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Marcos's resting place divides Filipinos

Still undecided on burial, nation revisits his legacy

BATAC, Philippines -- He does not look as though he could cause much trouble. He's flat on his back in an airtight glass box, his toes up, his eyes waxed shut. He's dead.

But almost 16 years after dying in exile and infamy, Ferdinand E. Marcos -- or at least his reputation -- is being resurrected. And it's causing a commotion.

Filipinos are no longer sure how to remember the man whom they drove from power in a massive but peaceful revolution in 1986, turning him into an international byword for dictatorship and corruption.

These days, watching their cast of politicians fiddle while poverty deepens and Asia's economy takes off without them, many Filipinos look at the Marcos era as happier times, the good old days before their democracy turned into what they now call ''democrazy."

They ask: Was Marcos really a tyrant, or just another Asian strongman imposing order on a country desperate for stability? Was he a crook who stole from his people and stuffed billions into Swiss bank accounts, or just a politician no different from the rest, in a country where corruption is considered the oxygen of politics?

They can't even agree on how to bury him.

There has not been a funeral for Marcos. Although he died in 1989, a standoff over his final resting place divides Filipinos, exposing the cleft between those who feel a rosy nostalgia for the Marcos era, and those for whom wounds from his rule seem to be unhealed even to this day.

The late president's body rests in the purgatory of a private mausoleum in Ilocos Norte, the rural northern province that was, and that remains, the Marcos family's political power base.

Ferdinand Edralin Marcos lies under soft lighting, wearing some of his soldier's medals. A few mementos are hidden inside his glass casket, including his favorite black plastic made-in-America comb and cotton pajamas with a motif of red hearts (an anniversary gift from his wife, Imelda Romualdez Marcos, herself a byword for conspicuous consumption).

The corpse is seen daily by a trickle of loyalists, schoolchildren, and the curious, who come to peer at the local boy who became an accomplished lawyer and a war hero before he went to Manila, the capital, and made it big in politics.

Marcos defined the Philippines to the world for 21 years. Twice elected president, he turned to martial law in 1972, when communists and other opponents were jailed and tortured.

Marcos was chased from office by street protests in the 1986 ''People Power" revolution, and he and his family were ''picked up and dumped in Hawaii," as Imelda put it, by an establishment in Washington that cut him loose.

''Yes sir, that's him," said Master Sergeant Catalino Bactot, who served in Marcos's private security detail for 17 years.

Now, the master sergeant makes sure no one gets fingerprints on the glass covering his old boss. Bactot was asked about rumors that the figure on display is a reproduction. He shook his head. ''It is coated with seven layers of wax," he said.

Real or not, the corpse with its combed-back hair and pancake complexion has lain here since 1993, when then-President Fidel V. Ramos stifled his qualms and, bending to indefatigable lobbying from Imelda, allowed her to bring her husband home from Hawaii, where he died at 72.

Imelda Marcos is not just a lady who lunches -- although she does that, too, meeting regularly with her social circle at Manila's finer restaurants and hotels. Despite the ignominious fall from power, she refuses to retreat into seclusion. She ran for president herself, twice, and although she failed, she was elected to Congress in 1995.

''The poor people love me," she said in the art- and photograph-cluttered living room of her 34th-floor Manila apartment. ''The poor are looking for a star in the night."

But mostly she wants the Marcos name cleared, rendered as innocent and appealing as the black-and-white framed photograph of a heroic young Ferdinand that sits on her living room table.

Not unexpectedly, she has one more wish.

She will not allow Marcos to be buried in Ilocos Norte, no matter how hard her three children pleaded with her to give their father a Christian funeral and be done with it. Now 76, she is holding out for what she sees as her husband's rightful entombment in Manila's Libingan Ng Mga Bayani, the Cemetery of Heroes, where presidents are traditionally buried and where Marcos picked himself a plot when he was president. It's the best spot in the cemetery, a few steps from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The hole has been dug. All that is needed for a state burial is the permission of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the sitting president.

''Marcos deserves it," Marcos said, citing his record: the roads and hospitals built; the diplomatic overtures to the Soviet Union and China, which she said ''knocked down the Iron Curtain and the Bamboo Curtain at the height of the Cold War"; the deals struck with foreign governments to allow thousands of Filipinos to work abroad.

Above all, she said, there was Marcos's ''greatest achievement" -- choosing exile over further bloodshed and refusing to allow loyal elements of the armed forces to use their guns against civilians.

What might otherwise be dismissed as a widow's relentless attempt to polish history has found traction with the public. A nationwide poll last month rated Marcos the best of the last five Philippine presidents. He ranked far ahead of Arroyo, who is battling allegations of corruption and electoral fraud, and even topped Corazon C. Aquino, who led the revolt that toppled his dictatorship.

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