Standing Up to a Strongman

The Opinion Pages

Standing Up to a Strongman

Contributing Op-Ed Writer
By MIGUEL SYJUCO DEC. 11, 2016

A rally in suburban Quezon near Manila, on Nov. 30, to protest the re-burial of the late Ferdinand Marcos at the Heroes’ Cemetery.
Credit Bullit Marquez/Associated Press
MANILA — Dusk set silver-gray over the crowd gathered in a park here on Nov. 25, but the banners and placards could still be clearly seen. Homemade, cardboard, some laminated with packing tape to protect them from the rain, the signs expressed the rage of thousands of young Filipinos rallying against the recent, clandestine burial of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Cemetery of Heroes.

This protest was one of many that have taken place recently across the Philippines and by Filipinos around the world. A week earlier, thousands spontaneously flooded the streets as news of the burial emerged. Further protests have swollen into the tens of thousands. More are scheduled, despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s vocal commitment to the Marcos family, whom he has said contributed to his election campaign.

“You can’t bury the truth,” a placard read. “History has its eyes on you,” said another. In unison, the crowd chanted a slogan that dated from the days of the Marcos regime: “Marcos! Hitler! Dictator! Lap Dog!” A life-size cardboard coffin bobbed over our heads, and people thrust plastic shovels in the air and repeated: “Exhume him!”

Many students were still in their school uniforms. Other protesters had clearly come straight from work. Here and there, families sat on plastic sheets. In a corner at the back, college kids read their poetry while young actors played tied-up torture victims, or taped-up corpses — like those who appear daily, now totaling thousands since Mr. Duterte took office five months ago.

The heads of activist groups and civil society organizations took turns on stage delivering speeches or leading chants. One speaker continued to read out the placards, to cheers. Some were straightforward: “Here; Lies Marcos,” or “Marcos no hero!” Others were in the language of millennials: “Swipe left Marcos.” One proudly read: “Temperamental brats” — which is what Mr. Duterte’s communications chief had called those who protested against the Supreme Court’s split decision, earlier in November, to allow Marcos a hero’s burial.

For better or for worse, Mr. Duterte has wedded his presidency to the Marcos family. He consistently excuses the long dictatorship as justified. He has also endorsed Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who is seeking a recount for his vice-presidential race, which he lost in May.

Protesters carry an effigy of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a mock coffin during a rally in Manila on Nov. 25. Credit Aaron Favila/Associated Press

Protesters carry an effigy of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in a mock coffin during a rally in Manila on Nov. 25. Credit Aaron Favila/Associated Press
Mr. Duterte’s supporters, backed by an army of trolls, continuously flood social media with attacks and fake news — revising Wikipedia pages about the Marcoses, accusing opponents of destabilizing the country, and working to suspend Facebook accounts of journalists and online groups who dissent.

The recent protests show that many Filipinos are standing up against that.

What’s been surprising, however, is the engagement and anger of millennials, many of whom were criticized during the election for supporting the unsuccessful vice-presidental attempt by Mr. Marcos — who had run, strategically, with Miriam Defensor Santiago, an outspoken senator whose presidential bid was immensely popular with young voters. Yet now it is this new generation in an old fight against the Marcoses.

Many placards at the protest targeted the dictator’s heirs. “Sandro stupid,” one read, referring to the 22-year-old grandson who defends the dynasty on social media. Another sign referred to Imee Marcos, the deceased president’s eldest daughter, now currently governor of his home province of Ilocos Norte. “The Botox of Imee,” it said, “is the money of the nation.”

Such mockery has prompted criticism from those who defend the foul language of the current president. But these young protesters are doing more than following Mr. Duterte’s pugnacious lead. They are using wit and creativity to stand against a powerful enemy, fully aware of the history of violence they are up against.

Marcos is alleged to have been responsible for tens of thousands of human rights abuses — a good majority against students and young activists. Imee was found by an American court to have been complicit in the torture and murder of Archimedes Trajano, a student who in 1977 stood up to question her in a public forum for her appointment as national youth leader. This bloody tradition now extends to the Marcos family’s powerful ally, Mr. Duterte — who has said that questionable journalists “are not exempted from assassination” and recently warned that human rights activists would be killed if they obstructed his violent war on drugs.

In the Philippines, the abuses of the dictatorship loom like trauma in the national psyche, and Mr. Duterte is squandering his political capital by walking in their footsteps. After thousands of extrajudicial killings and some questionable foreign-policy decisions, his complicity in rewriting the Marcos legacy is a step too far for many Filipinos. An increasing number of Mr. Duterte’s allies have begun criticizing him, and top members of the National Historical Commission recently resigned over the decision to move Marcos’s body.

Across the street from the rally, a counterprotest was staged by a group of roughly 20 people, mostly men. They stood at the foot of the monument to Jose Rizal, our national hero who stood against Spanish colonialism but cautioned against violent revolution. They raised their fists in the salute popular among Duterte supporters and held out a banner that declared: “Duterte Youth supports our strongmen of Asia: President Rodrigo Duterte and President Ferdinand Marcos.”

I spoke to one of the young men. He was articulate, thoughtful and clearly concerned about our country. He assured me that martial law would be used only if entirely necessary. One of his companions also told me: “The protesters shouldn’t be dividing the nation.”

There’s no denying that the Philippines is more divided than ever. But who is really to blame? We must constantly ask who gains from that division. It certainly hasn’t been anyone but those who seek power, or seek to retain it. Now the vanguard against them is these young protesters, concerned about the country they will inherit.

The rains stopped as the protest permit expired. Teenage girls unfurled black garbage bags and picked up litter. Throughout the evening, elderly activists who had survived the Marcos dictatorship told the crowd that in their old age only now they felt assured, because a torch had been passed.

One of the last speakers requested that all the lights be extinguished. He asked everyone to turn on their cellphones and raise them high. The crowd — thousands strong — became a new galaxy, unrecognized constellations. “You are the light in the darkness,” he declared.

Then he led us all in a Marcos-era chant in Tagalog, pertinent again for a new generation: “Struggle! Do not be afraid!” Then our voices united for one more: “People of the nation! Now is the fight!”

Miguel Syjuco, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the novel “Ilustrado” and a professor at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi.

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A version of this op-ed appears in print on December 12, 2016, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Standing up to Duterte’s brutal tactics. Today’s Paper|Subscribe