As we remember his death and valiant acts to fight for our freedom, I would like to feature a precept I’ve found worthy for the day to learn and appreciate that indeed a Filipino is worth dying for.
August 21, 1983. China Airlines Flight 811 touched down at what was then the Manila International Airport, amidst 2,000 military and police personnel on the tarmac. A man stepped out of the plane with an entourage of several foreign journalists for “protection” in case “something” happened, plus a hefty security escort following inches behind. In a matter of minutes, a gunshot was heard and the man dropped to the ground face down.
He was Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., the man whom Jovito Salonga has referred to as “the greatest president we never had.”
Was it his sheer audacity to come back to the Philippines after more than 3 years of exile – knowing the dangers that awaited him – that makes him a hero?
No. This audacity had been there long before the exile. How he fought for freedom and justice didn’t happen just like that.
His life in politics started early. Very, very early. He was the youngest mayor at 22, the country’s youngest vice-governor at 27, then governor of Tarlac 2 years later. He became the youngest senator in Philippine history at 34. His many achievements, despite his few years of experience, earned him the moniker, “Wonder Boy.”
His popularity was greatly due to his daring criticism of the Marcos regime. Ninoy frequently challenged the dictatorship. Ninoy once referred to the Cultural Center of the Philippines, an extravagant P50-million project of the Former First Lady, as “a monument to shame” in his speech, A Pantheon for Imelda. Consequently, he was called a “congenital liar” by an outraged President Marcos, while the Philippine Free Press hailed him as one of the country’s most outstanding senators.
Martial Law and Imprisonment
The declaration of martial law on September 21, 1972 ushered in the defining phase in Ninoy’s evolution as a leader. Before then, it was generally assumed that he would ascend to the nation’s highest office as the Liberal Party’s standard bearer in the 1973 presidential elections. Instead, he wound up the most high-profile political prisoner as Ferdinand Marcos suspended the Constitution, abolished Congress, silenced the opposition and the media, and ruled by decree on the pretext that he needed emergency powers to quell a communist insurgency and a Muslim secessionist rebellion.
While incarcerated in Fort Bonifacio, Ninoy managed to communicate with underground elements of the opposition who eluded arrest and to even have articles critical of martial law published in the foreign press. In an effort to break his spirit, Marcos had Ninoy and Senator Jose “Pepe” Diokno secretly brought to Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija, where the two were placed in solitary confinement.
In these trying times, Ninoy began to question his faith as he wondered why God would allow him to suffer such indignity and injustice. Rejecting the authority of the military tribunal tasked to pass judgment on his guilt or innocence in the face of trumped-up charges of murder, subversion, and illegal possession of firearms, he went on a 40-day hunger strike that nearly cost him his life.
But, in the depths of his desolation, he realized that he had in fact been living a charmed life and felt shame at whimpering when his character was placed under its most severe test. There began a spiritual transformation that would see Ninoy evolve from a brilliant and ambitious politician to a selfless servant leader who surrendered himself to the will of God.
As expected, the military tribunal pronounced him guilty and sentenced him to die by musketry in 1977. However, the Marcos government could not carry out death sentence as its human rights record came under intense international scrutiny. Ninoy was even allowed to run for a Metro Manila seat in the Interim Batasang Pambansa in 1978. With only his family and a ragtag ticket campaigning for him, the imprisoned Aquino still gave the dictatorship a scare as polls showed him a shoo-in for a Batasan seat and as a noise barrage rocked the metropolis on the eve of election day. With the counting of ballots under their control, the administration Kilusang Bagong Lipunan swept the elections.
On his seventh year and seventh month in prison, Ninoy got his divine reprieve in a strange sort of way. He suffered a heart attack and, to his surprise, Marcos allowed him to go to the United States for bypass surgery.
Ninoy was moved to the Philippine Heart Center, where he suffered another heart attack. Refusing to be treated at the Center for fear of threats on his life, he requested permission to go to the US for treatment or be brought back to his cell.
His request was granted and Ninoy was allowed to go to the US for surgery, together with his entire family. This was arranged after a secret hospital visit by Imelda Marcos. This “emergency leave” was set when Ninoy supposedly agreed to the First Lady’s 2 conditions: that if he leaves, he will return; and while in America, he should not speak out against the Marcos regime.
Also read: P’Noy’s SONA 2012 – English version
Ninoy was operated in Dallas, Texas and made a quick recovery. After which, he decided to renounce the agreement saying, “a pact with the devil is no pact at all”.
He, Cory and their children started a new life in Massachusetts. He continued to work on two books and gave a series of lectures while on fellowship grants from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His travels across the US had become opportunities for him to deliver speeches critical of the Marcos government.
The Horrendous Homecoming
For the next three years in self-imposed exile, Ninoy’s love for his country and countrymen did not diminish but only grew stronger. By beginning of 1983, he was determined to return especially after having heard of the declining political situation in the Philippines, as well as Marcos’ growing health risk due to lupus.
His original intention in coming home was to talk earnestly to Marcos and convince him to restore democracy through peaceful means. Though realizing that this may be futile, it did not stop him from wanting to return knowing that , “I will never be able to forgive myself if I did not at least try.”
