‘Huge mistake’ to say not much done in martial law museum project — memorial commission

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The memorial commission tasked to construct a museum in honor of martial law victims hit multiple snags, but its executive director told CNN Philippines that contrary to what state auditors said, this doesn’t mean they have little progress to show.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, June 24) — Constructing the museum that would honor victims and survivors of martial law under the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos' regime has been hounded by “all sorts of difficulties,” according to the head of the memorial commission tasked to complete the long-awaited project.

The Human Rights Violations Victims' Memorial Commission (HRVVMC) hit multiple snags, but its Executive Director Carmelo Victor Crisanto said this doesn’t mean they have little progress to show.

He made the assertion after the Commission on Audit (COA) released last week its annual report for 2021, wherein it flagged HRVVMC’s failure to build the Freedom Memorial Museum initially expected to open this September. 

Speaking to CNN Philippines, Crisanto said multiple factors led to the termination of the contract with the chosen construction firm – including a delay in the release of the budget, a lack of consensus between contracting parties, and some challenges posed by the pandemic.

What happened?

In July 2019, HRVVMC signed a usufruct agreement with the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, which allowed the agency to use 1.4 hectares of university land for the museum for 50 years.

COA, however, reported that “no single pillar has been built to gear up the construction” of the museum. It also said it took HRVVMC over 10 months to award the contract to the chosen construction company after conducting in September 2020 the pre-procurement for the infrastructure works.

In addressing this observation, HRVVMC explained that its deal with UP requires that all of the buildings standing on the property – which include the campus maintenance office – be relocated first.

Crisanto said it took UP nine months to look for an appropriate relocation site for the affected buildings. But more than this delay, he said the budget from HRVVMC’s trust fund was only partially released by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) in 2021.

“You cannot award a contract if there is no money,” Crisanto said. “So, if there is any delay in the award, it is not because of my agency, but of DBM.”

Crisanto also said UP would later want the relocation of its buildings to be finished first. He said the university disagreed with HRVVMC's proposal for the construction of the museum to be done simultaneously with the relocation of the UP buildings, citing risks of possible tower crane collapse and larger construction work disturbing office operations.

Eventually, in December 2021, Crisanto said Monocrete signified its intent to have their contract scrapped.

According to the director, the construction firm said given all the delays, it wouldn’t be able to fulfill its obligation of finishing the project within the 18 months stated in the contract. It also pointed out that the pandemic has increased the cost of materials due to supply disruptions in China.

HRVVMC agreed, on the condition that the mobilization fund given to the firm be returned.

Not much done?

COA said HRVVMC “has not achieved much,” but Crisanto – who took the helm of the agency in 2018, acting as its first executive director five years after it was created in 2013 – argued otherwise.

He said getting the property is already an achievement, given that “nothing was happening” from 2013 to 2018. He also pointed out they have to make do with a small workforce, having only more or less 30 plantilla positions.

“What I was able to get was 50 years (land) use, and I'm not even paying ₱1 a year,” he said. “That required a lot of negotiations to get that deal alone. So, to say that there was no accomplishment when you have this kind of property at this value, it’s a huge mistake.”

As of this month, he said the relocation of the UP buildings is nearly complete. He added they are ready to rebid the contract and build the museum on the same property if the administration of incoming President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr. — son and namesake of Marcos — gives its go signal.

READ: Under Bongbong Marcos admin, Martial Law museum faces uncertain future

On the issue of not having a single museum curator which COA likewise flagged, Crisanto explained it was difficult to find people who meet the qualifications, although many have applied for the role. He said despite the position remaining unfilled, his employees have been trained by experts, including curator Marian Pastor Roces who worked on the Bangsamoro Museum.

Crisanto also noted the other initiatives launched by the memorial commission, such as developing an educational course and increasing social media presence to educate more people about martial law.

“In fact, prior to the national elections, I told my staff this is the most important work because what we are seeing now is a deluge of social media content that paints a golden age (of the Marcos regime),” he said. “Now, that is not counted as an achievement, because we lost. Maybe I'm too few, my people are too few."

Amnesty International said thousands of people were killed, while tens of thousands were imprisoned and tortured during Marcos' nine-year military rule (1972-1981). It said the extensive human rights violations continued for the remainder of Marcos’ term.

Marcos fled into exile in the United States in 1986, with a “people power” revolt ending his over 20-year regime.