In​ 1980, I started working for an underground newsroom in Manila. The Balita ng Malayang Pilipinas – the Free Philippines News Service – didn’t have a proper office or a teletype machine. It had a small staff, most of whom, like me, were recent graduates. We met in safe houses where we wrote our stories on portable typewriters and picked up news from clandestine journals published around the country. Ferdinand Marcos had been president of the Philippines for fifteen years and had ruled under martial law since 1972. Thousands of critics and dissenters were in jail, many had been disappeared and protest in any form was brutally quashed. We wrote stories about repression and resistance in strong, simple language. Printed on cheap newsprint, our newsletters were secretly passed from one person to the next. To keep hold of a copy was to risk being charged with possession of ‘subversive materials’.

The BMP didn’t have access to a printing press; no printer would take the risk. We didn’t have a photocopier or a mimeograph machine either, and print shops, especially those near universities, were monitored by the regime. So we stencilled the stories, mounted each page on a silkscreen frame and applied ink – the process used for printing designs on T-shirts. We made five hundred copies of each issue. Most were distributed through the underground network, but we also sent copies to the chief librarian of the University of the Philippines and left them in the university reading rooms, hoping the librarians would preserve them.

They did, hiding them in two steel cabinets. Marcos’s regime collapsed in 1986 and he fled the country. In 1996, the hidden papers were microfilmed and made available to researchers; they are now held in a public archive. Such archives legitimised the story of resistance. They also reinforced a heroic narrative of those years, which sees the opposition to Marcos as part of a long history of resistance, first to more than three hundred years of Spanish colonial rule, then successively to fifty years of US colonialism, Japanese occupation and dictatorship.

The Marcos years are again the subject of heated debate because another Ferdinand Marcos, his son and namesake, was elected president last May, winning almost 59 per cent of the vote. He seems to have succeeded in creating a new narrative about his father’s rule and downfall. In February 1986, more than a million Filipinos gathered on a stretch of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), which runs through Manila, after Marcos was proclaimed victor in the presidential elections despite widespread claims of fraud and violence. His opponent was Corazon Aquino, widow of Ninoy Aquino, who had been assassinated at Manila International Airport in 1983 on his return to the country after three years in exile; he’d spent the previous eight years in prison. The protesters on EDSA had been encouraged to gather there by the archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Sin, to provide a human shield for the rebels in two camps on either side of the road: the police in Camp Crame and the soldiers in Camp Aguinaldo. Both were under the control of the Reform the Armed Forces Movement, which had been planning a coup.

Marcos sent in troops to quell the uprising, but faced with nuns praying in front of armoured vehicles and women offering them food and flowers, they refused to fire. The next day, 24 February, helicopter gunships were ordered to fire at the crowd but landed instead in Camp Crame. At around 9 p.m. on 25 February, the Marcos family fled Manila on US air force helicopters. I was there when a huge crowd breached the barricades – by then abandoned – that surrounded the presidential palace. I saw for myself Imelda’s thousands of pairs of shoes, the giant bottles of perfume and other luxury goods that the family, in their hasty retreat, hadn’t managed to fit into the two US army planes that flew them to exile in Hawaii. When they landed in Honolulu, customs officials listed the possessions they had managed to remove, including 22 crates of cash, 413 pieces of jewellery and 24 gold bricks bearing the inscription ‘To my husband, on our 24th anniversary’. Other riches were already safely abroad: $10 billion in Swiss bank accounts, Liechtenstein ‘foundations’, Manhattan real estate, hundreds of paintings (by Michelangelo, Monet, Goya – the list goes on) and mind-boggling numbers of jewels.

After that, how could Filipinos elect another Marcos as president, and by a landslide? There are many reasons: the Marcos money, most of which still hasn’t been retrieved; their alliances, especially with the populist president Rodrigo Duterte, who preceded Marcos Jr; the complicity of the country’s elite families. There is disaffection with the failed promises of liberal democracy. But the Marcos restoration was also made possible by the distortion of historical memory. My generation knew Ferdinand Jr as ‘Bongbong’, his childhood nickname, the spoiled, party-loving son. Today he is cast as the prince who took back the crown unjustly seized from his father by corrupt and greedy liberals.

‘Each historical narrative renews a claim to truth,’ the historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote in Silencing the Past. ‘What makes some narratives rather than others powerful enough to pass as accepted history?’ Which archival sources are used and whose voices are silenced? The Marcoses have – for now – claimed the archive and seized the narrative. They tell the story of a golden age followed by a fall and a quest for redemption. In the Philippines, a deeply Catholic country, the story has a satisfying narrative arc. As Filipino scholars have pointed out, nationalist history also follows this pattern. José Rizal, our national hero, wrote about pre-colonial Philippines, calling it ‘nuestro perdido Eden’ in a poem written just before his execution by the Spaniards. The oppressed Filipinos then threw off the colonial yoke and declared independence.

