Martial law and the stories we tell


This year, on the 50th anniversary of martial law’s proclamation, the days leading up to the 21st of September have me feeling a new, more palpable grief and anger.

In past years, Sept. 21 was a day to reflect on these difficult questions: Are we doomed to repeat our mistakes? Are we at risk of being taken advantage of by another authoritarian regime? More recently, after the Marcos burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the question became: Have we resigned ourselves to sweeping the Marcos regime’s atrocities under the rug in the interest of “moving forward”?

Back then, a good number of people still believed that there was still space to fight disinformation and that we could dismiss the idea of the Marcoses’ return to power as absurd.

But today, the 31 million votes won by President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. in this year’s election have given us an answer to our questions: Yes, we have failed to resist the attempts to undermine our collective memory. People have been forced to “fight against their own memory and unknow what they clearly knew” (a term used by Charles Pierce in a 2016 piece on David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb).

The Marcoses asked us for a “second chance,” admitted that Marcos Jr. sought the Presidency to clear his family name, and the great majority of the Philippines supported him, essentially pardoning the Marcoses for past crimes.

How did we get here? How did we allow lies to distort our understanding of the past? And how can we get people to value the truth in this world of lies? How do we get people to remember?

An offshoot, I think, of my experience of losing my father at a young age is my obsession with my memory and fear of forgetting. When the people we love are no longer with us, we need to do the difficult work of keeping their memory alive. But time passes and without a conscious effort to remember, we sometimes find ourselves grasping for details about our loved ones that we used to know so well.

The same goes for our collective memory as a nation. If we don’t make an effort to tell the stories of those who came before us, we are bound to eventually forget them. Information now comes to us at lightning speed in the form of one-minute TikToks, and the sheer amount of media to consume slowly makes us more prone to unknowing things we already know. The social media managers behind the Marcos campaign know this, which is why they used this short form content to distort the narrative in their favor.

Some stories are more convincing and harder to forget, however — those told to you by people you already trust. Marcos propaganda is pushed mainly by community influencers who already have their own established spheres of influence. It is much easier to believe stories, no matter how false they may be, when they come from someone they have a relationship with.

In my freshman year of college, I was tasked to write a profile on someone who lived through martial law. I interviewed a family friend who was jailed for two years during martial law for his work as an activist. He casually described how he was tortured, and I couldn’t believe him when he said it “wasn’t too bad.” The quote that still rings in my head from that afternoon was when he told me what he learned from his time as an activist: “Most people don’t find a cause they’re willing to give up everything for; I was lucky that I found mine.”

That family friend was one of the first people I thought of on the evening of May 9 when election returns started trickling in and Bongbong Marcos quickly became presumptive president. I couldn’t imagine how he and the rest of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, many of whom were activists during martial law, felt upon seeing another Marcos winning by a landslide. Many of these activists were the best and the brightest of their generation who chose to dedicate their lives to the struggle for change, and yet suffered in ways still unimaginable to me.

I couldn’t fathom how it might feel for their darkest experiences to be invalidated and brushed off as chismis (gossip), when many of them lost loved ones, and parts of themselves, in the fight for freedom. I couldn’t stop thinking of the martial law activists I know who fought with all that they could to educate people on the truth about martial law.

The Marcos victory has merely empowered its disinformation machinery. The antidote for forgetting is constantly telling and repeating good truthful stories, no matter how long it takes.

Pia Rodrigo is Action for Economic Reforms’ strategic communication officer.

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