Cardboard boxes form neat rows, from floor to ceiling, along the narrow corridors of the archive room. Each is assigned a number from one to 10. Inside are the personal accounts of thousands of victims of atrocities committed under the rule of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. The lower numbers are the least egregious cases. Those labelled with a number nine or 10 contain the most harrowing descriptions of rape, torture and disappearances.
“My task now is, [with] all of the truth, all of the evidence I have … to preserve the records,” said Carmelo Victor A Crisanto, the executive director of the Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission, which manages the archives. He is focused on digitising victims’ case files so that they are protected and more widely accessible to researchers.
Crisanto’s work has recently taken on even greater urgency. Last month, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the son and namesake of the late dictator, won a landslide victory in the presidential election, following a surge of online disinformation that glorified his father’s rule, which was marked by an abuse of power after declaring martial law.
Academics, activists and survivors of Marcos Sr’s regime fear further distortion of history – and even the disappearance of historical records – once the family returns to office.
In the weeks after the election result, many have rushed to protect the country’s past. Shops have sold out of history books that depict the plunder and abuses that occurred during the Marcos era, while 1,700 academics have signed a manifesto promising to protect the truth and academic freedom.
Francis Gealogo, a professor of history at Ateneo de Manila University, who helped organise the manifesto, compared his country’s rush to preserve its history to panic buying food. “After the elections, we had the unusual phenomenon of panic buying of books regarding martial law,” he said.
“People were really concerned that even the printing of these books may no longer be allowed or [shops] may simply be pressured to stop,” said Gealogo. Even before the election, some bookshops were red-tagged – where critical voices are labelled communist, either officially by authorities or unofficially by members of the community – which can lead to harassment and even deadly violence. Universities and prominent intellectuals have also been subject to red-tagging.
Marcos Jr has never apologised for abuses or corruption under his father, and has instead downplayed past atrocities. For years, social media has been flooded with false stories that portray his father’s rule as a time when the economy was thriving and society was orderly. Marcos Jr has denied there is any coordinated network of pushing such claims.
“We’re really very much concerned about the deterioration of history education, for one, and the general historical consciousness of the general population,” said Gealogo.
Marcos Jr’s spokesperson has dodged media questions over whether memorial days marking the declaration of martial law or the “EDSA revolution” that overthrew Marcos Sr will be commemorated under his son’s rule.
A memorial museum, which will feature exhibitions on martial law, is due to be built on the grounds of the University of the Philippines Diliman campus in Quezon City, a government institution, later this year. Some question if it will go ahead. “If I show [plans] to President Bongbong Marcos, will he stop me or allow me? By law this is my mandate – but it showcases the atrocities of your dad,” said Crisanto, who is also overseeing the project.
The Human Rights Violations Victims’ Memorial Commission is a government agency. It is protected by law, says Crisanto, “but it can be starved”. Its budget is reviewed annually by Congress.
Already operating on a modest budget, Crisanto has managed to digitise records by collaborating with universities, whose students assisted the project as part of their community work. It was an emotional experience for those who took part. “They were aghast … There was a sense of anger,” he said, adding that students were horrified to find that the victims were the same age as them. Some parents didn’t want their children to take part, fearing they could be red-tagged.
The digitised files relate to 11,103 individuals who secured reparations from the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board, which began its work in 2014 and has since closed. The true number of victims is likely far higher, said Crisanto; in total, 75,749 submitted cases to the board. Most were rejected because they could not provide sufficient evidence to substantiate allegations of abuses that took place decades ago.
While the memorial commission has made progress in backing up documents, academics say that, elsewhere, sensitive records only exist in physical single copies. It is possible that material could also be seized from private institutions, they fear.
“A government agency can simply say they cannot locate old files, or that these files were misplaced or something like that,” said Gealogo.
There is a vibrant civil society in the Philippines that is determined to protect the truth, said Gealogo. But he adds: “It’s difficult if there is a government institutional effort [for] advancing negative historical revisionism … The battlefield now is really how extensive and expansive our work should be.”