- - Monday, August 22, 2016

BANGKOK — Even from the grave, former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos manages to make mischief in Manila.

Outspoken Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is facing one of the first political headaches of his tenure in the face of mounting opposition over plans to rebury Marcos — who had a penchant for lying about his own war record — in the country’s Heroes’ Cemetery with full military honors.

Victims of the Marcos regime have filed multiple petitions to the Supreme Court to block the move, which analysts said has as much to do with the personal view of the tough-talking, populist Mr. Duterte as it does with government policy.

Duterte has this notion that he can unite the nation by healing the wounds of the past,” said Mong Palatino, a former legislator and political commentator. “Unfortunately, it involves reconciling with the remorseless Marcoses without demanding justice or accountability.”

Opponents staged a protest on the streets of Manila last week, braving the wind and the rain to launch a signature drive against the move.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros told reporters that the new president should not commit “this atrocious mistake” of bestowing honors upon the former dictator.

Marcos went down in history as an unrepentant enemy of our heroes,” she told reporters at the Aug. 15 rally. “To honor the man a hero and bury his remains in a place reserved for the brave and martyred is an inimitable political abomination.”

Marcos legally qualifies for burial among the nation’s heroes by virtue of his purported military record — which researchers and historians have challenged — and because he served as president, although a popular uprising drove him from power in 1986.

Beyond political considerations, Mr. Duterte said last week, he was only enforcing the law in allowing the reburial to proceed.

“He is not a hero? Fine,” Mr. Duterte said. “But he was a president. And nobody can deny that.”

Government attorneys on Monday filed a 86-page defense of the president’s plans to relocate the Marcos grave, saying it was within Mr. Duterte’s prerogative as president. The Marcos family filed a separate 13-page comment saying protesters had no standing to block the move.

Marcos was the dominant political force on the island nation for more than two decades, including nine years of martial law justified as a means to suppress violence blamed on communist and Islamic insurgents.

However, the Marcos family and supporters were accused of using the law to enrich themselves through state repression. More than 30,000 opposition supporters, students, labor activists and journalists were detained as opposition to Marcos‘ authoritarian rule snowballed.

The assassination of former Sen. Begnino Aquino, a leading figure of the opposition, galvanized public opinion, and Marcos was ousted by a “people’s power” revolution led by the slain politician’s wife, Corazon.

Marcos then fled to Hawaii, where he died three years later, leaving behind a notorious legacy for corruption, decadence and brutality with his family widely believed to have plundered $5 billion to $10 billion.

“Everything about Marcos and the Philippines is like a bad film script,” said Karl Wilson, an academic with the Asian Center for Journalism in The Philippines.

The reburial controversy rose from of a campaign promise from Mr. Duterte, a former provincial mayor from Davao City on the island of Mindanao.

Duterte doesn’t care too much for what people think about him,” said Mr. Wilson. “If anything, he is a man of his word. While campaigning in Marcos‘ home province of Ilocos Norte, he made a solemn promise that Marcos would be given a heroes’ burial.”

The petitioners against the reburial include human rights victims who won a class-action lawsuit against Marcos and are claiming Mr. Duterte’s decision was made with a grave abuse of discretion. They say Marcos was a tyrant and a plunderer who is undeserving of the honor.

“With thousands of Filipinos murdered and disappeared under his watch and billions of peoples’ money stolen during his regime, Marcos should have spent his last years in prison, and his death in an unmarked and desolate grave,” the petition read.

Marcos‘ remains have been kept on display in a refrigerated glass coffin in his hometown of Batac, in Ilocos Norte, as a result of a 1993 agreement with President Fidel Ramos. Mr. Ramos retains among a core of supporters in Marcos‘ northern birthplace on Luzon Island, and his eldest daughter, Imee Marcos, has been governor of Ilocos Norte since 2010. At least seven surviving members of Marcos‘ Cabinet plan to attend the reburial, The Manila Times reported Monday.

