The ‘battle for memory’

The ‘battle for memory’
INAUGURAL SPEECH Ferdinand Marcos Jr. addresses the nation in an inaugural speech at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Manila. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Reports of protesting Sri Lankans storming the presidential palace and forcing President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to run away and eventually announce that he would step down are triggering recollections of Ferdinand Marcos’ own flight from Malacañang in February 1986 as protesting Filipinos approached the gates.

Written accounts of the ailing dictator’s last hours in the Palace—for example, “Ferdinand E. Marcos: From Malacañang to Makiki” by his longtime aide Col. Arturo Aruiza, as recently cited by Vera Files’ Ellen Tordesillas in her blog—provide a glimpse of how harried attendants packed the bags and boxes that accompanied the fleeing family in its journey to Hawaii. There are more extant accounts and recollections to juxtapose against the version of the “reliable source” supposedly behind “Maid in Malacañang,” which, this early, appears to offer at least one wince-worthy detail: that the Filipinos marching on the Palace in that fateful night of flight were carrying torches a la the Ku Klux Klan.

“The battle for memory never ceases,” wrote the sociologist and Inquirer columnist Randy David (although in the context of Shinzo Abe’s assassination). The memory of Ferdinand Marcos’ martial rule remains a fresh wound on its survivors, so that his son’s presidency 50 years after it was imposed is a poignant, specific pain. The son has asked not to be judged according to what happened in the past, but a starlet involved in “Maid” recently pronounced history as “tsismis”—in the derogatory sense—boldly suggesting that the film on the Marcoses’ last days in the Palace means to correct idle chatter on a turning point in contemporary Philippine history. 

Yet there are accounts, in print or in film, that bear firm witness to those defining moments. More than ever, these accounts must be protected and made accessible to the widest audience, not only to inform but also to correct the historical distortion and denialism being employed, in a determined effort sustained by unlimited resources, to project a purported “legacy.”

Bags galore

A severe economic crisis marked by capital flight and a burgeoning foreign debt served as backdrop to the literal toppling of the regime, heralded by “carton boxes, garment bags, duffel bags, traveling bags, leather bags, attache cases, Louis Vuitton bags, suitcases and just plain boxes packed but their flaps left unsealed” that, Aruiza wrote, were carried out of the Marcoses’ living quarters preparatory to their escape on Feb. 25, 1986. Reporting a month later in the Los Angeles Times, the multiawarded American journalist Bob Drogin wrote that, per a 23-page inventory of the US Customs Service, the Ferdinand Marcos party’s baggage upon landing in the United States contained “more than 400 items of costly jewelry, including a golden crown and three diamond-studded tiaras; more than 60 sets of pearl necklaces and chokers; a $290,000 Burmese ruby; and a diamond-studded ornamental hair comb worth $44.410.” 

There were also 22 boxes containing $1.2 million in Philippine pesos, Drogin wrote, all of which, along with the jewelry and other valuable impedimenta, were impounded by the US Customs Service from a US Air Force cargo plane that followed the Marcoses and 88 family members and associates in their flight from the Philippines to Hickam Air Force Base near Honolulu on Feb. 26, 1986.

The memory of the ruling family’s high living both in the Philippines and overseas is backstopped by these details—all on record—along with numerous other details of such breathtaking ostentation as to merit the entry of “imeldific” in the English lexicon. 

Hardly surprising then is the public curiosity about how the second Marcos administration—taking power in an economy battered by the pandemic, fuel price increases, and indebtedness in the trillions of pesos, among others—would comport itself in terms of living down a documented reputation for extravagance. Clues could be found in family photo ops at the presidential inauguration held at the National Museum on June 30 and in pictures and vids of festivities at the Palace that they fled only 36 years ago—their clothes, their bling, their company, their food…

Related: Detention, ‘town arrest’ under martial law


The inaugural ball in the evening was expectedly elegant, with the elegant pianist Cecile Licad, on a whirlwind visit from New York, playing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. There was dancing later. And, per a little-known inaugural tradition—surely unknown to voters remembering and awaiting the fruition of the campaign promise of rice at P20 a kilo—a memorable gift was presented to each of the guests at the dinner tables: a gold medal bearing the likeness of the new President, encased in a little red box.

The to-do in Malacañang included the July 2 celebration of the former first lady’s birthday. Pictures posted online by family members themselves served to inform the public of the merrymaking in the hall where important state occasions are conducted, an occasion on which the office of the press secretary-designate would later refuse to comment, the office being, it said, concerned only with statements on “public interest and welfare.”

Food being of much interest not only to the hungry but also to those who have elevated it to an art form, the comestibles at the Palace’s parties drew superlatives from food columnist Margaux Salcedo, who marveled at how delish yet how simple they were. The list of dishes, whether at the lunch buffet for the diplomatic corps or the dinner at the ball, she gushed, “must be the most humble inaugural menus ever!” She was persuasive in making her case, and in the process revealed an enduring memory of opulence: “I really had to do a double take. Are you sure this is a Marcos menu?” 

The simplicity motif was likewise cited by Sen. Imee Marcos in fielding reporters’ questions about her mother’s birthday shindig—a happy occasion, she pointed out, “a simple merienda” for a woman once wife and now mother to a president, and now 93 years old. Is that prohibited? she wondered. “Bawal ba yun?”

To never forget

OATH OF OFFICE Ferdinand Marcos Jr. takes his oath of office as the 17th president of the Philippines before Chief Justice Alejandro Gesmundo. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

In the morning of June 30, to coincide with the inauguration of the second Marcos administration, martial law survivors gathered at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani for their own oath-taking. The site is hallowed ground, set apart to honor the memory of those who resisted martial rule and paid with their lives for it. 

The thinning, graying ranks of survivors of arrest, detention and torture swore to never forget, and to “guard against tyranny, falsehoods and the trampling of people’s rights and freedoms.” To keep the memory ever pulsing, to continue “to tell [their] stories to the country and to the world,” they formally passed “the torch of truth” to representatives of youth groups.

On the other side of town, the ritual of installing Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as the 17th president of the Philippines began.

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