On Memory, History, and Human Rights: How to Memorialize Martial Law

Rogue speaks to the head of the Commission on Human Rights about plans for the Martial Law Museum


Rogue speaks to the Chito Gascon, head of the Commission on Human Rights, about our perceptions of history, the incoming Duterte presidency, and his plans for the Martial Law Museum

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“To me, freedom, democracy, and human rights are to be cherished and to be fought for.” Photo by JL Javier.


Thirty years after the first EDSA revolution, somehow, millions of Filipinos still consider the dark days of Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship as the “best days” for the Philippines. Enter the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), a constitutionally mandated body formed in 1987. CHR’s current head, Chito Gascon, was formerly a member of the Human Rights Victims Claims Board—a body mandated by law to administer reparations for victims of the Martial Law Regime.

After the brouhaha of the 2016 elections—which had 14 million people cast their vote for the unapologetic son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, as well as the sudden revelation of millions of Martial Law apologists, the CHR announced its plans to build a Martial Law Museum. Rogue got to ask Chairman Gascon: Could this be too late?

I get this feeling that human rights aren’t really given as much value here in the Philippines. How do you know where to begin with that?

You know, in previous times, and this is internationally, human rights was given the nickname “The World’s Biggest Secret”, because its been there for quite some time, states are supposed to protect and advance them, but often many people are not aware of their rights. The concept of human rights started and was universally accepted after WWII, when the United Nations was formed, but often [information on one’s rights] has been kept away from the public eye. So human rights is a continued work in progress, in the sense that we need to promote human rights in more people, from the young to the old, to be aware of them, but also ensure that those who violate human rights are held accountable. They are told that’s wrong and that if you do so you should be punished for it.

The problem is impunity. That’s one of the core problems here and many other countries in the world that have problems in human rights—it’s impunity that human rights violations continue, the perpetrators are never identified, or if they’re identified the perpetrators are never caught, or if they’re caught they’re never prosecuted, or if they’re prosecuted they get away with it. The charges are dismissed, or if they’re convicted, they’re not punished. So you have this vicious cycle of impunity. People get away literally with murder and other human rights violations, no one’s held to account. Essentially it’s injustice, and so when you have this raw nerve in the people that they feel, they demand justice, but they don’t know how they can secure it. So when there are people who say, “I’ll fix it! I’ll fix it this way!” and they say the solution to injustice is more injustice. So some people say, “Yeah, maybe that’s right” even though it’s counterintuitive. How can injustice be solved by more injustice? That’s where we are.

Well, that leads me to our next question: What do you think of the incoming Duterte presidency?

In a sense, the Duterte campaign was very effective in tapping into that raw nerve, that raw nerve of people wanting something more.

Last six years, the Aquino administration has done so much, reforms all of that, but maybe the impact of those reforms has not yet impacted ordinary people’s lives, so people are asking, “What gives?” You have the economy growing, but why can’t they feel it? When you have this message of “change” it rallies the people, so there’s a very high expectation and we hope that Duterte administration will be able to deliver its promise of change, whatever that might be.

However and that’s where we come in, we need to guard civil values, human rights a result of the people’s aspirations against discrimination, against oppression, and their desire to have respect for their dignity. People wanted human rights in the post-dictatorship period so we have the Bill of Rights in our constitution, we have a constitution that has mandated democratic institutions that grade constraints on power so that we don’t have an authoritarian regime anymore. It’s the constitution that created the Commission of Human Rights, so our obligation or duty as a constitutional office is to remind both the people in general but public authorities in particular, especially those who wield power, that they wield power by the consent of the people under a set of rules, and so they cannot wield power to such a degree that they will undermine the people’s freedom. When they do then we have to call it out.

As the Commission of Human Rights, were not the enemy of any administration, whether it’s the current Aquino administration or the incoming Duterte administration. We’re not the enemy, our role is merely to call out those in government, those in power when they cross the line, so we’ll say, “Foul!” or “Out of bounds.” In a sense, we’re like referees in a match

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Well, speaking of the next administration, what can you say about Bongbong Marcos? There was a difference of almost 200,000 votes between him and Leni Robredo for the vice presidential position.

We celebrated EDSA 30, and you have 13.5 million people voting a Marcos. It does highlight that a significant segment of our voting population has a different view of what Marcos represents. And to me, as a human rights advocate and someone who was a student activist during the dictatorship, it highlights the importance of collective memory. We as a people have a short memories—but if we don’t learn lessons from the past then we’re doomed to repeat them. That’s why I think it’s important that we affirm the values freedom and human rights and democracy at this critical time now.

