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Remembering Ninoy Aquino (Part 2)

In Catholicism, Christian Democracy, Christianity, Church, Civil Liberties, Democracy, EDSA, Government, History, Holidays, Human Rights, Manila, People Power, Philippine politics, Philippines, Politics, Religion on August 23, 2008 at 12:54

He was our hero, whoever else would want to claim him as their own… (Continued from Part 1)

The Martyr

But the Marcos regime was itself getting weaker. Throughout the early 1980s and until after Marcos’ fall, economic collapse, shifting political conditions, and the President’s own illness took a heavy toll on his government. This was the age of the informal “Binondo Central Bank”, organized by the tragic Jaime Ongpin to facilitate trade and the issuance of letters of credit despite the Philippines’ fiscal collapse, and of “Jobo Bills”, devised by Central Bank Governor Jobo Fernandez to control runaway inflation. The normally divided Church had gained some political unity when the fiery Jaime Cardinal Sin became Archbishop of Manila in 1978 and inaugurated a policy of “critical collaboration” with (i.e., criticism of, short of rebellion against) the government; the Left was winning in the countryside; and the urban middle class was becoming restive.

Ninoy saw a chance to topple the Marcos regime, and began to declare his intention to go home. This choice was not unattended by personal difficulty, for in the U.S. Ninoy had finally regained that family life that his long detention had interrupted, and so his stepping back to the fray meant the choice of hardship over happiness, at a time when opposition leaders were almost constantly in prison. Besides, as the Dictatorship became more desperate and more violent, and as the country became a battleground of Left against Right, the symbolic leader of the Center would court martyrdom by simply returning to the field. Ninoy knew it and spoke of it repeatedly, but to objections on that basis he simply declared: “The Filipino is worth dying for.”

Circumventing Marcos’ measures against his return, Ninoy Aquino managed to obtain a passport and fly to Manila, accompanied by members of the Philippine and international press. His flight was met in Manila on August 21, 1983 by thousands of soldiers, some of whom came in to escort Ninoy Aquino out of the plane. A few minutes later, a voice said Pusila! Pusila! (Shoot! Shoot!) and a passenger, Rebecca Quijano (afterwards known as the “Crying Lady”) saw a man in a military uniform shoot Ninoy from behind. “They’ve shot him! They’ve shot him!” she shouted; for Ninoy had fallen, his white-clad and bloodstained form clear against the gray tarmac, beside the body of a Rolando Galman whom the government would blame for the murder.

Unanswered Questions

The assassination of Ninoy left three questions that remain incompletely answered to this day. First, who orchestrated his murder? Was it President Marcos; General Fabian Ver, the loyal Armed Forces commander who, during the 1986 protests that toppled the dictator, begged for permission to bomb the protestors; Imelda Romualdez Marcos, popularly considered the regime’s Lady Macbeth, whose reckless extravagance created the word ‘Imeldific’; or allies like Eduardo Cojuangco, Jr., who didn’t want Marcos to name Ninoy his successor, as it is said Marcos wanted to do? Popular opinion blames Imelda, and at least one movie (“A Dangerous Life”) has immortalized the rumor that Ferdinand, upon learning of the murder, hurled a glass at the First Lady. The most common rationale is that the brilliant Marcos could never have ordered such an atrociously clumsy operation, especially one that created a martyr.

Some other arguments are more interesting. One argument, vehemently repeated to us by an Upsilonian, is that both Ferdinand and Ninoy were members of the Upsilon Sigma Phi Fraternity; a brod would never hurt a brod, and indeed the two were in good terms; so it had to have been Imelda. There’s even a possible romantic angle. According to Katherine Ellison in Imelda: Steel Butterfly of the Philippines*,  Imelda had once told Celia Laurel, “And last but not least… it’s pulverize Ninoy Aquino.”  Asked why, Imelda said that he had courted her in their youth, “but when he met this rich girl he dropped me like a hot potato.”** Thus are the destinies of nations made!  Personally we don’t know where to stand on the issue; for while Imelda was indeed Theodora to Ferdinand’s Justinian, we doubt she was that powerful; and Ferdinand Marcos, if we are to believe rumors that he personally assassinated an opponent in Ilocos, may have been sufficiently ruthless and, possibly, addled by illness to order the hit.

