Fighting to remember a decade of torture in the Philippines

September 29, 2022 3:09 pm

Marcos ran a murderous kleptocracy before mass pro-democracy protests drove him from power. [Source: BBC News]

Santiago Matela was 22 when he was dragged off the street by soldiers while playing basketball.

The year was 1977, five years since President Ferdinand E Marcos had declared martial law in the Philippines – on 21 September 1972.

Mr Marcos suspended parliament and arrested opposition leaders – Mr Matela was among the tens of thousands of people detained and tortured during a decade of martial law.

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Fifty years on, he is no longer afraid to speak out. But he is afraid of being believed at a time when the truth about one of the darkest periods in Filipino history is under attack.

Mr Matela endured three months of torture, including being tied naked to a block of ice. His captors demanded he admits to being a communist. He says he didn’t even know what that word meant.

Some 70,000 people were imprisoned, 34,000 were tortured and over 3,200 people were killed in the nine years after Mr Marcos imposed martial law, according to Amnesty International.

Meanwhile, the Marcos family lived famously opulent lifestyles. Mr Marcos’ wife, Imelda Marcos, amassed a huge collection of art and other luxuries, including hundreds of pairs of shoes.

They deny siphoning off billions of dollars of state wealth while at the helm of what historians consider one of Asia’s most notorious kleptocracies.

Public anger at abuse and corruption eventually led to pro-democracy protests in 1986 and the family were forced to flee to Hawaii where they lived in exile. Ferdinand Marcos died three years later.

But earlier this year, his son and namesake, Ferdinand Marcos Jr – popularly known as “Bongbong” – led an extraordinary comeback and won the presidency in a landslide victory.

The Marcos rebranding results from a major social media operation, aimed at younger Filipinos born after martial law ended. The message seeded in snappy Facebook, YouTube and TikTok posts is that the family has been unfairly treated by the mainstream press.

Mr Marcos Jr has shunned network news interviews and refused to participate in presidential debates. He has made it clear he doesn’t want to discuss the past and has instead focused on a promise to unite the nation and help it recover from the crippling effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

By a recognisable celebrity name, this popular message hit home with voters eager for change – including Mr Matela’s children.

Mr Matela tells me that his son believes the past should stay in the past, a view that he finds upsetting.