OPINION: Burial fit for a thief

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On November 18, 2016, an uproar over the surprise burial of former President Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani led groups of protesters to converge at the People Power's Monument along EDSA. Photo by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Nicole Curato is a sociologist. She is a research fellow at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra and a regular contributor for CNN Philippines. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN Philippines Life) — Naisahan kayo ano,” Philippine National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa said in jest, when asked about the Marcos burial.

When I first heard the news, this too, was my reaction. Good lord, the Marcoses outsmarted us again. They’ve been outsmarting us for decades, from hiding their wealth in secret jurisdictions, confidently posing in lifestyle magazines as if there is something glamorous about ill-gotten wealth, promoting a selective version of history through misleading videos, brazenly lying on national television, and, indeed, throwing their support to a popular president who made it his campaign promise to bury the dictator at the National Heroes Cemetery.

Sneaky burial

A stealthily executed burial should not have surprised me anymore. The conduct of the burial is nothing but consistent with the Marcoses’ decades-long track record of pulling a fast one on a public that is often fragmented, disillusioned, apathetic, or simply frustrated.

But there is something about a sneaky burial that led to a visceral reaction. It generated a feeling that left me gasping for breath, desperately trying to find ways to express my exasperation.

If the Marcos family thinks they won the Supreme Court decision fair and square, then why take a surreptitious route? Why not be magnanimous and consider the 15-day period for motion for reconsideration? Why not take the high road?

Because being sneaky is what people do when they want to destabilize the enemy. It is what covert operations do to catch terrorists. It is what rebellious soldiers do when they launch a military coup. At the core of surreptitious operations is the goal to overwhelm, to get ahead before others can reasonably react, to control the situation before others can gather strength.

Being sneaky is all too familiar, such that we do this in everyday life. We act sneakily when we know what we are about to do will cause social disapproval: sneaking out for a cigarette after announcing one has quit smoking, sneaking out to eat a chocolate bar when doctors ordered to cut back on sugar, sneaking out of a bad Tinder date because the display picture does not match the person, and sneaking out of traffic violations hoping no one is looking. Sneaking is what we do when we feel like cowards, that what we’re doing feels good but too tiresome to defend to on moral grounds.

Sneaking is what thieves are good at. Thieves prey on the vulnerabilities of unsuspecting others. They spot the opportunities to take advantage. Thieves get what they want because they can.

What we saw on the 18th of November was a burial fit for a thief — a burial so craftily executed leaving little time for those against it to preempt what to many is a great insult to a nation still suffering from the impacts of the dictatorial regime. 

We have been outsmarted.

Indignation rally.jpg Clad in black, protesters during the rally raised signs and placards to express their indignation. Photo by JL JAVIER  

There is no ‘us’

I acknowledge that there is a problem when I say we have been outsmarted. The problematic word, however, is not ‘outsmarted’ but ‘we.’

‘We’ has become (or has always been) a problematic term. When we say ‘we are offended by the burial’ or ‘we need to move on,’ who are we referring to? Who is part of our claim to speak for a collective?

For the past few years, at least three versions of the royal ‘we’ claim to speak for the nation. One was out in the streets last Friday, protesting the burial in a playful, creative, but nevertheless indignant manner. This is the protest that moved some people to tears, seeing the veterans of the First Quarter Storm chant the same anti-Marcos slogans with today’s students. It is a public that rejects the kind of ‘closure’ the Marcos burial delivers, for it further entrenches the Marcoses back to mainstream politics, instead of holding them accountable for their sins.

But there is the other equally vocal public — those who ask for national healing and reconciliation, venerating the virtues of moving on, and defending the track record of the dictator that qualified him to be buried alongside heroes. Marcos is the best thing that happened to the country, they say. He built roads, bridges, hospitals, and cultural centers. Those who complain about the Martial Law have been blinded by yellow propaganda.

At the core of the issue of the burial is a question of who we are and which narrative will prevail.

And then there are those in between. Those who argue that this issue should not be framed in terms of pro- or anti-Marcos because there are broader, more complex issues that the nation needs to think about. Contrary to the President’s claims, there's a lot of credible academic research, court rulings and films, that chronicle the sins of the Macros regime. But also well documented are the cruelties of post-EDSA politics, whether it is in the form of extreme poverty that savages human dignity, the perpetuation of elite politics, the failure to deliver peace in the South and the horrendous policies that have left our farmers starving. One cannot reject the Martial Law regime without confronting the failures of EDSA.

Indeed, there are many publics comprising the debate on the legacy of the Marcos regime. At the core of the issue of the burial is a question of who we are and which narrative will prevail.

Indignation rally3.jpg A light rain poured as the program for the indignation rally ended, and protesters slowly readied to go home. Photo by JL JAVIER  

No illusions

I have no illusions that our country will ever achieve national unity. I am skeptical of the concept of moving on. Move on for whom? Forgiveness for what? Who benefits from calls for national unity?

Filipinos have different answers to these questions. But these disagreements are not necessarily a bad thing.

Building a nation is a fragile project. It is underpinned not by short-lived moments of national unity but by moments when people disagree, challenge, listen, and reflect on each other’s views. A nation proves its strength not when we find allies among people who already think like us but when we find ways to reach out to those whose views we do not agree with.

If debates in social media are any indication, then we are clearly far from getting better at disagreeing with each other. But amidst the vulgarity and insufferable logic are pockets of opportunities for genuine dialogue.

At a time of intractable conflict, nationhood demands a commitment of perfecting the art of debating each other.

This, I think, is one of the best legacies of ousting an authoritarian regime. We can celebrate the opening of democratic space when we fight each other through reason instead of threats and coercion, when we call out lies — whether it is peddled by fake news sites, bloggers or mainstream media — when we use free press to challenge propaganda, and when we test each other’s ideas so together we can imagine alternative futures to make things better.

If debates in social media are any indication, then we are clearly far from getting better at disagreeing with each other. But amidst the vulgarity and insufferable logic are pockets of opportunities for genuine dialogue.

We see this with millennials asking thoughtful questions about what exactly happened to university students who were tortured during the Martial Law. We see this with netizens who patiently fact-check misinformation circulating online. And yes, we sometimes see this with Mocha Uson who, in some instances, concedes incorrect information she posts online — although I do hope this happens more often.

So forget national unity. Let’s focus on perfecting the art of debating each other.