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By Felicity Salina

Philippines President “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has been busy lately cozying up to the West, much to the chagrin of his pro-Beijing predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. He’s considering US President Joe Biden a potential top ally and expanded Washington’s access to Philippine military bases amid intensifying confrontations in the South China Sea.

But make no mistake, Bongbong’s maneuvers are less about rehabilitating the Philippines-US relations and more to do with rewriting his father’s, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, brutal legacy.

That can be seen in a trade deal he’s been eyeing with Hawaii, where his family sought exile after the overthrow of his father’s two-decade dictatorship. It was in 1986 that nearly two million people swarmed the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), a highway around Manila, to protest against the systematic oppression and corruption under the older Marcos and demand that democracy be restored.

Last week marked the 38th anniversary of the protests, dubbed the EDSA People Power Revolution. Not coincidentally, Bongbong dropped EDSA Day, on which the momentous uprising is celebrated annually, from the country’s list of public holidays. 

Since taking power, Bongbong has also been heavily criticized for whitewashing widespread atrocities and human rights violations during his father’s rule. He championed Marcos Sr.’s rule — during which some 70,000 people were imprisoned, and tens of thousands more were tortured and killed — as the “golden era.” Bongbong also defended his father’s 1972 imposition of martial law, claiming it was crucial to protect the country from communist groups and separatist rebellions at the time. 

He even said that calling his late father a “dictator” was wrong.

Bongbong’s revisionist efforts are scattered throughout his political career. In 2018, he posted a photo online, labeling Marcos Sr. a “selfless” patriot who voluntarily relinquished power to prevent bloodshed. He wanted to alter textbooks that negatively depicted his clan. And dictatorship apologists came to his aid by referring to historical records of rights abuses and plunder in the martial law era as fake news. They went as far as sanitizing Wikipedia pages detailing the wrongdoings of the Marcos family. 

Before cracks began to appear in the Marcos-Duterte alliance, Duterte even romanticized the Marcos dictatorship by giving Marcos Sr. a hero’s burial with the Supreme Court’s go-ahead.

During his presidential campaign, Bongbong weaponized social media to downplay his father’s crimes, seeking the help of trolls to flood platforms like TikTok and YouTube with propaganda. This helps explain why Bongbong won the hearts of young voters who didn’t live through the abuses under his father or know what took place at EDSA. He won the polls with a landslide not seen since the sham election orchestrated by his father in 1981.

Since taking power, Bongbong has shown the apple did not fall far from the tree. 

Despite his commitment to upholding liberties and accountability, he has done little to improve the nationwide civic plight. While Marcos has not overtly stamped out the opposition as his father did, activists, human rights defenders, and journalists continue to face harassment and attacks enabled by the president’s inaction. Others are “red-tagged” or unfairly labeled as communists, putting them at risk of harassment or worse.

And Bongbong’s family has gotten away nearly scot-free from a litany of illicit enrichment and corruption cases tied to the wealth they amassed during the dictatorship. In 2018, former First Lady Imelda Marcos was convicted by an anti-corruption court for graft, exposing her to a maximum sentence of 77 years. She has not served any time. The Supreme Court also dismissed a 36-year-old case seeking restitution of the ill-gotten assets and properties acquired by the family, citing a lack of evidence. The mother and son have yet to pay a penalty of $353 million entered against them for contempt, which resulted from their refusal to comply with a US district court order to compensate more than 9,500 martial law victims.

For a long time, Bongbong has made it his objective to erase the Philippines’ dark past under his father from the national narrative. Now, he is doing it from the comfort of the presidential palace, and he’s succeeding. 

The hard truth is that many Filipinos rolled out the carpet that led him to the nation’s highest political office, captured by both his charade and misplaced nostalgia for the dictatorship. Perhaps, before looking back on that chapter of history through a rose-tinted glass, Filipinos must ask themselves: Why did millions of people take to the streets of EDSA all those years ago?