Philippines President Benigno Aquino III signs a bill Monday during ceremonies… (Noel Celis / Agence France-Presse…)
The Philippines is pulling more than $200 million from the Swiss bank accounts of ousted strongman Ferdinand Marcos to compensate people tortured, raped and detained while he was in power, under a new law signed Monday.
Victims of abuse during the Marcos era will be able to seek funds under the law signed by President Benigno Aquino III, the first such government program in the Philippines. The president, whose father was assassinated after speaking out against the Marcos government, said Monday that the landmark law was meant to “right the wrongs of the past.”
“At last, the long wait for the martial law victims is over," lawmaker and former detainee Neri Colmenares said, according to the Philippine Star. "This is a victorious day for those who have awaited and fought for the state’s recognition of their suffering."
The move marked the 27th anniversary of the revolution that ejected Marcos, whose government jailed, tortured or “disappeared” thousands of opponents after declaring martial law in 1972. Marcos was ousted in 1986 and died three years later while in exile in Hawaii. Victims groups hailed the new law as an overdue victory.
“The struggle was protracted. The process was agonizing and tedious,” the SELDA victims’ association said in a statement Monday. The group accused Philippines lawmakers of trying to water down the law “in cahoots with the Marcoses and the military,” and said when it finally passed, "it was mainly due to the persistent efforts of the martial law victims themselves."
The longstanding battle over how to repay the victims was slowed by a battery of other problems facing the Philippines and the efforts of Marcos family members and allies who regained political power in the decades after his ouster, said Gerard Finin, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu. Many victims are now aged; some have already died.
“It’s a step in the right direction – even if it’s taken a long, long time,” Finin said. The fact that President Aquino pressed for the law now “suggests that he wants this to be part of his legacy.”
Along with the new fund, the law establishes a memorial commission that is supposed to work with Philippines schools to ensure the history of the Marcos regime and its abuses are taught in schools.
The son of the former president, Senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr., said he “had no problem” with compensating victims of human rights abuses, but questioned why survivors of other government abuses weren’t offered the same help. He accused the government of “resurrecting old bugaboos.”
“Enough of the politics that divide us, the ‘blame game’ that delays us, and the excuses that derail us,” Marcos said in a lengthy statement posted on Facebook commenting on the new law.
Under the new law, the money will be awarded based on a points system tied to the abuses suffered by victims, the official Philippines News Agency reported. Divided among the victims, “it will not result to much,” activist Marie Hilao-Enriquez told the Agence-France Presse.
The new fund represents just a fraction of the money suspected to have been stolen by Marcos: Tens of billions of dollars are believed to have been pilfered from the Philippines and stashed in secret, complicating the quest to recover the funds. Last month, lawmakers suggested doing away with a presidential commission aimed at recouping the money, saying it cost more than it was worth. Victims groups pressed for the pursuit to continue.
SELDA also warned Monday that some culprits from the Marcos era had gone unpunished and that abuses had continued long after the revolution. Hundreds of unlawful killings, allegedly at the hands of state security forces, have been reported over the past 12 years, yet no one has been brought to justice for the crimes, Human Rights Watch said in a recent report.
“We may be jubilant, but we continue to watch with vigilance,” SELDA wrote.