“The memories of men are too frail a thread to hang history from.” You doubt that? Today is “Ninoy Aquino” Day, as mandated by Republic Act 9492. What does this holiday mean? Ask those below 35 years of age.
Eight out of 10 students, September 2002 surveys tell us, barely recall Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. Or why he was gunned down. Are we a people of truncated memories? More important, do we care?
Who remembers the officers handpicked by Ferdinand Marcos for Military Commission No. 2? In November 1977, they sentenced Ninoy to die by musketry, after a kangaroo trial in Fort Bonifacio.
“No one of you can name the military tribunal members who sentenced Andres Bonifacio,” Ninoy told his “judges” then. “But this camp where you try me is named after the very man they sentenced to death.”
Indeed, “we have little collective memory of the past,” Ateneo de Manila University president Bienvenido Nebres, S.J., told the Legacies of the Marcos Dictatorship conference. “We tend to live in a perpetual present. Thus, we cannot see well into the future.”
“If they kill me, they’re out in two years.” Ninoy offered that stark “math” to friends spooked by his plan to meet the ailing Marcos. Perhaps, a direct appeal to the dictator could stave off a turbulent transition, he argued. Ninoy’s “math” fell short by one year. Only in 1986 did the fuse, lit by Ninoy’s assassination, erupt into People Power I. That toppled a 14-year-long dictatorship and reestablished constitutional rule.
Today is the 29th anniversary when a single bullet tore into Ninoy, who was “guarded” by military agents as he descended an airplane’s gangway to the Manila International Airport’s tarmac. Death cut Ninoy short before he could publicly lash at the supine Supreme Court justices who jettisoned the ancient right of habeas corpus into the dictator’s lap.
“Be ready with your hand cameras because this action can become very fast,” Ninoy told journalists before his Taipei takeoff. “In a matter of three or four minutes it could be all over. And I may not be able to talk to you again after this.”
Military men led Ninoy out of the plane into the catwalk. “Pusila! Pusila!” someone screamed. “Shoot him! Shoot him!” After the gunfire died down, Ninoy’s bloodied body lay sprawled on the tarmac. A man, later identified as Rolando Galman, also lay dead.
A military van sped the two bodies away. It would be hours before the regime delivered the corpses to a coroner for examination. No one bothered to inform Doña Aurora, Ninoy’s mother. She picked up the body since Corazon Aquino and children were still flying in from the United States.
Do not clean up the wound that disfigured Ninoy’s face, Doña Aurora told the undertakers. Keep his blood-stained jacket. “I want them to see what they did to my son.”
Two men picked up Galman’s wife, Lina Lazaro, at her home on Jan. 29, 1984. She was never seen again. In 1988, corpses of Galman’s mistress, Anna Oliva and her sister Catherine were exhumed from a sugarcane field in Capas, Tarlac.
That stark record confirms the fear expressed by a China Airline co-passenger of Ninoy, who screamed: “They’ve killed Aquino… Why are you not crying yet?”
Rebecca Quijano later became known as “the crying lady.” Janice Castro of Time wrote: “Moments after the shooting, Col. Vicente Tigas yanked Quijano away and whispered, ‘Don’t talk. Or you’ll get in trouble’.”
Quijano became the first civilian eyewitness against Gen. Fabian Ver, 24 other soldiers and one civilian. Among those who begged off from testifying were an airport mechanic and Galman’s stepdaughter. They were “convinced it would be unhealthy for them to speak out,” wryly noted Agrava probe counsel Andres Narvasa, who’d become Supreme Court chief justice.
Eight hours after Ninoy’s killing, Marcos announced he’d investigate the murder. Before details of the still-to-be-organized probe were settled, Marcos revealed its “conclusion”: A hitman, acting on orders from Philippine Communist Party chairman Rodolfo Salas, was the man who killed Ninoy. No one bought his line despite insistent peddling by the government-controlled press.
The credibility crisis forced Marcos to abandon his plan to name Chief Justice Enrique Fernando, who trotted behind Imelda as parasol bearer, to head the probers. He named former Justice Corazon Agrava to spearhead the investigation.
People Power, however, saw the new government trash the blanket acquittal clamped on by the dictatorship. An investigation under Corazon Aquino’s administration led to a retrial. Sixteen soldiers were sentenced to life imprisonment.
One convict was pardoned. Three died in prison, and the rest had their sentences commuted. The last limped out from Muntinlupa in 2009. But the mastermind hasn’t been called to account. Laid-back amnesia, however, is comfortable. Who cares about justice?
“We are in a state of denial with regard to crimes of the Marcos regime,” sociologist John Carroll writes. “That willingness to forget… reflects a weakness of the common conscience, a weak sense of the nation and of the common good. Unless the nation rises up to vindicate and reaffirm those values, it may be condemned to wander forever in the wilderness of valueless power plays among the elite.”
Many who towered in the detested dictatorship are now dead. But “Imelda Marcos and Eduardo Cojuangco are still very much alive,” notes San Francisco-based lawyer-journalist Rodel Rodis. “They know all too well who ordered the hit on Ninoy.”
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