A museum to open our memories

TEACHABLE MOMENTS - Jose Claro (The Philippine Star) - May 7, 2013 - 12:00am

I accompanied my colleague to her interview with Zenaida S. Mique, a member of Claimants 1081. Zenaida is a human rights victim who was subjected to physical and psychological torture during martial law. In her interview, she recounted how soldiers came knocking at her family’s house to look for her. The troops introduced themselves and informed her parents that their daughter was a member of  an anti-government group. “I was not at my house then,” Zenaida narrates, “but my parents assured the commander that they would turn me over.” When Zenaida went back home and learned of the incident, she tried to run away, but her father and brother were able to catch her and forced her to surrender. Her father explained that it was better for her to be in jail so that the family would know where she was rather than be counted among the desaparecidos. Zenaida was released a few years later, but she continued her work of community organizing. While on a provincial assignment, she was abducted by soldiers and imprisoned for a period of time without her family’s knowledge.

I can imagine that Zenaida’s story reflected the uncertainty faced by many Filipino families back then. Every activist carried the baggage of making their families prone to risks of retaliation from the regime. 

The wounds and trauma of martial law still await a collective processing and retrospection. Any attempt of society to make meaning out of its past, however, is dependent on its ability to remember.

Twenty-seven years after the 1986 People Power Revolution, the Philippines still lacks a formal venue that would help form a national memory of martial law.  Our society pins its hopes on our children being able to learn the lessons of martial law through a combination of good history books and good history teachers. Everybody knows, however, that chances of getting both are slim.

On the other hand, a parent in Argentina only needs to think of one place to ascertain that their children will never forget that the freedom they are experiencing at present was paid for by the blood of martyrs and innocent victims. Their country has Memoria Abierta (Open Memory), a coalition of non-government forces that archives a record of the history of state terrorism in Argentina. The movement has erected an impressive museum for the public as well as a website dedicated to make available the stories of those who disappeared, the personal accounts of freedom fighters, as well as the maps of known detention centers and torture chambers. With a tap of a finger, citizens are educated about a cruel and violent history which now only exists in the memory. Argentina is not alone. Chile and Peru also have their own Museo de la Memoria (memory museums). 

For the Philippines, it has been baby steps. Nonetheless, these are still concrete advances toward justice and restitution. President Noynoy Aquino signed into law a Reparation Act for Martial Law Human Rights Victims early this year. Included in the law is the mandate to start the archiving and documentation of the accounts of human rights victims during martial law. These archives play a two-fold role: It will serve as legal basis for validation of any compensation applied for by a claimant and these archives will also be a main resource for a museum of the martial law era. All of these initiatives are being spearheaded by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR). The EDSA People Power Commission (EPPC) is also planning to renovate and expand the People Power Monument into a Memory Museum.

The dream of a memory museum is not tantamount to a simple storehouse of pictures, dioramas, or artifacts. The most important holdings of the museum are the evidence that there is method in madness, that is, there is a system to authoritarian rule. Many insights and ideas for legislation, governance, and citizen participation will be formulated once people learn of the processes and structures that helped sustain martial law. From here, we understand the irony that we can only strengthen our democracy by studying how dictatorship was perpetuated in our nation.  

Chairperson Etta Rosales of CHR explains it beautifully, “Our ability to separate fact from fiction in the dustbin of memory will spell the difference between regression and progression.”

The setting up of a museum is our only way of transmitting our message to the future generation of Filipino families that they, too, must say “never again” to martial law. To achieve this, each succeeding generation must remember the evils of martial law as if they experienced them and lived through them. Only a well-designed memory museum will have that kind of transformative power. For though a museum merely hold exhibits of the past, the memory it evokes is our only guarantee to a future free of tyranny and oppression.

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