Memorial Post: A Memoirist of the Marcos Years, Part 3

Susan Quimpo at the Fleur de Lys coffee shop

In Part 1, Susan Quimpo, co-author of Subversive Lives, talks about her family as anti-Marcos activists during the period of martial law (Link). In Part 2 she describes the talks she gives to young people in the Philippines who don’t know that part of their nation’s history (Link). In Part 3, she describes her visit to the United States after the international version of the book was published in 2016 by Ohio University Press. She spoke primarily to members of the FilipinoAmerican community about the book and about what’s currently happening in the Philippines.

Susan’s story

University of Ohio Press/Swallow Press

Vicente Rafael, who wrote the forward of the book, is a professor atof history at the University of Washington. He contacted his friend, Cindy Domingo, a very good community organizer whose brother was killed in the US during martial law. They were able to prove in court that Marcos had a direct hand in it. Cindy had organized against Marcos during the 1970s and 80s. She still had a network all over the US. When we met in Seattle she had an itinerary all set up for me with talks in Seattle, San Francisco, DC and New York.

It must have been exhausting.

Oh, yeah, with the jet lag and all! But it was a wonderful chance to interact with the Filipino American community again. In Seattle, Cindy had me going to universities. Vince Rafael asked me to speak at the University of Washington. What I enjoyed the most were meetings in a church or a house. I’d show slides about my family and the book, then segue into the events of 2016— the protests against the Marcos burial in the heroes’ cemetery and the 2016 election, with Bongbong Marcos’s campaign for vice president, which he almost won.  Last year was a horrendous year for martial law victims because it was like the past mocking us.

I’d speak about the martial law period and what it meant for my family, then the events of 2016 and then end with President Duterte’s drug war and his promises to declare martial law as Marcos had done. According to a journalist friend, between June of 2016 and April -May 2017, Duterte had promised thirty-two times that he would to declare martial law. That was even before the events in Marawi. Here was all this killing, at least 12,000 killed extra-judicially by last February or March.  The local press stopped publishing the numbers because the police stopped supplying them. The New York Times did a photo essay showing how people were getting gunned down in the slums of Manila. (Link)

I was surprised at the confusion in the audiences. People were saying “But Duterte won by 16 million votes, and he’s still a very popular leader. But then there’s this—thirty-two murders an evening. “Is this true? Even during his presidential campaign he was promising to declare martial law and said he would order killings. How could people vote for him? How does he remain so popular?”

My response was to ask how Americans could vote for Donald Trump when we all knew his background, his lifestyle and his sexual harassment of women. I didn’t say that to ridicule or to change the topic but to point out the similarities. In both the Philippines and the States there were nagging problems among the poor coupled with a backlash against traditional politicians. We didn’t listen. Here the economy was good under Aquino, but apparently it didn’t trickle down.

It doesn’t trickle down.

Well, I’m not an economist. But now after the backlash we’re suffering. I said the opposition was just starting. Duterte’s strongest political party opponent, the Liberal Party has not been very effective. Quite a number have jumped ship. The good people who are still in the Senate and Congress are putting up a brave fight, but they’re in the minority. Only with the rallies (since September 11, 2017) has the opposition been able to organize itself — but like any opposition, there are factions, and disagreements that have to be ironed out.

Which you can also see in the United States.

I gathered that in the US that the minute Trump won, the grassroots started organizing, and Democrats are going into town hall meetings, talking to their constituents and finding out what’s wrong. Wonderful demonstrations in the airports. And the Women’s March of course.

In the Philippines it’s different because there’s the threat of getting killed. Under Marcos, the strongest opposition was the Reds—the Communist Party of the Philippines, the National Democratic Front and its militia, the New People’s Army (CPP-NDF-NPA). The communists and the left-leaning groups had a huge network which extended throughout the archipelago. Whether or not you believed in what they were fighting for, the opposition created an underground network which was able to call strikes. It was able to freeze the economy for days, hold province-wide strikes in Bataan; or city-wide strikes in Davao or Cebu, coordinated with labor, with jeepney and taxi drivers and with schools. The extreme Left was so thorough that, I think, had Marcos stayed on they would have won eventually,

Nowadays they’re split into factions. Even as the peace talks are on and off, even as the peace talks agree on a cease fire. The CPP-NPA cannot handle their troops on the ground, so there are skirmishes in the boondocks. That vast network, with unified goals and actions, is greatly reduced, without the extent or the depth it had under Marcos.  I’m just an ordinary citizen, but from what I saw in 2016, it will take quite some time before the opposition to Duterte is ripe.

