Communities of memory

A few days ago, I participated in a forum to explore the purpose and methodology of establishing a “museum of memory” that would contain and preserve memories from the dark period of martial law. The concept behind this is prompted by the strong feeling that today’s young people hardly have an idea of what happened during the 14 years of the Marcos dictatorship. The premise, of course, is that the memory of this period must not be allowed to fade because, if Santayana is correct, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

On the initiative of the Edsa People Power Commission and the National Historical Commission, three specialists from Latin America were invited to share their insights and experiences on the establishment of museums, parks, and monuments commemorating the struggle against dictatorship and state violence in their respective countries. The three guests—Eugenia Ulfe of Peru, Patricia Tappata of Argentina, and Lelia Perez of Chile—spoke with great wisdom about the complex struggle to recover the voices of the countless victims of repression and their sometimes frustrating quest for justice when the dictatorship ended.

The exercise of memory, they said, is but one of the four essential tasks of a post-authoritarian government if it is concerned with healing and reconciling the national community. The other three are: truth, justice, and reparation.  Listening to them, one realizes that the main reason we have been poor at remembering is because, in the first place, we failed to document in a sustained and systematic way what happened during that period, particularly in the remote towns and among the less prominent sectors of our society. That failure has left an empty space in our own consciousness.

The idea of setting up a process to hear the victims and to confront the perpetrators of state violence was from the outset rejected as divisive. The successive coup attempts launched against Cory Aquino’s presidency served as stern warnings that the government would be making a big mistake if it started digging up inconvenient truths about martial law.

Without anything approximating a truth commission, the most that could be produced was a list of the victims, and even this was incomplete. Because some of the central figures of martial law were part of the new government, it was difficult to bring any of the military leaders responsible for the tortures, disappearances, and illegal detentions to trial. Later, a general amnesty formalized the self-induced amnesia that set in almost as a precondition to the survival of the new government.

Reparation was one area where something valuable could have been accomplished. Yet even this was denied the victims. When the latter sued the Marcoses before American courts demanding compensation for the victims of human rights violations, judgments in their favor could not be enforced without the consent of the Philippine government that had claimed prior rights over all Marcos properties. To this day, the government has refused to compensate the victims of human rights violations during martial law. Yet, it did not think twice about paying the debts owed to financial institutions that were incurred by the Marcos regime.

The three Latin American guests said that symbolic reparation is often more important to achieving closure than material reparation. This entails giving the victims and their kin the chance to recover their dignity and validate their experiences. This can only be done if their stories are allowed to be freely told, collected, and preserved. These stories must be situated in the broader context of the events that marked that period. Someone’s imprisonment or torture or rape in the hands of military captors must not be treated as a cause for stigma or shame, to be buried as a family secret. Only in this sense can truth be redemptive.

From all this, wrote the Jewish philosopher Avishai Margalit in his thought-provoking work, “The ethics of memory,” we may glean an ethics of remembering that must be distinguished from the politics of memory or the psychology of memory. An ethics of memory implies an obligation to remember and also to forget. It involves complex attitudes and sentiments that come with what he terms “thick” relations—relations that are “moored in shared memory.”

“Thick relations are grounded in attributes such as parent, friend, lover, fellow-countryman.” The operative themes that mark such relationships are those of loyalty and betrayal, gratitude and love. “Thin relations, on the other hand, are backed by the attribute of being human.” These are our relationships to the “stranger and remote.”  Here, the operative themes are usually those of respect and humiliation. Margalit says that ethics refers to how we should live with those who are bound to us by shared memory. Morality refers to the rules that govern our relationships to the rest of humanity.

Read in this context, it becomes clear that the project of a museum of memory has to confront the tricky issues posed by the ethics of remembering. This cannot be done by a committee working separately from the communities of memory that alone must decide what to remember and what to forget. The purpose must be neither merely to exhibit the trauma of the past nor to demonize the perpetrators. If it is to succeed, a memory museum cannot have any other purpose than to reawaken the values of loyalty, forgiveness, gratitude, and solidarity that hold us together as a people bound by thick relations.