Farewell, Mr. President
The most poignant of goodbyes to the late President Benigno S. Aquino III, for me, was the piece written by Yasmin Lee Arpon, in which she said “Noynoy Aquino was many things to different people, just as people were different things to him” (“Before he was ‘P-Noy,’” Lifestyle, 6/27/2021).
I am among the many people blessed to have served President Aquino. I was neither kaibigan, kabarilan, or kamag-anak. I worked for him through Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr. and chief presidential legal counsel, and later Supreme Court justice, Benjamin Caguioa. A friend in communications, and a former classmate from UP Class 1974, brought me, and my “Isko ng Bayan” credentials, to Secretary Ochoa.
After my retirement from the Supreme Court in 2019, the Board of Regents of the University of the Philippines granted me a book grant to write on the West Philippine Sea arbitration. On July 12, 2020, the fourth anniversary of the Arbitral Award, I got into direct phone contact with President Aquino. Though Secretary Ochoa had given me the President’s number, I had never used it while I was solicitor general, or when I joined the Supreme Court. I broached to President Aquino my need to interview him for my book. I said: “In my mind, you are the only and central figure in the book, all of the others in your Cabinet, and sub-Cabinet, being mere functionaries.” I ended by saying, “Please let me know if I can pursue.”
The reply was quick and unpretentious: “Of course, Francis. You do give me too much credit.”
I was flustered and excited that the President replied immediately. I added: “Sir, but it’s true; the decision was all about your executive decision — everything else and everybody else was support to the executive decision. Of course many had their views — but in the end, it was all yours.“
Then, his reply was classic President Aquino: “OK, Francis. During my mother’s time, Freddie Aguilar had a hit song entitled ‘Estudyante Blues.’ The refrain is ‘ako ang nakikita, ako ang nasisisi, ako ang laging may kasalanan.’ Little did I know that it would remain relevant throughout my life. Stay safe.”
The next time I texted President Aquino was on Aug. 2, the 11th death anniversary of President Cory Aquino, and on Aug. 21, 2020, the 27th death anniversary of Sen. Benigno Aquino.
In the August 2020 text, I reminded him about the book project and suggested to “have all your materials, notes, memos to and from you etc re the matter organized for easy reference.“ He said he “will inventory what we have.” I proposed to interview him via virtual conference, and suggested a provider. He had reservations about the provider company’s country of origin and said, “Let me do some research. Will get back to you next week.”
These were the last words I got from President Aquino. I texted on Nov. 17, 2020, and again on Feb. 27, this year, to follow up. Secretary Ochoa and Justice Caguiao cryptically advised me: “Let us defer muna your project.” I last gifted him, at Christmas 2020, with a box of chocolate-eh tablea, hoping that he would get some nourishment apart from his legendary can of soda and chichiria.
And then last June 24, he left us. Thursday last week, friends forwarded the column of former senior associate justice Antonio T. Carpio, “Aquino and the arbitration against China” (Crosscurrents, 7/1/2021). With his forked tongue, he paid tribute to my President, but projected his agenda: that the President’s close advisers were bitterly divided over whether to arbitrate or not.
I am sorry, Sir, Mr. President. Rest in peace with your Mom and Dad in Heaven. We are still in mourning. After which, we vow to do combat with these pretenders. They will fail. No way will we allow them to blacken your memory, or hijack from you your rightful place in the history of the West Philippine Sea arbitration.
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Francis H. Jardeleza is a retired associate justice of the Supreme Court and was agent to the Republic in the West Philippine Sea arbitration.
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