Hero’s burial for Marcos

BATAC, Philippines – More than two decades after former President Ferdinand Marcos died in disgrace in Hawaii, it looks like the family’s longstanding demand for a burial with honours in a cemetery reserved for presidents and other prominent figures in the Phillipines, will go ahead. At least 200 lawmakers signed a resolution urging President Benigno Aquino III to allow a “hero’s burial” for his father’s political rival, former President and dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

The House resolution, containing more than 200 signatures from congressmen, recommended that Aquino should allow the burial of the remains of the former President at the cemetery, known as Libingan ng mga Bayani.

His widow, Imelda, has refused to bury him elsewhere, and his body is now preserved in a back-lit transparent box in a hushed mausoleum open to the public here in his hometown in the northern Philippines.

The divisive request for a hero’s burial was renewed in February by Marcos’ son, Ferdinand. Instead of dismissing it as his predecessors had, President Benigno Aquino III passed it on to his vice president, Jejomar Binay.

Like many Filipinos, Aquino believes Marcos had his father, a political rival, assassinated in 1983, and he said he was too close to the issue.

Marcos fled the country in 1986 in the face of a “people power” uprising that installed Aquino’s mother, Corazon, as president. He died in 1989 at the age of 72, still claiming to be the rightful president, still trying to return. In 1993, the government allowed his widow to bring his body home but refused her demand for a hero’s burial.

The body, looking remarkably young, lies on a white satin sheet, medals pinned smartly to the chest, toes pointing upward in their black shoes.

But the passing years seem to be taking a toll. Tiny black streaks of what seems to be mold creep up the edges of the satin sheet, and a sound system meant to pipe in soft music is broken.

A small adjoining museum appears neglected, with its roof leaking, portraits fading or defaced and framed medals hanging askew in broken frames.

No one seems to have swept or dusted the museum, let alone refurbished it, despite the periodic visits of his widow and family members to pray. They kneel in the dim light even as tourists circulate around them, according to an attendant, Cesar Ocampo.

At one point some years ago, Ocampo said, electricity to the mausoleum was almost cut off because of unpaid bills.

“I think it’s not the body anymore, just wax,” said Vicente Acoba Jr., a lighthouse keeper who has visited several times over the years, expressing a widespread suspicion. “It’s a very long time now. I don’t think they can preserve it that long.”

In February, as the nation was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the “people power” uprising that drove his father from power, the younger Marcos declared that his father was at least as worthy as many others who are buried in the cemetery.

“We’ve always said that it’s his right as a former president, as a former soldier, as a be-medalled soldier, that he be buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani,” said Marcos, who is now a senator.

An immediate backlash revealed the level of anger that persists among many Filipinos over his father’s 20 years of repressive rule. Recently, more than 7,000 victims of human rights violations during his tenure began receiving payments drawn from the family’s vast but mostly hidden wealth.

“He’s not a hero to me,” said one of the victims, Sylvia de la Paz, a doctor whose husband was shot and killed after speaking out against abuses. “How can you give honour to people who killed thousands, incarcerated thousands, tortured thousands? If they bury him there, the families of the others will try to get their dead out.”

A visit to this town 451 kilometres north of Manila in Ilocos Norte province is a reminder of the power of family ties in a country still controlled by oligarchies and animated by personal loyalties.

The younger Aquino and the younger Marcos both bear their fathers’ names and inherit many of their political supporters. Before he became a senator, in an election last May, Marcos served as governor of Ilocos Norte. His sister Imee was elected to succeed him. His mother was elected to represent the province in Congress.

In what Ocampo, the attendant, said was a common opinion among Marcos supporters here, they opposed the burial precisely because they admired the former president. “He should stay here where people can see him,” he said. “If they bury him, he will decompose and be gone.”