Thirty years after, the fact, it has become fashionable among certain members of the population, especially the younger generation, to dismiss Ninoy Aquino’s heroism and legacy. This historical revisionism is practically a cottage industry online, where anti-Ninoy screeds, sometimes accompanied by slickly made videos, regularly sprout and are furiously passed on. The charges range from historically insupportable details (that Ninoy and Marcos were in fact in close contact with each other throughout the martial law years, so the former’s struggle for freedom against the dictatorship was a sham) to risible gossip (that Ninoy and Cory were about to get a divorce, and Ninoy was suffering from some ailment, so his return to Manila and eventual death at the hands of Marcos’ soldiers was no act of martyrdom but a staged suicide).
Coupled with this denigration of Ninoy’s memory is the airbrushing of the dictator’s. It’s claimed that the Philippines had the best economy under Marcos, and that it was an orderly society where corruption might have existed but not to the present runaway extent, and where law and order could be felt by ordinary citizens.
That nostalgia typically slides into a specific call for action: to bring back the “glory” of the Marcos years and elect his son and namesake to the presidency. It’s a campaign Sen. Bongbong Marcos himself feigns to be surprised about. When presented by an obscure group called Kilusang Bagong Liwanag with a letter expressing support for his putative candidacy in 2016, he said he didn’t know what it meant. And the group whose name attempts to echo Marcos’ Kilusang Bagong Lipunan? “That’s news to me. I’ve never heard of Kilusang Bagong Liwanag before,” he said.
It’s a bitter testament to the failure of the Filipino people to remember their dark past, and learn lessons from it, that the Marcos son—distinguished in the martial law years only for the undistinguished life he led as a pampered young playboy partying aboard the presidential yacht—is now being hailed by some quarters as the savior of the fraying nation his own family had run to the ground. And it’s a bitter testament to the Filipino people’s abysmal capacity for remembering that Ninoy Aquino is now routinely matched up with and mentioned in the same breath as the Marcos dictatorship.
Those who were alive when Ninoy was assassinated on Aug. 21, 1983, instinctively knew that a tectonic shift had occurred. Millions of ordinary Filipinos finally shook off their fear of the dictatorship and poured into the streets to bury him, even as the controlled press completely ignored the upheaval happening in the streets, the largest funeral the country had ever seen (one newspaper famously carried as its headline a story about an onlooker killed by a bolt of lightning).
That anecdote sums up well the brutal absurdity of life under Marcos, and there’s great irony in the fact that many of those who dismiss Ninoy now in the social media while singing hosannas to Marcos will not even be able to enjoy the freedom to rant online under the dictatorship. It’s true: Any expression of criticism or of bile against the “New Society” meant the risk of being arrested by the dreaded military; it meant being jailed and tortured like the tens of thousands of freedom fighters across the land who remain unsung and uncompensated for their hardships until now—or, in the case of prominent names like Ninoy, accorded a kangaroo trial whose outcome was predetermined in Malacañang.
In 1982, a year before his final trip home, Ninoy wrote an essay that appeared in the quarterly journal Solidarity. Three decades later, it remains a strikingly prescient document, one that his son, the current President, would do well to reread: “Purveyors of the rosy picture continue to roll out endless statistics and charts to depict a growing economy, a country on the move,” it began. But “[b]eneath the outpourings of self-serving government data, hidden underneath the trappings of the good life in the big cities, there remains a depressed and dispirited people.”
Ninoy Aquino’s crystal-clear view of the ills that plagued the country, his willingness to stand by his beliefs in the face of brutal state oppression, and most importantly, his faith in the capacity of Filipinos to find the better angels of their nature, were the spark that eventually razed a dictatorship and brought back democracy 30 years ago. Was it all worth it? Only if the Filipino people prove that they’re indeed worth dying for.
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