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Marcos victory opens old wounds for martial law victims in Philippines

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Boni Ilagan was arrested and tortured during the martial law era under Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. His sister Rizalina, whose name is inscribed on a memorial wall in Manila, was also arrested and disappeared. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
Boni Ilagan was arrested and tortured during the martial law era under Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. His sister Rizalina, whose name is inscribed on a memorial wall in Manila, was also arrested and disappeared. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

MANILA, May 13 (UPI) -- As Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. was closing in on the presidency of the Philippines earlier this week, playwright Boni Ilagan thought back to a morning almost 50 years ago.

Ilagan, then a 23-year-old student activist, was on the run from Bongbong's father -- dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. -- who had declared martial law and was hunting down political opponents and dissidents.

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In April 1974, Ilagan's luck ran out. An intelligence unit burst into the safe house where he and his fellow publishers of an underground newspaper were hiding.

"They started the torture right there in the house," Ilagan, now 70, told UPI. "I think they wanted us to be demoralized immediately, so that we could offer no resistance."

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For the next two years, he was held prisoner at Camp Crame, the headquarters of the Philippine National Police in Manila. Ilagan's captors burned his feet with a flat iron. They made him lie between two cots, suspended by only his head and feet, and beat him when he sagged or fell -- the torturers called it "San Juanico Bridge," named after a span Marcos built as a gift for his wife Imelda, now 92 years old.

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Iligan's voice caught as he described how interrogators forced a stick into his penis, trying to get him to talk.

"It took a long time before I was able to share the details of this," he said. "I was in denial."

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According to Amnesty International, the Marcos administration detained 70,000 people on charges of subversion, tortured 34,000 and "salvaged" 3,240 -- a euphemism for extrajudicial killings.

Ilagan's sister Rizalina was also arrested and "disappeared" in 1977, her name inscribed on a memorial wall that Boni visited after casting his vote on Monday.

With the presumptive victory of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the presidential election -- he won by a landslide of more than 16 million votes, according to still-unofficial results -- the memories of those dark years have grown closer than ever.

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"It's unimaginable," Ilagan said. 'It's like a nightmare that I thought had been lost forever and now has been revived."

Another student activist, Neri Colmenares, was just 18 when he was arrested in 1978. He would spend a total of four years in prison, subject to frequent beatings and electric shocks.

However, Colmenares said it was the mental torture -- such as being forced to play Russian roulette with a loaded revolver -- that was worse.

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"After three days of beatings, your body is so numb that no more pain can be added," he told UPI. "It was the mental torture that actually broke a lot of activists. I always say that it is probably because the mind is limitless. Therefore, the pain is limitless."

Both men have been active in keeping the memory of the martial law era alive and warning of the dangers of returning the Marcos clan to power.

Ilagan, a renowned playwright whose works portrayed the human rights violations of the Marcos dictatorship, is one of the leaders of the activist group Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses and Martial Law.

Colmenares, a 62-year-old human rights lawyer and former congressman, ran an unsuccessful campaign for a Senate seat this week on a ticket closely allied with Leni Robredo, the main opponent of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in the presidential race.

"I was competing against Marcos more than I was competing for my senatorial position," Colmenares said. "Because among the candidates, I think I'm the only one who was tortured and arrested during Marcos era, so I felt a personal obligation."

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has never apologized or admitted to any wrongdoing from the two decades of rule that saw his family plunder up to $10 billion from the country. Instead, he ran on a campaign slogan of "together we will rise again" and praised his dictator father as a "political genius."

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Meanwhile, opponents have been faced with a "firehose of disinformation," according to fact-checking group Tsek.ph, much of which has set out to rehabilitate the family's image and cast the Marcos era as a kind of golden age of the Philippines.

"Marcos has been exceptionally effective in using disinformation spread on social media to rebrand his family's history and create a devoted following," Liz Derr, founder of TrollExposer, a U.S.-based organization that roots out accounts and groups responsible for fake news on Facebook, told UPI.

"He has conditioned his followers to be impervious to fact checking and reliable sources," Derr said.

One widespread myth, used to explain the notorious kleptocracy's wealth, claims that Ferdinand Marcos Sr. was paid thousands of tons of gold when he worked as a lawyer for the descendants of a Philippine royal family.

Other accounts claim that only terrorists were arrested under martial law -- not activists or critics such as Ilagan and Colmenares. The lies are especially targeted at voters too young to have firsthand memories of the Marcos era, which ended when he was driven into exile by a popular uprising in 1986.

"I felt some resentment against the young people for believing," Ilagan said. "But I realized it was not their fault. It was the fault of our government, our institutions who failed to ensure that the lessons of history, especially during martial law, were taught."

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"My main obligation is to tell people my story," Ilagan said. "So I tell my story. And I tell the story of my sister."

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