How then did this man of privilege become the scourge of the Dictator?
Today, August 21, marks the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, which helped trigger the protest movement that helped overthrow the Philippines’ 2nd dictatorship. Although he was once seriously considered a new “National Hero” beside the politically canonized Dr. Jose Rizal, Ninoy is largely forgotten today save as the husband of former President Corazon C. “Cory” Aquino and the reason she rose to prominence; except, that is, when August 21 rolls by and people remember again what Ninoy was and what he stood for, and how much our nation needs another one like him.
The Blood Royal
Born to one powerful landholding family in Tarlac and later married to another, Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. traced his roots to a general in the Liberal Revolution of 1896 and a prominent leader in the 3rd Philippine Republic; which is roughly equivalent to being, in the United States, the descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a leader of the Confederacy. From the beginning then, Ninoy was, like Rizal, a man who had everything: the intrinsic gifts of intellect, charm and gab, and the social benefits of name, family, and class.
He proved his ability soon enough, with a headlines-grabbing stint as the youngest photojournalist in the Korean War (reminiscent of a young Churchill sending reports from the Boer War), and a lead negotiating role in the surrender of Luis Taruc, the leader of the Marxist peasant-partisan movement Hukbalahap. These two acts respectively earned Ninoy the Officer’s and Commander’s Degrees of the Legion of Honor, the highest civilian decoration in the Philippines, and propelled him into a stunning career as the “Wonder Boy” of Philippine politics, successively Mayor, Governor, and the youngest Senator in Philippine history.
How then did this man of privilege and indubitable ability become the Hero of the Opposition and the political scourge of the President Ferdinand E. Marcos, the Philippines’ second Dictator and himself a scion of the gentry? For Ninoy as statesman, much like Julius Caesar, Charles Borromeo, and Franklin Roosevelt, was that kind of aristocrat that so befuddles egalitarian-minded analysts who expect persons of privileged birth to prefer comfortable careers. That he would willingly walk into (and characteristically, very volubly predict for himself) a martyr’s death apparently flies in the face of social prediction and human nature.
The conflict into which he walked is best understood when we consider the role of the landed gentry in Philippine politics. As in Mexico, the mestizo-led Liberal Revolution led to the displacement under the Americans of the remaining ecclesiastical landholders by (surprise-surprise!) mestizo families, who, in any case, were already the predominant landlords by 1896. Despite their political Liberalism, however, the mestizo gentry that came to dominate politics were socially Conservative in the old Tory sense of the word: They affirmed existing hierarchies, but also observed the Spanish code of patronazgo or, as we know it better, noblesse oblige, under which the rich have the obligation to protect and help the poor in return for their political support.
Thus did the patronage system, however deplorable it appears to strict Liberals, give the Philippines relative stability at a time when -isms were driving wars around the world. For politics then was a mere contest between the Liberals and the Nacionalistas, 2 ideologically identical factions of the same elite with their respective patronage networks; and while elections effectively excluded radicals of Left and Right, they also served as a constant reminder of the power of the masses and the gentry’s obligation (and need) to help them, as was done through a rudimentary welfare system. Indeed, the system resembled the American politics that survived the assault of the Progressive Movement and survived into the 1920’s; and like the American system, it worked well after a fashion.
It was this quasi-feudalism that President Marcos sought to make into a centralized patrimonial system ruled by himself. Notably, his “constitutional revolution” paralleled the way the monarchs of Europe developed royal absolutism from the 14th to the 17th centuries; that is, by using heresy (or its threat), money, and arms against the Church, nobility and local autonomy. Like the monarchs of old, Marcos accomplished his purpose by using middle class politicians to displace the gentry, by absorbing economic entities to reward his allies, and by invoking the internal ideological threat of Marxism to justify military rule–combined, of course, with the plebiscites and nationalist rhetoric perfected by modern tyrants. And as in Europe, the result was simply the replacement of feudalism with organized gangsterism.
The Marcos Revolution met little determined opposition from most of Philippine society, which he kept pacified with bread and circuses, particularly the liberal helping of “bomba” (sexually explicit) movies in the 1970’s. His opposition was centered on an increasingly weakened opposition, the students (energized by the same 1968 movement that drove protests around the world), the Left (re-galvanized by the founding of a new and aggressive armed wing), and to an increasing extent the Church, inspired by Christian Democratic activism and possessing the only independent media infrastructure. But these were easily manageable groups, divided within and among themselves; and, besides, Marcos kept the friendship and assistance of the United States as a reliable ally at the heart of its anti-Left bastion in southeast Asia.
Leader of the Opposition
Ninoy attempted in vain to stop the pro-Marcos landslide in 1967, and, after the collapse of the Liberal Party’s machinery, was its only candidate to reach the Senate. (At 34 years of age, he was, as noted above, the youngest Senator in Philippine history, and his victory led to a Supreme Court decision that the minimum age was counted at the start of the term of office.) In 1967, 1969, and 1971, he stumped the country in rally after rally of the Liberal Party alongside Jovito Salonga; and because he was a gifted orator, Ninoy was often asked to speak near the end of a rally, because many of the people attending tended to stay only until he spoke, and because his speeches were nakakagising, enlivening, peppered with the anecdotes, jokes, and witty asides that were his trademark.
Besides his oratory, Ninoy’s appeal lay in his youth and his emerging role as the main gadfly of the administration, the critic of mega-projects that dovetailed with contemporary 3rd world extravagance (e.g., the Aswan High Dam in Eqypt). For the new Senator had seen immediately the threat that Marcos posed to the Liberal Democratic system that had been in place in the Philippines for more than 20 years, and he believed that this system, however imperfect, was better than the national robber baronage that Marcos was creating. As Marcos sent soldiers to intimidate, “invite”, or even “disappear” opponents and their supporters, the Boy Wonder became, perhaps without his meaning to, the last hope and symbol of the opposition.
It was by sheer luck that he escaped the 1971 bombing of the Liberal rally at Plaza Miranda, Manila, reportedly perpetrated by the Left to (successfully) trigger a Marcos overreaction. When martial law was declared and the government (as Ninoy forewarned) began a systematic campaign to persecute opponents, he was accused of being a Communist “sympathizer”, detained at Fort Bonifacio (where he conducted a hunger strike to protest the Marcos Dictatorship), and convicted of “subversion”. He nonetheless fought a desperate struggle against the government and to repair the opposition’s disarray (e.g., by founding LABAN, a new opposition party) until his heart attack in 1980, after which the relieved Marcos allowed him to go to the U.S. for treatment. By that time, Ninoy had matured from prodigy to statesman, and had become the symbolic leader of the opposition against the Dictatorship.
Continued on Part 2. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.