On the night of Election Day on May 9, when Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was on the way to winning the presidential race according to the count of the Commission on Elections, one thought came into my mind: the martial law files.
Why? Simple. He is the son and namesake of the ousted dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, whose first decrees under martial law included the closure of critical news organizations and a ban on all “seditious” material, in print or visual.
Reading through the histories of certain despots in history, from Adolf Hitler to Pol Pot, I’ve learned that an outright ban on published materials perceived by them to be “dangerous” to their social order (read: their dictatorial rule) was at the highest rung of their tyrannical ladder.
The ousted Philippine dictator was no exception.
I quickly sent a message to my friend, Sarah, after it hit me. We share the frustration and despair of so many who worked to upend a Marcos Jr. victory by campaigning for the opposition led by then Vice President Leni Robredo.
It turned out that Sarah was already thinking ahead; She was gathering funds to buy a book scanner. My idea then was to keep digital copies of as many books as possible on martial law, the abuses, the violations of human rights—and open the repository to the public.
We were convinced that a book or even a copy of a Marcos-era publication shared with as many people as possible could keep disinformation at bay. We would not allow a continuing distortion and erasure of the dictatorship, its enablers, and those who benefited from it.
Following Sarah’s cue, I made a public call for donations to procure the martial law books (and other materials) that we would digitize.
Thus was born “Project Gunita”—gunita being the Filipino word for “memory.”
We are not the first to do the archiving of historical records on martial law. Last April, the Bantayog ng mga Bayani launched its own digital archive of the “mosquito press” publications that fought Marcos’ censors. The Martial Law index did the same, too, and as far back as September 2021, Demokrasya PH led by writer-activist Katrina Stuart Santiago initiated the creation of a similar repository.
We wanted to complement these exceptional efforts. Everyone was trying to hold on to documented evidence on the Marcos dictatorship—and there is a vast array of it out there—for safekeeping.
Project Gunita started with so little, including books from my personal collection. After we announced our initiative, people began chipping in financially for us to get enough money to procure the first batches of books.
When Filipinos overseas began inquiring how they could send donations for the project, a friend of Sarah’s helped create a new account.
On what would have been an ordinary day last June, a fateful twist happened. A woman in Metro Manila had a copy of the full 1984 Agrava Fact-Finding Board Report and of “The Grand Collision,” written by Manuel Martinez. “Sir, do you want newspapers?” she asked me, referring to newspapers that came out in the 1980s. The idea thrilled me, and she offered to sell them at a cheap price.
More sellers offered valuable books and old newspapers, and now we have more than enough materials to take our project forward. The people’s concern has pushed us to widen our networks. We agreed to collaborate with Bantayog.
For the first time in 38 years, Project Gunita released a public online version of the Agrava Board report. The books include a biography of former first lady Imelda Marcos written by her “dissident” niece, Beatriz Romualdez-Francia, Charles McDougald’s “The Marcos File,” and Time correspondent Sandra Burton’s “Impossible Dream.”
We have issues of The Manila Times and the Philippine Daily Inquirer covering the 1986 snap presidential election, as well as issues of Ang Pahayagang Malaya in 1983 and 1986, including its iconic editions of Feb. 22 and 25, 1986. We have copies of Veritas, Philippine Signs, and even Who magazine.
Another friend offered copies of original transport and urban planning reports of the World Bank and Japan International Coordinating Agency during the Marcos regime.
All these historical records chronicle the truth about the Marcos dictatorship. For instance: the Majority Report of the Agrava Board indicted Marcos’ loyal Armed Forces chief of staff, Gen. Fabian C. Ver, in the assassination of Marcos’ rival and top opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. Ninoy was killed on the tarmac of the international airport that now bears his name, upon his return from exile on Aug. 21, 1983.
Archiving is but the first step. Our project, like other similar efforts, is facing a well-oiled machinery of disinformation funded by ill-gotten wealth.
Popularizing these materials and encouraging people to read, use, and learn from them are the next crucial battles. The support and material generosity of Filipinos who donated resources and are promoting Project Gunita are enough for us to carry on this fight to defend historical truth.
We will never concede history to the dictatorship’s favor. Not a single page of it.
Karl Patrick Wilfred M. Suyat is Project Gunita’s cofounder, the incoming editor in chief of the University of the Philippines’ Journalism Club, and a Data Committee member of the Institute for Nationalist Studies. —Ed.