Painful memories rekindled as Marcos Jr. woos voters in Philippine south

Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales
2022.03.31
Cotabato, Philippines
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Painful memories rekindled as Marcos Jr. woos voters in Philippine south Presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. gestures as he addresses the crowd during a campaign rally in Buluan, an impoverished Muslim town in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao, March 28, 2022.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

Presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. courted undecided voters during a campaign swing this week through the restive south – one of the large voting regions in the Philippines – but for some locals, his visit stirred memories of suffering inflicted under his late father’s brutal rule.

Independent surveys have placed the son and namesake of the longtime dictator consistently leading a field of candidates vying to replace President Rodrigo Duterte, who banked on his southern roots to win election to the top office in 2016. Duterte’s late mother had campaigned against then-dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, a legacy that helped her son rise to power.

But many in this heavily Muslim southern region of the mainly Catholic Philippines see Marcos Jr. as an extension of his father’s regime (1965-1986). Thousands of people died and disappeared under the iron-fisted rule of Marcos Sr., who governed this archipelago nation for 14 years under martial law.

“We are concerned of a Marcos win and an eventual return to power in Malacañang,” Murad Ebrahim, the leader of the former insurgent group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), told BenarNews on Wednesday, referring to the presidential palace in Manila and the upcoming Philippine general election on May 9.

“While Marcos Jr. was not the one behind the atrocities, he carries his father’s name. And if Muslims hear that name, they also relive the pain of the dictatorship,” said Murad (also known as Ahod Balawag Ebrahim), who was once a fierce leader of the MILF guerrilla forces fighting Marcos’ loyal soldiers in the south.

Composed of primarily young, idealistic Muslims seeking their own identity, the MILF at the time was a separatist force.

Based on the accounts of Amnesty International and the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, historians believe that at least 3,250 known extrajudicial killings occurred during the Marcos regime. There were also 35,000 documented cases of torture while thousands of others were forcibly disappeared or jailed.

The most atrocious incident in the south occurred in September 1974 when Marcos troops allegedly massacred about 1,500 Muslim males aged from 11 to 70 inside a mosque in Sultan Kudarat province. Historians say that thousands of Muslim women were also detained, and an entire community was razed.

The bloodshed occurred during the Muslim holy months of Ramadan, with various accounts by survivors saying that soldiers forced many of those they killed to dig their own graves.

Murad said the scar remains fresh after all these years. If Marcos Jr. apologizes on behalf of his family, “it could help heal the wounds of the past,” he said.

“If a sincere apology is asked, that would help,” Murad added.

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Presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. and running mate Sara Duterte-Carpio greet supporters during a campaign rally in Santa Rosa, south of Manila, March 11, 2022. [Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews]

Marcos Jr. has often said that his father’s sins were not his own, and his trip to the south this week was meant to bolster the unity he forged with the Dutertes. His running mate is Sara Duterte-Carpio, the president’s popular daughter, who is the mayor of Davao City.

Mohagher Iqbal, a former ranking MILF guerrilla who now serves as education minister in the autonomous Islamic region here, said Marcos Jr.’s trip this week was a bitter reminder of why he once joined the country’s Muslim rebel forces. 

Muslims should choose “a candidate who will preserve and defend the Bangsamoro cause” and ensure that “our women and children will not suffer the atrocities of the past,” he said.

Bangsamoro is what the Filipino Muslims call their homeland in the south.

“We can’t support a candidate who’ll bring up past horrors,” Iqbal said.

According to government data, the Muslim autonomous region of the southern Philippines accounts for only 1.9 million voters of the roughly 65 million Filipinos eligible to vote this year. However, winning the Muslim vote is considered crucial in the country.

Changing perspectives

Not everyone in the south remembers the Marcos family in the same light.

Over the past decades, some influential families and the young Muslim generation have changed their attitudes about the political dynasty.

In the provinces of Maguindanao and Sultan Kudarat, thousands of Filipino Muslim supporters whose ancestors were victims of martial law-related atrocities showed up to support Marcos Jr.’s campaign rallies this week.

They wore the Marcos camp’s trademark red and green colors and roared their approval as they saw the presidential candidate pressing hands and walking toward the stage.

“There’s already a winner,” they chanted in unison.

Mariam Sangki Mangudadatu, a Muslim governor of Maguindanao province, told reporters that fellow Muslims should let bygones be bygones.

“Nobody is perfect, but under the leadership of Bongbong, he will bring back the progressive image of our country,” Mangudadatu said, using the nickname of Marcos Jr. “Anyone can make mistakes.”

Nursing student Florabel Sinempalan, 21, said both Marcos Jr. and Duterte-Carpio were deserving candidates who would help bring prosperity to many underdeveloped Muslim regions in the south, where militants and communist guerrillas also operate.

“As a Muslim, I know that they will help the Muslim Filipinos and other religions in building respect. Most of the Muslims are being discriminated against. I know that it will stop, and Muslims will be seen equally (by) others,” she said but demurred when asked to explain how she knew Marcos Jr. would bring about change. 

Marcos-SaraII.jpg
Marcos Jr. gives the victory sign as he sits beside Duterte-Carpio during a rally in Santa Rosa, Philippines, March 11, 2022. [Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews]

Inherited support

The rehabilitation of the Marcoses was partly a fault of the political system that allowed them to return home from exile in Hawaii, where the old dictator died in 1989, analysts and observers have said.

Apart from Marcos Jr., the family’s matriarch, Imelda Marcos, and her daughter Imee have all won political office and hold considerable political sway. Another daughter, who keeps out of the limelight, is also married to an influential family.

The strong showing by the Marcos camp in some areas of the country was, in fact, due to the Dutertes, according to a local politics expert.

“The support for Duterte-Carpio was converted to Marcos Jr. Probably, these people also have different experiences,” said Ramon Beleno III, head of the political science and history department at the Ateneo De Davao University in Davao City, President Duterte’s hometown.

“Maybe, they are also getting wrong information from the social media about martial days under the Marcos regime, and they have no time to counter-check that information,” he told BenarNews.

Richel V. Umel and Froilan Gallardo contributed to this report from Cagayan de Oro city, southern Philippines.

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