3,257 is the number of people alleged to have been killed by the military during President Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship, specifically over the ten-year period from 1975 to 1985. This widely quoted figure is frequently cited to support the argument that the military under Marcos was guilty of committing gross human rights violations, and that terror and brutality distinguished martial rule. With the return to political prominence of key members of the dictator’s family, especially his son, Ferdinand ‘Bong Bong’ Marcos, who is currently seeking the vice-presidency, the accuracy of the 3,257 figure is now being fiercely disputed. Serious doubt has lately been cast on the sources of the figure while, more generally, the data on torture, killings and disappearances are denounced as fabricated or exaggerated.
How was this number reached and just how credible are the sources?
The man credited for first bringing the figure to public attention is Alfred W. McCoy, an American historian. McCoy is an eminent professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has published extensively on the colonial and post-colonial history of state repression, the military, and policing in the Philippines. The 3,257 figure appears in two major books authored by McCoy – A Question of Torture (2006), and Policing America’s Empire (2009). In the latter work, McCoy describes in detail how martial law enabled Philippine police and military forces to operate with impunity and engage in systemic human rights abuses. On page 403, he writes: “Under Marcos military murder was the apex of a pyramid of terror with 3,257 killed, an estimated 35,000 tortured, and some 70,000 arrested.”
Trained historians cite their sources. McCoy’s sources are referenced in note number 26 on page 618. They are: the New York Times dated 11/10/1986; Richard J. Kessler, Rebellion and Repression in the Philippines (1989) and Philippines: testimonies on human rights violations(1986). In the note, McCoy explains the method by which he obtained the number. He writes: “To reach the figure of 3,257 killed under Marcos, Kessler’s enumeration for 1975-85 is supplemented by adding 93 more ‘extrajudicial killings’ in 1984 from data in Rev. La Verne D. Mercado and Sr. Mariani C. Dimaranan’s Philippines: testimonies…[page] 89.”
McCoy draws from a table that appears on page 137 in Kessler’s book.The table is titled ‘Human Rights Violations in the Philippines, 1975-1988’. The table has four columns. The first column gives the years, the second shows the number of arrests, the third the number of disappearances, and the fourth the number of extrajudicial killings. The numbers shown under each category corresponds to each year in question.
McCoy’s 3,257 figure is the result of simple maths. He adds up the number of disappearances recorded each year from 1975 to 1985. This produces a total of 737. The same is done for extrajudicial killings. This gives a total of 2,427. He then turns to the Testimonies book which states that, in 1984, the number of “salvagings,” a word that came to be defined as the “summary or extrajudicial execution of individuals by military or paramilitary forces of the government,” was finally tallied at 538 ie. 93 more than indicated in the table shown by Kessler for the same year.
We are now ready to do the sum:
737 (disappearances) + 2,427 (salvagings) + 93 = 3,257
Skeptics accuse McCoy of using data from biased non-academics. But McCoy’s principal source — Kessler in fact obtained his figures from Task Force Detainees Philippines (TFDP), drawing in particular on the monthly issues of Philippine Human Rights Update for the years covered.
The TFDP was established in 1974 by the well-known and highly regarded Catholic body, the Association of Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMRSP) (https://www.tfdp.net/). Among the Association’s many objectives is the promotion of good governance and the provision of “moral and spiritual support” to whistleblowers who stand up against the graft and corruption of government officials (https://www.amrsp.ph/what-we-do/).
The Testimonies book is composed of affidavits, testimonies, and witness accounts from people all over the Philippines who knew murdered and disappeared victims, or were victims themselves of torture and illegal arrest. These accounts were brought together by the Black Book Project Committee convened by the Reverend La Verne D. Mercado, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and Sister Mariani C. Dimaranan, Chair of the TFDP. The collection and compilation of the accounts were the result of a collaborative effort undertaken by several human rights organizations, including Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), Human Rights Desk of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and the Ecumenical Movement for Justice and Peace (EMJP).
Any historian or journalist worth their salt questions and tests the veracity and accuracy of sources. However, it seems to me that those who doubt the figure of 3,257, and aim to discredit the sources by which it was reached, have motives other than trying to get at the truth. Not only do they distort history, they insult the memory of those thousands of people who were savagely killed.
3,257 is a number that chills the blood.