In the 1960s, before he became president, Marcos commissioned a biopic and a biography that wove his family myth into the country’s history in an attempt to make his presidency appear inevitable. In this telling, the Marcoses are heirs to the anti-colonial legacy. Imelda Marcos claimed kinship with a general who fought in the revolution against Spain, the same general to whom Ferdinand’s grandfather reported. Ferdinand cultivated the legend that he had inherited an amulet from Gregorio Aglipay, the anti-Spanish and anti-American revolutionary who was a family friend. According to his commissioned biography, For Every Tear a Victory, the amulet gave him the power to disappear and enabled him to survive the Second World War. He claimed to be the most decorated Filipino veteran of the war. In the 1980s, scholars dug into the US archives and discovered that the guerrilla unit he led (after being mysteriously freed from a Japanese POW camp) avoided combat, and most of the 32 medals and decorations he claimed had been fraudulently acquired.

In their prime, Ferdinand and Imelda portrayed themselves as avatars of the Filipino creation myth, Malakas and Maganda, the Strong and the Beautiful, the first humans, who emerged from a bamboo tree split by lightning. When he was president, Marcos published a ghostwritten history book, Tadhana (‘Destiny’), which portrayed the ‘New Society’ that he claimed could be achieved only under martial law as the culmination of the Filipinos’ struggle against colonial and neo-colonial rule.

Marcos died in exile in 1989. Two years later, Imelda and their three children were allowed back to the Philippines to face trial. Imelda was elected to the House of Representatives in 1995 despite facing 28 criminal counts. It took until 2018 for her to be found guilty, on seven cases of graft. She is currently appealing. The family continues to claim that they were blameless victims of liberal elites who conspired to oust them from power.

The Philippines’ People Power revolution was part of the wave of democratic movements that ended autocratic rule in countries around the world in the late 1980s and 1990s. But elected governments failed to address poverty and inequality; corruption continued and globalisation left many in misery. The Marcos myth resonated among the disillusioned and disenfranchised: like the Marcoses, they saw themselves as the victims of an uncaring elite. The family have invested heavily in telling their story on Facebook, YouTube and TikTok, enlisting PR agencies and paying online trolls and social media influencers to promote their narrative. The internet is their archive: photographs, videos, news clips dating back to the 1960s and before are easily accessible and carefully curated.

During the election campaign, Ferdinand Jr portrayed himself as a family man, reasonable, likeable and uncontroversial. Online, the Marcos fandom claimed that there were no disappearances or torture during his father’s regime, despite evidence that thousands were tortured and killed, their bodies dumped in shallow graves. Marcos supporters also claimed that the Philippines had been the richest country in Asia and that Ferdinand Sr founded the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. As well as these self-serving lies, conspiracy theories abounded. It was said that the CIA, the Vatican and Filipino oligarchs collaborated to oust the family from power. Millenarian fantasies, too, went viral. One claimed that Marcos Sr was bequeathed tons of gold by a secretive Filipino family and that this wealth would be shared with his countrymen once his son was in power. What Jonathan Corpus Ong describes as a ‘strategically networked media-information-fantasy complex’ has chipped away at the facts. ‘Historical accuracy and fact-checking,’ he wrote in Time magazine last year, ‘are simply no match for Marcos’s creative folklore, turbo-charged by social media fan culture and relatable influencers.’

On the night of the election, I was outside Ferdinand Jr’s campaign headquarters in Manila. Dozens of vloggers armed with selfie sticks were performing in front of a jubilant crowd. Many were diehard supporters; others saw the Marcoses as a money-making opportunity. Marcos videos always go viral, one of the vloggers told me, so he had shifted from posting how-to videos to following the family. The family provide endless fodder for the content mill: not just Imelda, now 93, and her daughter Imee, a senator and tireless TikToker, but also Ferdinand Jr’s son Sandro, who is deputy leader of the House of Representatives. A nephew is governor of Ilocos Norte, the Marcos home province; a cousin is Speaker of the House and several other relatives also hold public office.