After the Marcos burial there were probably 20,000 to 50,000 at the big rally in Luneta and the  People Power rally, but after November 30 numbers dwindled. Maybe times are changing, and mass action isn’t what’s called for now—although it’s definitely still a valid form of protest. People need more motivation to step up, pick up a placard and go out into the streets.  It’s good that the Catholic Church has been more vocal and has led prayer rallies. I don’t know what else will wake people up. It’s not that people don’t know about the killings or about how Marawi was handled.

 Why don’t you tell my readers a little about Marawi?

All I know is what I read from the papers. (Link) The Maute clan, a family in Mindanao, I suppose around the Marawi area, a school and held several people hostage. But what started the conflict in the first place was the government armed forces coming into the area and looking for someone who was connected with ISIS, one of the Maute leaders. The troops came in to catch him, but the locals were armed, and so gunfire started, and then escalated. Soon the twenty Maute supporters became fifty, and the fifty became a hundred. They’ve held the city for almost a month now. From where he was in Russia, Duterte declared martial law for Mindanao, which was really excessive, given that the conflict took place only in one small city. He seemed to be just looking for an excuse to declare martial law.

When he returned he sent in more troops, supposedly to flush out the Maute clan, and the government troops started bombing and conducting air raids. You can imagine being in a city like Manila, and suddenly without warning—like tomorrow—there’s bombing and air raids and street fights, and you’re running away with nothing except the clothes on your back, trying to seek shelter in the next city, lligan.

So it’s a mess. There are now something like 300,000 refugees, many without anything, and 500 people trapped in buildings, either being held hostage by the Maute clan or staying inside because of the firefights. The AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines)  are used to jungle fighting, not fighting in urban areas.

I was in Cagayan de Oro last week with a colleague. When we were on the road from the airport, there was some traffic on the road as usual. Then our cab driver pulled over to the side of the road and said, “Ma’am, checkpoint.”

“Oh, “ I suddenly remembered there was martial law in Mindanao. For a minute I panicked, I guess the trauma was still there.

The trauma from your childhood.

Yes, from the checkpoints under Marcos’s martial law. So I asked, “So what do we do?”

We had to get out and show our IDs to the guards, and they checked our pictures, wrote down our names and checked the luggage. The checkpoint was staffed with young women soldiers who were very courteous. As soon as I saw them I realized there wouldn’t be any trouble, But beyond that, in CDO was normal. The only curfew was in Iligan.

While I was there one of the Maute brothers was captured, supposedly the bomb expert who’d been with them for years. He was in his early twenties and had a student ID. The Maute clan gets really very young recruits. The AFP reports that even children have guns.

But getting back to the US tour, my role seemed to be to explain to the Filipino communities what was happening here. A talk would be scheduled for two hours but last three, even four hours because of the questions. The lecture soon became a discussion which included everyone. People were so sincere. One woman said, “I’m really confused. I voted for Duterte, and I didn’t just vote for him. I campaigned for him here and sent a campaign contribution. And now I hear this. So is it all true?”  I referred her to the pictures in the New York Tines. People weren’t judging. They were just asking for clarification and trying to make sense of it all.

One of my friends blamed the drug war on Duterte’s predecessors. If they hadn’t let the drug trade run rampant, there wouldn’t be such a strong need to clean it up.

Which is false, by the way. The statistics were published in a Rappler article. (Link)  The figures on drug dependency came from the national police. Two years ago the PNP said there were 1.8 million drug addicts in the country. While citing the same PNP report, Duterte changed the figures and said there were over three million, maybe four million drug addicts. Of course there was a drug problem before the 2016 election, but certainly not on the scale Duterte makes it out to be, nothing to warrant killing 32 people every night. So I don’t know why he’s doing this.

