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The Ghosts of Strongmen Past

Ferdinand Marcos Ghosts of Strongmen Past

The recent Philippine Supreme Court decision leading to the burial of former President and dictator Ferdinand Marcos has been the source of much controversy among Filipinos. Amidst a growing list of policies being criticized both domestically and internationally, the ensuing political tension has reflected poorly upon President Rodrigo Duterte’s capacity as a policymaker.


On February 23, 1986, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos gathered in solidarity to oust President Ferdinand Marcos, reacting to more than two decades’ worth of violence and oppression. Between 1973 and 1986, there were an estimated 3,257 victims of extrajudicial killings, nearly 70,000 arrests, and around 35,000 people tortured at the hands of the Marcos regime (McCoy 2010).  Following Marcos’ ouster after the success of the People Power Revolution, the dictator was exiled from the Philippines and died in Hawaii in 1989.

Steps have since been taken towards obtaining justice for the victims of the Martial Law era, including the passing of the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013, through which around 70,000 victims have filed claims. This slow crawl towards justice has been marred, however, by the persisting legacy of the Marcos family. The most recent controversy was caused when the late dictator’s remains were surreptitiously buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery), among the country’s honoured soldiers. The ceremony that took place on November 18, 2016, marks the success of a long-time effort of the Marcos family to have the dictator interred on hallowed Filipino soil.


The burial, which some have likened to a “thief in the night”, came hot on the heels of a split Supreme Court decision allowing President Rodrigo Duterte to approve the burial. In its majority opinion, nine of the fifteen Supreme Court judges argued that it was well within the President’s discretion to order the burial, citing the absence of laws that would bar Marcos from being laid to rest at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Emphasizing that there was no legal basis to prevent the burial, the majority concluded that there were “…certain things better left for history – not this court – to adjudge… in the meantime, the country must move on and let this issue rest.”

As such, this gave President Duterte full reign to fulfill one of his earliest campaign promises. Earlier this year, the then-candidate announced his intent to have the former dictator buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Some have argued that the Supreme Court’s decision has vindicated the President’s political acumen.

From another perspective, however, Duterte’s desire to have Marcos buried reveals his authoritarian inclinations. The strong law and order policy that the administration has rolled out, combined with a disregard for human rights and the principles of justice, bode ill for the future of democracy in the Philippines.


Since his original announcement, Duterte has repeatedly argued that the burial would promote national unity and healing. Instead, the initial reaction to the burial was not one of healing and acceptance, but that of dissent. In the immediate hours after Marcos’ burial on November 18, protests erupted like wildfire across the nation; #MarcosNOTaHero became “…the top trending topic in the Philippines, and the fourth most-discussed topic worldwide.” There has since been sustained opposition to the burial, in the form of continued protests nationwide, as well as an appeal to overturn the Supreme Court decision. The appellants argue that the Marcos burial violated the Court’s 15-day period to appeal the Supreme Court decision.

This strong reaction to Duterte’s push to bury Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani is a result of the President’s desire to revise one of the most important chapters of Filipino history. President Duterte and his staff have attempted, on record, to minimize or forgive the atrocities committed by Marcos during the Martial Law years. When asked, on the campaign trail, about human rights abuses and corruption under Marcos, Duterte responded that people “…all have our faults. Every human being [is] fit to fail.” His references to Marcos fail to properly address the former President’s transition into a dictatorship. Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana, while conceding that human rights abuses were rampant during the Martial Law era, does not “…think they were sanctioned by the President,” in the same way the present government denies ordering extra-judicial killings.

This rewriting of history runs counter to the government’s obligation to provide redress to the victims of Martial Law. In her dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno argued that the order to inter Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani violated domestic and international law to provide both monetary compensation, as well as non-monetary remedies, to the victims of Martial Law. Indeed, this duty is enshrined in several international treaties, including Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. President Duterte’s order was made in full knowledge of the Marcos family’s refusal to formally apologize to the victims of the Martial Law era, to return what remains of the $10 billion embezzled from the Filipino people, and their continued presence in Filipino politics.


As a matter of policy, Duterte’s inability to predict the consequences of Marcos’ burial, as well as his disregard for the principles of justice and historical accuracy, are characteristic of the emotional, erratic, and often irresponsible policymaking process he employs. The image that Duterte projects into the world, thanks in part to media coverage during his campaign and the early days of his term, is that of an almost-cartoonish firebrand. The back-and-forth between the grand proclamations he makes on the world stage, and the clarifications that follow like clockwork, are reminiscent of a scene from Benny Hill.

That the President acts without remorse is clear. Looking back, however, the decision to bury Marcos is symptomatic of a problem that runs deeper than a simple lack of morality; it signals a wilful disregard for the principles of democracy and the struggles for freedom that form the foundation of government in the Philippines. As such, the caricature painted by media is particularly dangerous. This image shields the President from scrutiny by diminishing the impact of his intelligence and cold rationality.

Herein lies crux of the problem. Duterte’s personal interpretation of the Martial Law era, which paints a rosy picture of the late dictator, is indicative of his inclination for authoritarianism. The policies enacted by his administration in the name of law and order have served only to reinforce the President’s idea of the “good Filipino” and the “bad Filipino” through spilled blood.

 The warning signals have already begun to appear. Since his inauguration in June, the death toll for the President’s war on drugs has risen to almost six thousand, spurred on by a guarantee of impunity for vigilantes and police alike. The President has personally admitted to killing people while acting as Mayor of Davao City and he has threatened to kill human rights activists and suspend the writ of habeas corpus. He has toyed, on and off, with the declaration of martial law.

President Duterte, emblematic of the strongman characters surging in popularity throughout the West, is slowly blurring the line between caricature and reality. While this may not bode well for the future of Philippine democracy, there is hope. The institutions of democracy in the Philippines, which have only grown more robust with time, will temper the President’s actions. Key political figures like Senator Leila de Lima and Vice President Leni Robredo, have been instrumental in providing a starting point for the political opposition. Senator de Lima has spent the past few months embroiled in a struggle to end the President’s war on drugs. Vice President Robredo, who recently resigned as housing secretary, has been outspoken in her criticism of Duterte’s policies. In addition, protests, largely carried out by millennials, indicate a strengthening of civil society that can act as a balance to the President’s abuse of discretion.

While Duterte currently enjoys the benefits of high approval ratings, the President would do well to remember the lessons learned from the end of the Martial Law era.



McCoy, Alfred W. Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.


Joshua Mayo
Joshua Mayo is almost the proud owner of a Masters degree from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He received his Honours Bachelor of Social Sciences in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from the same institution. While Joshua is generally an avid scholar of public policy and international relations, his more specific interests include good governance and anti-corruption in Southeast Asia, torture as a human rights issue, conflict in fragile states, and the process of democratization.

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