Remembering in a Time of Violence

Lisandro “Leloy” Claudio is a graduate student at the School of Historical Studies of the University of Melbourne , Australia . He considers himself an overseas Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph)  salimpusa. This article was article was published in the BusinessWorld on September 8, 2008, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

The Chinese remember their history. Perhaps they remember too well. Sino-Japanese relations are perpetually compromised by memories of the Japanese invasion of China. When Japanese historians attempt to revise this violent history, riots break out in the streets of Beijing.

Anti-Japanese sentiment is fomented by the memory of 20 million people killed in the Japanese invasion of China. No wonder Iris Chang became a hero of the Chinese nation upon publication of her book about the Nanjing massacre.

Historical memory serves to structure the political landscape of the present.  Potent memories become inscribed in national consciousness. Racism, for instance, is unlikely to ever be enshrined in law again in South Africa because the horrors of apartheid were made public, remembered, and commemorated. In a similar vein, Cambodians remember the Khmer Rouge, the Armenians remember Turkish brutality, and the Koreans remember when their women were turned into sexual slaves. All these memories have had profound effects on each country’s notion of nationhood.

Filipinos, conversely, as a result of colonization and foreign dependence, have been made to forget. We, too, were victims of large-scale violence. In 1898, the US turned on its former ally General Emilio Aguinaldo, and became aggressors in what was to become the Philippine-American (Phil-Am) war. Perhaps not as many as 20 million Filipinos were killed (estimates range from 200,000 to 600,000), but it is acknowledged that a significant number of the population died because of the war and its aftermath (like Iraq, the violence continued long after the invasion).

Moreover, many of the actions of American troops were equally horrible. The Philippines saw the birth of many US torture techniques like the infamous water cure (refined in the Vietnam war and reimported to the Philippines by the Marcos military). My father’s province of Samar was the sight of the Balangiga massacre where American troops turned the town into a “howling wilderness.” Years later, American military planes would bomb the city of Manila in order to “liberate” it, causing Manila to become the second-most-damaged city in World War II after Warsaw. (The model of destroying a city in order to liberate it would once again raise its nasty head in the NATO bombing of Kosovo). Fast forward even further and you have the US government giving millions of dollars in aid to our most brutal dictator in exchange for letting them keep military bases.

These are facts; many of us know them. And yet we rarely use this history to inform our current decision-making. For history is not a benign set of facts; history is intimately tied with a nation’s politics. As questionable as their histories may be, for example, historians like Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino helped foment the revolutionary zeal that would overthrow Marcos.

A comparison with Indonesia proves enlightening. In contrast to the Philippines, Suharto dominated the production of history in Indonesia, preventing the emergence of a progressive consciousness that would have threatened his hold on power. Until now, anyone associated with progressive politics in Indonesia can be branded a communist and rendered silent. Indonesian history became a weapon to silence dissent, while Philippine history enabled dissent.

As successful as nationalist historians have been, however, their voices can be overshadowed by our age-old national love affair with America. Political dependence and other factors stifle the process of national remembering.

But if the national narrative is about falling in love with the American government, we should at least have trust issues by now. Any smart concubine would.

But apparently we are martirs. We keep asking for more. For example, we’ve allowed US troops to deploy in Mindanao through Balikatan joint military exercises. The term “joint military exercises” is, of course, misleading. Some of America’s deadliest counterinsurgency units have been stationed in actual conflict areas.  Even the idiot George Bush understood in 2001 that Balikatan would function as an essential part of his “second front” in the war on terror. If it constitutes your second front, it can’t just be a bunch of exercises.

The army we trust to solve our problems is the same army that piled body upon body of Muslim Filipinos atop Bud Dajo during the Phil-Am war.

The current violence in Mindanao must be understood in light of a history of aggression that saw its beginning in the 1890s. If the current Bangsamoro struggle is about an assertion of a national identity, this is an identity solidified and strengthened by brutalities committed against it by both Philippine and American military forces. There is no inherent rift between “Christian” Philippines and Muslim Mindanao. That rift was one enabled by the collective trauma brought about by the horrors of war.

It’s ironic that even if pacifist Japan has not performed acts of aggression against China since the end of the war, many Chinese still hate it. America’s still at it, and our government still worships at the neo-con altar of Bush and Cheney. The Chinese can get a bit unreasonable in their hatred. What does one make of our government’s love? Recent events provide an opportunity for re-remembering. Although we have many pasts, it is essential that we re-remember some of them, given our present.

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