During martial law, Marcos used the three elements which can prop up a dictatorship: ignorance on the part of the public; apathy because of this ignorance; and fear. To create ignorance you dispense fake news, misinformation. So 1.8 million is exaggerated into three or four million, making the drug war seem more justifiable. Then apathy—people don’t act, they don’t protest. When Manila residents protested against the declaration of martial law in Mindanao, some people in Mindanao—of course not all—said, “What are you up to? You don’t even live here.” That’s very divisive. Manila and Mindanao are in the same country.

Today the Duterte administration doesn’t go after the big drug lords. They go after the kid who’s paid 50 pesos to deliver the drugs. That’s to sow fear. It’s been very effective. I suspect the drug war is just an excuse. But for what? Why declare martial law for all Mindanao if the trouble is only in Marawi and two hours away in Cagayan de Oro, there’s no semblance of trouble? Why exaggerate the statistics for drug users? Why kill the small people, not the drug lords? It’s not a war. In a war people have guns on both sides. The kids paid to deliver drugs don’t have guns. Few people comment about the issue except on social media, where it’s been taken over by Duterte supporters. So what’s happening? I don’t know.

It’s a horrible thing to say, but I wonder if the more privileged people aren’t thinking that there are too many poor people in the Philippines anyway. That the poor are disposable.

Well, that sentiment can be found in most countries. I’ve heard people say, “Oh they’re drug addicts anyway, they don’t contribute to society. If we get rid of them, that’s okay.” When I hear that I wonder what happened to constitutional rights. Human rights. The rule of law. Why do we still have a court system if we’re not going to use it, if we can just gun people down and then say they were drug addicts?.

During Marcos’s martial law, the poor had the underground opposition to rely on. An abusive cop or military man in the urban poor areas of Manila or Davao would have been afraid that the NP A [New People’s Army] might pop up in the slums and kill him. They were called “sparrow units,” urban guerrillas.  After killing the abuser they’d just fade into the slums. So in a sense the poor had somebody to protect them, and that empowered them. If the extreme Left called for a rally the poor would come by the thousands. (Link)There’s no such protection now. Some associated with the extreme Left have also openly supported Duterte—some, not all.

So who do the poor have to turn to? No one. You just stay in your house and hope that they don’t come for you. I asked the woman who cuts my hair, “Are there killings in your barangay [district]?|”

“Oh, yeah,” she says. “In fact, last week my niece asked me if she and her boyfriend could stay with me for a week. He was coming in from the provinces to start a new job here. I said definitely not. My niece was shocked. I explained that anyone with a new face who appears in a community will attract the attention of the police. Who’s to say that they won’t just barge into my house and start killing people?”

Just outside our gated community, I hear the taxi drivers say, ”Last night three people were killed in that alley—supposedly drug-related.” And I’ve heard from barangay heads that they’re supposed to submit a list of names of drug users in the community. I don’t know how true it is, but I’ve heard at least three times that the the barangay has a quota of names to turn in.

I’ve read that the police had a quota.

So it’s really very difficult and for poor people, how do you protect yourself?

A lot of Filipinos are just frustrated at not being able to change things. It’s like hitting a blank wall. “What can you do? Let’s leave it to God and let’s pray about it.” It’s very hard, even let’s say if you go through democratic elections. You can’t even run unless you have backers for a very expensive campaign. You’d be surprised how expensive it is to run for a barangay captain in some areas because local office is seen as a stepping stone to higher positions. So you need money. If you’re a person with a good heart who wants to bring in positive change how do you beat a system like that? It’s hard to combat the idea that only people with money get into politics.

I have a very middle-class view that we have to start strengthening the institutions of democracy. For example, to professionalize the party system so it’s not personality-oriented but based on goals and programs for the people. The Constitution contains a provision for party-list candidates, supposedly for parties or civil society groups that push for particular agendas like land reform for coconut farmers or fair wages for domestic workers. It’s a wonderful provision in the Constitution which is now been used even by the traditional politicians.  Some politicians use the party-list system to create their own private pool of supporters. I think some 50k votes can get a party-list elected.

So we haven’t reach the tipping point against Duterte. Right now, it’s obvious that people don’t even know the Constitution anymore, they do not value democracy as much. So we go back to educating people, telling them that it’s not right to kill a guy simply because he’s a suspected drug addict, that even they have rights under the Constitution, that extra-judicial killing is wrong, that martial law should only be used in cases of extreme emergency and limited to the area where the emergency exists.

