The return of authoritarian rule is a constant threat, and progress an increasingly elusive goal in the Philippines. Democratization and development have too often foundered on the shoals of government indifference, incompetence, and antipathy.
A process that began during the reform and revolutionary periods of Philippine history, democratization has been interrupted, delayed, weakened, and sabotaged by foreign invasion, imperialism, and home-grown tyranny, with some post-martial law administrations paying only lip-service to it.
Development and “modernization” have also found their way in the vocabularies of a succession of regimes. But they have similarly proceeded glacially if at all, and are continuing to elude this country, as evidenced by the poverty and the feudal relations that sustain it.
In these circumstances, the true measure of political leadership can only be how much it has contributed to either course — or, in this country of declining expectations, how little it has hampered both processes.
It need hardly be said that no one is perfect, and that no Philippine president has ever approached that exalted state.
Benigno Aquino III was no exception. But there are presidents and presidents, and some, despite their similarities, were nevertheless also better than others.
Aquino III’s death at the age of 61 last July 24th was predictably hailed by the fact-resistant hordes that infest both social and old media in behalf of a regime whose knowledge of statecraft is limited to harassing, threatening, imprisoning and killing anyone who dares tell the truth about it. But his passing also reminded the civic-minded of the difference between presidents. Despite the political and social calamities that have befallen this country, they still believe that the true leaders it needs will save it. These citizens make it their business to carefully weigh who is worthy of their support for president, and in 2010 chose Aquino. Today more than ever they believe that they chose wisely.
Like many of his countrymen, Benigno Simeon Cojuangco Aquino III was a child of the hierarchic and quasi-colonial political, social and economic orders that have prevailed in the Philippines for decades. He shared with the rest of the political class the instinct to preserve, enhance and protect one’s familial and class interests. The Hacienda Luisita issue was for example a constant challenge during his term, to which he hardly responded. Although far fewer in number than today’s, the extrajudicial killings that in most cases claim government critics as victims also continued during his watch.
He was no leftist or revolutionary, and he never claimed to be either. Only mildly reformist was his “walang mahirap kung walang corrupt” platform of government, corruption being just one of the many factors behind the persistence of poverty in these isles of want.
Like his predecessors, he also believed the United States to be a reliable friend and ally. To supplement the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), he signed with the US the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which gave visiting US troops access to Philippine military bases. He also thought the armed forces’ purely militarist approach to the so-called “insurgency” essentially valid, and supported the “modernization” of its weaponry.
But his father Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.’s willingness in 1983 to sacrifice his liberty and even his own life in behalf of the anti-dictatorship resistance, and his mother Corazon’s presiding over the restoration of the Republic on whose ruins Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. had erected one-man rule, must surely have influenced and shaped his perceptions of Philippine society and governance.
Among his accomplishments as president was economic growth and the resulting decrease, so claimed government agencies, in poverty incidence. He also defended the country’s rights in the West Philippine Sea by bringing the Philippine case to the UN Arbitral Tribunal, before which his designated petitioners succeeded in getting that body to strike down imperialist China’s absurd claims over some 80 percent of the WPS. But equally important was his remaining true to the Constitutional prohibition against abridging free expression and press freedom. What he did not do was arguably as significant as what he did. He never disparaged human rights, and neither did he vilify or threaten its defenders.
One of his first acts as president was to ban the practice of government vehicles’ wending their way through traffic with lights ablaze and sirens blaring, a practice known as “wang-wang,” that proclaims to ordinary folk how privileged and self-entitled the supposed servants of the people are.
He was his parents’ son, and was anti-dictatorship. He shepherded through Congress and signed into law the 2013 Human Rights Victims’ Reparation and Recognition Act, through which, rather than a Truth Commission, the Philippine government finally acknowledged that the Marcos regime had indeed committed such human rights violations as illegal arrests, detention and torture, involuntary disappearances, and extrajudicial killings, for which the survivors or their kin deserved indemnification. A landmark law, the Act, as he himself described it, was intended to “recognize the suffering of many during (Marcos’) martial law.”
Like his predecessors, he too was critical of the press. He complained about what he thought was its inordinate focus on his private life, and the bias against his administration by some broadcast and print practitioners identified with the regime prior to his. But he never threatened, insulted or harassed journalists. He thought the numbers in the killing of journalists in the country’s rural communities that have been going on since 1986 exaggerated. But he did not justify the killings by blaming the victims and accusing them of corruption.
He answered the hardest questions even from his harshest press critics rationally, with civility, and, one must add, coherently. Although he did lose his temper at times, usually with his own officials, he never barred any journalist from covering his Office or his press conferences. Neither did he use the powers of the presidency to shut down any media organization the reporting of which he thought unfair and offensive.
Journalists were confident that they could report, monitor, and criticize his acts and policies and subject them to the closest scrutiny without fear of retaliation or petty vindictiveness. Without self-censorship and government hostility, the full exercise of press freedom and free expression was possible, although not always realized, during his six years in office due to reasons other than government intervention. He thereby convinced the nation and the world that he valued those rights as a necessary pillar of democratic governance.
Benigno Aquino III was a well-meaning, fairly competent product of this time and place. What he was not was a tyrant. Neither was he a brusquely anti-human rights, grossly incompetent and abusive poor excuse for a president and head of State.
Hounded as it was by such calamities as typhoon Yolanda and lapses in executive judgment like the Luneta hostage-taking crisis and the Mamasapano debacle, his term was far from perfect. It was neither an international embarrassment nor so bad as to deserve summary dismissal and total disparagement. But some of the worst enemies of the people are manufacturing misleading and totally false “information” about it for the meanest political reasons.
Every death diminishes us all, and Benigno Aquino III’s is no exception. But the Filipino people should mourn not only his passing but also the end of that less trying time when he was in office.
Comparisons, so the adage goes, are odious. But how can anyone with an iota of awareness of what his term was truly like avoid them in the context of the horrible present?
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from the Presidential Museum and Library PH (2010-2016)c on Flickr.)