One year left to pay martial law victims

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Hilda Narciso (in photo) is one of the thousands of martial law victims yet to receive their full compensation. The Human Rights Victims Claims Board, which processes and grants claims for compensation for abuses during the martial law regime, is set to be dissolved in 2018. Illustration by CARINA SANTOS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Maria Cristina Rodriguez was one of over 20 political prisoners identified in a religious group’s list of human rights abuse victims in a military camp.

There were more. On May this year, she was one of 4,000 claimants who collected their partial compensation for human rights violations under the Marcos regime. It is a symbolic date: The Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013 was set into motion on May 12, 2014 — and it is on May 12 next year that the board will expire.

They were not even half of the claimants — 75,537 people applied at the Human Rights Victims Claims Board (HRVCB), the quasi-judicial reparations body tasked with sifting through claims and granting compensations. About 40,000 of the cases have been processed, leaving over 35,000 cases left to review before its looming deadline.

Rodriguez says we have left the HRVCB with a “very, very difficult job.” They are, after all, tasked with being an agency that remembers in an administration that forgets.

“You have a government that on the one hand, compensates for victims, and on the other hand buries [Marcos] in Libingan ng mga Bayani,” she says. “You might feel a bit glad that you received this compensation, but on the other hand you still see your country still so confused about its history.”

Rodriguez has since gone on to be the Executive Director of Bantayog ng mga Bayani, a foundation and museum dedicated to memorializing the desaparacidos — or the disappeared ones — and other martyrs of the martial law years.

“We welcomed the government’s process of providing compensation and reparation and recognition for those that had gone through an experience of human rights violations,” said Rodriguez. “But also we said, that’s one side of it. The other side [is] that we still continue to expect a fuller process ... investigating the sources of abuse and corruption, and misgovernment and plunder during that time.”

At present, Ferdinand Marcos’ widow keeps a seat in Congress. Their daughter Imee is governor of Ilocos Norte, and their son Bongbong is working on a bid at the second highest position in the country with an election protest against Vice President Leni Robredo, who bagged the seat by a mere 200,000-vote margin.

When news broke of the compensation, some apologists of the regime decried victims online for only being after the money that HRVCB provides, which is pulled from what was retrieved of the Marcos billions.

Martial_Law-victim_CNNPH.jpg A victim received the first half of his P200,000 monetary compensation on Monday for the torture he experienced during the martial law.

“It’s not really the money,” Rodriguez says. “It’s their own conclusion that an individual really went through that kind of abuse.”

Maria Cristina Rodriguez was illegally detained in a military camp. In a document procured by former Marcos spokesperson-turned-whistleblower Primitivo Mijares, she is 12th in a list of victims of military atrocities: “beating; burned with cigarette butts; some sexual abuses.” Some of her companions’ genitals were mutilated.


For General Lina Sarmiento, Chair of the Human Rights Victims Claims Board, compensation is “just a [small] token.”

“Compensation is just symbolic. It’s a symbol of the state accepting liability for what happened in the past,” she said thoughtfully. “I believe ... it’s more on the recognition that they did something — that they suffered, they also sacrificed [something] during martial law. ‘Yung pera, secondary lang sa kanila. It’s more on the recognition.”

For Sarmiento, not finishing these cases is unthinkable. It is not simply that they must; they have no option.

“We have to. We have to, that's the only answer,” she replied when asked if they could make the deadline. “If it means not sleeping for so many nights before the end of our term, then we need to do that because that's the mandate.”

The HRVCB was formed out of Republic Act 10368, or the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013. But in the same way that the law enabled the HRVCB, so it restricted it.

It caps the Board’s budget at 50 million a year, and provided for nine board members, eight operations officers, and three administrative staff — all of whom were overwhelmed by the onslaught of 75,000 applications. HRVCB has since grown to 155 employees, most of whom are contractual and paid with the help of the Commission on Human Rights, as they cannot be supported by the Board’s own budget.

