‘Never be like driven cattle’
It’s been 37 years since the assassination of former senator Ninoy Aquino on the tarmac of the airport that now bears his name—the historic spark that would lead to the ouster of the Marcos dictatorship three years later and the restoration of the country’s democracy.
For many young people who know Ninoy only as the bespectacled man on the country’s P500 bill who was married to the Philippines’ first woman president, Cory Aquino, a brief recounting of the history and political landscape of that period is in order: The former senator, the foremost opposition figure during the Marcos years, was detained along with other known critics of the administration when martial law was declared in 1972. In 1980, Ninoy suffered a heart attack and was allowed to leave for the United States for heart surgery. Despite what his family described as “the best years of (their) life” in Boston, and against the advice of kin and friends, in 1983 he decided to come home from exile to resume the fight for democracy on Philippine soil.
In the speech he was supposed to read on his arrival, Ninoy wrote: “I have returned on my free will to join the ranks of those struggling to restore our rights and freedoms through nonviolence. I seek no confrontation. I only pray and will strive for a genuine national reconciliation founded on justice.” But he also acknowledged the risks he was taking: “A death sentence awaits me. Two more subversion charges, both calling for death penalties, have been filed since I left three years ago and are now pending with the courts.”
Ninoy was promptly arrested when his flight landed at Manila’s airport on Aug. 21, 1983. The arresting soldiers barred reporters from following them out of the plane. Minutes later, shots rang out, and Ninoy lay dead on the tarmac, along with a man later identified as Rolando Galman. In a video shown on government television, Malacañang claimed that, despite the tight cordon of soldiers around Ninoy, Galman had appeared out of nowhere and shot the former senator, and was gunned down by the soldiers in turn.
Ninoy’s death was the game-changer that galvanized and unified the different factions of the opposition against Marcos. The snowballing protest movement culminated in 1986 with the Edsa People Power Revolution and the Marcoses’ flight from the wrath of their countrymen. Ninoy’s widow, Cory Aquino, who led the opposition slate in the Marcos-engineered snap election, became the country’s 11th president.
While giving the late dictator a controversial hero’s burial, the current Marcos-friendly administration has sought to erase the historical significance of Ninoy’s death with moves to rename the Ninoy Aquino International Airport—just the latest attempt to diminish the man’s heroism and legacy.
But read his 1983 arrival statement again, and realize how Ninoy’s voice remains exceedingly relevant and valuable. “Rather than move forward, we have moved backward,” he wrote of those twilight Marcos years. “The killings have increased, the economy has taken a turn for the worse and the human rights situation has deteriorated.” Sounds familiar?
Note how scores of critics and dissidents have been harassed, imprisoned, or killed in the last four years, and how the President has continually vilified human rights defenders. The impunity of the extrajudicial killings in the drug war mimics as well the brutal torture and murders of thousands of citizens by the Marcos regime.
As in the Marcos years, the Duterte administration has coopted Congress, the judiciary, and just about every institution either by filling its ranks with allies, or through sheer intimidation and the creative interpretation of the law. The denial of ABS-CBN’s franchise and the harassment of independent-minded media outlets also reek strongly of Marcos’ first act upon declaring martial law: suppressing the freedom of the press by shuttering media.
And, then as now, the Constitution is targeted for revision and mangling to subvert the eventual turnover in administration and accountability, in a shameless attempt to prolong the stay of those in power.
With institutions meant to protect them largely rendered compliant and complicit, many people choose to be silent under such circumstances, an act of self-preservation whether in the Marcos regime or in the current dispensation.
But, by taking a leap of faith, by coming home against all odds and dying for his convictions, thus joining the pantheon of the thousands of other valiant freedom fighters of that period who similarly paid the ultimate price, Ninoy Aquino demonstrated how tyrants are defeated. His long imprisonment and destiny with martyrdom upheld a singular principle: Never give in to tyranny. Or as he put it in one of his letters: “Do not forget, as Longfellow said, that we should never be like driven cattle, but be a hero in the strife.”
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