LAOAG, Philippines - Seven years ago, Ferdinand Marcos was forced to flee for his life from his presidential palace in Manila as the Philippines' "people power" uprising ended his 20-year rule, marked by corruption and abuse.
Today, the body of the man who died in exile in 1989 - and is now considered by many to have been one of history's greatest plunderers - returned home for a long-delayed funeral and a hero's welcome from thousands of still-faithful supporters in his native province.
After having lain in a refrigerated, glass-topped coffin inside an air-conditioned crypt in Hawaii for the past four years, the deteriorating corpse is to be kept in a sealed casket for a series of rituals and ceremonies here before eventually being installed in a specially built mausoleum in his hometown of Batac.
There, according to his family and his mortician, the remains of the late president will be put on public display in a glass coffin that resembles a large aquarium.
The bizarre and somewhat macabre homecoming is intended by the Marcos family to be a symbol of reconciliation between supporters of the autocrat and those who deposed him in 1986, including the current president, Fidel Ramos. But in many ways, the return serves to reinforce regional divisions and Philippine fractiousness, not only between rival political groups but also inside the Marcos loyalist camp and even within the late president's family.
"I'm asking the Filipino people to pray for a miracle, that President Ramos takes this occasion to unite with his cousin," Marcos' widow, Imelda Marcos, said yesterday as she left a meeting at the governor's office in this northern Philippine province of Ilocos Norte.
Ramos, a former general who helped Corazon Aquino oust Marcos in 1986, is a second cousin of the late president, under whom he rose to the post of acting armed forces chief of staff. He was elected president to succeed Aquino last year.
Aquino and her supporters blame Marcos for the assassination in 1983 of her husband, opposition leader Benigno Aquino, and for plunging the country into poverty and debt during what critics called a 20-year "kleptocracy" marked by the systematic plundering of the national treasury. Estimates of the amount of public money Marcos and his wife took for their own use reach $5 billion, enough to gain them a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as among history's greatest thieves.
Ramos has lifted Aquino's ban on the repatriation of Marcos' body, but he has continued to object to giving the former dictator a state funeral or burying him in Manila, as the Marcos family desires. Nor has he acceded to Imelda Marcos' pleas that he at least attend her husband's funeral, scheduled for Friday in Batac.
The widow said yesterday she plans to keep Marcos' remains on display in the mausoleum until the government yields to her demand for a burial in the National Heroes' Cemetery in Manila.
Her take-charge style has led to acrimonious exchanges between her followers and those of her son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who was elected last year to the House of Representatives from this province. He has been trying to organize a simple, dignified funeral without the hoopla that now seems to be creeping into it.
After arriving aboard a special flight from Guam, Marcos' black-lacquered, gold-handled casket was placed on a platform at the airport amid singing, dancing and a variety of rites. Among them were ritual wailing and a ceremony called banga, in which Ilocanos break black earthen pots to drive away evil spirits.
The casket then was carried on a horse-drawn caisson with military honors to St. William Cathedral here for a Mass, then moved to a specially built stage in front of the governor's office, to be displayed overnight.
After being taken to Batac tomorrow, the casket is to be placed for a time next to one containing the still unburied corpse of Marcos' mother, who died in Manila in 1988 at age 96. The Marcos family had refused to bury her body until the government allowed Marcos to return from exile in Hawaii. Her preserved corpse has been displayed in a refrigerated coffin in a small mausoleum on the grounds of the Marcos ancestral home.
The arrangements pose some technical problems for Frank Malabed, the Marcos family mortician. He said he needed six to eight hours to work on Marcos' body, change its clothing and apply cosmetics before it can be displayed in Batac, but that he will be lucky to have any time at all.
"We have to defrost the body, or people might see some wet spots and make some bad comments," he said.
Adding to the bizarre atmosphere here is a sense that Marcos supporters are welcoming their former leader home as if he were still alive. In fact, a visitor could be forgiven for thinking he had landed in the midst of an election campaign.
T-shirts with slogans such as, "Welcome home President Ferdinand E. Marcos," are on sale everywhere. A banner across the entrance to the Fort Ilocandia Hotel reads, "Welcome home Apo Marcos, relatives, friends and supporters." Apo is an Ilocano term meaning "beloved leader."
The local Kiwanis club put up this sign: "Apo, may your coming home bring unity and peace among your people."