence, crime, insurgency and inner conflict continue in these places. And so, “cometh the hour, cometh the man” – and the people in those two places have once more installed leaders they believe can rescue their lands.
In the case of the Philippines, there are wars on several fronts – illegal drugs and criminality; Islamic extremism with the emergence of Islamic State on the southern island of Mindanao, and a resurgence of the communist rebellion that’s flared and smoldered for little short of half a century.
It’s the last of these that convinced Marcos to impose martial law in 1972 – and that’s the one most likely to cause Duterte to impose it again. Certainly, the jihadist threat is extremely serious, but at this stage it’s very much centred on Mindanao – that’s the country’s Muslim heartland; it’s where all but possibly one of the Islamist terror networks operate.
The communists, however, present a more pan-archipelago threat – they’re in Mindanao, certainly, but they’re also in the large northern island region of Luzon. And – despite the shams of peace talks with the government – they’re as committed to the Proletarian Revolution as they ever were.
They would like nothing more than to see the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) flag flying above the Philippine Senate building in Pasay City. That’s their goal – to install a communist government in Manila. And that can’t be done via the ballot box so it will have to be done at the barrel of a gun.
No one knows for sure, but had Marcos not taken on the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist New People’s Army (NPA) – the CPP’s military wing – which he utterly broke, the Philippines today could be a one-party state emerging from a civil war and a litany of communist purges that attend all such people’s revolutions. It might have gone through the same wretched baptism of death experienced by Cuba under the Castro Brothers, Kampuchea (Cambodia) under the hideously barbaric Pol Pot; Russia under the Bolsheviks and, of course, NPA-backer, China, under Mao Zedong’s Red Guards.
At its height, the NPA commanded a fighting force somewhere north of 25,000; in 1994, according to the Belgium-based International Crisis Group, its strength was down to 6,000. Today, according to the Armed Forces of the Philippines the NPA has less than 4,500 troops.
That figure, however, is questionable and could have a certain amount of wishful thinking built in. The fact is, the NPA has been boosting its recruitment drives and building its war chest by imposing more revolutionary taxes on local communities and on anyone entering the territories it controls. They’ve patiently regrouped, re-recruited and gone back into battle.
There’s nothing fluffy or romantic about the NPA. It’s engaged in an armed rebellion and is fully committed to its cause – a very bloody one. Between 1969 and 2008 there were more than 43,000 insurgency-related deaths.
Now Duterte wants to end what Marcos started. He wants the NPA completely eradicated before the end of his term in office. Back in July, Philippine National Police chief, Ronald dela Rosa, announced that a “full scale campaign” would be launches against the NPA. Duterte’s instruction to him was unambiguous; consign them to history “whatever it takes”.
He told dela Rosa “You better get ready, we will wipe out all NPA after [dealing with] the problem in Marawi” – a reference to the siege and occupation of Marawi City in Lanao del Sur in Mindanao by the Islamic State-affiliated Maute Group. That confrontation is now in its fourth month.
Only time will tell whether Duterte will impose martial law, but one thing’s for sure; he’s running out of patience with the communist insurgency and wants to do what no other president before him has succeeded in doing – he wants to wipe out the NPA from their last stronghold.
In January 1970 – two full years before he imposed martial law – Marcos wrote this in his diary: “I have several options [referring to a coup plot uncovered by his security branch]. One of them is to abort the subversive plan now by the sudden arrest of the plotters. But this would not be accepted by the people. Nor could we get the Huks [communists], their legal cadres and support. Nor the MIM [Maoist International Movement] and other subversive organizations, nor those underground. We could allow the situation to develop naturally then after massive terrorism, wanton killings and an attempt at my assassination and a coup d’état, then declare martial law or suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus – and arrest all including the legal cadres. Right now I am inclined towards the latter”.
Right now, Duterte may seem similarly inclined. Last Saturday, while visiting wounded troops at a hospital in Cagayan de Oro City he issued this warning to communist rebels: “Do not commit the mistake of staging a rebellion, where there is fighting in the streets. I will not hesitate to impose martial law all throughout the country and order the arrest of everybody”.