Philippines Struggles to Save Monument of Heroes Museum

Organizers at the Monument of Heroes in the Philippines are racing to preserve documents related to the Marcos regime before the dictator’s son takes office.

QUEZON CITY, Philippines — The television that used to play footage of Ferdinand E. Marcos declaring martial law is no longer working. The biographies of the people who struggled against the Filipino dictator were tucked away after heavy rains caused the ceiling to cave in. Naked wires now hang overhead.

The Monument of Heroes is one of the few places in the Philippines dedicated to preserving the bitter memory of the Marcos regime, when tens of thousands of political prisoners were tortured and detained. Its mission when it opened in 2007 was to make sure people did not forget the sacrifices made for democracy.

The building is now mostly in disrepair, damaged by Typhoon Ulysses in 2020 and closed for more than two years because of the coronavirus pandemic before reopening in February. But with the recent election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of the former dictator, the Monument of Heroes has seen a surge of interest from Filipinos trying to make sense of how the scion of the country’s most divisive political dynasty could glide to the presidency in a landslide last month.

Many of those who have gathered at the museum are young people who voted for Leni Robredo, Mr. Marcos’s opponent who placed a distant second in the race. They say they are terrified about the prospect of the country’s violent history under Marcos being censored or erased when the son takes office on June 30.

“We have been in a regime where one disappointment came after the next and then the next,” said May Rodriguez, the executive director of the museum. “But this time, this is the first real serious disappointment of our young people.”

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Ms. Rodriguez, 68, is leading a group of volunteers in an effort to digitize documents dating from the Marcos era. She said she is determined to “fight very hard” if the new government tries to take back the land that the museum sits on in Quezon City, one of the main sites of the uprising that toppled Mr. Marcos’s father in 1986.

Already, a pitched battle over the truth is being waged across the Philippines. Celebrities and influencers have gone on TikTok and YouTube to tell their followers about the human rights abuses of the Marcos era, while the head of the Philippines’ intelligence agency has accused a local publishing house of trying to “subtly radicalize” young Filipinos by selling books on martial law to children.

Colloquially known as Bantayog, or “monument” in Filipino, the museum has received roughly 50 queries from people wanting to visit and learn more about the dictatorship since Mr. Marcos won the race, according to Ms. Rodriguez.

There was similar enthusiasm in 2016, when President Rodrigo Duterte agreed to relocate the older Marcos’s remains to the Philippines’ equivalent of Arlington National Cemetery. Thousands of people gathered in Manila to protest Mr. Duterte’s decision, which many saw as a shameless attempt to help rehabilitate the Marcos family name.

It also “woke people up,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “Especially the young.”

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Edicio G. De La Torre, a trustee at the museum, recently told a group of four young visitors that he was worried about the institution’s future. Mr. De La Torre, who was a political prisoner for nine years, acknowledged during the conversation that he and his peers had not done enough to educate young people about martial law.

“Whenever I feel down or depressed, I feel guilty,” he said.

Ilia Uy, one of the young visitors, said she only learned of the museum three years ago, and that, as a child of the post-1986 generation, she felt as though democracy was a birthright in the Philippines.

“What is lacking is the connection between your generation and our generation,” she told Mr. De La Torre. “I guess it is dawning on our generation that we have to fight,” she said. “And we are not used to it.”

At the museum, visitors are invited to stand in a replica of a prison cell created from the memory of a victim who was raped and tortured during the regime. The Wall of Remembrance, a towering black wall outside the building, lists the names of those who were killed.

Mr. De La Torre, 78, said he knew many of them. “And I think, if my name were up there, what would I want the survivors to do?”

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The Marcoses were exiled from the Philippines in 1986, the year the People Power revolt brought down their regime. But when the family returned in the early 1990s, no one was imprisoned, despite the government saying the Marcoses had looted as much as $10 billion from the country’s Treasury.

With no one held accountable, conflicting narratives spread, some arguing for the family’s innocence, others for its guilt.

Marcos supporters have used social media to describe the government’s accusation of theft as a political witch hunt meant to distort a “golden era” of economic development. Textbooks have glossed over the consequences of martial law. No Truth and Reconciliation Commission was ever formed to allow the country to examine its past.

Mr. Marcos, who has repeatedly said he would not apologize for his father’s legacy, has shunned most media requests and said little about his family after winning the election. He called his victory in May a “valuable expression of trust.”

Ezra Acayan for The New York Times

Ms. Rodriguez, the executive director, was herself a victim of martial law, arrested twice in 1975 and 1983 for writing and distributing articles that criticized the government. She was charged with distributing “subversive materials.” Soldiers put cigarettes out on her body, beat her up and sexually assaulted her, she said.

She became executive director of the Monument of Heroes in 2015. The organization runs mostly on donations, and a shortage of funds is “our biggest threat at the moment,” she said.

If she can get enough money, Ms. Rodriguez said, the goal is to make the museum more interactive, with video clips so visitors can “deconstruct the half truths” online. “When they come into the museum, I want them to understand that the last two or three years — maybe even longer — has been a battle for truth and lies,” she said.

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With a second Marcos presidency just a few weeks away, many martial law victims worry that the line between truth and lies will be irreversibly blurred.

On a recent Thursday afternoon at the museum, Cora de Guzman Navarro, 68, brought a bouquet of pink roses, the color of Ms. Robredo’s campaign, to place in front of her brother’s name at the Wall of Remembrance.

His name was Lucio de Guzman, a founder of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. She hadn’t been at the museum in more than two years. She started weeping as she recalled her brother’s torture and death at the hands of the military.

Ms. de Guzman Navarro turned to a woman who was standing nearby and asked for a hug. Rose Bueno-Esteban placed her arm around her. She, too, was there to remember her own brother, whose name was David T. Bueno, a human rights lawyer who was shot by a gunman outside his office in Ilocos Norte, the Marcos family’s stronghold.

The women learned that both men were killed in 1987, when Corazon Aquino was president. Although Mrs. Aquino had banned torture, she retained some of the Marcos security forces, many of whom continued to carry out extrajudicial killings.

“I know it’s been years since 1987 and we have to move on,” Ms. de Guzman Navarro said, her eyes wet with tears. “But it’s still there, the pain.”

Ezra Acayan for The New York Times

Camille Elemia and Jason Gutierrez contributed reporting.

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