Despite orders not to issue him a passport; threatening airlines that they will be denied landing rights if they fly him in; and threats of imprisonment and even death, Aquino persevered insisting that “If it’s my fate to die by an assassin’s bullet, so be it… the Filipino is worth dying for.”
With the help of Rashid Lucman, a friend and former congressman from Mindanao, Ninoy was able to obtain a legitimate passport under the name Marcial Bonifacio (Marcial for martial law and Bonifacio for Fort Bonifacio) and immediately planned out his detour route home.
On the plane, he is joined by several journalists whom he told to “be ready with your camera because this action can become very fast… in a matter of 3 or 4 minutes, it could be all over… and I may not be able to talk to you again after this…” As he prepared to set foot again in his motherland, he made a final statement: “I have returned to join the ranks of those struggling to restore our rights and freedom through non-violence. I seek no confrontation.”
The Death of a Hero
On August 21, 1983, Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. was fatally shot to the ground as he exited the plane.
Rolando Galman, the alleged assassin, was also immediately gunned down by personnel of the Aviation Security Command.
Upon investigation, however, another passenger named Rebecca Quijano testified that she saw a man, who was wearing a military uniform right behind Ninoy, shoot him at the back of his head. A post-mortem analysis confirmed that Ninoy was indeed shot from the back, at close range.
Speculations of a conspiracy by the Marcos government instantaneously spread. After investigations, 25 military men were arrested including then Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Fabian Ver. After a seemingly unending trial process, only 16 were sentenced to reclusion perpetua on September 28, 1990.
As Marcos’ health continued to worsen, so did the state of the nation.
The Philippine economy plunged. By the end of 1983, the country was bankrupt and there was massive civil unrest. Majority of the nation – from the higher echelons of society to the impoverished – started to participate in opposition movements, which attracted global attention. Media focused on the political crisis, the first couple’s “excessive” lifestyle, the infamous collection of thousands of shoes, and a questionable “extraordinary wealth”.
Pressure forced Marcos to call for presidential snap elections. It was Ninoy’s widow, Cory, who was chosen by the opposition as their presidential bet.
The elections were held on February 7, 1986, and were marred with reports of cheating and fraud. The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) declared Marcos as the winner, but the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) had a contradicting final tally. With no one conceding, both “winners” took their oath of office but Aquino undoubtedly had the nations’ massive support.
Starting a Revolution
It was on February 22, 1986 that then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and Vice Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos renounced the rampant cheating and fraud in the elections and withdrew their support for the Marcos Administration.
At about 9 p.m. over Radio Veritas, Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin exhorted Filipinos to come to the aid of the rebel leaders by going to EDSA.
Military tanks and armored vans started to move toward the camps. The barrage of government troops found themselves face-to-face with an overwhelming human chain of civilians.
Hope remained afloat when military helicopters manned by the 15th Air Force Strike Wing, led by Maj. Gen. Antonio Sotelo, defected and joined the opposition. Also around this time, June Keithley of Radio Bandido reported that Marcos had left Malacanang causing the crowd in EDSA to rejoice.
Shortly thereafter, Marcos went on-air over government Channel 4 to announce that he would not step down. The broadcast was suddenly cut off. Rebels under Col. Mariano Santiago had apparently captured the station. In the afternoon, the station went back on air with a voice declaring, “This is Channel 4, serving the people again.” By this time and after an attack in the Villamor Airbase, officers from the PMA and majority of the Armed Forces had already changed sides.
People Power prevails
What started out to be an alarming act of rebellion turned into a “mass protest by prayer” with melodic chanting of “Cory, Cory, Cory!” and countless fingers forming the LABAN or “L” sign. An estimated 2 million people gathered during the peak of the 1986 EDSA revolution, first-ever in world history to be bloodless.
In the morning of February 25, Corazon C. Aquino was inaugurated as President of the Philippines at Club Filipino. Many who stood witness wore yellow, the color of Aquino’s campaign for presidency. An hour later, Marcos conducted his own inauguration at Malacañang. Imelda even sang the couple’s theme song, “Dahil Sa Iyo”, by Malacanang’s balcony atop witnessing loyalists.
A large number of demonstrators could not be stopped as they assembled at the barricades along Mendiola, only a hundred meters away from Malacañang.
Finally surrendering to the “insurgency” and giving in to “advice” from the White House in the United Sates, the Marcos family was transported to Clark Air Base at 9 p.m. ultimately heading for Hawaii.
On February 26, 1986, when the news of Marcos’ departure reached the people, the crowd of millions rejoiced and danced in the streets. Looting by overly angry protesters occurred in the Palace, but mostly people looked at the place and remembered how they had altered the course of Philippine history.
Many people around the world saw what had happened. Bob Simon, a CBS anchorman, said, “We Americans like to think we taught the Filipinos democracy; well tonight, they are teaching the world.”
Cory Aquino finally took the seat of power and restored democracy in a nation that was ravaged by an oppressive 20-year rule of a dictator. Her term ended in 1992.
Ninoy Aquino is revered as an inimitable national hero and modern-day Rizal, who was one of the world’s earliest proponents of fighting for freedom through non-violence.