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Who Can Redeem Mother Filipinas?

Suffering and violent death are a constant theme in Filipino movies. The typical hero is a simple man, who gets abused and humiliated, often sexually, all through the film. The audience feels sorry for him, and identifies with him. This is the point of these films. There appears to be little identification with macho killers. The attention is always on the victim. The tension is built up further and further, until the hero cannot stand it any longer and erupts in a climactic scene of extraordinary violence, a kind of frenzy in which brains are blown out, blood splashes over the screen, eyes are gorged. Sometimes, as in a recent popular movie called Boatman, the hero is the victim in this final bloodbath. The boatman is a young provincial who goes to the city to be a film star. He ends up as a live sex show performer, becomes the paid lover of the American mistress of a Filipino gang boss, who, in a jealous rage, has the boy tortured to death. We are shown in great detail how his penis is cut off. Filipino critics seriously suggested that the hero be seen as a metaphor for the Philippine people.

The Aquino movement did not last. Like the climactic scene of violence in the movies, a fiesta of grief is cathartic: it erupts and then blows over. By the beginning of 1984, the opposition was as fractious as ever. Within two months of the killing the flight of capital from the Philippines had reached horrendous proportions, estimated at one billion dollars. Businessmen have returned to their offices but do not dare to invest. When the especially appointed Agrava Board came out with an apparently fair report which pointed the finger at high-ranking military officers for their complicity in the Aquino assassination, much of the sting went out of the street demonstrations. Moral outrage seemed to be somewhat appeased. There was hope that justice could still be done. But the recent acquittal of twenty-six military men, including General Ver, Marcos’s loyal Armed Forces Chief of Staff, left the population largely apathetic. Hope for justice clearly has been lost. The church is as divided as the rest of the nation. Some priests have taken to the hills to join the communist guerrillas. The prelate, Cardinal Jaime Sin, is a decent man, but he is terrified of disorder which could challenge the institutional power of the Church. He speaks out against Marcos on some occasions, but then blesses and embraces the president on his birthday, amid choruses from Handel’s Messiah.

This year Filipinos celebrate the two thousandth anniversary of the Virgin Mary’s birth. “Happy Birthday, Mama Mary!” it says underneath a huge effigy of the Virgin, richly decorated in jewels, marking the entrance to a section of Metro Manila. The yearly processions of Virgin images are spectacular contests in gaudiness; each one richer, more gorgeous, more glittery than the other. The most lavish procession in Manila is said to be sponsored by a group of wealthy society matrons, who form the regular entourage of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady. They are collectively known as “the Blue Ladies.”

According to this year’s Pastoral Exhortation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, “our Filipino people have always turned to Our Blessed Mother in times of difficulty, of crisis, even of seeming hopelessness. Always we have asked her, groaning and weeping in this valley of tears, to turn her eyes of mercy upon us.” The Mindanao Daily Mirror, filled with stories of the latest killings in Davao by “unidentified armed men,” explained to its readers the “right posture in praying.”

There is something curious and disturbing about the way Filipinos of all classes turn to cults and fads in times of crisis, looking for otherworldly mercy. Businessmen—not to mention their wives—seek solace in born-again Christianity; students and artists indulge in Zen. One American Zen master has set up a successful business by convincing Filipinos that they, as a people, are especially gifted for spiritual quests. This year’s latest middle-class fad is to share with one’s friends “as a mark of love” a disgusting brew called Kargasok tea. It is brewed from yeast supposed to come from Russia. Among its many benefits are extreme longevity, robust health, weight loss, and sexual vigor. “I hope it works,” said a Filipino friend, who also happens to be a Zen meditator and a seeker after that other eternal Philippine panacea, an emigrant visa to the United States.


What we need in the Philippines is a macho leader,” said a government official who is now disenchanted with President Marcos. He spoke in an emotional, exasperated tone, banging on the table. “In the early years of martial law, people were so cooperative. The streets were so clean.” Few people are as ready these days to admit how popular martial rule was when it was declared in 1972.

Ferdinand Marcos was a macho leader, with macho ideas. One of the goals of his New Society was to challenge the power of the “oligarchy”—the old landowning families who had effectively run the country for centuries as power brokers for friends, relatives, and dependents. They managed the country, as dispensers of gifts and privileges, without having the responsibility of actual sovereignty, which lay with the colonial powers. The old quasi-American system of democracy was not based on democratic principles but on a huge network of patronage, some of which seeped down to the lowliest hacienda worker. The main check on any family’s power getting out of control was an election, held every four years, so that different patrons could have their turn at the trough. The Philippines that Marcos took over in 1965 was not so much a nation as a collection of regional, family, and class loyalties. It was a country effectively without a national language: Tagalog, the “official” language, is a language of central Luzon that many Filipinos do not speak. Marcos’s success proved that national strongmen or communist revolutions arise not from poverty but from a lack of national cohesion, an absence of common purpose.

