Several times before, she cannot remember precisely when, Imelda Marcos has visited Cambodia. She recalls meeting Norodom Sihanouk, now the King Father, and his wife, the current Queen Mother Norodom Monineath Sihanouk.
But to return last week, the 81-year-old widow of ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos first needed permission from the domestic court, where she faces corruption charges.
Marcos’ 21-year rule was marked by disappearances, the imprisonment of opponents, torture and executions. And since Ms Marcos’ exile to Hawaii 25 years ago and subsequent return to the Philippines, she has continued to face legal efforts to reclaim billions and win reparations for the victims of the former regime.
Nevertheless, she was well received in Phnom Penh.
“I had some protocol responsibilities: The first lady invited us for lunch, and afterwards the palace privileged us to visit his Majesty, whose parents I had the privilege to know many, many years ago,” Ms Marcos said in an interview.
As a member of Congress in the Philippines, Ms Marcos led the Philippine delegation to a two-day assembly of regional female lawmakers trying to bring an end to maternal mortality.
Her presentation on the millennium goal to reduce maternal mortality was delayed because she was busy meeting with Cam-bodian dignitaries.
She appeared in elaborate, puffy-sleeved dresses and with perfectly coifed hair. Famously, about 3,000 pairs of shoes were found in her cupboards in 1986 when the Marcos family fled after her husband’s ouster.
Yet the enormous brooch pinned to her dress was a reminder of her fall from grace: It was made of resin.
“When people robbed me of my jewels, I made waste into jewelry,” Ms Marcos said, referring to her confiscated jewelry collection, thought to have been one of the largest in the world.
Many have condemned Ms Marcos for her ostentatious luxuries?? Despite, contrasting this with poverty and terror during her husband’s reign. She collected priceless artworks and jetted off to New York for million-dollar shopping sprees. But corruption allegedly fueled her opulent lifestyle.
Unsurprisingly, Ms Marcos tells a different story.
“In spite of all the difficulties we went through, we were all at peace with the truth,” Ms Marcos said. “The truth that we were not thieves.”
The Marcos family’s huge fortune came from gold investments in the Philippines, she claimed. We were rich “once upon a time, because my husband believed in gold.”
During the interview, Ms Marcos produced a booklet entitled “The Marcos Truth,” showing clippings, statistics and documents trying to prove that her husband never resorted to the death penalty under martial law and had in fact established grassroots democracy.
Not included was data on the thousands of victims of human rights abuses during the regime, who are currently collecting $1,000 each from a $10 million settlement involving Marcos assets in the US.
“I miss him so much for the country,” she said of her husband.
“As a leader he was truly an enlightened man of peace. He made peace with the whole world at the height of Cold War. He gave the Philippines sovereignty, justice, freedom, democracy,” she said, pointing to photographs of herself and her husband posing with intimate allies–toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and Moammar Gadhafi, who she said she prayed would find a peaceful solution to Libya’s bloody uprising.
Ms Marcos was elected to office last year–the same day that her son was voted into the Philippine Senate–and one daughter is the governor of Ilocos Norte province. With a revived political career under way, Ms Marcos says her ambition is to save the world from suffering and “ugliness.”
“My vision is to recycle all the waste humanity has produced. We can now make a beautiful world together to create a paradise,” said Ms Marcos.
She illustrated her ideas with a pamphlet called “Mothering: The Rising Spirit” in which she has written up a number of her personal theories alongside esoteric symbols. A “happy” heart-shaped face, a “sad” upside-down heart-shaped face and an image of the former arcade videogame “Pac-Man” appear to combine to form “peace.”
During talks with regional members of parliament at the assembly on Friday, Ms Marcos recalled the past. “After decades of being a mother to the country, I learned that indeed everyone is a priority. No woman should die giving birth to another life,” she said in a speech on maternal mortality. In later discussions, she proclaimed the government must protect its people 24 hours a day and spoke out against abortion.
As Ms Marcos nears 82 years of age, refusing to bury her husband’s embalmed body until he is granted a state burial, she seems anxious to salvage her reputation.
“The press for me is more powerful than the gun,” she said. “The gun can only kill you to a degree, but the media can kill you beyond the grave to infinity.”