This is a new model, involving not big broadcasters or newspapers, but a multitude of micro-influencers. It’s not Cambridge Analytica-style targeting either. Some of it is astroturfed – that is, designed to look like grassroots support – but much of it is not. This is the way information control now works. You don’t need military censors in newsrooms or tanks rolling down the streets. The journalist Maria Ressa, joint winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her ‘efforts to safeguard freedom of expression’, has to deal with online trolls, harassment lawsuits and violent threats. But critical voices are more often obscured by fake news, disinformation, propaganda, and even by seemingly harmless and entertaining content. Last summer, Manila cinemas screened Maid in Malacañang, a film about the fall of the Marcos regime produced by Imee Marcos and told from the point of view of the household staff, who shield the family from the mob and weep as they flee the presidential palace. The maids are the Marcoses’ ideal citizens: adoring followers who know their place.

A generation has grown up with no memory of the dictatorship. School textbooks normalise the Marcos era or extol its supposed achievements – roads and bridges, for example – but say nothing of corruption or human rights abuses. The historian Filomeno Aguilar has noted the lack of nuanced narratives, in part because many scholars don’t wish to reopen old wounds. While there was fierce resistance, there was also support and complicity. And the regime did some good things: land was redistributed to rice farmers, public funds were poured into infrastructure projects and the economy grew in the early years of martial law. As one of the president’s men said, ‘Marcos believed he could have a vision for society … and still loot it.’

In 2013, the Philippine Congress passed a law promising to pay $200 million recovered from the Marcoses’ Swiss bank accounts to victims of the regime. A compensation board invited people to present evidence and seventy thousand came forward, many telling their stories for the first time. Around eleven thousand had documentary evidence, but the rest did not and received no compensation. The process revealed many gaps in the history of the Marcos years. Among those who came forward were witnesses to a massacre that took place in 1974 in a small Muslim village called Palimbang on the island of Mindanao. Soldiers had rounded up hundreds of villagers in a mosque, killing many of the men and raping the women. Few outside the village knew about the events; since then, 33 survivors have received compensation. Chuck Crisanto, who oversees the archiving of compensation records, told me when I was in Manila in August that many abuses, especially concerning the Muslim minority, have yet to be uncovered. In his office, I met the young librarians who are indexing and digitising the records. They told me that reading the testimonies gave them nightmares. One said that his parents were Marcos supporters and, until recently, he had been ignorant of the regime’s atrocities.

He isn’t the only one. Joey Gurango didn’t know much about his grandfather, the journalist Primitivo Mijares, who was Marcos’s chief propagandist until he defected to the opposition in 1975. The following year, he published a gossipy insider account, The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, detailing the couple’s corruption. The book was banned but continued to circle clandestinely. Mijares disappeared shortly afterwards. Around the same time, his 16-year-old son was abducted, tortured and killed (he may have been thrown out of a helicopter). Gurango’s family hardly spoke of these events. When someone on the Philippines thread on Reddit asked him about the book, Gurango recalled seeing copies in his grandmother’s storeroom. He and his Reddit friends have now annotated and republished it. In the past few months alone, several new books and films critical of the Marcos years have been released and digital versions of out-of-print texts on the regime put online.

Carlos Nazareno, a web and game developer, told me last summer that he had noticed the Marcoses’ Wikipedia entries made no mention of their crimes, so he and others had added information on plunder and human rights abuses. These entries were immediately altered by the family’s supporters and then changed again by Nazareno. The edit wars would go on all night. Fearing that a small anti-Marcos museum might be closed down, Nazareno and friends raised money to digitise its collection of papers from the martial law years. They bought Android phones with high-resolution cameras to scan the documents. The material is now online, one of several digital archives created by universities, activists and victims’ groups. The newsletters I worked on are in these archives, too. Rereading them, I realised how much has been erased from public memory: the theft, the rage, the violence that propped up the regime.

One of the stars of Maid in Malacañang, Ella Cruz, was last year accused of historical revisionism. ‘History is just gossip,’ she replied. All accounts are selective or have a bias of some sort. Between 1899 and 1902, 200,000 Filipinos – or 750,000 or even a million – died from fighting, famine or disease during the American ‘pacification campaign’. The US army tortured Filipino fighters, forced hundreds of thousands into concentration camps, razed villages and massacred their inhabitants. The same counterinsurgency tactics would be used in Vietnam and elsewhere. Yet there is no reference to this in most Philippine and American textbooks. ‘The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility,’ Trouillot wrote, ‘the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.’ The Marcos family’s power also came from violence, from the silencing of dissent and resistance. But it has benefited from decades of myths, lies, folklore, entertainment and propaganda. Ferdinand Sr still looms large in the Filipino imagination – an almost Shakespearean figure. Bongbong, however, is strongman-lite, cotton candy confected for TikTok. He avoids controversy and lets his cabinet do most of the work. The first Marcos produced heroic epics about himself and his wife. His son prefers vlogs, dance challenges and other viral content that serve as a distraction from the real Marcos story.

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