Neri Colmenares: The Martial Law Survivor Pursuing a Philippine Senate Seat

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Neri Colmenares: The Martial Law Survivor Pursuing a Philippine Senate Seat

Colmenares wants to prevent the Philippines from returning to the dark times of the Marcos dictatorship.

Neri Colmenares: The Martial Law Survivor Pursuing a Philippine Senate Seat

Neri Colmenares sitting with student activists.

Credit: Michael Beltran

When Neri Colmenares learned that Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator, was running for president 50 years after his father first declared martial law, he felt pangs of pain in places inside his mind that had long been undisturbed. Like so many other survivors of the martial law period, which lasted from 1972 to 1986, Colmenares carries lifelong scars. When Marcos announced his bid for the presidency, much of the nation writhed in quiet agony and shock.

Marcos’s platform drumbeats his father’s era as “golden years” for the Philippines, to which he promises to return the country toward once more. He is adamant that no human rights violations were committed during his father’s tenure, that there was no plunder of state resources or abuse of power. The country was headed into unrivaled modernity, he says, until political rivals managed to get their way.

This is what Colmenares calls the most perilous political development in the post-martial law period.

A human rights lawyer who served as a Bayan Muna (People First) Party-list congressman for nine years, Colmenares is taking a shot for the Senate for a third time this May. His campaign centers on preventing the restoration of Marcosian power and upholding human rights for all Filipinos. He is the only candidate for a national position running now that was detained and tortured during the martial law period. While the significance of his latest bid is primarily political, he admits to an undeniable tinge of something personal as well. Colmenares does not want the family that tormented him to repeat their crimes.

The Mind Remembers 

“Any president who believes the martial law period was golden is dangerous, because he may impose it again. Anyone who was part of the Marcos regime and helped in committing crimes should not be allowed to be elected president without being held to account for such participation,” Colmenares tells The Diplomat. “Bongbong was not a kid during martial law. He was 23 and aiding the regime when he was practically appointed by his father as governor of their home province.”

According to Amnesty International, during martial law, Marcos’ administration detained 70,000 individuals on charges of subversion, tortured 34,000 people, and committed 3,240 extra-judicial killings. 

Colmenares was 18 years old when he was arrested for championing the return of student councils and publications. For five days military men beat him, bashing his head on the wall and electrocuting him; the details of his ordeal, he admits, have become fuzzy with time. What haunts him with striking detail to this day is the mental torture. 

“Your body can become numb when you reach a certain threshold for pain. But the mind has no limits for accumulating harm. Any government that tortures an 18-year-old kid is an especially cruel one,” he says, shuddering. 

On one occasion, his captors tied a man he didn’t know to a table in front of him. The soldiers stripped the man naked and proceeded to insert wires into his penis. They did so while taunting Colmenares: “You’re next.” 

He also remembers enduring the infamous Russian roulette several times. A soldier placed a revolver with only one bullet in his mouth and pulled the trigger. “Each time I could already feel my brain splattered on the wall,” recalls Colmenares. 

The ordeal shaped Colmenares’ legislative priorities when he made it into Congress in 2007. He authored the Anti-Torture Act, which first defined and penalized mental torture in Philippine law. He also authored the Human Rights Victims Reparation and Recognition Act which indemnified martial law victims with compensation taken from the 10 billion pesos of ill-gotten Marcos family wealth returned by Swiss banks in 1997. He hopes to do more of the same in the Senate, preferably without the dictator’s son in power to inhibit him.

Amnesiac Nation

The potential return of the Marcoses to power has been a long time coming. With the advent of social media and the easy misinformation that comes with it, Filipinos have been hit with years of historical revisionism. The claims peddled by Marcos and his supporters about the supposed wonders of his father’s time are largely backed up by a population deprived of genuine learning about national history. On social media, you can find all manner of incredulous assertions, even that the Marcos family built the Eiffel Tower in Paris and that it is a testament to their ingenuity.

For years, and even as recently as 2020, educators have flagged the absence of martial law abuses in textbooks. The Marcoses benefit from, and have been spurred by, a national amnesia surrounding that period. As a result, some are concerned they may use the cover of ignorance to pursue such policies again.  

President Rodrigo Duterte, whose daughter is running for vice president alongside Marcos, has been a long-time ally of the Marcoses. Colmenares believes that Duterte’s public admiration of the elder Marcos and the martial law period, alongside their mutual support, has served to boost the popularity of the dictator’s family. Marcos enjoys a lead in the pre-election surveys and the full support of the current administration. 

“If Bongbong becomes president, what does that say about the EDSA uprising that overthrew his father? If things were so great before, why did the nation come together against them? The Marcoses are propagating false narratives, trying to make it look like we invented all the atrocities when in fact people were so afraid of the Marcoses before, it was inconceivable that anyone would fake a torture or killing,” says Colmenares. 

Another common misconception about the martial law era is that the economy was in as good a shape it could be. Experts, however, have repeatedly disputed this assertion. According to the Ibon Foundation, a think tank, the elder Marcos incurred so much foreign debt, supposedly for welfare programs that never came to fruition, that Filipinos will be footing the bill until 2025, 39 years after he was deposed from power. They added that the martial law economy was so disastrous, almost half (49 percent) of the population was living in dire poverty at the time.

With the rampant misinformation about Philippine history nowadays, Colmenares feels like he’s living in a parallel dystopia where everyone is forced to misremember.

Colmenares says: “It pushed me to pursue a senatorial run and more so the advocacies to defeat him. What does a Marcos win say about their victims? That we lied about our experiences, that all the suffering never happened? If Marcos Jr. wins, the impact on the next generations of Filipinos is incalculable. Imagine, if someone like Hitler’s heir, who championed his ideas, sought to be the next Fuhrer.”

The Marcoses and Duterte do share many similarities. The current president’s enactment of the Anti-Terror Law to crack down on dissent and his imposition of Martial Law in the southern Philippines is arguably the closest the Philippines has gotten to open dictatorship again. Both Marcos and Duterte have records offering fascist futures that Colmenares refuses to back down from. 

“We have been fighting back the tide of fascism for some time,” Colmenares says. “During the EDSA uprising, Bongbong was in full military fatigue, ready to shoot down protesters, he was part of the dictatorial government and accountable. He, his father and Duterte are of the same ilk. A nation with him as president will be one where poverty, repression, and injustice will thrive.”