Emil Guillermo: The first time I saw a million people marching in the streets united

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As Asian Americans, we are always tied to our homeland politics in some personal way. China, Taiwan, India, the Philippines, Myanmar, Vietnam, Korea, Cambodia, you name it.

We are aware of the moments of the present day that may ultimately become history. The calendar marks days you never forget.

For me, an American Filipino, it was Aug. 31, 1983, ten days after Ninoy Aquino was assassinated in Manila on August 21,1983.

It was like a calling to come back “home.”

Not my home, of course, but the homeland of my parents. I was in the Philippines on one of the most important days in the history of that country.

As a young American Filipino reporter for the NBC affiliate in San Francisco, I had convinced my bosses that the death of Sen. Aquino, the main rival of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was not some remote international headline. Not when you have more than a quarter-million Filipinos living in the Bay Area.

With many Filipino immigrants originally from the Ilocos region of Ferdinand Marcos, and the rest of them either in the U.S. as immigrants or exiles because of Marcos’ martial law, the Philippines story was as local as a five-alarm fire.

There was also the special relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines, the former colony made up to be a replica democracy in brownface.

Never mind the dictatorship part.

The Reagan and Bush administrations had given their blessings to the Marcos regime. Remember Vice President Bush’s infamous praise for Marcos and his “adherence to democratic principles”?

You mean, like human rights violations and torture? Yes, and ultimately, it included the assassination of Aquino, my ticket home.

I arrived in the country in time to make it to the Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City, to see Aquino’s widow Cory give the eulogy and report it on NBC. And then I saw the massive funeral procession–1 million strong throughout the streets of Manila.

I had never seen anything like it.

In part, it was an adoration of Ninoy Aquino, the chosen anti-Marcos, the man Filipinos had hoped would lead them to freedom.

But it was also the first passionate public condemnation of Marcos, the man who had sucked the life, liberty, and riches from the country under his repressive martial law regime.

It was the beginning of the end.

Within three years, in 1986, the country’s resentment of martial law would reach amok levels, and Marcos ultimately would be forced to flee the country.

It was the funeral procession on Aug. 31, 1983, that let everyone know it was all coming soon. That’s how history evolves for the good.

But the passion faded in a generation. Thirty-three years later, Aug. 31, 2016, the day the Philippine Supreme Court officially began hearing oral arguments for and against a plan to give Marcos a hero’s burial in the Philippines’ national cemetery, the Libingan ng mga Bayani.

The proposal was made by then newly-elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the authoritarian tough guy who was likened to Donald Trump. Duterte led the charge to take Marcos out of cold storage and place him on hallowed Philippine soil.

Never mind the long list of human rights abuses of political opponents, the murder of Ninoy Aquino chief among them. The disappearances and executions of thousands of political foes. The estimated $10 billion stolen from the country for his family’s personal gain (some of which has been repaid).

U.S. federal court judgments in 1994 and 1995 also awarded martial law victims nearly $2 billion, of which payments were first made in 2011.

A wall-like monument like the Vietnam Memorial, erected near the University of the Philippines-Diliman campus, is a constant reminder of the names of those victimized by Marcos’ 20 years of martial law.

And yet there was still sympathy for Marcos.

I talked to one Filipino immigrant, who had come to the U.S. during martial law and was now an American citizen. He was all too willing to forgive and forget and allow the burial of Marcos and his sins.

“Well, even the Germans have forgiven Hitler,” he said.

I quickly corrected him. “No, they haven’t.”

Many still see Hitler rightly as evil incarnate.

But I don’t want to elevate Marcos to Hitler status. The Philippine dictator’s actions weren’t fueled by the belief of the racial superiority of Filipinos among, say, all of Asia, or above all ethnicities.

Marcos wasn’t anti-Semitic.

He was just anti-Filipino.

Marcos simply saw himself as superior to other Filipinos. He subjected his will over lesser Filipinos, which actually made him a whole lot worse than anyone can imagine. He perpetrated crimes against his own people. His own country. There’s nothing heroic about that.

And yet, oligarchs will do as oligarchs will do: Forgive each other and hope that a new generation of ignorance will help them form a new majority of revisionists. The entire country has been subjected to very little education on the human rights abuses of Marcos.

They only see the dictator as the man who ushered in the “Golden Age” of the Philippines.

Public education! National highways! Flush toilets! Ah, modernity and selective amnesia.

And it seems to be working. Today, 39 years later, Bongbong a/k/a Ferdinand Jr., has risen to the presidency.

And the oligarchs, both good and bad, remain in control. You can’t tell them apart really. Seen one oligarch, seen them all. But you can tell them from normal every day Filipinos, who struggle in pesos and dream in dollars. They aren’t seen by the wealthy Filipinos who jet set between Manila and wealthy American suburbs. As Imelda Marcos would say of the Philippine people, they all just keep on smiling.

It all shows how the arc of justice is not just long, but flexible, impermanent. It bends back if we aren’t strong to keep it going in the right direction.

That’s why I like to hold on to the memory of what I saw and reported on Aug. 31, 1983. More than a million people moving together. Never seen anything like it. Rich and poor Filipinos. United in their passion. Mourning Aquino. Damning Marcos. Yearning for a freedom, still not quite fully realized for all.

NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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