Recently watching ‘The Kingmaker’, an American documentary film about the life of Imelda Marcos was like being transported to the Philippines. One can’t help looking back to Thailand to compare as well.
Think about the divisive person that is Imelda Marcos, and her late husband, dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. Choose your ‘favourite’ divisive Thai political figures and compare. Thaksin or Prayut, anyone?
Think about how many years Thailand has been obsessed about Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck. Thaksin was elected as prime minister in 2001, in case you no longer remember, and Thai society has been obsessed about him for nearly two decades now.
The youth now spear-heading anti-government protests are really the post-Thaksin-Yingluck generation, however. Unlike the redshirts, yellowshirts and multi-color shirts, the young are definitely not obsessed about bringing Thaksin or Yingluck back from exile or having them extradited from Dubai or wherever they may happen to be residing.
Nevertheless, many from the older generations continued to be still either rabidly pro-or-against Thaksin-Yingluck. And the division has severed friendships and even family ties over the past near two decades.
In the Philippines, Imelda Marcos became the republic’s First Lady in 1965 and lasted in that position until her husband and she were ousted by a popular revolt in 1986 and hastily left for exile.
She returned to her home country in 1991, two years after her husband, ex-President Marcos passed away.
At 91, Imelda tried and failed to propel her only son, Bonbong Marcos, in a bid to be elected as Vice President in 2016, the same elections that saw Rodrigo Duterte elected to the Malacanang Palace.
With such enduring political longevity spanning six decades, it’s no surprise that Imelda is a much larger than life figure. The 2019 film, directed by Lauren Greenfield suggested at the end of the film that Imelda dreams of making her son the next president or the Republic of the Philippines have continued. At 91, perhaps she’s running out of time. Thaksin at 70, still has a good decade or two to seek political revenge.
Readers beware, I by no means am trying to imply that Thaksin is comparable to Ferdinand E. Marcos, who ruled by martial law for nearly nine years from 1972 to 1981. They both have been accused of massive corruption, however.
And while Marcos’ rule was marked by 3,257 known extrajudicial killings, Thaksin had his war of drugs that according to Human Rights Watch, saw 2,275 extra-judicially killed when he was Thailand’s premier. Horrible these figures may be, the current Philippine President Duterte, has already surpassed both and his war on drugs campaign saw over 30,000 people killed extra-judicially.
The second point that led me to reflect back at Thailand after seeing the film was the US support for dictatorship during the Cold War (and beyond). If it suits America’s national interests, they have no qualms supporting a dictator here and there. Fearing communist takeover, both Marcos and Imelda were beneficiaries of US-backing for decades including the near-decade when martial law was imposed.
Historian Jose Raymund Canoy, author of “An Illustrated History of the Philippines” noted that: “Although the administration of President Jimmy Carter emphasized the promotion of human rights worldwide, only limited pressure was exerted on Marcos to improve the behaviour of the military in rural areas and to end the death-squad murders of political opponents.”
Another Filipino author, Luis H. Francia, wrote in his book “A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos” that Marcos’s martial law exposed the darkness at the heart of the US foreign policy.
“In spite of the rhetoric, democracy was hardly the most important issue for the U S. government when it came to its client states,” Francia wrote.
Here, the film could have done a much better job in highlighting this expedient relationship. In Thailand, dictators like Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat were also like Marcos – America’s boy. Today, we can perhaps substitute fears of communist taking over Thailand or the Philippines to that of America’s fears for China taking over Thailand and the Philippines. Then you can guess how the US will behave vis-à-vis dictator or hybrid dictator.
Back to Imelda, the chummy and mutually-beneficial relationship with America turned sour by February 1986 after a growing popular uprising was about to sweep the Marcos couple from power.
In the film, Imelda accuses the US government of kidnapping them to facilitate a regime change.
“It’s not true that we fled from our country,” Imelda recalled in the film. “We were kidnapped.”
Many believe that the Marcoses were lied to by the US who told the dictator couple that they would be flown to Ilocos Norte, the home province and political base of Ferdinand Marcos. Instead, they eventually end up in exile in Hawaii where Ferdinand would die in 1989.
Last but not least, at least the film had unprecedented access to Imelda and yet contained counter narratives of others including from Beth Day Romulo, American wife of the late long-time foreign secretary Carlos P. Romulo.
The film was screened in the Philippines. Now I wonder if there will be a critical documentary about Thai leaders (named your favourite one!) who are still alive, ever produced and screened in Thailand.
In the Philippines, even God can be criticized. I can’t say it’s the same for Thailand, as even some mortals are more godlike here.