What the gov’t still owes Martial Law victims

MANILA, Philippines – Is Ferdinand Marcos a hero or not?

This has been the heated debate since President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to prepare for the burial of the late president at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, expected to take place in September.

Various parties – mostly consisting of Martial Law victims – have opposed the President’s decision, arguing that the late dictator does not deserve a slot at the Heroes’ Cemetery because of the human rights violations that were committed during his time. Several petitions have been filed before the Supreme Court (SC) seeking to stop the interment.

Five of 6 petitions have cited Republic Act 10368 or the Human Rights Victims Reparations Act of 2013. 

Signed by former President Benigno Aquino III, the law recognizes “the heroism and sacrifices of all Filipinos who were victims of summary execution, torture, enforced or involuntary disappearance and other gross human rights violations” under the Marcos regime. 

This recognition, according to RA 10368, should be in the form of monetary and non-monetary reparations. The same law provides for the creation of a library and a museum in honor of Martial Law victims. These will be funded by the P10-billion ill-gotten wealth of the Marcoses that the Presidential Commission on Good Governance (PCGG) has retrieved.

But while the scheduled burial of the late president is less than a month away – barring any restriction from the SC – these benefits for the victims have yet to be granted.

RA 10368: "It is hereby declared the policy of the State to recognize the heroism and sacrifices of all Filipinos who were victims of summary execution, torture, enforced or involuntary disappearance and other gross human rights violations committed during the regime of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos.” 

Undermanned

The biggest problem of the Human Rights Victims Claims Board (HCRVB), which handles the reparations under the law, is the lack of manpower to process the claims of 75,730 people nationwide.

The board, which will remain operational until May 12, 2018, started verifying the claims only in May last year because it has been focused on reaching out to the victims first since it was created in 2014.

“Each one of the [9 members of the board], has to finalize 8,600 cases,” HCRVB Chairperson Lina Sarmiento told Rappler.

“We have to write a comprehensive decision for each one because the law provides for appeals or decisions. Once the decision is rendered, the person who filed the claim has 15 days to file an appeal,” she said. 

Sarmiento emphasized the need for careful evaluation of the claims since they had spotted some that seemed fraudulent. There were affidavits that were submitted with pre-written accounts and filled out names and addresses.

Currently, the board consists of only 63 staff – board members, lawyers, paralegal and admin support officers – working on the reparations. Yet they cannot recruit more people since RA 10368 allows them to deduct only P50 million annually from the P10 billion allocated to fund their operating expenses. 

“Our funds were just enough when we started out. But we had a problem when the salaries of government workers increased,” she said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Although they are hoping that an amendatory law will increase the allowance for funding, Sarmiento said they make do with interventions from the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and their volunteer programs.

“CHR is helping us. They have recruited based on their new organizational structure and plantilla positions. We also have a volunteer program for lawyers and even those who can write,” she said.

Sarmiento said they are not looking for an extension of the board’s life because this will decrease the amount intended for damage compensations. 

Location scouting

The creation of a museum and library to honor the sacrifices of Martial Law victims is a crucial part of the law's implementation. Aside from the HCRVB, RA 10368 also created the Memorial Commission (MC) to spearhead the creation of these commemorative facilities. 

The museum and the wall of remembrance put up by the Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation are the only existing memorials for the heroes of Martial Law. 

Bantayog is a private organization operated by surviving Martial Law victims and the families of their deceased fellows. The group aims to honor their sacrifices through various projects, such as cultural shows and the curation of stories of the victims, viewable on their website.

The museum and wall of remembrance were put up with the help of the National Historical Commission (NHCP) and the National Center for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), among other government agencies.

WALL OF REMEMBRANCE. An elderly man teaches a child about the significance of the Wall of Remembrance, where 268 names of martial law martyrs are inscribed in black granite. Photo by Rome Jorge/Rappler

WALL OF REMEMBRANCE. An elderly man teaches a child about the significance of the Wall of Remembrance, where 268 names of martial law martyrs are inscribed in black granite.

Photo by Rome Jorge/Rappler

The MC, for its part, would have established its own museum if it hadn't gotten stuck on the first step: where to put one up.

