Truly, fact can often be stranger than fiction. Aug. 21 is one date in postwar Philippine history that seems thoroughly uncanny, that seems almost unearthly.
Two fateful events happened on that day.
The first, and now less remembered, was the bombing of Plaza Miranda in 1971. It was the miting de avance of the Liberal Party preparatory to the senatorial elections in November of that year. All the LP senatorial candidates were there, except for Ninoy Aquino who was delayed. A couple of grenades were hurled onto the stage, which shook the entire plaza with their explosions. In the aftermath of the pandemonium, the stage lay in shambles, a couple of people were dead, but almost unbelievably none of them included the candidates.
For a while, though, that was not certain. Jovito Salonga lay at death’s door afterward, carrying more than a hundred pieces of shrapnel in his body, one of them within a hair’s breadth of his aorta. His wounds confined him to hospital for months, early on in near-coma. He was unable to campaign, but magically topped the senatorial elections anyway.
Even more magically, if surrealistically, after being reckoned as not being long for this world, his health having taken a huge beating, he has managed to outlive everyone. Including the then very young Ramon Mitra, who was unhurt by the blasts but who died way back of cancer.
The second and still well-remembered event was the assassination of Ninoy at the airport that now bears his name. The event spawned an entire organization, Atom, the August Twenty-One Movement, built around the date and what it signified. That is pretty much the only thing recalled today when Aug. 21 comes around.
But the two events are fascinating for telling a magic-realist story all their own. That story is the beginning and end of martial law. That story is the rise and fall of a dictator.
Immediately after the Plaza Miranda bombing, Marcos suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, which everyone thought was a dry run to martial law. Everyone knew that Marcos had dictatorial ambitions, his ruthlessness, his desire to win at all costs, as shown by his reelection which raised the roof on electoral violence and the Plaza Miranda bombing itself, pointing to it. But everyone suspected he would attempt it in the latter part of 1973 when the presidential election drew near. Having already served two terms, he was banned from running again. He surprised everyone by declaring martial law more than a full year in advance. He surprised everyone even more by getting little resistance from it.
But it was the bombing of Plaza Miranda on Aug. 21, 1971, that heralded all this. The writing was on the wall for those who could read it. A bomb lay underneath the stage on which Juan de la Cruz sat bidding to rescue the country from its mournful lot. A dark night lay ahead, and he would not see the light until after 14 years.
Immediately after the murder of Ninoy, the country rose to attend his funeral. Over a million followed his torn body down the streets, which was not to be duplicated until his widow, Cory, died more than two-and-a-half decades later. The event was ignored by the muzzled press. The Daily Express—also known as the “Daily Suppress”—had for its banner story someone dying after being struck by lightning. But the silence made it roar out all the more, a roar that would soon issue from the mouths of a people that thought they had lost their voice.
“Justice for Aquino, justice for all,” the people cried. What had been done to Ninoy was the culmination of what had been done to them, to a nation that had known the whiplash of martial law, that had felt the talons of martial law.
The culmination of “justice for all” happened less than three years later at Edsa. But it was the assassination of Ninoy Aquino on Aug. 21, 1983, that galvanized it, that sparked it. The writing on the wall was there for those who could read it, for those who would heed it. Marcos could not, Marcos would not.
But it’s surreal or divine, uncanny or sublime, that the same date in the calendar, albeit a dozen years apart, should foretell the beginning and end of things, should augur for damnation and salvation, should foreshadow subjugation and liberation.
It gets weirder: Though both events were laid squarely at the doorstep of Marcos, it remains debatable whether he had a hand in them directly or indirectly. Years later, Salonga himself would accuse the communists of having wrought the Plaza Miranda bombing, based on the word of one of them who confessed to it not long afterward while on trial for his life for “revolutionary crimes.” For whatever that was worth: As the “killing fields” of 1988 would show, rebels tended to invent stories when on trial for their lives, hoping they could buy time, if not freedom.
And to this day, of course, whatever Juan Ponce Enrile claims, it remains a tossup who ordered Ninoy murdered. Marcos himself hovered between life and death from lupus at that time.
Whatever the case, the fact remains that Marcos lay like a spider at the center of this web. Not least, he was responsible for the spate of bombings that took place in 1971 and 1972, as he planted the seeds of justification for martial law. If he was not himself responsible for the Plaza Miranda bombing, he did not find it unwelcome, finding in it the very justification he sought. And it was the logic of martial law, with the not very petty jealousies it spawned between Marcos’ cronies and generals about who would succeed him if and when he went, that made Ninoy’s elimination inevitable.
The first brought on his rise, the second his fall. The first brought on his doing, the second his undoing.
Today is Aug. 21. Spare a thought for this fateful day.