Museum to remind Filipinos of dictatorship
A four-minute song once cost Gilbert Pimentel, now 68, two months in horrific confinement.
It was 1974, two years after dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law to quell growing civil unrest. Pimentel, then 23, was among the rebels captured by the military in an encampment in mountain-ringed Benguet.
Even while under detention in Camp Olivas in Pampanga, Pimentel made no secret of his disdain for the regime. One morning, after he and his fellow detainees were told to sing to welcome the camp commander, they belted out the rousing song that would become the anthem of the resistance: “Bayan ko, binihag ka / Nasadlak sa dusa!”
Seven of them were promptly thrown into a dark cell no wider than a dinner table that they were not allowed to leave for two months. An empty pineapple juice can served as their toilet; a small barred window that looked out to the camp was the only source of light and distraction.
Pimentel was detained until 1977. By then his wife, Jennifer Cariño, had been killed while organizing indigenous communities in the Cordilleras. She was only 26.
It is stories like Pimentel’s that bolster the need for the creation of a memorial to honor the martial law victims. Such a structure may soon stand in the bastion of the antidictatorship movement: the University of the Philippines Diliman.
A memorandum of agreement is to be signed today, the 46th anniversary of Marcos’ imposition of martial law, between UP and the multiagency Memorial Commission (MC).
Led by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP), the MC is tasked with establishing a martial law museum, or what will eventually be the “Freedom Memorial,” in UP.
No particulars have been laid out, except that it is planned to be built near the College of Fine Arts, said Butch Dalisay, UP vice president for public affairs. The MC is hoping for a lot measuring at least a hectare.
An emblem of the largely student-led First Quarter Storm, UP is the “natural location” for a memorial as a number of its “best and brightest contributed to the resistance [against the dictatorship],” said Dalisay, himself a former political detainee.
UP also “produced the players of that period, both left and right,” MC head Chuck Crisanto said, citing Moro National Liberation Front founding chair Nur Misuari, who struggled against Marcos and is also a UP graduate.
The museum is a key element of Republic Act No. 10368, or the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act.
RA 10368 is the only national law institutionalizing the memory of the brutal 14-year martial rule in which thousands were killed, tortured or forcibly disappeared and the Marcoses and their cronies pillaged the national coffers and resources.
But while other countries like Germany (Holocaust), Cambodia (Khmer Rouge genocide) and South Korea (Kwang-ju massacre) moved swiftly to build memorials to the atrocities they had experienced, the Philippines grappled with a 30-year “contestation of history” that whitewashed martial law, said CHR Chair Chito Gascon.
A state-backed memorial will help “set the record straight” and hopefully lead to a national reckoning, he said.
Artifacts from victims
At the heart of the Freedom Memorial is a planned museum showcasing, among others, artifacts recovered from martial law victims. Around P500 million—the interest from the P10 billion in Marcos wealth allotted by the state for reparations—has been set aside by the national treasury for its construction.
Nearly a million pieces of memorabilia are in the custody of the MC and UP Main Library, said NHCP Chair Rene Escalante. These include some 500,000 documents seized by the Presidential Commission on Good Government and at least 75,000 photographs and affidavits filed by rights abuse victims to claim reparations from the state.
The artifacts comprise written testimonies and photographs of torture and abuse, political and literary books, smuggled dissent flyers, or declassified military documents.
Some, like the military van that transported Ninoy Aquino after his assassination in 1983 at the airport later named after him, will be among the key memorabilia. The van is now full of bullets holes because it was used later by soldiers for target practice.
But more than being just an exhibit of objects, the museum will be experiential and immersive—to recreate “the feeling of what it was like to be denied your civil liberties,” said historian and former NHCP Chair Maria Serena Diokno, a daughter of the late former Sen. Jose Diokno, a staunch democrat and opponent of martial law who was detained along with Aquino at Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija.
This would include, for example, a gallery of the torture methods used to extract information from dissidents and a “graveyard” with the names and likenesses of martyrs carved on tombstones, she said. Perhaps also a jail cell to recreate the hellish confinement that rebels like Pimentel endured.
Crammed in a cell with six other men, languishing amid the smell of their excrement, Pimentel remembered descending into depression. “Moving around was difficult … [I’d] stare at the ceiling for hours, scream into my pillow. I didn’t know what was happening to my family.”
Ultimately the museum hopes to merge these individual horror stories into the broader narrative of martial law: the sociopolitical and economic conditions that made its declaration possible and why its consequences resonate still, amid the Marcos heirs’ renewed bid for power and President Duterte’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
The heart should bleed
“In other museums, you come out happy,” Escalante said. But in this one, the heart should bleed: “Dapat dumugo ang puso.”
The museum will be the centerpiece of the memorial, but the complex will also potentially include a garden adorned with installation art, an auditorium for the viewing of martial law films, and function rooms for “anything that relates to human rights,” Diokno said.
But UP wasn’t the first choice. The initial planned location of the museum was present-day Bonifacio Global City (BGC), which is equally rife with symbols as the site of Fort Bonifacio, one of the infamously brutal camps during the dark era.
“It was like going back to where part of it began,” Diokno said. “You are giving the narrative new meaning. From a symbol of imprisonment, now you are converting it to a symbol of liberation.”
But the MC could not have secured a vacant lot in the bustling commercial district without engaging in a tug-of-war with private owners. Despite the support of then President Benigno Aquino III, who personally lobbied for the museum to be built in BGC, the idea was ultimately shelved.
In April 2016, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources signified willingness to provide space at the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center in Quezon City. But the Aquino administration ended before an agreement could be signed, bringing the MC back to the drawing board.
Now, with UP, the MC is hoping that the third time’s the charm.
But the idea of building the museum in an institution that wears its activist tradition like a badge of honor could further alienate those who view martial law as “the concern of activists only,” Diokno warned.
Still, she said, UP would give the museum unfettered freedom to take command of the story that needed to be told, especially amid the Duterte administration’s “antipathy” to critics.
Nameless and faceless
Arjan Aguirre, a political science professor and administrator of Ateneo de Manila University’s virtual Martial Law Museum, also raised the need to rediscover the nuances that had been lost to the dominant, “monolithic” narrative of the period.
“People think the story of martial law is all about economy and politics. Where is the humanity in these stories?” said Aguirre, arguing for an account of martial law that would make room for the “nameless and faceless” people whose suffering was no less visceral than the era’s prominent players.
The new museum—less a concrete edifice than a living testament—will likely be expected to settle unresolved issues that have inflamed the national debate on martial law for decades.
“These are living, real artifacts of what happened in the past, objects of our memory,” Aguirre said. “They should be subjected to constant reinterpretation. Giving substance to martial law is well nigh impossible if the people have nothing to see.”
Pimentel lamented the absence of a concerted effort to quickly institutionalize the memory of martial law.
He conceded that survivors, too, had grown complacent. “Now we are feeling the effects of the failure to take the necessary steps,” he said. “We thought the rage of the people would always be there.”
Pimentel’s own rage has diminished through the years, crystallizing into something else entirely—a somber, but steadfast, desire that the horrors of martial law never be experienced again.
After all, martial law didn’t just steal his liberty; it also robbed him of the joy of witnessing his daughter’s first steps and first words.
“We missed the chance of a normal life,” he said. “[I] don’t want those events to happen again. Not to me, not to anybody.”
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