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Opinion Why I must confront the Philippines’ painful past — including my father’s role

Students and opposition supporters gather at the gate to Malacanang Palace in Manila on Feb. 21, 1986 in a protest against the government of Ferdinand Marcos. (Willie Salenga/AP)
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Wanna Ver is the co-founder of Kapwa Pilipinas, an organization focused on cultivating reconciliation for the survivors of martial law under the Marcos dictatorship.

I was 8 years old when the “people power” uprising toppled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986. I remember it as a terrifying time: My family was torn apart and I was forced to flee and hide. I felt I had been robbed of my home, childhood, country and culture. It took me decades to realize many things I believed about that period were lies — lies that are still being told.

I am the daughter of Gen. Fabian Ver. For 20-plus years, my father was Marcos’s right-hand man, the chief of staff of the armed forces and the overseer of the country’s intelligence and national security apparatus. He was the second-most powerful man in the country, fiercely loyal to the Marcos family.

I grew up being taught that the Marcos era was the country’s golden age. I believed that Marcos’s great achievements made our country and people flourish. In my 20s, Imelda Marcos, who was visiting our family after my father’s death in exile, told me that multiple public relations firms were smearing the Marcos name. I thought this was the reason many people described their rule as a “brutal dictatorship.”

I have lived in exile in the United States and Europe for most of my life. It was only recently, when I began doing my own research about the martial law era under Marcos, that I came to terms with the stories about my father and the Marcoses.

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Today, Marcos’s son, Ferdinand Jr., is the front-runner in next week’s presidential elections, poised to reclaim the presidency that some believe had been wrongfully seized from his family. I used to believe that, too. It took me years of research to finally understand that the 1986 revolution was in fact peaceful, and that it was an important step toward building democracy in the Philippines.

Since then, I have worked with the survivors of the Marcos regime. In Sweden, where I currently reside, I helped form a group that is collecting the stories of those who had suffered during the dictatorship. Our goal is to give survivors a chance to talk about torture, arrest, extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances.

I interview survivors both as a journalist and the daughter of one of the men known for giving orders that resulted in their suffering.

To them, I am the face of a brutal dictatorship but also a witness to their pain. I tell them I am sorry these atrocities happened to them. A torture survivor told me our meeting was cathartic — I was the first, if not the only, person from the Marcos regime to listen to the horrors he had lived through, and the only one who has acknowledged to him and to others that what they suffered was wrong.

One woman thanked me for preserving the story of her slain brother and invited me to visit. Another wept. She is a writer who was arrested in 1976 and forced by her captors to point a gun to her head and play Russian roulette. She, too, thanked me. They appeared to be saying that if Gen. Ver’s daughter is here — listening and apologizing — maybe there is hope for reconciliation.

Marcos Jr. has not apologized for his father’s sins. On the contrary, he champions what he says are his father’s great contributions to the Philippines. Loyalists often ask for survivors to forgive and forget, but our deeply Catholic country knows forgiveness only occurs after confession, penance and restitution. Filipinos cannot move on because they have failed to listen to each other, to acknowledge and account for the sins of the past.

Many in my family feel differently than I do. They say “it’s time to forgive and bury the hatchet for the sake of our nation and the people.”

It is difficult to confront the past. My husband tries to comfort me, suggesting that, because I was so young when we fled the country, I only knew Fabian Ver, the elderly exile who could just be a dad. Not the Gen. Ver, whose army committed human rights violations and crushed dissent, not the loyal officer who stood trial for the assassination of Marcos’s rival, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.

It would be easier to keep quiet, but silence is what has allowed the revision of history and denial of people’s testimonies. I have heard enough stories from those who suffered and cannot be quiet any longer.

Regardless of who wins, at this critical moment in our history, I hope for a president who will have the courage to put the Philippines first, to listen to our countrymen and women, to choose reconciliation over revision, and carve a new path toward healing our nation.