Catalino Bactat has spent nearly all his adult life guarding Ferdinand Marcos, from the time when his boss was the most powerful man in the Philippines and now as a mass of dried tissue in an airless glass case.
“He was a good man, the president was a disciplined man. He was not a soldier for nothing,” Bactat says of Marcos, who in life had been accused of robbing his country blind and oppressing its people during his 20-year rule, much of it under martial law.
As politicians and ordinary citizens renew a national debate on what to do with the Marcos corpse about 16 years after his death, Bactat, a retired soldier, is sticking by his boss as administrator of the former leader’s mausoleum.
Public displays of the remains of former leaders are going out of fashion elsewhere in the world including Russia, where, after eight decades on public display in a glass box like Marcos, the government is considering what to do with the remains of its first communist leader Lenin.
But on an ordinary day several hundred people, including curious foreign tourists, enter the air-conditioned stone structure here, built at the Marcos family estate in Batac.
Amid piped-in music of Gregorian hymns, they gawk at the preserved Marcos remains in an airtight glass case that appears to float in a darkened hall.
On some days the number of visitors rises to several thousand, with busloads of students making the trip from areas as far away as Manila, about 400km to the south.
“The people coming here are disciplined,” says the 57 year-old Bactat, who reached the rank of master sergeant in the paramilitary constabulary when he retired. “No one has tried to desecrate the place,” he adds.
Stern and watchful, the wiry old soldier stands out despite his casual dress of a blue printed Hawaiian shirt. He bars visitors from taking pictures of the remains.
After the government withheld a state funeral when Marcos died in exile in Hawaii in 1989, three years after a bloodless popular revolt ended his 20-year rule, his widow Imelda brought her late husband’s remains home in 1993 and put them on public display.
The widow insists her husband deserves nothing less than a plot at the National Heroes’ Cemetery in Manila.
Like the former president, Bactat is also a native of this northern town.
He was barely out of his teens when he joined the presidential security force in 1969 and was separated only from his boss by the 1986 popular revolt. So it was no surprise when he was drafted in for guard duty anew.
Bactat works days when the mausoleum is open to the public. Two active-duty policemen from Batac take the night shift. Marcos’ surviving heirs — the widow and her three grown offspring visit at least once a month.
“I get an allowance from the family, which is enough to buy me a few cigarettes,” says Bactat, a father of four. “I will stay here until they bury him.”
The eldest Marcos daughter, House of Representatives member Maria Imelda Marcos, better known as Imee, caused a stir last month when she publicly urged her mother to allow the remains to be buried here in Ilocos Norte province, “where the people still love him”.
Imee Marcos expressed concern her father’s grave could be vandalised if President Gloria Arroyo were to grant the family’s wish for a state funeral, citing the case of the giant concrete bust of her father built on a mountainside in the northern Philippines, which was dynamited by communist guerrillas several years ago.
But her brother Ferdinand Marcos Junior, better known as Bongbong and who is the current Ilocos Norte governor, stressed last week that there was no family feud over what to do with the patriarch’s body.
“It is our family’s absolute right to bury our father in the National Heroes’ Cemetery like all the other Philippine presidents before him. He had been the longest-serving president and he really was a soldier in the Second World War so just on those two bases, it is non-negotiable,” the son told reporters.
“Maybe the children do not feel quite as strongly because we are also thinking about alternatives,” Marcos Junior said.
“My mother insists on it absolutely and at the end of the day, it is her decision to make.”
Ex-sergeant Bactat gives scant credence to reports that a state funeral for his boss is imminent.
He said he has heard that family members are secretly planning to build a mausoleum on a hill that overlooks the town center of Batac and nearby Banna.
“It seems that the children want the place to become a tourist spot,” he adds. – AFP