Remembering Ninoy

Posted on Posted in 2014-2015

By Robbin Dagle, Benjamin Ngan, and Gabriel Schulze

In an interview a day before his flight to Manila, Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. showed the bulletproof vest he would be wearing upon his arrival. He conceded that the vest cannot do anything to prevent a fatal head shot. “In a matter of three, four minutes it could be all over, you know. And I might not be able to talk to you again after this,” he said.

The next day, Aquino told reporters that “If it’s my fate to die by an assassin’s bullet, so be it.”

Aquino’s prophecy of his own death at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983 seemed like a final yet grim display of brilliance from someone once dubbed as the “Wonder Boy of Philippine Politics.”

But Aquino wasn’t the only one who knew the dangers of his return. On that fateful day, he paid what he wholeheartedly believed was the price of freedom from dictatorship.

High hopes

Aquino’s rise to national prominence was nothing short of spectacular. At age 17, he was already a distinguished war correspondent for The Manila Times. Three years later, he successfully negotiated for the surrender of Hukbalahap insurgent leader Luis Taruc. Politics was the natural next step: mayor at age 22, vice-governor of Tarlac by 27, and governor by 29.

In 1967, he became the nation’s youngest senator at age 34. Aquino, an opposition member, would find himself at odds with the sitting president, Ferdinand Marcos. He constantly criticized the government on topics ranging from First Lady Imelda Marcos’ “extravagant” Cultural Center of the Philippines to the botched plan of invading Sabah that resulted in the Jabidah Massacre.Despite this, Marcos was still re-elected in 1969, a first in Philippine politics. He assumed office a time when the Philippines was already hailed as “one of the great models of Third World political and economic success,” according to William Overholt’s “The Rise and Fall of Ferdinand Marcos” in the 1986 issue of the Asian Journal. On average, the Philippine economy grew faster than its Asian neighbors for fifteen years since 1950. Marcos, with a head start, rolled out infrastructure projects all over the country and easily won a second term. But times had changed for Marcos. Political, social, and economic unrest rose in the country, echoing the tumult around the world. Rising student activism called for greater social justice and an end to American hegemony. An economic slowdown worried consumers and businessmen. Corruption was still prevalent. Crime and violence intensified in cities and in the countryside amid the threat of new Communist and Muslim separatist insurgencies.

On September 13, 1972, Aquino delivered a privilege speech baring “Oplan Sagittarius,” a secret plan hatched by Marcos to militarize and sow violence in the capital as a pretext along with the insurgencies for declaring Martial Law and establishing an authoritarian regime. During that time, the senator was already widely perceived to be Marcos’ successor in next year’s elections. Ten days later, Marcos went on national television to announce the declaration of Martial Law.

Silenced

Immediately, the airwaves went silent, as did Aquino, but not for long. In 1973, he became one of the 50,000 detained by the regime during the first three years of Martial Law, as reported by Amnesty International in 1981. Marcos took the law to his own hands, suppressing the opposition while maintaining a facade of a “smiling Martial Law,” a “New Society” of discipline, order, and prosperity.

Some people were initially optimistic. Petty crimes were rare. For a time, economic growth picked up again. The government heavily borrowed funds for its ambitious infrastructure and social projects, some of which still stand today. Mrs. Marcos continued her patronage of the arts to elevate the country’s stature.

Yet slowly, enthusiasm started to wane. People lived in constant fear as warrantless arrests and disappearances increased. Growth turned out to be hollow. Poverty ballooned from 24% in 1974 to 40% in 1980 – a sharp contrast to the first family’s extravagant lifestyle. Foreign debt skyrocketed to unsustainable levels. Funds of up to USD 10 billion from loans and overpriced projects were reportedly siphoned off by the Marcoses and their allies and kept in offshore bank accounts. Government-controlled companies were entrusted to cronies who embezzled its profits. Investors soon lost confidence in the Philippines.

Mission

Meanwhile, Aquino’s imprisonment became a transformative experience. His incarceration stripped him bare of his ambitions.

On the seventh year of his imprisonment, he suffered two heart attacks. This was already his fourth brush with death. On August 21, 1972, he missed the ill-fated Liberal Party miting de avance in Plaza Miranda. In 1975, he subjected himself to a harrowing 40-day hunger strike as protest to the injustices he and his country were experiencing. Two years later, he was sentenced to death by firing squad after a military tribunal found him guilty of “murder, subversion, and illegal possession of firearms”.

Aquino asked that he be allowed to travel with his family to the United States for a bypass surgery. The president allowed such leave only if Aquino agreed to return and not speak against the regime.

He never stuck with the deal. For him, “a pact with the devil is no pact at all.” After his recovery, Aquino went around America enlightening Filipino expatriates and the world about his country’s real situation.

After spending three of his family’s “happiest years together” in Boston, Aquino believed it was time to go back and try convincing the ailing Marcos to restore democracy. Dismissing warnings, Aquino planned a complicated eight-day journey using a passport bearing the alias Marcial Bonifacio, as the Marcos government prohibited him from obtaining a passport.

Upon his arrival, Aquino was escorted out of the plane and down to the airport’s tarmac en route to a military van that was supposed to transport him to prison. Shots rang out. The images that followed were of Aquino, lying dead in a pool of blood. Within a few feet was Rolando Galman, also dead. Unceremoniously, police officers quickly dragged Aquino’s lifeless body into the van and sped off.

Aquino’s body was not embalmed, as requested by his mother to show people “what they have done” to her son. About 2 million people turned out for the 12-hour funeral march from Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City to Manila Memorial Park in Parañaque.

Case unsolved

After two unsuccessful attempts by Marcos to establish a fact-finding body that would investigate Aquino’s murder, he tasked retired justice Corazon Juliano-Agrava to head a five-man independent commission.

One of the witnesses interviewed by the commission revealed that she saw a man in a military uniform run down the stairs toward Aquino and shot him point blank. This matched the post-mortem analysis that the bullet entered from the back of Aquino’s head and exited to the chin and was contrary to Marcos’ claim that Aquino was shot by the “Communist hitman” Galman from the ground up.

After a year of marathon hearings, the commission submitted two reports: a minority report penned by Agrava and a majority report written by other four members. Both agreed that Galman was used as a fall-man, but disagreed on who were culpable. Agrava did not go as far as the other members who implicated Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fabian Ver along with other military officers.

Twenty-six people were tried by the Sandiganbayan in 1985 for killing Aquino and Galman. To the public’s outrage, they were quickly acquitted by the court. After the dictatorship was overthrown in the 1986, a new trial found 16 people guilty. They were all sentenced to double life imprisonment. No mastermind was named.

By 2009, not one of the 16 remained behind bars. They were either pardoned, released after their sentence was commuted, or had died in the investigation process.

Works Cited

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Assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved July 29, 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassination_of_Benigno_Aquino,_Jr.

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The Roots of the Philippines’ Economic Troubles. (1984). Retrieved from The Heritage Foundation website: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/1984/05/the-roots-of-the-philippines-economic-troubles

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Ninoy and Cory Aquino Foundation. (2011). Ninoy Aquino. Retrieved August 2, 2014, from http://www.ninoyaquino.ph/

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