The Legacy of Philippine Opposition Leader Ninoy Aquino

by Reese Erlich

Filipinos still remember the disaster that hit their country thirty-five years ago.

Philippine leader Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr., the leading crusader against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, was brutally murdered after he stepped off a plane in the Manila airport on August 21, 1983.

His murder set in motion the People's Power Revolution of 1986, which brought his wife Cory Aquino to power. Their son Benigno Aquino III served as elected president from 2010 to 2016.

In the years since his death, Ninoy has become almost a saint in the Philippines, an apostle of spirituality and nonviolence.

But in a 1981 interview I did with him in Boston, Ninoy emerged as far more complex. While professing nonviolence, he admitted ties with a group that bombed tourism hotels in Manila. While professing to be a man of the people, he revealed himself as a coldly vindictive and profane politician. His legacy continues to impact contemporary Philippine politics as seen in the election of right-wing authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte.

Ferdinand Marcos was elected Philippine president in 1965 but imposed martial law in 1972 and ruled as a brutal dictator for fourteen more years. The United States backed Marcos almost to the very end. U.S. corporations had major investments in the Philippines, and the Pentagon maintained two important military bases there as well. As always, U.S. military and corporate interests were more important than democracy or human rights.

Ninoy and Cory Aquino both came from wealthy and powerful families who had fallen out with Marcos. Ninoy was arrested in 1972 for opposing the dictatorship and spent over seven years in prison. In 1980, Marcos allowed him to travel to Houston for heart surgery.

Then Aquino landed a fellowship at Harvard University where he met with many Filipino exiles and students. He told me of an incident that revealed he wasn't the saint his supporters would later claim. It was about a business administration student who refused to meet with him, saying Marcos might see it as black mark on his parents.

"Fuck you," Aquino recalled saying to the student, still seething as he recalled the incident months later. "What about your black mark with me? What if I come to power? I have all your names and I will remember you."

As with other historical figures, it matters how Ninoy Aquino is remembered.

"Ninoy was an old-school politician, but he couldn't abide by the injustice and impunity of the Marcos regime," Rene Ciria-Cruz told me in a recent interview. Ciria-Cruz was a Marxist and anti-dictatorship activist in the 1980s, and is now U.S. bureau chief for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

In 1983, Aquino returned to Manila with a plane full of supporters and journalists. He was shot as he walked onto the tarmac. Marcos's military officers were later convicted of planning the assassination.

"I met him before he went on his fateful trip home," recalled Ciria-Cruz. "He had fantasized about flying his plane, filled with bombs, into the presidential palace. We thought it was just macho posturing. But it also became clear that he was approaching his fight not as a personal rivalry with Marcos but with a real concern for the country."

Aquino was interested in talking with me because just months before our interview, I had interviewed members of the New People's Army, which was led by the Communist Party of the Philippines. The communists had become a growing political force because of their staunch opposition to Marcos. The party carried out a Maoist strategy of people's war in which the peasants in the countryside would surround the major cities and bring down the regime. The NPA aimed its armed actions against politicians, businessmen, the military and police, although civilians were inevitably killed.

The Aquinos, on the other hand, were social democrats who initially called for nonviolent struggle to restore democratic institutions and reform the crony capitalism of the Marcos regime. Unable to participate in elections, however, the soc dems, "as abbreviation happy Filipino activists called them," turned to armed struggle as well.

Clandestine groups known as the Light a Fire Movement and the April 6 Liberation Movement set off bombs in hotels to discourage tourism and hurt Marcos's economy. They intended only to destroy property, but one U.S. tourist was killed and thirty-three other civilians were wounded.

The Marcos administration accused Aquino of leading the Light a Fire Movement, which Ninoy publicly denied. In December 1980, Imelda Marcos, the president's politically powerful wife, met with Aquino in New York. In my interview, Aquino let slip his support for the terrorist tactics.

Referring to the bombings, Aquino told me Imelda Marcos was "candid enough to admit that we have caused damage to tourism and foreign investments." I asked him who were the "we."

"All the opposition groups I suppose," he replied rather lamely, knowing that his allies were bombing the hotels. He had let the cat out of the bag. Aquino went on to admit that he had the ability to stop the bombings if the Marcos regime made concessions.

Anti-Marcos activist Ciria-Cruz said Aquino was connected with Light a Fire, "but he was most likely not the leader who determined and knew all the details."

Several Light a Fire leaders later became prominent officials in the Cory Aquino administration.

The social democratic effort at armed struggle failed militarily, with some of the leaders getting caught smuggling arms through the Manila airport. But after Ninoy's assassination, Cory Aquino took the reins of the anti-Marcos opposition. By February 1986, mass demonstrations and a rebellion in the military forced Marco to flee to the United States and brought Cory to power.

She carried out many of Ninoy's policies, according to Ciria-Cruz. "Cory's publicly declared goal was to reestablish liberal democracy and its institutions, to be merely a transition government, and that was it." She didn't fight to eliminate poverty or develop an independent foreign policy.

"I think Ninoy would have done the same thing," Ciria-Cruz continued. "I didn't detect any predisposition for groundbreaking social reforms from both of them. Other traditional politicians disenfranchised and marginalized by Marcos became resentful of the U.S., if not openly nationalistic, which led to the willingness of some politicians to remove the U.S. bases after Marcos was ousted."

Ninoy's son Benigno Aquino III, president of the Philippines from 2010 to 2016, carried out many of the same centrist policies and did little to fight poverty, establish full rights for workers or implement land reform. Corruption remained rampant.

In 2016, right-wing populist Rodrigo Duterte took advantage of popular discontent with the centrists. Like Trump, he talked tough about helping ordinary people. He promised to crack down on drugs and corruption, the Filipino version of draining the swamp.

Duterte has arrested more than 50,000 people on minor offenses, such as public intoxication or using drugs. He has jailed one senator on trumped-up corruption charges and is trying to arrest another.

Critics have compared Duterte to Marcos. David Borden, a leader of the U.S.-based Stop the Drug, told me Duterte has created "a dangerous situation for anyone who criticizes the president, and he is a danger for democracy."

Filipinos are increasingly opposed to Duterte's policies. The lasting legacy of Ninoy Aquino may well be the need for another Filipino uprising against a dictatorial ruler.

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