Second, was Ninoy really a hero, or was he the subject of “veneration without understanding”, as Renato Constantino suggested of Dr. Jose Rizal? On the negative side, his career until the 1970’s fits that of the brilliant politician who, like John F. Kennedy or Barack Obama, traded on charm and opportunism on the wings of high oratory. Even his journey to death in 1983 may be interpreted unheroically; for it might have been, like Ninoy’s hunger strike in the 1970’s, a tragically failed gamble that the Dictatorship would never willingly create a martyr, or an attempt by a sidelined politician to return to the action in time to take the big prize. Ninoy himself said that he and his nemesis were “two sides of one coin”, such that Marcos himself deemed Ninoy his only worthy successor (!).

For our part, we believe Ninoy was indeed a hero, in the sense that he was willing–even if, like any human being, he was not eager–to sacrifice his life and peace for a greater good; for martial law was simply not the time for half-idealists. Many died or disappeared or were brutally tortured in the dungeons of the government; Ninoy himself was sent to prison on trumped-up charges, alongside Lorenzo Tanada, Pepe Diokno, Jovito Salonga, Joker Arroyo, Butz Aquino, Ramon Mitra, and Rene Saguisag–all heroes, however they turned out later on; there were giants in those days. 1983 clinches the answer, for Ninoy could have chosen the life of a Jose Maria Sison, exhorting revolution from comfortable exile in a tolerant country, instead of risking death by going back to the front lines. Even if he was gambling with destiny, with life and death as the stakes, it took a hero to throw the dice.

Third, if Ninoy was a hero, whose hero was he? For one could argue that he fought not for the people but for the old mestizo-dominated feudal democracy, and that he was simply the martyr of its demise as Rizal was of its birth. Our response would be: Does it matter? The Marcos years saw men and women of different ideologies–Christian Democrats, Tory Liberals, Communists, Social Democrats, Neoliberals–fight as one against a perceived great evil; it was not unusual to see a Marxist, a displaced businessman, and an old aristocrat hiding in the same convent (e.g., that of Sr. Christine Tan’s Religious of the Good Shepherd); so whatever Ninoy’s stance, when he fought he fought for all of them. Besides, one can hardly blame a man for wanting an imperfect system instead of an evil one, and more importantly, we see no evidence that Ninoy, in 1983, felt he was risking death only for the gentry, and not for all the people. He was our hero, whoever else would want to claim him as their own.

Man of History

Whatever the ultimate answers, there is no doubting the fruits of his life and death. His shockingly blatant assassination cast in stark relief, (and how stupidly) before the assembled spotlight of the press, the moral bankruptcy of the Dictatorship. The international press began a barrage of exposes of Marcos’ crimes, comparing him to Haiti’s Duvalier and even Uganda’s Idi Amin; American legislators began inquiries and fact-finding trips; and the United States government, responding to public and political pressure, began to distance itself from its client. The administration tried to stave off disaster with bodies like the Agrava Commission, a member of which was the respected Andres Narvasa (later a disappointment at the helm of the Supreme Court), as well as accusations against Communists, isolated assailants, and rogue soldiers, but all its words could not hide the harrowing image of a murdered hero.

For Ninoy’s family had decreed that no one would retouch his shattered face; “I want the people to see what they did to my son,” said his mother. As the shock of his death became grief, and then anger, the people by the hundreds of thousands flocked to his funeral procession from St. Domingo Church, weeping disconsolately at the terrible sight of his face, in an act at once canonization and catharsis; and the color yellow, reportedly Ninoy’s favorite, became the color of protest against Marcos’ fiery red. Marcos thus lost for good the one true Church and the middle class, which forged in the grief of Ninoy’s death the momentous alliance that would define Philippine politics for the next 25 years. The political opposition, through the efforts of Ninoy’s friend Salvador Laurel, would unite at last to lead the disparate forces of the Center, now buoyed by Ninoy’s memory and its reminder in his widow Corazon, or “Tita Cory” as the people came to call her.