But perhaps the most daunting of these limitations is its deadline: “The Board shall complete its work within two (2) years from the effectivity of the [Implementing Rules and Regulations] promulgated by it. After such period, it shall become functus officio.” The phrase translates to “having performed his or her office,” but also could be read as, “expired.” After they could not meet the 2016 deadline, Congress extended their term to 2018.

“A false ‘moving on’ does not create forgiveness nor forgetfulness,” says Jocelyn Martin. “It only produces another repressed memory.”

The law, Sarmiento explains, also provides that nobody gets their full compensation unless everybody gets full compensation. The partial compensation granted earlier this May was only about half of what they are estimated to be entitled to.

“We are only paying one half now, if we are not able to finish, we cannot pay the other half,” said Sarmiento. “Whatever it takes for us to finish, we will do that … Not finishing the claims is not in our horizon, our vocabulary.”

Sarmiento says that she thinks the government will help, and that there are a lot of resources “if we feel that there is a danger in not completing the task before the end of the term.”

If she had to revise the law, Sarmiento considered, she would “not be very specific on the admin requirements, like [with] the number of staff members without even knowing how many people will be filing [applications].”

“Of course the staffing is dependent on the task,” she added.

But she also wanted the law to reflect community reparations, because HRVCB was restricted to processing individual claims. This meant more paperwork, and allegations that could be harder to prove compared to a community-based complaint.

“It’s difficult to determine individual violations, then maybe a community reparations program is practical,” Sarmiento explained.


geloy 1.jpg In November 2016, a grand demonstration at Luneta was held, protesting Marcos' burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Photo by GELOY CONCEPCION

Compensation is just one of many modes of reparation, explains Jocelyn Martin Ph.D., who teaches Literature, Memory and Trauma Studies at Ateneo de Manila University.

Other modes include: trials and prosecution; truth-telling commissions; apologies from perpetrators; restitution, such as of robbed property; lustration, or excluding suspected perpetrators from public office; and moral reparations, possibly through memorials or a Church service.

“We still lack enough legal memory which can be delineated in more definitive means of repair,” Martin explains. “As far as I know, in the Philippines, victims have settled for financial compensation, without demanding for apology nor a form of truth-telling. Because justice is slow, in the meantime, sadly, we accord time to those who can afford to revise history.”

Jo-ed Tirol. Ph.D., a history professor in the same university, says something similar: “Third world countries don’t have the luxury of memory,” he says. “Ah, third world countries don’t have the luxury of unpleasant memory unless someone charismatic enough can make it worth their while.”

Tirol is also behind an elective called Memory and Martial Law, which tackles the period through events and trends in different fields, from economy to linguistics and church history.

“Third world countries don’t have the luxury of memory,” says Jo-Ed Tirol. “Ah, third world countries don’t have the luxury of unpleasant memory unless someone charismatic enough can make it worth their while.”

Those who can afford to revise history, Martin says, can possibly write it through memoirs or “claiming a space within a canonical site of memory … wherein narrativity, identity, and memorial investment for future generations can take place.” One such place? A hero’s cemetery.

“However, claiming a space is not enough,” Martin adds. She says that legal and performative actions had to be taken to produce, as one academic put it, “happy memories.”

Tirol explains that there are different types of memory: social memory is how institutions — from families to churches to corporations — remember. And then there is the government, which is possibly at the “highest level.”

“For all intents and purposes, government represents the country. So when government says 'Let's honor this,' that is like saying our country should honor this,” says Tirol. “That's national memory.”

But Martin adds, “social, collective and cultural memories need agents and people in order to perform them.”

One of the phenomena is “willed or programmed forgetting.” In the same way that institutions memorialize remembrance through holidays or monuments, they can also instigate forgetting. Martin enumerates the types of forgetting as characterized by various academics.

This includes “commanded amnesia,” when powerful entities actively deny atrocities toward other peoples or groups, and “complicit forgetting,” which is the protection of perpetrators and covering up for their past deeds.

“Behind these ‘states’ or ‘organizations’ are people who have understood what George Orwell already said in ‘1984,’” says Martin. “‘Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.’”