I hear people say that the EDSA People Power revolt in 1986 was a failure, that it only gave rise to elite politics and political dynasties.  But I wouldn’t call the EDSA revolt a “revolution.” It was a spontaneous, therefore unplanned uprising that in the course of three days got rid of the dictator Marcos.  That was it!  To those who say it was a failure, I say, “Stand in front of an  army tank, push as hard as you can, and see if you can stop it from rolling over you and squashing you.”  If we Filipinos failed to defend democracy post EDSA, then that is our collective fault.  If we allowed corruption to creep unchecked into government, if we voted for plunderers and allowed election fraud,  that is our collective fault as a nation.

A young friend was correct in telling me that EDSA was just the beginning of a democracy that we have to defend fiercely at all times.  We have to wake up and vigilantly, actively defend it. If we don’t learn from history then dictators will rise again.

But getting back to your book tour. You spent most of your time with Filipino Americans. Did you reach a wider audience too?

Well, the university events were open, but of course Filipino-Americans were the most interested.  I gave a talk at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York, and there were a few other Asian-Americans, but it was pretty much Fil-Ams. The others who came had usually been active in the anti-Marcos movement. So it was really a very specific audience.

I met the leaders of a very interesting group called KVP, the organization for a democratic Philippines, who’d remained active since the 1970s. They’d been active in the I-Hotel incident. (Link), one of the very first Asian-American movements led by Filipinos

In the middle of San Francisco there was an old hotel that the  owners and developers wanted to demolish because it was in a prime business area. It was full of Filipino men who’d worked there in the 1930s.  They were now old and retired and had no families. Filipino men had not been allowed to bring their wives to the US and or marry white Americans. So the KVP formed a barricade around the hotel, and soon the entire Asian-American community came to barricade themselves around the hotel to protect the men. And it lasted at least a month until the police and tear gas were brought in.

One of the group who fought with the occupants of the I-Hotel was an African-American who’d been a member of the Black Panthers at one point. So I said to these guys, “I shouldn’t be talking to you. You should be talking to me. I’m much more curious about what you did then.” But we talked about what we could do now to help support Filipinos.

What did you tell them?

I told the audiences that basically they could call the Philippine consulates in the US. Tell them about the extra-judicial killings, about the threat of a nationwide declaration of martial law, about the rising debt under Duterte. I said one way to help would be to write their justices, senators and congressmen who had links to the Philippines. I asked them to write Filipino American justices, government officials who could comment on the disregard for human rights in the Philippines, and to bring the issue to the attention of international media and Filipino communities outside the Philippines.

For the most part, the Duterte-Marcos ticket got the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) vote except in the US, where Filipino-American organizers made sure they lost.  If they continued to work against Duterte, that’s a reason for hope. If an OFW sends money home, she’s seen as the head of her clan.  What she says is law, and she can dictate who to vote for in any election. If there are fifty voters in her clan, and she says who to vote for, her word immediately translates to fifty votes. So I said, “|Educate your own relatives in the Philippines. Tell them what’s really going on. Break the apathy. As the breadwinner you have a very strong voice.” To Filipino American students, I said, “Use social media to expose things like the extra-judicial killings. If you’ve read the Times article with the photo essay of the killings, share it with your relatives in the Philippines. Maybe they don’t realize what’s going on and hearing it from you will make them think.”

When I come to Manila I often get into a conversation with the taxi driver. Some agree with me about what’s going on. One said that he didn’t like the killings because it wasn’t just drug addicts that were being killed, it was also bystanders and little children and witnesses to killings. But others have said they felt attacks on taxi drivers had gone down and they personally felt much safer. One even said that anyone who objected to the killings was probably using drugs himself.

I know. I get startled when I listen to Fox News—like, what?  Some of the taxi drivers listen to rightwing radio all day. How do you fight that?

Tourism is down, Filipino debt is in the billions again and rising. And then there really is no program for the poor. Even in Marawi at the relief centers are run by private individuals, civil society groups or the army.  Duterte is doing nothing except his drug war. Investors are scared.

They’re leaving. The dollar is 50.45 pesos now? Even after Duterte’s term is up in six years, who will pay for the billions in loans? We haven’t even finished paying off the Marcos loans yet.