Had Ninoy not died, the Centrist masses would have hated the regime as they did a storm, as something they could do nothing about, and the regime would have lurched to succession or defeat by the Left, which was about to enter the last of Mao Zedong’s 3 stages of revolution. But grief and anger destroyed the Center’s brakes, and unleashed such a storm of protest as would make tyrants cower. We need only sum up the outcome: The protests made Marcos call a “snap election” in which Cory, having received the mantle of Ninoy’s charisma (in a process ably described by Max Weber), ran as the opposition standard-bearer with the gracious nod of Laurel; massive fraud led to more unrest and a failed coup by General Fidel V. Ramos (Marcos’ cousin) and Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile; Cardinal Sin called the people to protect the rebel soldiers; the massive protests (or “People Power”) that followed led to more military defections; and finally Marcos left the Palace, and Cory, wearing a simple yellow dress, was sworn in as President.

What then was Ninoy’s place in history? As the Liberal Revolution of 1896 was, in a real sense, inspired by Rizal, so the struggle from 1983 to the EDSA Revolution of 1986 was inspired by Ninoy. His eyeglassed face, roughly outlined in black on yellow, could be seen on shirts, banners, leaflets, flags, armbands in every protest gathering; his color became de rigeur for the opposition and all its allies, from the yellow confetti falling on rallies to the yellow ribbons on lampposts; and his name became a byword, and his death the standard, for heroism. Even the ideology of the Centrist coalition, such as it was, was partly founded on the notion of solidarity with Ninoy Aquino. Ninoy, the people said aloud and in whispers, hindi ka nag-iisa, “you are not alone”, and converse variants of that remark were applied against figures of the regime, e.g., Marcos, nag-iisa ka na lang, “you’re now all alone.” Ninoy had fallen as a willing martyr to the struggle, and the people now felt: You had fought for us, now we’ll fight for you.

The years since have dimmed Ninoy’s halo, for the People Power he inspired was invoked in two protest movements whose class prejudice and dark results have given EDSA a sour taste in the mouth. As we noted in our earlier post “Deceive and Conquer: Why Arroyo Will Stay In Power“, the 1986 coalition has broken up, the pro-democratic alliance of Church and middle class is severely weakened (e.g., by the death of Cardinal Sin), the political opposition is emaciated by selfishness, and the people are more apathetic than at any moment since 1983. Yet Ninoy’s legacy still lingers. The EDSA ideal, that the people can and must battle injustice by peaceful means, remains the public ideology, a part of the political climate that any leader must reckon into calculations. The Center as Center, guarded by Church and People, is even now stronger in the Philippines than elsewhere in the world (where Left and Right tend to possess greater force), and remains the popular base of truth and justice against lies and tyranny. We owe a large part of it to Benigno S. Aquino, Jr., for whose peace we must ever pray, and whose example we must never forget. Ninoy, hindi ka nag-iisa!

Those interested may also see our related posts, People Power 1986—News from the Heroic Age, Deceive and conquer: why Arroyo will stay in power , Is Impeachment Better than People Power?, Why I miss old-fashioned corruption. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

*Erratum: We had earlier written our source to be Carmen Pedrosa, but the attribution was incorrect.  Nonetheless, we recommend a reading of her fascinating work The Untold Story of Imelda Marcos.

**The source is Katherine Ellison, Imelda: Steel Butterfly of the Philippines. On the Google Books preview (here), the pertinent paragraphs are on page 88.

  1. i was not yet born when all of these things happen so a good posts like this helped me understand alot about history…and i truly agree,for me,i think Ninoy is a hero,in whatever sense you can think’s the willingness to die for his fellowmen i think made him a hero…nice post!… 😉

  2. To Jhen: Thank you for the comment. I do agree that heroism is primarily virtue and sacrifice, and it’s my fond hope that as we remember Ninoy’s example we will bring the lessons into our modern politics…

    God bless you.

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  8. interesting, enlightening!!!

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