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Prelude to Edsa 1

/ 12:16 AM February 24, 2014

In 1974 martial law was at its height, and the opposition was reduced to a few brave souls led by, among others, the former senator Lorenzo Tañada. To use a quotation from Oscar Wilde, it was a season of sorrow.

Ninoy Aquino, imprisoned for two years already, was fighting for his life: A military court was hearing trumped-up charges of murder and sedition against him. He had filed a petition for prohibition at the Supreme Court to stop the military commission from taking jurisdiction. This became the controversial case of Aquino vs Military Commission, which was to go down in history as one of the most shameful acts of capitulation of the judicial branch to the executive branch.

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The Supreme Court, which was controlled by Ferdinand Marcos, would not stop the military court from holding proceedings to perpetuate the testimonies of witnesses against Ninoy. On that fateful day of April 4, 1975, Ninoy shifted his struggle from the legal to the political venue. He announced a hunger strike. In a letter to Tañada, he wrote that he no longer knew the limits of his shrunken constituency, but he was confident that with the coming dawn, that constituency would become larger. “Ours have been a good team,” he told his old mentor, “to fuse the enthusiasm of youth with the sobriety and maturity of the old. I had the vigor of the young, you the wisdom and temperament that is priceless, because like excellent wine, it has been mellowed by age.”

Eleven days into the hunger strike, Ninoy wrote a letter to his wife Cory. He said his going on a hunger strike was in protest of these evils: the trial of civilians in military tribunals, lack of judicial independence, absence of a genuine free press and continuation of repression under martial law. He ended his hunger strike after 40 days when family and friends reminded him that even Jesus fasted only for so long.

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Confident that he had made a symbolic gesture, Ninoy cleverly used the military court as a sounding board for his continuing diatribe against martial law. He told the military court: “You are not in a position to declare me innocent… To declare me innocent you have to condemn your commander in chief for telling a monstrous lie to the nation when he pronounced me guilty on the basis of what he called strong and overwhelming evidence, for harassing my family, my relatives and my associates who refuse to testify against me, and for trying to crush my will and my spirit by putting me in solitary confinement for almost four lonely years.”

The military court finally perpetuated the testimonies of 29 false and perjured witnesses, and in November 1977, with the Supreme Court ruling against his case with finality, it found Ninoy guilty of murder and other charges and sentenced him to death by firing squad. But the sentence was not carried out. Ninoy then prepared for his second great political struggle against martial law: the 1978 Interim Batasang Pambansa elections for Metro Manila.

It was evening, and all was quiet around the camp where Ninoy was detained, almost like what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the quiet of a storm center.” Ninoy was at his desk writing a message to former senator Ernesto Maceda. He divulged that earlier in the afternoon he had met with Tañada to discuss the possibility of an opposition coalition that would do battle with the regime’s Kilusang Bagong Lipunan in Metro Manila for the Batasan elections. He was hopeful that Metro Manilans would live up to their tradition of independence. He wrote: “There are many doors to be opened and more frontiers to be crossed… The task imposed on the oppositionist is awesome. But there is endless hope, for even the vast wasteland has a horizon.”

Ninoy’s coalition became known as the Lakas ng Bayan, or Laban, the battle cry on the lips of Metro Manilans in the months that followed. The high point of the campaign season was the noise barrage that reverberated throughout the metropolis on the eve of the elections. Next to the Edsa Revolution, it was the single most expressive demonstration of a people’s unity against a repressive system.

But Ninoy and his party mates failed to reckon with the chicanery of the party in power. After the votes were counted, the entire KBL slate won. In a manifesto to the Filipino people, Ninoy referred to the April 7, 1978, elections as the dirtiest in Philippine history. But something greater had been won. Cooped up for six years, the people were able to rise to a common cause, tearing the chain from around their necks and proclaiming: We are not asleep, we will not take government abuses lying down.

In March 1980, Ninoy had a heart attack. He was given a medical furlough for a triple heart bypass in the United States. He left, but not before making two promises: to return to his cell in the Philippines after his surgery and recovery, and to not comment on politics while abroad. His stay in the United States was what would be the third and last stage of his struggle for justice and freedom.

Ninoy decided to break his second commitment because of the dictates of higher national interest. Traveling across the United States and around the world, he met with various opposition groups, got to the root of their grievances, and obtained a broad perspective of the problems facing the Philippines. Before the Asia Society in New York, he delivered his now famous speech, “The Filipino is Worth Dying For,” where he outlined his prescriptions for reversing his country’s imminent social collapse.

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Like Lincoln and Gandhi before him, Ninoy was felled by an assassin’s bullet on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport on Aug. 21, 1983. Less than three years later, the Edsa Revolution took place.

Claro M. Recto, a great statesman of another era, wrote: “There were those who kept vigil in the night of our forefathers.” Don Claro might well have spoken of Ninoy and the nationalists of his generation.

Mario Guariña III is a former associate justice of the Court of Appeals.

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