I was born in the ‘60s. The only president I knew in my early years was Marcos but my direct experience with authoritarian rule led me to fight the dictator, so my worldview is framed by that. To me, freedom, democracy and human rights are to be cherished and to be fought for. Now there are others who, either because of a lack of experience of authoritarian rule or no knowledge of that past, cannot be faulted for thinking differently. It’s not their fault that they don’t know. So whose fault is it? It’s the fault of my generation in telling those stories. There’s a concept in history called time-binding. Time-binding is essentially a process whereby succeeding generations learn from earlier generation’s experiences by a process of story-telling, so that the experiences of previous generations need not have to be repeated by succeeding generations because succeeding generations have learned from the stories that were told to them by earlier generations.

Time-binding, in other words, it develops our sense of history, our sense of nationhood, our sense of who we are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going. We have been able to have consensus, more or less on the narrative of a hundred years ago. So when you hear, “Punyeta, basahan ng artikulo uno yan!” you smile because it relates to something that you may not have directly experienced but it’s part of the narrative about that period in time.

We don’t have that agreement about the narrative of Martial Law. It’s still contested because the interests that clashed during martial law continue to wield influence in different degrees post-martial law, and there has really been no serious effort at recording that period of 1972-1986. That’s why we need to have a historical account of it. We need to look at evidence and point to facts, otherwise people will believe what they want to believe, which may not necessarily have any foundation in truth or in fact.

So those who never experienced martial law, the millennials who have freedom, democracy and human rights that our generation fought for, have no knowledge of the facts about why we were spurred to fight for freedom and democracy.

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But actually there was a survey done and it showed that it’s mostly the middle aged, those in their 30s or 40s, who are supporting Marcos.

That’s true, also. The reason for that, is not everyone experienced the hardship of martial law. I mean, for example, the stealing. That’s why they refer to corruption as “victimless crime”, even up to today corruption exists. We know it’s wrong but no one comes out and says, “I’ve been harmed by corruption”, because it doesn’t impact you directly, it impacts the state as a whole, public service etcetera. The corruption that occurred during the Marcos years, many did not feel. And then who felt the brunt of the repression? Those who opposed it.

Furthermore, Marcos was president from ‘65 and left in ’86, so he controlled the education system throughout that period. So those of us who were martial law babies went through that process, and we were told, even I in my youth when I was in grade school and highschool, that Marcos was the best president of the country. And I might have believed it had I not entered UP and I was given a different view of facts. But not every person who went to school goes to UP, and then even those who went to UP not all became involved. I was involved because I saw Ninoy Aquino’s dead body. I visited their home in Times Street the day after he was killed, and that moved me to decide to fight the dictatorship. But not everyone went and saw that. And when I saw that, if this could happen to a senator of a republic then it could happen to anyone. That’s what spurred me to political action.

But many others never got involved in political action and so they believed as truth, gospel truth the propaganda that Marcos was the best president. And that continued post-’86, nothing was done to rewrite our history books and so our history books merely contained very basic facts: he was elected in ’65, while president he constructed lots of roads and highways and bridges, without reference to the corruption involved therein, no reference to the violations of human rights, no reference to the destruction of democratic institutions. And in 1986, he left office, but there was no description of what were the circumstances on his leaving office, and that’s in our history books.

So aside from the millennials who don’t have direct experience of the struggle against martial law, there is that section of society that have a good view of martial law, which is why for me, the decision to establish the museum is an important step in correcting misperception of history because that museum will serve as the archive for all these evidence that has been collected by these process of preparation. So that next time, I’m riding the taxicab and the taxi driver caught in the middle of traffic says, “Mas mabuti pa nung panahon ng martial law!”, I will tap his shoulder and say, “Mamang taxi driver, punta tayo sa museo at ipapakita ko sayo kung ano yung nangyari noong martial law!”

But right now, that evidence is there. We have an attached agency to document human rights called the Human Rights Victims Claims Board. They were established 2 years ago in 2014, under the mandate of a law: Republic Act 10368. This law that mandated the creation of the board and also the establishment of the Martial Law Human Rights Museum.

So can I ask, why was the law approved only recently?

We’ll have to ask congress that but it took a long time before there was a proposal to do this from the beginning, and it’s unfortunate that under the 1st Aquino government, it was never passed. Actually, there’s a term for this, it’s called transitional justice. Transitional justice are steps or measures that need to be taken in a transition from authoritarianism to democracy to ensure that the victims of injustice during the authoritarian period will receive justice. And why is it important to have transitional justice? Because it is a guarantee against repetition of the ills of the past. We failed to do our own process of transitional justice in the early years post-martial law, largely because we were building up from damaged economy, we were rebuilding democratic institutions and we have to remember that also the Aquino government by Cory was plagued by six coup d’etat attempts—meaning to say, the military that benefited during martial law did not like the democracy and tried to retake the democracy and reintroduce military rule. All six attempts failed, but you can imagine turmoil and the difficulties, so it failed to address transitional justice then. Then with Ramos, it was about economic form and the first, dealing with the power outage, many things but essentially, again it was not top on the agenda. And then of course the Estrada-Arroyo period, you have to see the two as linked because Estrada was elected, Arroyo was elected with him and then there was this EDSA 2 that created major division in Philippine society, but were only able to overcome after the 2010 elections. So it’s sort of like a matter that was set aside for far too long. Congress passed the law in 2014.

