First of a series

I AM probably the last person many people would expect to be speaking in the conference "Nuancing the History of the Marcos Era in the Philippines: Approaches, Evidences and Contestations" held Feb. 28, 2023. But despite the fact that I am known as an engaged academic, I am actually an advocate of a more nuanced and less radical approach in telling the history of the Marcos regime from when I was a student in college. I even picked Imelda Marcos as the topic of my BA and MA theses. My seemingly polemical approach was only a reaction to the historical distortions, especially pertaining to the victims of human rights violations. But as an academic, I never let my politics get ahead of my scholarship.

Dinky von Einsiedel with the author in 2007 FROM THE ARCHIVES OF THE XIAO CHUA LIBRARY
Dinky von Einsiedel with the author in 2007 FROM THE ARCHIVES OF THE XIAO CHUA LIBRARY
Nathaniel von Einsiedel briefs about the Metro Manila Land Use Plan FROM THE BOOK ‘METRO MANILA, MY CITY, MY HOME’
Nathaniel von Einsiedel briefs about the Metro Manila Land Use Plan FROM THE BOOK ‘METRO MANILA, MY CITY, MY HOME’

As a framework in studying the Marcos regime, I used the "Pantayong Pananaw" indigenous concepts of gahum and kaginhawahan to demonstrate that the conjugal regime, as possessor of the state's power or gahum, used it either to take it away from people (human rights violations and plunder) and to dispense it as well (government projects). This accounts for the nation's schizophrenic view of the Marcos regime.

When I wrote my master's thesis on "Ang Maynila ni Imelda: Isang kapanahong kasaysayan ng pagbabagong-anyo ng Metropolitan Manila (1965-1986)," one of my earliest and main primary sources was Nathaniel von Einsiedel. He is known today as an expert urban planner who was once the founding commissioner for planning of Metropolitan Manila whom I interviewed in his Makati office on Jan. 17, 2007. He eventually published his memoirs Metro Manila, my city, my home: Impact of colonization... Primacy of Metro Manila... Urban planning and development in the face of politics in 2020.

Known to many as Dinky, he became the youngest technical staff of the Philippine delegation sent to Habitat I: The United Nations Conference on Human Settlements in Vancouver, Canada, which was headlined by first lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos. Earlier, in 1974, he already recommended that there should be a metropolitan government to coordinate government services in Manila and environs.

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According to Einsiedel, "she didn't know anything about what human settlements was about." He briefed Mrs. Marcos at her office at the Music Room of Malacañan Palace on land use, resource management, affordability for housing, onsite upgrading and other concepts. He observed: "She absorbed it like a sponge, she got excited about it and, para bang, wow, ganyan pala 'yan! Excited siya."

She wanted her address to highlight how the regime implemented Human Settlements in Metro Manila: "Mrs. Marcos, she was aware of the fact that Metro Manila is the gateway to the Philippines. It's the face of the Philippines, as far as the rest of the world is concerned. So what you do in Metro Manila is important."

With Imelda's adviser, the late Conrado "Jolly" Benitez, Einsiedel worked for the Philippine presentation "The Proposed Development Plan to Metro Manila," a title which was not appreciated by Mrs. Marcos, "Wala namang katorya-torya 'yang ano e.... I'll assign one of my writers to work with you."

And so with Marita Manuel and Rodolfo Severino of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the technical report became the flamboyant document, "Metro Manila: the City of Man." Imelda wanted them to highlight Manila's importance not just as an urban center but in world geopolitics as well. After the conference, Mrs. Marcos gave Einsiedel a position in the Human Settlements Commission which led to his subsequent appointment as commissioner for planning for the Metropolitan Manila Commission, despite being a student leader who led protests against Marcos back at university.

In looking back at why he accepted, he told me: "At that stage of my career, I was not really interested in how much I was earning. It was really more in the challenge of the job. ...And then, we started getting our fingers into the pie and started seeing possibilities that we could contribute to change. So, when I was appointed ...I never felt, I never believed, that it was because of any political loyalty. I felt, and, up to now, still believe that it was because of my technical competence."

Then, how does he describe Imelda Marcos as a leader? She was often caricatured as crazy and erratic. Of course, the truth is more complex than that.

President Ferdinand E. Marcos created the Metropolitan Manila Commission and appointed Mrs. Marcos as governor of Metro Manila in 1976; eventually, she also became concurrent minister of the newly created Ministry of Ecology and Human Settlements in 1978. As governor of Metropolitan Manila, Einsiedel described what Imelda felt her role was, "'Yung ang role niya, visionary siya e."

So, the regime took in technocrats to basically make her ideas become reality. They may have been grand and frivolous at first but the role of Einsiedel and his team was to translate them into doable projects.

(More next week, March 21)