Ninoy Aquino

Assassinated by the Marcos regime 20 years ago, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. had seemed, in the first 40 years of his life, a most unlikely hero. Known before the martial law period as a glib, fast-talking senator likely to be president at 40, nothing had suggested that he would be other than just one more addition to the parade of traditional politicians that had lorded it over the country since independence.

Born in 1932 into the political dynasty that had controlled the politics of the Central Luzon province of Tarlac for decades, Ninoy Aquino has been described as a politician who knew even from childhood what he wanted to be, and that was President of the Philippines.

Aquino already knew the role the media could play in Philippine politics long before the rise of politicians elected to public office through exposure in television and film. His decision to interrupt his college studies to pursue a high-profile journalistic career by covering the Korean War in 1945 as well as other Southeast Asian countries has been widely interpreted as an attempt to get into the national limelight for the sake of a future career in politics. Only 22 years old, Aquino was a young man in a hurry who knew what he wanted.

If calculation his pursuit of a journalism career was, it was one that paid off, as the Manila Times, then the most widely circulated newspaper in the Philippines, published his dispatches first from Korea and later from Vietnam and Malaya to a readership to which his byline became one of the most popular. Later he exclusively covered, and also claimed credit for negotiating, the surrender of HMB (Hukbong Mapagpalaya ng Bayan–the New Peoples’s Army forerunner, Army for the People’s Liberation) leader Luis Taruc, thus boosting his popularity further.

Aquino began his political career as the governor of Tarlac province in 1963, or at the age of 31, and was elected a senator of the Republic four years later (1967) at 35. From the Senate, where he soon became one of the most visible members of the opposition (Marcos had been elected President in 1965), the road seemed clear to the Presidency of the Republic. Aquino rapidly became one of the most popular political figures in the country by, among other calculated means, appealing to the younger sectors of the electorate by taking up their most urgent concerns.

In an era when surveys were almost unheard of, Aquino relied on public opinion polls to guide him in discovering and addressing the issues that most appealed to the majority of the electorate. Not only the surveys guided him in the enterprise of stoking his popularity, however. He also had the sound instincts for the public pulse of someone who knew how to use current sentiments to his advantage.

This meant, between the years 1967 and 1972, active criticism of Marcos, who soon enough knew that Aquino was fast rising as his worst, because most popular critic. On the eve of the declaration of martial law in 1972, Aquino, reelected senator in 1971, told an interviewer that Marcos, for most of the electorate, had become the issue according to the surveys he had commissioned, which was why it was as a critic of Marcos that he was likely to gain the presidency.

There is almost no doubt that if the presidential elections of 1973 had taken place, Aquino would have won over any candidate from the Nacionalista Party, the rival for power of Aquino’s own Liberals (Marcos would have been disqualified from running by the 1973 Constitution). Aquino reached that level of popularity through the usual paths of cultivating a populist image through media that was both youthful as well as
businesslike and knowledgeable. It was a path his rival Ferdinand Marcos had taken himself, and which included, among other means, marriage to attractive, prominent women– Aquino to Corazon Cojuangco, and Marcos to Imelda Romualdez.

Aquino’s path to the presidency was blocked by Marcos’ declaration of martial law in 1972. But martial law was an event that forced Aquino, the traditional politician who would be president, into the thoughtful leader the opposition groups needed. One of the first to be arrested upon the imposition of martial rule on Sept. 21, 1972, Aquino’s detention as a high security prisoner seems to have given him not only the opportunity to read, but also to see himself in a new, historical light as the most visible symbol of opposition to martial rule, and as the political and social system’s last hope for survival.

His being sentenced to death on charges of subversion in 1977, as well as his leading the Laban (“Lakas ng Bayan”–The Nation’s Strength) campaign for seats in the rubber stamp Batasang Pambansa (National Assembly) in 1978 seem to have broadened his support further, which could explain why the Marcos regime
allowed him to leave in 1980 for medical treatment in the United States.

Once outside the country Aquino became the recognized leader of the opposition to Marcos, but realized that it was in the Philippines where his destiny awaited. He returned on Aug. 21, 1983, hoping to prevent the total military takeover he believed would be likely in the event of Marcos’ death, but was instead assassinated at the Manila, now the Ninoy Aquino, International Airport.

Aquino’s decision to return despite the risk of imprisonment or death, and his subsequent assassination, made him both martyr and hero, and sounded the death knell for the Marcos dictatorship. Although it would take three more years before the collapse of the Marcos government, his assassination in 1983 set into motion a series of events that inexorably led to the regime’s collapse, and to the restoration of the institutions of liberal democracy, in 1986. Warts and all, Aquino was an authentic Filipino hero.

In addition to his martyrdom’s being an occasion for national remembrance and celebration, Aquino’s story is also a lesson in how great events can awaken the best instincts of the unlikeliest of men and women. It suggests as well how the conventional concepts of the hero as one born heroic and untarnished by human flaw are themselves fatally flawed. To remember Aquino is thus to remember that the worst of times can result in the best of responses.

( August 15, 2003)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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  1. Ninoy himself declared that given the choice of dying a pedestrian death of his heart condition in the US, or dying gloriously as a hero in the RP, he would choose the latter. He did. Wise choice.

  2. Marcos knew that Ninoy could be great, and he favored it. However other people believe that Ninoy could beat them, as he was famous not only with Marcos but with the nation. The Marcoses have feared for his safety. He was hard-headed too so he was shot. Until now no one has been sentenced for his death, even the mastermind.

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