The divers’ discovery of the remains of Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo early on Tuesday morning confirmed an anxious nation’s worst fears. The shock that followed cast a pall over most everything, including the commemoration of the anniversary of the assassination of Ninoy Aquino.
But perhaps the tragic confirmation of Robredo’s death on Aug. 21 did not so much overshadow the hero’s holiday as underscore its public meaning. It certainly served to cement the link between the lives of two outstanding, break-the-mold leaders, between the legacies of two young and promising men in a hurry.
It bears pointing out, for instance, that the two men even shared the same distinction at the beginning of their political careers: They were the youngest mayors of their time: Aquino was 22, Robredo 29. When death claimed them, they were in their prime: Aquino was 50; Robredo, only 54.
But while both labored in public service for almost their entire adult life, more or less three decades’ worth, Robredo had the fortitude throughout his entire career to live up to the highest political ideals either he or Aquino would recognize, that of the non-traditional, non-transactional politician, while Aquino had to grow into his hero’s role; we honor Aquino today for his life-giving death, which seven years in prison and three years in exile—the last, most painful decade of an all-too-short life—had finally made inevitable. (Robredo, we believe, would have been the first to recognize that he couldn’t have dedicated his entire career to those same high ideals without Aquino’s history-shaping example.)
Life-giving death; service through suffering; redemption in death. It is no accident that Robredo’s untimely death acquires greater resonance in the context of Aquino’s martyrdom, because that is how the Philippine nation chooses to see its heroes: as martyrs, understood in more or less Christian terms. The most privileged places in the country’s hall of heroes are reserved for those who suffered for the people’s sake, beginning with Rizal.
We may ask why this is so; we may wonder why someone like Lapu-Lapu, who killed rather than was killed, is not the greater hero. But there can be no dispute that the nation sees martyrdom as itself very Filipino—the defining quality, it almost seems, of what it means to be a hero. Consider the closing line of the national anthem: To die for your [the country’s] sake. Or Aquino’s most famous statement: “The Filipino is worth dying for.”
That Robredo’s death was confirmed on Ninoy Aquino Day, then, may have been fate’s hand at work, a reminder to many to prepare a privileged place for him in that heroes’ hall.
How far have we come since 1983?
It is easy to trivialize the many freedoms we now take for granted, but the truth of the matter is we enjoy more personal and political liberty now than we did three decades ago. Our democracy remains very much a work in on-again and off-again progress, and our election system remains highly vulnerable to special interests and their money, but there is much more political participation now than there was three decades ago. The rise of party-list groups has been erratic, hijacked by the elite, but greater political engagement in fact mirrors the startling vitality of nongovernment organizations and people’s organizations in the country.
It is also easy, and even fashionable, to now point to the Philippines as an emerging economy poised for takeoff, but the truth of the matter is, many of the economic diseases we contracted during the two decades of Marcos rule have not yet been driven out of our system. We have enjoyed continuing if fluctuating economic growth for over a decade; there is a boom in construction for everyone to see; there are new names among the country’s most influential business players—but the gap between rich and poor have only grown since Ninoy Aquino and the anti-Marcos opposition first denounced the so-called crony capitalism.
In a word, much remains to be done, to fulfill the promise that drove Ninoy out of leafy Boston and into the gritty tarmac of the airport that now bears his name.
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