Archivists rush to preserve records of atrocities under Ferdinand Marcos Sr | Philippines
Boxes form neat rows, from floor to ceiling, along the narrow corridors of the archive room. Each is assigned a number from one to 10. Inside are the personal accounts of thousands of victims of atrocities committed under the rule of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. The lower numbers are the less egregious cases. Those labeled with a number nine or 10 contain the most harrowing descriptions of rape, torture and disappearances.
“My task is now, [with] all the truth, all the evidence that I have … to preserve the archives,” said Carmelo Victor A Crisanto, executive director of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission, which manages the archives. It focuses on digitizing victim records so that they are protected and more widely accessible to researchers.
Crisanto’s work has recently taken on even greater urgency. Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the late dictator’s son and namesake, won a landslide victory in the presidential election last month, following a wave of online misinformation that glorified his father’s rule, which was marked by an abuse of power after declaring martial law.
Scholars, activists and survivors of the Marcos Sr regime fear further distortion of history – and even the disappearance of historical records – once the family returns to office.
In the weeks following the election results, many rushed to protect the country’s past. Stores sold history books that depict the looting and abuse that occurred during the Marcos era, while 1,700 scholars signed a manifesto pledging to protect truth and academic freedom.
Francis Gealogo, a history professor at the Ateneo de Manila University who helped organize the manifesto, likened his country’s rush to preserve its history to the food-buying panic. “After the election, we had the unusual phenomenon of panic buying books about martial law,” he said.
“People were really worried that even the printing of these books would no longer be allowed or [shops] can just be forced to quit,” Gealogo said. Even before the election, some bookstores were marked red — where critical voices are branded as communist, either officially by authorities or unofficially by community members — which can lead to harassment and even deadly violence. Universities and prominent intellectuals were also red-marked.
Marcos Jr never apologized for abuse or corruption under his father, and instead downplayed past atrocities. For years, social media has been flooded with fake stories portraying his father’s reign as a time when the economy was booming and society was orderly. Marcos Jr denied that there is a coordinated network to push such claims.
“We are really very concerned about the deterioration of history education, to begin with, and the general historical awareness of the general population,” Gealogo said.
Marcos Jr’s spokesman dodged questions from the media about whether memorial days marking the declaration of martial law or the “EDSA revolution” that toppled Marcos Sr will be commemorated during his son’s reign.
A memorial museum, which will feature exhibits on martial law, is set to be built on the grounds of the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, a government institution, later this year. Some wonder if this will go ahead. “If I show [plans] to President Bongbong Marcos, will he arrest me or allow me? By law, that’s my mandate — but it showcases your father’s atrocities,” said Crisanto, who also oversees the project.
The Memorial Commission for Victims of Human Rights Violations is a government agency. He is protected by law, says Crisanto, “but he can be starved.” Its budget is reviewed annually by Congress.
Already operating on a modest budget, Crisanto managed to digitize documents by collaborating with universities, whose students helped the project through their community work. It was a moving experience for those who participated. “They were appalled… There was a sense of anger,” he said, adding that the students were horrified to find the victims were the same age as them. Some parents did not want their children to participate, fearing they would be marked red.
The digitized records relate to 11,103 people who obtained reparations from the Human Rights Victims Claims Commission, which began its work in 2014 and has since closed. The true number of victims is likely much higher, Crisanto said; a total of 75,749 submitted cases to the council. Most were thrown out because they couldn’t provide enough evidence to back up allegations of abuse that took place decades ago.
While the memorial commission has made progress in safeguarding the documents, academics say that elsewhere sensitive documents only exist in single physical copies. It is possible that material will also be seized from private institutions, they fear.
“A government agency can just say they can’t locate old files, or that those files have been misplaced or something like that,” Gealogo said.
There is a vibrant civil society in the Philippines that is committed to protecting the truth, Gealogo said. But he adds: “It is difficult if there is an institutional effort by the government [for] advancing negative historical revisionism… The battleground now is really how broad and expansive our work should be.