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Nuanced narratives on the Marcos years

MICHAEL “XIAO” CHUA

DURING the Philippine Historical Association annual conference, with the theme “Facing the Challenges of Historical Distortions and Opening New Directions in History” last September 19, the Ateneo de Manila University social scientist Filomeno “Jun” Aguilar Jr. was reported by Rappler as saying in his plenary lecture that “historians have failed to produce a comprehensive and objective historical account of Marcos’ two-decade rule. This has made it possible for partisan groups to spin various narratives, which have now spread faster due to social media and the current political environment.”

Aguilar said: “What we need is a nuanced and multifaceted account of the Marcos regime…. One that accounts for both corruption on the one hand and technocracy on the other hand. Plunder on the one hand and developmentalism on the other hand. Gross human rights abuses and salvagings on the one hand and citizen rights for minorities of foreign descent [on the other hand]. It’s an extremely contradictory story that is yet to be narrated by a professional historian. If you are writing it, please do tell me.”


Some may have felt, after reading through Aguilar’s comments quickly, that he was attacking the historians. What I understood though while I was listening to him in the context of the entirety of the speech was that he did not say that there were no nuanced studies, but rather that there is not one printed Martial Law general textbook that is more or less nuanced. What there is are collections of papers put together in a book or books; an excellent one he cited was Dictatorship and Revolution: Roots of People’s Power, edited by Aurora Javate-de Dios, Petronilo Bn Daroy and Lorna Kalaw-Tirol. Recent books such as Marcos’ Martial Law Never Again by Raissa Robles, although comprehensive and scholarly, took a stand against the human rights abuses of the regime.

There were excellent general works in the 1980s by foreign journalists such as the superb book based on firsthand experience and interviews by Sandra Burton, The Impossible Dream, and Charles MacDougald’s The Marcos File, although these were more reportage than analysis.

But there was actually one essay on the Marcos years that was more or less nuanced as early as 1999. It was an essay included in the Philippine Historical Association book Philippine Presidents: 100 Years titled “The Rise and Fall of the New Society” which was written by Ka Adriel Obar Meimban who, even if he was a minister and historian of the Iglesia ni Cristo (a group which supported the Marcoses, especially during the snap presidential elections of 1986) took into account both the achievements, failures and wrongdoing of Marcos.

It is not also that there are no nuanced studies on the Marcos years but that they are at most academic and focused on just one specialized topic. There are even book-length treatments of certain aspects of the regime such as Roman Dubsky’s Technocracy and Development in the Philippines in 1993, and just recently, Teresa S. Encarnacion-Tadem’s Philippine Politics and the Marcos Technocrats: The Emergence and Evolution of a Power Elite. Even my own 2010 unpublished master’s thesis, Ang Maynila ni Imelda: Isang Kapanahong Kasaysayan ng Pagbabagong-Anyo ng Metropolitan Manila (1965-1986), although critical of Imelda in general, gave her a lot of space to defend herself that one of those who read it told me she emerged as an admirer of the First Lady because I took into account some of her real achievements. It is also not true that the Marcos narrative was silenced all these years as the Marcos Foundation produced numerous studies by historians praising the achievements of the regime.

But why the lack of one general text on Martial Law from a historian? Since I first began to teach in a state university 14 years ago, I have heard colleagues tell me that the time for grand narratives are over. Gone are the days when a historian can claim he is an expert on all aspects of a certain era. That modesty has made historians write on particular topics of the Marcos years. The advent of the age of Instagram has made some authors question if it is still relevant to write books that only academics will read anyway. That is why what actually stands today as the Martial Law “textbook” that commands most of the narrative of the young would be Kara Magsanoc’s documentary “Batas Militar,” produced in 1997, which has been influential even in my telling of Martial Law ever since I watched it in high school.

What has also been lacking are scholarly ones written in Filipino which we tried to fill a bit in a Saliksik journal issue which I co-edited with Alvin Campomanes and Atoy Navarro. It came out a few weeks ago. In my introduction, I emphasized what historian Navarro has reminded me — it doesn’t mean that nuanced means also unbiased. But accounting for and respecting the various perspectives even when one is making a stand have proven to be really effective in my personal dealings with people.

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