ISSUE 22 : JULY-DECEMBER 2016
Place of trauma, trauma of place
On the night of the 2016 Presidential Elections, as votes started to come in, and it looked like the man known for his strongman rule in Davao was poised to win, and the son of the dictator was getting millions of votes, my reaction was physical: I became sick to my stomach, and I started vomiting. The same thing happened to me, while I was watching my home city razed to the ground by Yolanda, all semblance of order gone, landmarks of my childhood erased.
If I try to analyze my response to the elections and to the typhoon, it is clear to me that my bodily and gut responses to both disasters are borne by the fact that I was nourished by Tacloban, and my stories and essays procure images, facts, sentiments freely (sometimes involuntarily) from the place. It is also getting clearer and clearer to me that, as in Yolanda, the world post election has been turned upside down: human rights are deemed detrimental to the country’s future, due process and the rule of law are considered inconvenient stumbling blocks in the journey towards peace and order; dictators are considered heroes, and the horrors of Martial Law are not only forgotten but reframed so efficiently as to be viewed magnanimously.
When Yolanda happened, I had been working and traveling through three different countries for several months, documenting and analyzing various forms and manifestations of forced labor, and other types of abuse and exploitation. When the elections took place, I was in my adopted home in Quezon City, watching in horror as the numbers came in, realizing how damning the figures were. In my memory, both occasions stand out because I rarely have moments of helplessness. During Yolanda, I threw up in utter fear, daunted by so many uncertainties. During the elections, in utter shame, terrified by what the votes clearly signaled.
On social media, before the elections, people underestimated the spectre of Martial Law, even praised the dictator’s rule, and in the same breath continued to lambast the previous administration for what was perceived to be very inadequate response during Yolanda. It is no surprise that dictatorial features of the current administration are overlooked, fascist moves are even lauded.
In my feeble analysis, a huge factor that catapulted this man from Davao to the presidency are the failures and mishaps of the previous administration in Tacloban. The avoidable governance botches plus the uncontrollable devastation wrought by nature in 2013, also emboldened this dictator’s son to flirt with the second-highest office of the land.
Tacloban is, of course, home to the other half of the conjugal dictatorship. People used to joke that it is probably where half of the stolen wealth is hidden. I would not know. I only know that, growing up, we were untouched by Martial Law’s horrors. My father was the mayor of a town in Leyte, forty minutes away from Tacloban, and his term was extended owing to the declaration of Martial Law. You could say that we were not only shielded from the horrors, we probably benefitted from it. To this day, the popularity of the Marcoses and Romualdezes has not wavered in this city. It takes very, very little to trigger people’s ire against the rivals of these families, and hardly any effort to forgive whatever inadequacies and mishaps these families commit.
A disaster as deep and as vast as Yolanda can have understandably immense political consequences. But for Yolanda to have been exploited and used as a platform to promote political ambitions is as grievous as the slow and inadequate response to the disaster.
The son of the dictator won overwhelmingly in Tacloban, of course. He lost in the national elections, by a small margin. Still, he might be granted yet an even bigger win: The president has openly referred to the dictator’s children as his family friends, he has repeatedly expressed his debt to this dictator’s family, and his support for the dictator’s burial in Libingan ng mga Bayani.
How did we come to this? How troubled, how broken must we be to keep allowing ourselves these miseries? If it wasn’t clear before, it certainly is now: memory cannot be legislated.
We see this all the time: The state of denial, the resentment at being deprived of agency, the impulse to reframe representation, the pure innocence, the naiveté, the utter lack of capacity for distrust, the bravado borne of desperation, the defensiveness, the identification with the abuser, the seeming nonchalance, the cognitive dissonance, the painful realization, the seething rage, the dissipation of rage, the need to survive, the vulnerability to being abused all over again. We would see these in victims of trafficking, forced labor, other egregious abuses, as they shared with us the facts of their case, the circumstances that led to their current situation. Often, they are the last to identify themselves as victims. We ascribe the labels. We reference a set of indicators, clues and signs. We apply, with an almost mathematical precision, a formula to help us make a proper determination of the case. We do this in order to determine accountability. We justify converting people’s suffering, and hope, and regret, and anger, and courage, and faith into measurable units and values in the name of determining accountability.
Slavery, forced labor, for all its enormity as an issue, is largely hidden or invisible. It has to be, by its very nature. The work of human rights responders requires piecing the story together, identifying the actors, and assigning accountability.
Historical wounds from repeated cycles of exploitation and abuse, I imagine, are similarly difficult to detect, for all their enormity and depth. The notion of survival, the decision-making process, the materiality of trauma, the politics of memory. How do we, as writers, begin to quantify these and use them to ascribe accountability?
We must re-examine how and what meanings are and can be produced by current writing practices. The ethical must be aesthetic. Because of the urgency of the matter, this must include writing done through and for social media.
As a writer, as a citizen, a native of Tacloban, therefore, on the night of the election, on social media, this was my only response:
I would like to sincerely apologize to all survivors and victims, and families of victims, of Martial Law abuses—murder, rape, torture, illegal detention, forced disappearances. I would like to apologize for family, friends, and relatives, who have been insensitive, uncaring, ignorant, heartless. It pains me, but it must pain you even so much more, every time someone exhorts, praises Marcos; endorses BBM and shrugs off his refusal to apologize and to make reparations; and then to see them actually voting for this son of the plunderer-dictator who have caused you and your families so much pain. Just because they did not experience your pain. Just because they benefited from Martial Law. Just because they’re from Ilocos or Leyte, or someplace shielded from these abuses. I cannot imagine how you can endure this whole election season, and, seeing the number of votes, how you can endure the thought of this dictator’s son’s possible occupancy of the second highest position of the land. I cannot imagine how all this is bringing once more to the fore all the pain and humiliation, the suffering and injustice, you’re still trying to learn to live with.
Being from Tacloban, we escaped the wrath of Martial Law, but we did not escape the wrath of Yolanda, which killed thousands of our friends, neighbors, family. Yolanda was an unprecedented natural disaster which could not have been prevented, although maybe the damage could have been minimized, with proper local and national government cooperation. But Martial Law was entirely man-made. Made by one man: Ferdinand Marcos, the father of this man whom people have decided to consider for the VP post, who is now being hailed as a hero. I cannot find any rational, acceptable excuse for the deaths and suffering caused by Martial Law. It was pure evil, wrought by an evil man. Neither can I find any excuse for the decision of millions of our fellow Filipinos to vote for this person, and spit on the graves of those who fought dictatorship. I feel sick to my stomach, and I can only say, sorry, sorry, sorry.