Why Duterte wants to give Marcos a hero's burial

The Philippines Supreme Court is set to rule Tuesday on whether former dictator Ferdinand Marcos should be buried in the Cemetery of Heroes. What might President Duterte gain from this burial?

Bullit Marquez/AP/File
In Manila, Philippines, a supporter of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos holds a mask of President Rodrigo Duterte as other supporters display their message in October while awaiting the Supreme Court's ruling on the petition to give Marcos a hero's burial. The Philippine court ruled to extend its decision on whether the late dictator will be buried at the Heroes' Cemetery until November 8..

Was Ferdinand Marcos a war hero? 

Filipinos are waiting to learn how history - and the Supreme Court - will view their former dictator. The result could be significant for none other than Rodrigo Duterte, the country’s current "strongman" president.

The Supreme Court of the Philippines is expected to rule Tuesday on a proposal that would see former dictator Ferdinand Marcos interred in the Cemetery of Heroes, where the country’s war veterans are buried. President Rodrigo Duterte has been pushing for the reburial since before he was elected in May, but several groups brought cases objecting to the plan after he announced it in August, leaving the Philippines waiting for a final judgement from the nation’s highest court.

Opponents argue that giving Marcos a hero’s burial would effectively whitewash the past, ignoring the suffering of many Filipinos under the dictator. Marcos was president from 1965 to 1986 (and ruled under martial law from 1972 to 1981). But Mr. Duterte has made no secret of his belief that Marcos deserves to be buried as a hero. And his stance seems to be echoed by his supporters, who see "strongman" behavior – violent though it may be – as the key to maintaining order within the country.

“It is the law. He was a soldier. He is not a hero? Fine. But he was a President. And nobody can deny that,” Duterte said in August, according to CNN Philippines.

This is not the first time that a hero’s burial has been proposed for Marcos, whose 20-year rule saw thousands of political opponents killed and tens of thousands more tortured. Marcos died in the US in 1989 after fleeing the Philippines three years earlier during the People Power revolution. In 1993, his widow Imelda successfully petitioned to bring his body back to the Philippines, but her request to bury him in the Cemetery of Heroes was turned down. Instead, Marcos’ body is currently displayed at the Ferdinand E. Marcos Presidential Center in Batac. 

For Duterte, reopening the issue may be simply a question of ensuring that the law is followed, as he indicated. But perceptions of Marcos may influence attitudes toward his own presidency.

Analysts contend that Filipinos, tired of high crime rates in their country, now see Marcos’ dictatorship as the "glory days" of the country. Voting for Duterte, these analysts suggest, was a way back to this perceived glory.

“For my whole life I’ve witnessed a tendency among Filipinos to elect people who pose as saviors. We long for a disciplinarian,” Miguel Syjuco, author of the novel ‘Ilustrado’, lamented in The New York Times.

Imee Marcos, daughter of the former dictator and now the governor of Ilocos Norte Province, where the Marcos family is from, painted Duterte as the natural successor to her father. She also implied that recognizing Marcos as a hero would allow the country to move forward.

“[The reburial] is an opportunity to erase the hatred, conflicts and discord in our society,” she said at a pro-Marcos rally outside the Supreme Court in October. “The healing presidency of President Duterte will take over and we as one nation will be great again,” CNN reported.

Cementing the former dictator as a hero may help maintain support for Duterte’s similarly authoritarian policies, notably a crackdown on drugs and criminality that has led to the deaths of an estimated 3,700 people in the four months since he took office. So far, pushback has primarily come from international human rights organizations. But last week, Philippines anti-crime organization Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption called for the president to address the high death toll, saying many of the killings are unnecessary.

Polls suggest that many Filipinos are supportive of the proposal to rebury Marcos — perhaps because, in a country where the median age is 23, they have little personal experience of the leader and his policies. Instead, they know only what they have heard from candidates like his son, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., a tremendously popular senator who missed out on becoming vice president by just 0.64 percent of the vote in May.

The senator, who called himself “a beneficiary of the good work that was done in my father’s time,” received 34 percent of the vice presidential vote in May. He is legally challenging the result of the vote, which he alleges was rigged. Duterte has since expressed his support for Bongbong Marcos’ candidacy, introducing him to Chinese officials as his potential vice president during a recent state visit.

Allowing Marcos to be buried in the Cemetery of Heroes could further strengthen his connection with the Marcos family and their supporters, perhaps assuring him political influence for years to come. 

The run-up to the court ruling has seen sizable protests from groups on both sides of the issue. A petition against the burial garnered 30,000 signatures. There have also been allegations that the Marcos family bribed Duterte to support the move.

For his part, Duterte vowed in August to respect the Supreme Court’s ruling, whatever it may be. If the reinterment were to go ahead, it’s not clear how big the current president’s role would be: Duterte said he might go to the ceremony, if there were “no pressing matter to attend to.”

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