Marcos argued that the old democracy, imposed by a Western power on an Asian country, was holding up vital reforms, necessary to make the Philippines a great nation. What was needed was a “revolution from the center.” He aimed to break the power of “the few who would promote their selfish interests through the indirect or irresponsible exercise of public and private power.” He aimed to wipe out the communist threat, then embodied by about three hundred soldiers in one area of southern Luzon. (There are now up to 20,000 New People’s Army guerrillas throughout the Philippines.) He needed a new ideology, “a unifying force, an organizing principle for the pursuit of collective ends.”

To do all this he hired talented technocrats and thinkers, who could create the New Society and an ideology to match. The ideas were not all bad. Land reforms, industrialization, foreign investment incentives, government-guided economic development—all this looked fine on paper. It has worked elsewhere. Other Asian rulers, such as South Korea’s Park Chung Hee, or Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, though by no stretch of the imagination democrats, delivered the goods: strong economies and rising living standards.

Unfortunately, what Marcos and the First Lady wanted more than anything else was to be king and queen. They wished to shape the kingdom in their own image; like the Sun King, Louis XIV, Marcos wanted to be able to say “L’état c’est moi.” According to Adrian Cristobal, a former left-wing writer, and one of Marcos’s chief ideological advisers, “Marcos sees the Philippines as a society of tribes.” And he sees himself as the great tribal chief, the Datu of pre-Spanish times. He destroyed much of the old network of family and regional loyalties to become the one and only patron, the king of Maharlika.

Maharlika,” a pre-Hispanic term meaning “chief” or literally, “big phallus,” was Marcos’s nom de guerre as a guerrilla soldier against the Japanese. A highway was renamed the Maharlika Highway. There is a Maharlika broadcasting station, government owned, of course. The main reception room of the Malacañang Palace is called Maharlika Hall, where the chief likes to receive his guests sitting on a golden throne. There was even a move at one time officially to rename the Philippines Maharlika. “Our people are used to being ruled by royalty,” observed the First Lady and former beauty queen some years ago. She likes to show herself off in extravagant finery “because my little people expect it of me.”

The Big Phallus never gave his technocrats much chance. The economy, like the army, became a tool of political patronage to enhance the power of the chief. A new oligarchy of loyal courtiers controlled such vital sectors of the economy as sugar and coconuts. Trusted generals from Ilocos, Marcos’s native region, were put in charge of the ever-expanding armed forces. An estimated ten billion dollars, or more than one third of the country’s foreign debt, is said to have been secretly invested abroad by Marcos and his friends, no small part of it in New York real estate.

The political scientist Francisco Nemenzo, in The Philippines After Marcos, one of the most useful books to have come out on the Philippine crisis, compares the Marcos state to

what Marx called “Bonapartism.” It achieved “relative autonomy” from the ruling class with the support of the army and a pliable mass organization. The circumstances which allowed Marcos to assume total power were remarkably similar to what created the opportunity for Louis Bonaparte to pose as the saviour of France: intense contradictions in the ruling class and a mighty challenge from below, resulting in the paralysis of the old state machine.

The First Lady spent fortunes on gigantic projects in Manila: convention centers with murals depicting the glorious achievements of Marcos and Imelda; a University of Life, where students do not learn regular subjects, but “humanist development values” and the “Filipino ideology,” as taught by Marcos and Imelda; a Cultural Center, where their youngest daughter Irene Marcos conducts the orchestra and a Film Center where pornographic films are shown uncensored, to recoup some of the money that has been taken out of the government’s coffers. They are monuments to a grotesque sense of inferiority, as if to prove that the Philippines is not just a poor country of “little brown brothers.”

A “trainer-facilitator” (teacher) at the University of Life tried to explain the school’s aims by drawing diagrams on a blackboard, using terms like “experiential development” and “interactive studies.” It sounded like a parody of science. The same trainer-facilitator, who would look more at home in a body-building gym than in a classroom, showed me a book entitled The New Human Order, written by Mme. Imelda Marcos. It is an extraordinary work, full of doodles, cartoons, and thoughts like: “The body seeks good, the mind seeks truth, the spirit seeks beauty.” There were also triangular shapes that showed how the new human order had to be led by one chief. It is a sad parody of philosophy, the deep thoughts of a fiesta queen.

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