Many other countries that came from authoritarian rule address transitional justice issue early, in our case we addressed it or were addressing it a little late. I wouldn’t say too late, but late. But it’s important to do it to set the record straight, to hold people to account, to pay out reparations and to make promises that this won’t happen again.

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I hope we don’t have to go through that again.

Well there’s this Chinese proverb, “We live in interesting times.” And I lived through interesting times, and I wish the same of your generation, but I’d like you to experience new interesting experiences and not same interesting experiences we went through. I have a 9 year-old daughter—she’s the center of my universe—and the reason why I continue to fight for these things is because I want her to experience new things, new interesting things, but won’t have to go through the hardships of earlier generations. But if that be our burden, so be it. We wish and hope your generation will grapple with your issues and not have to repeat our mistakes.

Is there anything we can do to prevent even getting to that point, of repeating those mistakes?

Well it’s important to speak up. It’s important to educate, it’s important to reach out. It’s great to have lively discussions online but we need to bring those discussions and those ideas and initiate activities offline as well, in not just in the virtual world but now in the reality world, because if we don’t encourage people to act on their convictions then politics will be a few people who wield power to control, to undermine that which we share as a society. That’s why we’re here also as Commission of Human Rights—it’s supposed to be an institution that promotes and protects, upholds, fulfils human rights. We actually look to the youth as an important multiplier effect of these values, we just need to think of creative ways by which the youth can be involved beyond comments on Facebook. We need to work out our values, our principles, our vision, our ideals.



So lastly, can you tell us about the Martial Law museum?

Well, we’re in the early stages. Last end of April, after almost three years of looking for an appropriate site, we were finally able to form up a site. There was an initial decision to place the site of the museum at the BGC area but unfortunately, we were unable to locate site there because of the cost of land there. So about a year ago, after much trepidation, the decision was made to look for alternative site other than BGC.

By the way, you might ask, why BGC? Because before it became BGC, that was Fort military base and many human rights victims and political detainees were actually incarcerated in that area, so it had also historical meaning. You might be sitting in a corner Starbucks and not realize that about 40 years ago, that area was a detention center. And how would you know unless someone told you?

So we were very busy looking for alternative sites and then things open up about four or five months ago. We signed a memorandum of understanding between three agencies—ourselves, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the National Housing Authority to build the museum at the Ninoy Aquino Park. Ninoy Aquino Park is an open lot with some buildings along North Ave. that also straddles what’s called the Parks and Wildlife, which is managed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. So it’s an open space, it’s a big sprawling park with places for different animals, biodiversity. So it’s a good place to visit. We wanted a museum site that would have foot traffic so we’ve settled on the site. It would be about 1-2 hectare space. We’re targeting 2018 to 2019 when we open the museum.

Our vision is we want to make it a living museum. Meaning to say, the exhibitions that will be made there will need to also be shared elsewhere, so there might be a network of shrines commemorating martial law outside the main museum. We also aim to have travelling museums, and a virtual component like many modern museums today.

The museum will be run by a body called the Memorial Commission which does not only involve the Commission of Human Rights, it has the National Historical Commission as its co-chair, the DepEd, the CHED, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and then the UP library as part of the commission. So the idea why we have DepDd and CHED is that the content of the museum—the archives and everything else that will be part of the collection—should be mined for purposes of curriculum development so that we can address the issue I raised earlier about our history books not talking enough about this.

We will mobilize curator to begin to develop the diff components of the museum and that can be done separately, so the design should be flexible enough to allow for the content, the exhibition itself. So this should be up and running in a year and half. Funding, initial funding was provided in the law Republic act 10368, of 500 million to build the museum. So it’s still in the treasury. When we are finished with the competition and begin the construction, we will tap into that 500 million which is the interest that came the stolen wealth [we got back]. So the stolen wealth, the 10 billion is to pay the victims. The interest, while it’s still in the bank, has been earning. Now 500 million has been identified for the museum. In a sense, it’s also part of this justice process: those who benefited from the dictatorship will now have to return that stolen wealth and that stolen wealth will be used to memorialize. It goes back to what we started in our conversation: historical memory.

So that maybe 5, 10, 15 yrs from now, just as with Antonio Luna’s phrase, we might be able to have similar phrases that can be part of the collective narrative like “Ibagsak ang diktaturya!” “Mabuhay ang kalayaan!” These phrases will be referenced to a common, collective, uncontested narrative about what happened 40 years ago. That’s the hope, so that maybe the 13 million who voted for BBM might have a long hard second look about how they voted.