Photo-10.jpg "Bantayog" is a performance about our country's politics and history. Through it, the students of the theater group Dulaang Sipat Lawin, from the Philippine High School for the Arts, are taking classic martial law plays as inspiration, and making new works of their own. Photo by JL JAVIER

But then there is also “therapeutic forgetting,” where one “must remember in order to forget,” such as in confession or in Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. In countries like South Africa, victims of atrocities had to recount their experiences in the same room as people who wronged them. Martin explains that in this set-up, people have to “name and narrate” their experiences to a listening audience.

“This is why a ‘moving on’ which ‘skips’ narration actually circumvents healing,” says Martin. “It’s just like sweeping trash under the carpet.”


It is unclear whether such an arrangement, which could be too confrontational for some Filipinos’ taste, would work in the Philippines. Only a sociologist or psychologist could say, Tirol says.

“Kasi partly nahihiya tayo — we don't want to embarrass people,” he explains. “There are certain elements in our society who love to exploit the fact that we are too nice. There are certain elements in our society that like to say, pakikisama.”

Martin agrees, saying that unlike more outspoken Westerners, most Filipinos “tend to choose not to speak nor write about their complaints … quickly skipping to discourses of ‘peace’ and ‘forgiveness,’” without the necessary justice.

“A false ‘moving on’ does not create forgiveness nor forgetfulness,” says Martin. “It only produces another repressed memory.”

Tirol also traces utang na loob to a “patron-client system” that could even date prior to colonization, where someone less powerful owed the more powerful, who owned land or had more resources. And in a seeming contradiction to pakikisama, Tirol guesses that a lack of empathy for victims of human rights atrocities boils down to: “if it’s not in my circle, it's not my problem.”

“You have a government that on the one hand, compensates for victims, and on the other hand buries [Marcos] in Libingan ng mga Bayani,” says Maria Cristina Rodriguez. “You might feel a bit glad that you received this compensation, but on the other hand you still see your country still so confused about its history.”

“We're an archipelago ... The mountain divides us, the town divides us, the dialect divides us,” he explains.

But most of all, as Martin says, people keep mum because of fear — “fear because the perpetrators or their friends are still alive and therefore, one’s life or the life of his or her loved ones would be in danger.”

“We need to find courage. To find courage … we need to emphasize other values beyond the current ones that are holding us back,” says Tirol. “We’re so good [at] being courageous ... when we fight other countries. Why are we not courageous enough when we fight our own demons, our own ghosts, our own people when they wrong us? We need to understand that.”

Rodriguez, who has graduated from a victim to a survivor, is aware of these difficulties, acknowledging that some of her contemporaries who went through human rights violations have adapted — as she puts it — a “sige, tapusin na lang ‘yan (just get it over with)” disposition.

“The generation that went through it — we must look at ourselves first. What more can we do to convince our government that this cannot go on?” she asks. “I would like to ask through you that the people of our generation … share their experience. Tell their children and grandchildren what really went on. Let’s not move on until we have passed on the lesson … We cannot be so comfortable.”

Duterte Youth Rally Darlene Shane Sampang (left) and Grace Go (right) stand in front of Gate 4 of Camp Aguinaldo to support President Duterte's decision to bury former President Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Photos by GELOY CONCEPCION

To avail of compensation, one must first submit their application, which should ideally contain testimonials, affidavits, and documentary evidence such as newspaper clippings. These are all subject to deliberation and to a system of protest and appeals, before the final list is released.

What comes before compensation? Narration. After it, narration still takes charge. All throughout history, narration is necessary — even until victims are no longer around to tell the story themselves. And narration too must surround other forms of reparation, from demand for trials to restitution of ill-gotten wealth to the revision of educational curricula.

What Rodriguez requests of her contemporaries is simply that they take back their narrative.

And in a government that may be unsure of its stance on martial law, Martin says: “In principle, one does not have to wait for the ‘approval’ of the government to do anything. Art, religion, and ideas belong to civil society.”