“The first debate between the [previous CHR leadership] and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP) was where to put the museum. They could not agree so they [brought] up the matter to [then] President Benigno Aquino III,” CHR chair Chito Gascon said.

CHR co-chairs the MC with the NHCP.

Aquino preferred the museum to be constructed in Bonifacio Global City in Taguig since The Fort used to be a military camp and a detention center.

Gascon said choosing the location took years since the lot the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA) was supposed to turn over to the MC was being contested by the United States government. The US was seeking compensation for the property located across the Manila American Cemetery.

“It would have been significant to have the Martial Law memorial museum at The Fort because there were actually human rights victims who were put in detention there.” –Chito Gascon, Commission on Human Rights Chairperson 

According to the CHR chief, they had to wait for the BCDA and the US government to settle the dispute until the February this year.

“It would have been significant to have it there because there were actually human rights victims who were put in detention [there],” Gascon told Rappler.

Museum on its way

Since the acquisition of the BGC lot was taking time, they looked for alternatives. They spoke with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which manages the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife in Quezon City, to provide space for the museum inside the park. (WATCH: The People Power Experiential Museum

MC then signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the DENR last May, and they are looking to finally sign a Memorandum of Agreement with Environment Secretary Gina Lopez, on the anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law on September 22. The Lopezes – in particular, patriarch Eugenio Lopez Jr – were also victims of martial rule.

The MC, however, is still open to having a museum in BGC. “Even if the project pushes through at the Ninoy Aquino Park, our own vision is [to have] one museum and a network of shrines because the victims were from across the country,” Gascon said.

They are eyeing locations in other centers of resistance during Marcos' authoritarian rule, including Davao, Cebu, Baguio, Iloilo and Bataan. 

Aside from the museum, Gascon said they are also working on setting up a library, since they have archived numerous documents related to the dark years of the dictatorship. The CHR has also received almost two years ago a container van full of documents from the Netherlands.

All artifacts and documents are being stored at the University of the Philippines Main Library until a library is built. (READ: #RepostEDSA: The need for martial law abuses record

Funding for the museum and the library will be from the interest of the money retrieved from Marcos’ Swiss accounts, which the law identified to be P500 million.

But Gascon said they are thinking of doing a thorough audit of the funds, since the National Treasury, which has custody of the money, said the fund is only around P300 million.

‘Transitional justice’

“We need to have a definitive narrative of what happened during Martial Law, that’s why the museum is important,” Gascon emphasized.

This, he said, is part of the “transitional justice” that the government should have applied upon toppling the dictatorship in 1986. “[It is] a mechanism that must be set in place in periods of transition from authoritarian rule to democracy to make sure that there is no repetition of what happened in the past.”

Gascon and Bantayog board member May Rodriguez both believe that setting the historical record straight also includes making accountable those who benefitted from the atrocities of the Marcos regime.

“The government should decide to investigate the perpetrators of the crimes during that time – torture, abuse of power, plunder,” Rodriguez said in Filipino, stressing that not one of the late dictator's cronies have been held accountable under the law.

Investigation of those guilty of crimes during the Martial Law period did not progress, because the administration of former president Corazon Aquino opted to take the path of reconciliation to survive the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

“We don’t want to teach our children bitterness but we have to tell them. Otherwise, you won’t be armed and you’ll be vulnerable to being fooled because we are not giving the benefit of our experience." – May Rodriguez, Bantayog ng mga Bayani Foundation Board Member 

Rodriguez highlighted the importance of revealing the truth now, since Filipinos seem to be willing to forget.

“We don’t want to teach our children bitterness, but we have to tell them [these stories]. Otherwise... we'll be fooled again because we have not learned from our past experiences,” Rodriguez said in a mix of English and Filipino.

For Gascon, burying Marcos at the heroes’ cemetery will send contradictory messages, especially to the youth.

“What would you tell your kid if you’re asked, 'Is Marcos a hero?'...'Well, we have a museum for the Martial Law victims, but he is buried at the heroes’cemetery,'” he said. – Rappler.com

Patty Pasion

Patty leads the Rappler+ membership program. She used to be a Rappler multimedia reporter who covered politics, labor, and development issues of vulnerable sectors.

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