The battlefield of memory

Referring to the aftermath of World War II which had engulfed all of Europe, the Czech writer Milan Kundera noted: “[H]atreds withdraw to the interior of nations … the goal of the fight is no longer the future … but the past; the new European war will play out only on the battlefield of memory.”

That’s the same feeling one gets reading and hearing various accounts of the Marcos dictatorship and the People Power uprising that toppled it. Thirty years later, the protagonists in this battlefield are still fighting to keep their respective recollection of events from falling into that “great bottomless hole where memory drowns.”

There are at least four versions of these events: the reformist military version, the Church version, the civil society version, and the American version—each one seeking to represent collective memory.

The military version says that, after more than a decade of the conjugal Marcos dictatorship, young idealistic officers began to stir. The assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983 specially bothered them.

Seeing how their own superiors were being sucked into the corrupt system, they started to ask questions. They sought to understand the issues for which they were risking their lives, and came to the conclusion that they were being used to prop up a regime that had lost its moral right to rule. They studied the roles that soldiers of the people could play under such circumstances. That was how the idea of a Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM) was born.

While the coup d’état they hatched against Ferdinand Marcos was aborted at the last minute after loyal soldiers of the regime uncovered the plot, the reformist officers decided to make a last stand at Camp Aguinaldo. Surrounded by the local and foreign press, they called on Marcos to give up the presidency, and on their brothers in the military to join them in their cause. Ordinary Filipinos from all walks of life came to bring them food and water in an act of solidarity, after Cardinal Jaime Sin, the archbishop of Manila, came out on radio to vouch for their patriotic intentions. The Cory forces that took power after Edsa, however, denied them their rightful place in the new government, sparking widespread resentment in the military.

The Church version of this event is different. According to this account, Sin encouraged the faithful to go to Edsa not so much to support the military officers as to avert bloodshed. The cardinal thought that Marcos and Gen. Fabian Ver were about to unleash the full force of the loyal military against the rebels led by Gen. Fidel V. Ramos and Minister Juan Ponce Enrile. He wanted to preempt this. To that end, he summoned priests and nuns and seminarians to lead the Catholic flock to Edsa to peacefully intervene in this perilous impasse. That is how Edsa came to be filled with statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and how prayers and Masses overshadowed political speeches. The nonviolent overthrow of the Marcos regime by people power was nothing short of a miracle.

The civil society account of Edsa is very close to that of the Church’s. In the beginning, people were mainly curious to know what was happening at Camp Aguinaldo. They were skeptical about the motives of Enrile, but they wondered what Ramos was doing there since he and Marcos’ defense minister were not known to be close. At that point, no one knew that the embattled officers had mounted a failed coup. But, after Cardinal Sin went on air to mobilize his flock, ordinary Filipinos, who had been awakened by the brazen killing of Ninoy Aquino and later organized themselves to campaign for his widow Cory, poured onto Edsa. No one anticipated this. It became the turning point that transformed the rambling Enrile-Ramos press conference into the middle-class-led people power uprising that we associate today with Edsa. Previous to this, the radical Left had been very much a part of the civil society movement. But at the crucial hour, it opted to skip Edsa, believing it was an American-engineered conspiracy.

This brings us to the American version that has come out in various memoirs. The US government was worried that the Philippines might descend into chaos if Marcos lost control of the situation. American officials saw that the communist New People’s Army, which had become a formidable force, could take over in the event of a power vacuum. As the national situation became more volatile, US officials prodded Marcos to renew his mandate through a snap election. But seeing that he had become gravely ill, they despaired over his probable successor, Imelda.

US officials were in contact with the reformist military officers and the moderate opposition around Cory. But, Edsa caught them all by surprise. When Cory and Marcos were sworn in as president on the same day, Feb. 25, they decided that Marcos had to be persuaded to leave the Palace peacefully. That was when the US Embassy offered helicopters to evacuate him and his family and safely bring them to Clark Air Base. From there—on the request of the new president—the Marcos party was flown to Guam and then to Hawaii, where Marcos later died in exile.

There is, of course, a fifth account which I will not discuss here—the Marcos version. Its principal purveyor, Bongbong Marcos, seeks to rewrite the past by staging a calibrated return to Malacañang funded by hidden wealth. He is banking on the power of amnesia not just to redeem his father’s name, but, ultimately, to recover the billions in bank accounts and properties that the Philippine government has seized from his family. He might yet succeed—if we fail to make memory speak.

Kundera is only partly correct: The battle for memory is as much about the future as it is about the past.

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