SINCE the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, it has been an unchallenged dogma that one of the Martial Law period’s most horrid aspects was its human rights abuses. This again is another instance of that adage being proven true: “The victors write the history.”
The data even in an anti-Marcos book, Rebellion and Repression in the Philippines (Yale University, 1989) by academic Richard Kessler, however, show that human rights abuses during the Corazon “Cory” Aquino regime was just as bad as Marcos’ record. Ironically, Kessler’s data have been the basis of the oft-repeated claims by a more rabid anti-Marcos American historian, Alfred McCoy, that the human rights abuses during the Marcos regime were worse than those in the infamous Latin American dictatorships.
McCoy wrote, “Marcos’ tally of 3,257 killed exceeds those under the Brazilian and Chilean dictatorships.” That 3,257 number had become the most-used figure to allege the ruthlessness of the Marcos rule.
Quite ironically, Kessler presented his data in his book published in 1989, in order to hammer his point that that human rights abuses had not at all subsided even when Cory assumed power until 1988, the last year for which data was available.
Kessler wrote, “International groups, such as Amnesty International and the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, issued reports in 1988 that suggested that the human rights situation [under the Aquino regime] was at least as bad as it had been under Marcos. As table 5.1 indicates, human rights violations — always a problem in the Philippines — did not cease with democracy’s return.” (p. 136)
Demonstrating either his bias or his utter lack of real academic rigor, McCoy did not even mention that Kessler presented his data mainly to show that human rights violations continued under Cory. The table (5.1) below, scanned directly from Kessler’s book, shows the following: (Table is unedited except for the arrows to emphasize that the data involve both the Marcos and Aquino regimes.)
The figures show that human rights abuses continued under Cory. The 7,444 arrests in 1987 were even the highest recorded in the 14-year period.
Extrajudicial killings continued even during the regime of Aquino, the data confirms, which flies in the face of her manufactured image as “squeaky-clean” and even “saintly” compared with the demonized Marcos.
The academics’ partisanship and betrayal of their discipline is demonstrated, though, by the fact that they merely added up all the cases during Martial Law. The number of disappearances and extrajudicial killings, therefore, from 1975 to 1985 totaled 3,164.
Again showing his anti-Marcos’ bias, McCoy obviously thought this figure was low, so he looked for another source claiming a bigger number.
This was provided in another book by known leftists Verne Mercado and Mariani Dimaranan showing 93 more. Not explaining why he chose this higher figure, McCoy came up with that now infamous figure of 3,257 people killed under the Marcos regime.
But this figure means nothing if not compared with anything else. Kessler, in fact, presented his data for comparison with the first three years under Cory, which I summarize in the second table above.
We would just be making an inane apples-and-oranges comparison if we just look at the totals, since these do not take into account the fact that the Marcos cases span 11 years against Cory’s three years.
To evaluate how bad the human rights situation really was during the comparative regimes, the average per year should be taken for the years under Marcos and those under Aquino.
The figures are shocking.
There were three times more arrests per year under Cory than under Marcos: 3,627 against 1,960. The average of those killed and disappeared during Cory’s watch was 244 annually, which isn’t too far from Marcos’ 296.
This is, in fact, the reason why Kessler presented his statistics, to show that human rights violations continued under Cory, and might have even worsened.
In fact, before he presented his “dry” statistics, Kessler gave vivid examples of human rights abuses under Cory:
“In April 1987, a member of the United Farmers’ Organization was kidnapped by a local vigilante in Cebu City, her body, with her head and leg hacked off, was recovered over a week later.
“In May, a thirty-year-old woman, eight months pregnant, and another young woman, disappeared. Their bodies were later discovered, headless and stabbed multiple times. That pregnant woman’s abdomen had been slashed open and the fetus ripped out.
“One day in June, a farmer hoeing his field in Negros was attacked by several vigilantes, who accused him of being a communist rebel. He was decapitated and disemboweled. They took the head to the local military commander who told them that the man was innocent. The head was abandoned in a ditch, to be recovered later by the man’s wife.” (Kessler, page 136.)
Vigilantism is the main fomenter of human rights abuses under any government. As Kessler explained in 1989, observing the first three years after Marcos fell:
“Vigilante groups had sprung up all over the country with the tacit or direct support of the military and the government during 1987 after a year of relative calm in the insurgency.
“In Mindanao were the Alsa Masa in Davao City, the Eagle’s Squad, the United People for Peace; in Negros, the Philippine Constabulary Forward Command; and in Cebu, the Tadtad and the Citizens’ Army against Communism; and even in Manila, the police began giving weapons’ training to civilians forming neighborhood patrols.”
Kessler concluded of the Aquino regime: “The government appeared powerless to restore the rule of law.”
Many Filipino academics have become highly partisan and too gullible that they believe all of McCoy’s allegations and distortion of Kessler’s data. Lacking academic vigor, they are too lazy to question McCoy’s data and even accuse journalists like me who are seeking the truth that we “insult the memory of those thousands who were savagely killed.”
Such attribution of motives to seekers of truth is so blatantly unacademic, a sign of an indolent mind. No wonder our academe is in such a sorry state.
Kessler is also a bit intellectually dishonest in that he claimed that the source of his table was the “Task Force Detainees-Philippines, Philippine Human Rights Update” (Manila, monthly issues for the periods covered).
This isn’t accurate, as exactly the same table had come out in the TFD’s publications. This means that it wasn’t Kessler who had compiled the data for that table by poring over the TFD’s monthly “Human Rights Updates.” He simply copied the summaries provided by the TFD, and assumed that the group was objective in its reports.
This is the bigger problem in estimating the real extent of human rights abuses during the Marcos era. There is no way now really to determine if the TFD’s data, its sums for each year, are accurate and objective.
This is because TFD wasn’t an objective observer. During Martial Law it was totally controlled by underground cadres of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
Communist activists released from prison routinely manned its offices before they went underground again in the 1980s. Trust me, I was a cadre at the time. The TFD is not an impartial or “highly regarded Catholic body” and instead is one of the legal fronts of the CPP.
Because Filipinos have been mostly anti-communist (due to US propaganda during the Cold War), the only way for the CPP to get them as allies was to portray Marcos’ regime as so ruthless and evil. With the help of indolent and partisan academics, it seems the communists have succeeded.
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With some very slight editing, this article was first published in 2016 and updated in my book, Debunked: Uncovering hard truths about EDSA, Martial Law, Marcos, Aquino, with a special section on the Duterte presidency. Not a single Yellow apologist has attempted to question the arguments in this article.