Marcos' burial a grave issue

Former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos looking at the embalmed body of her husband former leader Ferdinand Marcos prior to an election campaign trip in the town of Batac, north of Manila on March 26, 2010. PHOTO: AFP

This is a question that has bedevilled Philippine politics for nearly 27 years now: Where to bury dictator Ferdinand Marcos?

It is not a simple case of identifying a plot inside a cemetery and making funeral arrangements.

Marcos is still a divisive figure here. He died in exile in 1989, but his remains are kept in a glass box at a mausoleum in his home province of Ilocos, 470km north of Manila. His family will not settle for anything less than a burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, a 142ha cemetery in Manila where some of the nation's leaders and war heroes are buried.

The symbolism is clear. A burial there will rewrite how Marcos is remembered: A hero, not the disgraced former dictator who amassed over US$10 billion (S$13.5 billion) and oversaw human rights abuses.

Past governments refused to give in to the Marcos family, who have since found a friend in President Rodrigo Duterte.

Fulfilling a campaign promise, Mr Duterte said Marcos, as a former president and soldier, deserves to be buried in the Heroes' Cemetery. The act will "heal" a divided nation, he says.

But for those who fought the Marcoses, it does not bring closure. They say it instead exonerates the Marcoses of the sins of the past. It obfuscates the brutality of martial law and reframes strongman rule as something necessary, and even desirable, they say.

Coincidentally, on Tuesday, Mr Duterte hinted that he may declare martial law if the judiciary stands in the way of his anti-crime drive.

For the families of the tens of thousands who were killed, tortured or jailed during martial law from 1972 to 1981, a hero's burial for Marcos would rub salt into their wounds.

"At least the Marcoses have a body to bury. Most of us don't. We can't even mourn our dead," said Ms Susan Quimpo, who lost two brothers during the Marcos regime.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'Marcos' burial a grave issue'. Print Edition | Subscribe