Political motive

There is a clear political motive behind the move to relocate the burial, analysts say.

“Burying the late dictator in the Heroes’ Cemetery is not a ministerial or innocent move, even if he is a former president,” Mr. Palatino said. “The aim of the Marcoses is to rehabilitate the image of the dictator — an atrocious historical revisionism.”

The burial was expected to take place next month if the court action fails.

Successive presidents have resisted calls from wife and former first lady Imelda Marcos, famous for her own extravagances, for her husband’s burial in the Heroes’ Cemetery.

It was a sensitive issue in the years after Marcos‘ death amid arguments that his interment would violate regulations governing who can be buried in the Manila cemetery, managed by the Army’s Grave Service Unit and, critics say, would violate principles enshrined in the constitution.

That did not stop Mr. Duterte from trying to end the issue once and for all with promises to allow the burial for the sake of national unity. He argues that Marcos‘ status as a former president, not just his “military exploits,” justified the decision.

The cemetery was founded after World War II for officers and enlisted service members and later expanded as a final resting place for presidents, national heroes and patriots, including artists and scientists. Among those interred there are three former presidents and Carlos Romulo, a journalist and statesman who is widely considered to be the greatest Filipino diplomat of the 20th century.

The Marcos reburial “remains divisive but perhaps not as divisive as in 1993,” said prominent columnist and business consultant Marvin Tort.

“After all, Marcos‘ son and namesake came in a close second in the vice presidential race last May. And this may be an indication of some degree of redemption,” he said.

Younger voters have no memories of the Marcos years, he noted, or the difficulties the country endured under martial law.

Mr. Wilson said Marcos invented the war hero story. U.S. investigators have also found no evidence to back claims he led a guerrilla force in military operations against occupying Japanese forces from 1942 to 1944.

“He wrote the script himself — a young guerrilla leader who led a band of brave resistance fighters against the might of the Japanese army during its occupation of the Philippines during World War II,” Mr. Wilson said. “He even awarded himself medals for his bogus heroic deeds.”

However, he said, Washington kept quiet because the Philippines under Marcos was a critical Pacific ally in the Cold War years.

“But toward the end of his rule, before he was overthrown by people power, the U.S. started to let the truth trickle out,” Mr. Wilson said.

It remained Imelda Marcos’ cherished dream to see her husband interred in the Heroes’ Cemetery, he said.

Also opposing Mr. Duterte’s plan is the influential Catholic Church hierarchy.

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines-Episcopal Commission on the Laity, told The Manila Times that Marcos was no hero, having stolen from government coffers and committed numerous human rights violations during his long stay in power.

“It is not right that he should be given a hero’s burial because the [Heroes Cemetery] is only for heroes, and we cannot consider Marcos a hero because of the sins he has committed against the people” during martial law, the bishop said.

For Mr. Duterte, fulfilling his campaign pledge could complicate another top item on his agenda: negotiating a peace deal with communist guerrilla insurgents who have searing memories of Marcos‘ time in power. The new government hoped to jump-start talks next month.

Duterte is virtually deleting Marcos‘ bloody record as a military despot and the fascist violence, human rights violations, corruption and economic hardships he made the Filipino people suffer through 14 years of dictatorship,” the rebels said in a statement.

But since his 1989 death in exile, the Marcos clan has been trying to restore and preserve the late president’s place in history. Mrs. Marcos and the couple’s children are still active in Philippine politics.

“It is an uphill climb for those opposed to Marcos‘ burial,” said Mr. Tort, adding that he expects the burial to proceed.

“Given this, it seems proper that Ferdinand Marcos — as a former soldier and former president — be buried there,” he said. “A court ruling now will give them both a legal and a moral victory. And it will finally put an end to a political issue that has raged on for almost three decades.”

Mr. Duterte said he will abide by the Supreme Court’s decision, which will hear arguments on the challenge on Wednesday.

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