Marcos Jr.’s presidential bid stirs up painful memories in the Philippines

Victims of late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos are trying to disqualify his son, presidential front-runner Ferdinand “Bong Pong” Marcos Jr., from running in next year’s election.

Although the challenge was grounded in a legal technique related to a long-resolved tax issue, it revived unresolved debates among Filipinos about how they remember his father’s regime, which imprisoned and killed thousands of people and plundered state assets.

“We don’t want Pong Pong Marcos or any member of his family back to power,” said Bonifacio Ilagan, playwright, torture survivor and co-organizer of the campaign against Marcos’s return and martial law (Karma), which brought the FT’s disqualification case.

“A Marcos returns to Malacañang [presidential palace] It will turn our history upside down.”

Karma petitioned the country’s Election Commission with the goal of blocking Marcus Jr.’s nomination, based on his failure to file income tax returns between 1982 and 1985 when he served as a local official during his father’s rule.

Critics and supporters of the 64-year-old politician are now arguing about the extent to which he should be held accountable for his father’s crimes.

Marcus Jr. is the favorite to win the May 2022 election, according to opinion polls, and his camp describes a disqualification petition – one of five against his candidacy – as “rigged politics.” His running mate would be a descendant of another political dynasty: Sarah Duterte, daughter of Rodrigo Duterte, whose first act as president in 2016 was to commission Marcos to bury a hero in Manila.

According to an estimate by American historian Alfred McCoy, 3,257 people were extrajudicially murdered in the decade Marcus imposed martial law. Tens of thousands were imprisoned or tortured before the dictator and his family fled to Hawaii during the “People’s Power” uprising in 1986, when Pong Bong was 28 years old.

Ilagan, now 70, still speaks vividly of the ordeals he experienced in his youth.

Ilagan, a student activist at the University of the Philippines, escaped underground in 1971 and was arrested three years later and subjected to “brutal” abuse.

These include the “San Juanico Bridge,” he said, torture in which prisoners are forced to lie suspended between cots and punched in the abdomen. Ilagan also said that his captors put a hot iron on the soles of his feet and at one point inserted a stick into his penis.

Marcus Jr. with his wife Louise, left, in 2018. He was convicted in 1995 of failing to pay income taxes, before successfully appealing © REUTERS

His younger sister Rizalina was kidnapped by the military in 1977. She was part of a group of 10 people caught up in one of the largest enforced disappearances of the era, some of whose bodies were later found. Risalina’s body has not been discovered.

Marcos the Younger was convicted in 1995 by a regional court of failing to pay income taxes and file tax returns between 1982 and 1985, when he was deputy governor, then governor of Ilocos Norte, the area where the family lived on the northern island of Luzon.

Two years later, an appeals court acquitted him of one of the charges – failure to pay taxes – and annulled the prison sentence handed down by the lower court. The same court upheld his conviction for non-filing, and Marcus Jr. paid 67,137 pesos (now worth $1,300) for what his attorney described as a “writing omission.”

“There is no tax evasion case against presidential candidate Bong Bong Marcos nor a conviction for tax evasion as the political propaganda has pushed his critics so viciously and maliciously,” Victor Rodriguez, his spokesman and chief of staff, told the Financial Times.

Philippine electoral law bars a candidate who has been sentenced to more than 18 months for a crime related to “moral corruption” – a requirement that could bring the petition against Marcos Jr. into debate as the court overturned his sentence.

In comments to the media, including an interview with the Financial Times in 2018, Marcus Jr. downplayed his father’s dictatorship and claimed that no cases against his family had succeeded.

However, in 2018, a court found Imelda Marcos, the former first lady, guilty of seven counts of graft related to illegal transfers of money to Swiss institutions while serving in her husband’s government.

Accompanied by his family, Ferdinand Marcos waves to the audience after his presidential inauguration in 1965 © Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

“Marcos was not his father, and the son should not be visited for the sins of the father,” said Carlos Conde, researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But he and his mother were trying to deny accountability for all the cases in court.”

Aside from his political role, Marcos Jr. was president of Philcomsat, one of the companies sacked by the “people power” government headed by Corazon Aquino that took power after the dictator was overthrown while investigating allegations of “crony capitalism”.

When asked if Marcos Jr. played a role in his father’s dictatorship, Rodriguez said: “Marcos Jr. would not be respected with an answer . . . such a question because the Filipino people have long settled with their belief that the sins of the father, if any, [are] So that it does not pass on to children.

However, Karma activist Ilagan described Marcus Jr. as “a very big part of the martial law dictatorship”.

“It really is an uphill battle for us,” Ilagan said. “I have devoted more than half of my life to this struggle for democracy in the Philippines. For me, in the twilights of my life, I don’t think there is any turning back anymore.”

Additional reporting by Gil Ramos in Manila

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