A lesson for the son
Ninoy Aquino had been warned. The most dramatic warning about the threats to his life came from the dictatorship’s resident drama queen, the Imeldific first lady herself. Imelda Marcos was still in peak form, indulging her self-perception as the Marcos regime’s most effective diplomat. But she failed. Against the advice of almost everyone he consulted, the opposition senator still decided to return home from three years’ exile in the United States. Upon arrival 31 years ago today, however, he met the fate he had repeatedly been warned against; he was killed in the airport that now bears his name.
Was he foolhardy? It can be difficult to distinguish recklessness from courage, but not in Aquino’s case. He had carefully prepared for his homecoming, mustering support among other Filipinos forced by the declaration of martial law to seek exile in the United States; conducting in-depth research not only on such Philippine problems as festering as poverty and insurgency but also into alternative forms of resistance like Gandhian nonviolence; arguing against US government support for the Marcos regime in congressional hall and seminar room and, not least, crafting a circuitous return journey to foil the dictatorship’s increasingly desperate plan to stop him from boarding the fatal flight home.
There was nothing reckless about his return. It was a dangerous enterprise, but Aquino both recognized the danger and welcomed it. As he wrote in the arrival statement which he did not have a chance to read to the throng of people waiting for him at the airport: “Six years ago, I was sentenced to die before a firing squad by a Military Tribunal whose jurisdiction I steadfastly refused to recognize. It is now time for the regime to decide. Order my immediate execution or set me free.”
The dictatorship did execute him, extrajudicially. It was the beginning of the regime’s end. But in Aquino’s own sudden end (at the age of only 50), we can find traces of the beginning he had to make all over again, starting on the day of his arrest.
Aquino ran for national office only once, in 1967; he did not top the Senate elections then (he came in second), but he did achieve a rare feat. He was the only Liberal in a tidal wave of Nacionalista winners; he quickly became the face of the opposition, and was often thought of as one of Marcos’ likely successors. He was young and flamboyant, and enjoyed the trappings of power (starting with his Tarlac bailiwick) and of wealth (he had married into the Cojuangcos). He cut quite a profile.
When martial rule was imposed, he was among the very first to be arrested. It was during his seven years in prison, including a long spell in solitary confinement, that Aquino’s deepest values, his commitment to freedom and sense of country, were severely tested. He could have easily avoided further suffering by cutting a deal with Marcos, who belonged to the same influential fraternity from the University of the Philippines. Instead, he embraced his lot and refused to compromise. The seven years in prison purged him of his worldly ambitions; when he was rushed out of the country for emergency open-heart surgery in 1980, he was already a changed man.
It bears emphasizing: Aquino could have chosen to continue his political career even under martial rule; there were examples to follow, such as that of his own father and the great nationalist Claro M. Recto, who both served in the so-called puppet republic under the Japanese during World War II. Instead, he chose the much harder path, enduring the pain of imprisonment.
Was he reckless? The truth is he had found his true calling: The man who delighted in calling himself a public servant found, in the depths of detention, the true meaning of service. It meant doing away with self-interest; it meant (we can read for ourselves in some of his poignant letters from prison) putting country above self.
His son who now occupies the presidency inherited his capacity to willingly enter the fray. President Aquino has never been shy about fighting the fights he wants to fight, from forcing an Armed Forces chief of staff to resign to impeaching a chief justice. But the father’s courage served a purpose beyond self-interest. The son’s must not be used for such an unseemly purpose as term extension.