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Fairy Tale Turned Sour

Since Ninoy Aquino's assassination in Philippine news leaves me numb. The Agrava Board, the Sandiganbayan, the worsening economy and political situation are all very depressing. Cold fear grips my bones when I read about the Philippines. Realization hits me that the Philippines I knew and the Philippines that is, are two different worlds. I feel helpless, wondering what the future of the Philippines will be.

Nonetheless, news about home intrigues me, captivates me, and last October, following Senator Laxalt's visit to the Philippines, I sat rooted in front of the television set to watch Nightline, 60 Minutes, and the MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour.

From among all the images I saw on those television reports, what stands out is the picture of the almost-naked body of a Filipino washed ashore. The dead man, as Ed Bradley of 60Minutes said, was a salvaging victim. The next scene was a makeshift morgue with other dead men, also victims of political violence.

On TV I saw hungry children and adults, as Bishop Fortich of Negros Occidental explained that malnutrition is a major problem in the country. I observed Filipinos in such poverty as I had never seen in the Philippines before. Scenes of Filipinos in front of the American Embassy brought to my mind the frantic Vietnamese who wanted to leave Saigon before it fell to the Communists. Now, life in the Philippines is worse than the war years, someone wrote me recently.

After showing the backdrop and interviewing different people including a nun and opposition leaders, the television camera focused on Ferdinand Marcos, the man held responsible by many for the difficulties in the Philippines.

Marcos surprised me because he appeared healthier than he has looked in a long time. He seemed tough, sure of himself. He was glib, aggressive, even belligerent I have to hand it to you Americans, the annoyed Marcos told Bradley of 60 Minutes, you come here and push me around and I still like you. It was very obvious that at that moment, Marcos did not particularly care for Bradley and Americans.

As I watched Marcos on TV; I recalled the young Ferdinand and his beautiful wife during the 60's. They were loved by the Filipino people. At last, it seemed, we had our own John and Jackie Kennedy. Imelda was irresistibly charming as she traveled throughout the islands in her terno, wooing people with her Dahil sa Iyo. And Marcos, so dashing, the young politician, the decorated war hero. It was like a fairy tale.

But now, a generation later, it seems we have learned our lesson. Fairy tales are not real. Imelda continues to sing but her smile is strained and an icy glint peers out of her dark eyes. Ferdinand is a sick man, on his last legs so to speak, physically and politically. When Ted Koppel of Nightline enquired about his health, Marcos waved his hand to make a light matter of the topic. Old war wounds, he replied, and proceeded to describe how he jogs and how much healthier he is now, more than ever before, thanks to the fine American doctors. What Filipinos have heard is that he lives in a filtered environment because the air outside Malacañang makes him sick. Words like lupus, surgeries, kidney transplants are whispered in reference to Marcos health.

When Koppel, very politely and delicately, asked in a roundabout way if Marcos was still in control and not merely relying on his cronies for information, Marcos immediately flaunted a number of newspapers. Here, here is Malaya, he said, holding up the opposition paper. He brandished other periodicals and reasserted his authority over the military. What I saw was a man who repeated too much that he was in control.

My overall impression was that Marcos knew how high the stakes are, how very important these interviews were. Like a careful juggler, he balanced the Communist scare and playing tough to keep the Communist threat under check. He sidestepped questions, attacking opposition leaders instead. The image he portrayed was that of a man unwilling to bend, to compromise.

Marcos may have been pleased with his performance. But I sensed an anxiety, a desperation on his part. I cannot help thinking that he spent a lot of time rehearsing what he would say and do during the interviews. And I cannot help thinking that at night, alone in his allergy-proof quarters, when his friends (now dwindling in number) and his family are not around, Marcos is probably a very lonely and scared man.

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