In an in-your-face attempt to promote a favorable view of the martial law regime of Ferdinand Marcos, and to justify his own presidential ambition, the dictator’s son and namesake Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has turned to the 94-year-old Juan Ponce Enrile for assistance. Agreeing to sit down with Marcos Jr. for an unusual interview on the stage of a cavernous but empty theater, Enrile eagerly made himself useful by painting a benign view of the martial law years.
His biggest problem remains his credibility — the same issue that dogged him when he turned against Marcos in 1986.
Enrile was one of Marcos’ closest confidantes, probably next only to Imelda Marcos and Gen. Fabian Ver, then Armed Forces chief. He was the regime’s martial law administrator and defense minister until those fateful four days in February 1986. Holed up and protected by his loyal group of young officers in Camp Aguinaldo, expecting to be arrested, he flipped and betrayed his boss — as soon as it became clear that people power might save him. In doing so, he metamorphosed into a heroic figure of the Edsa Revolution.
But, Enrile’s well-known ambition to succeed the ailing Marcos was too strong to be merely forgotten. Even as President Cory Aquino had retained him as defense minister in her Cabinet, in recognition of his role at Edsa, his loyalty to the new administration was always in doubt. Following one of the most violent attacks against her administration, Cory finally fired him, conscious that if any of the coup attempts mounted against her presidency had succeeded, the wily politician would surely have been part of the governing junta.
But, capitalizing on his image as one of Edsa’s heroes, Enrile won a Senate seat in the first elections held under the 1987 Constitution. In the Senate, he cultivated the image of an elder statesman above personal ambition. His wealth and power intact, he navigated the turbulent waters of Philippine politics under a succession of post-Edsa presidents. Throughout this period, he said nothing more about the Marcos years that could remotely be interpreted as injurious to the Marcos myth.
It therefore comes as no surprise that he would willingly lend himself to a project to rehabilitate Marcos in the public memory. Perhaps he thought he owed the Marcos family something for contributing to their downfall. Without sounding as though he regretted his participation at Edsa, it was obvious he was trying to patch up his relations with the family by praising the regime of which, after all, he had been very much a part. With the passage of more than four decades, many of his ontemporaries who might convincingly contradict his recollection of events have passed on.
The nation’s mood about strongmen also appears to have changed considerably, notwithstanding surveys showing that Filipinos continue to profess their love for democracy. More than any other previous president, Rodrigo Duterte has shown that Filipinos love leaders who talk tough, who curse in public, and who can intimidate their enemies by the sheer force of their personalities. “Mood is not the opium of the people,” writes the sociologist Heinz Bude. “Moods form a reality of their own and cannot be understood solely as the reaction to biographical circumstances and systemic conditions…. [S]hifts in public mood are responsible for political shifts.”
Indeed, there probably has never been a better time than now to rehabilitate the Marcos image. The Marcos-Enrile interview, however, fails to do that. It is so patently self-serving that one might be forgiven for paying more attention to the spectacle of the young Marcos’ red socks than to Enrile’s ebullient recollections before an absent audience. The man has changed his account of events so often that one is led to think that truth is a function of politics.
The impact could have been different, however, if an interview like this were to be conducted by a panel of respectable historians and journalists, and the principal subjects were individuals who had been detained and tortured or stripped of their properties by the regime but never allowed their sordid experience to cloud their view of events. I’m not saying that their accounts would be entirely free of bias. But a good impartial interviewer would have had greater success in teasing out the truth from personal narratives.
This particular interview, videotaped and posted on social media to coincide with the 46th anniversary of the imposition of martial law, is barefaced propaganda aimed at “millennials,” who, having been born long after the actual events, are presumed to accept without question so-called eyewitness accounts of historical events. As a teacher, I would not take it seriously. Still, propaganda like this, formatted as public affairs material, offers important lessons on what to avoid in the teaching of history.
First, one must avoid starting with a judgment of a historical period or events. Teachers must respect their students’ right to form their own conclusions, encouraging them to freely ask questions and to consider alternative accounts. The teacher’s primary task is to help form critical minds.
Second, we must not confuse memory with history. The historian François Bédarida says the two have different trajectories. “[T]he objective of memory is fidelity, whilst the objective of history is truth.” Fidelity to cherished values or sentiments is perfectly valid but it should not get in the way of the pursuit of truth, even if full objectivity is never attainable. What should be resisted is the total relativization of history, in which there are no facts, only interpretations.