This lesson is is a part of a larger unit on the Philippines: At the Crossroads of the World. It is also written to be utilized independently.
This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.
Benigno Simeon “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was born into a wealthy Filipino family on November 27, 1932. His grandfather, Aquino, was a general in the revolutionary army of Emilio Aguinaldo, the officially recognized first President of the Philippines.
Ninoy’s prestigious family and the prosperity that facilitated his education and early political success did not make him elitist, however. He would become an inspiration symbol of courage and nonviolence in the face of overwhelming repression, and his example would help set the Philippines free from decades of dictatorial rule under the thumb of Ferdinand Marcos.
Aquino gained an early success in Philippine politics, as he was born into one of the Philippines’ political and landholding clans. In addition to his grandfather’s revolutionary service under President Aguinaldo, his father held office under Presidents Quezon and Jose P. Laurel. As a consequence, Aquino was elected mayor of his hometown of Concepcion, Tarlac at the remarkably young age of 23 years old. Five years later, he was elected the nation’s youngest vice-governor at 27 (a record surpassed in 2013). Two years after that, in 1961, he became governor of Tarlac province and then secretary-general of the Liberal Party in 1966.
In 1965, Ferdinand Marcos, a prominent right-wing politician won the Philippine presidency. Early in his term, Marcos initiated ambitious public works projects and intensified tax collection which brought the country economic prosperity throughout the 1970s. His administration built more roads (including a substantial portion of the Pan-Philippine Highway) than all his predecessors combined, and more schools than any previous administration. Marcos was re-elected president in 1969, becoming the first president of the Philippines to achieve a second term. Opponents of Marcos, however, blocked legislation necessary to further implement his expansive agenda. As a result, optimism faded early in his second term, economic growth slowed, and Marcos became increasingly heavy handed with his political opponents. Crime and civil disobedience increased. The Communist Party of the Philippines formed the New People’s Army in response to his shaky hold over the nation and the Moro National Liberation Front continued to fight for an independent Muslim nation in Mindanao.
In 1968, during his first year as senator, Aquino alleged that Marcos was on the road to establishing “a garrison state” by “ballooning the armed forces budget,” saddling the defense establishment with “overstaying generals” and “militarizing our civilian government offices.”
Aquino became known as a constant critic of the Marcos regime. His flamboyant rhetoric had made him a darling of the media. His most polemical speech, “A Pantheon for Imelda” was delivered on February 10, 1969. He assailed the Cultural Center, a signature project of First Lady Imelda Marcos, as extravagant, and dubbed it “a monument to shame” and labelled its designer “a megalomaniac, with a penchant to captivate.” President Marcos was outraged and publically labelled Aquino “a congenital liar.”
At 9:15 PM on August 21, 1971, at a rally to kick-off the opposition Liberal Party’s campaign in the upcoming Philippine elections, candidates formed a line on a makeshift platform and were raising their hands as the crowd applauded. The band played and a fireworks display drew all eyes, when suddenly there were two loud explosions – obviously were not part of the show. In an instant the stage became a scene of wild carnage. The police later discovered two fragmentation grenades that had been thrown at the stage by “unknown persons.” Nine people died, and 120 others were wounded, many critically.
As Aquino was the only Liberal Party senatorial candidate not present at the incident, Marcos and newspapers friendly to his rule insinuated that he had had something to do with the attack. Aquino denied these allegations, and most historians continue to suspect Marcos as he is known to have used false flag attacks – that is, a covert operations designed to deceive the public; the deception creates the appearance of a particular party, group, or nation being responsible for some activity, disguising the actual source of responsibility.
Amidst the rising wave of lawlessness and the conveniently timed threat of a Communist insurgency, Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972. This meant that ordinary law, including basic civil rights like the right to a fair trial or the need to pass new laws through a legislature were no longer guaranteed, and the president, through the military, could rule without any checks and balances from other branches of government. The declaration of martial law was initially well-received, given the social turmoil the Philippines was experiencing. Crime rates plunged dramatically after a curfew was implemented. Marcos, ruling by decree, curtailed press freedom and other civil liberties, abolished Congress, closed down major media establishments, ordered the arrest of opposition leaders and militant activists, including his staunchest critics: among them, Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr.
Aquino was one of the first to be arrested. Before he was even put on trial – not in an ordinary, impartial civilian court, but in a military court friendly to Marcos – he was imprisoned on trumped-up charges of murder, illegal possession of firearms and subversion. This imprisonment would last for years before Aquino’s day in court.
On April 4, 1975, Aquino announced that he was going on a hunger strike, a fast to the death to protest the injustices of his military trial. Ten days through his hunger strike, he instructed his lawyers to withdraw all motions he had submitted to the Supreme Court. As weeks went by, he subsisted solely on salt tablets, sodium bicarbonate, amino acids, and two glasses of water a day. Even as he grew weaker, suffering from chills and cramps, soldiers forcibly dragged him to the military tribunal’s session. His family and hundreds of friends and supporters heard Mass nightly at the Santuario de San Jose in Greenhills, San Juan, praying for his survival. Near the end, Aquino’s weight had dropped from 54 to 36 kilos (120 pounds to 80). Aquino nonetheless was able to walk throughout his ordeal. On May 13, 1975, on the 40th day, his family and several priests and friends, begged him to end his fast, pointing out that even Christ fasted only for 40 days. He acquiesced, confident that he had made a symbolic gesture.
But he remained in prison, and the trial continued, drawn out for several years. On November 25, 1977, the Military Commission charged Aquino guilty of all charges and sentenced them to death by firing squad.
During this period, Marcos continued his political repression of the Philippines. His regime was characterized as kleptocracy – a government with corrupt leaders (kleptocrats) that use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth and political powers. Typically, this system involves embezzlement of funds at the expense of the wider population. Official estimates say that the dictator ultimately stole between $5 to 10 billion from the people of the Philippines during his twenty year rule.
In mid-March 1980, after years in a solitary cell in Fort Bonifacio, Aquino suffered a heart attack. He was transported to the Philippine Heart Center, where he suffered a second heart attack. EKG and other tests showed that he had a blocked artery. Aquino refused to submit himself to Philippine doctors, fearing possible Marcos “duplicity;” he preferred to one of two options – go to the United States for the procedure or return to his cell and die.
After a secret hospital visit by Imelda Marcos, his request was granted. Aquino was allowed to go to the United States for surgery – accompanied by his family – on the condition that if he leaves, he will return; and while in America, he would not speak out against the Marcos regime. Aquino received treatment in Dallas, Texas. Following the surgery, he made a quick recovery, after which, he decided to renounce the agreement saying, “a pact with the devil is no pact at all.”
Aquino, his wife Corazón “Cory” Aquino, and their children started a new life in Massachusetts. He produced two books detailing his experience and the Filipino plight under the tyranny of Marcos, and gave a series of lectures while on fellowship grants from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His travels across the U.S. became opportunities for him to deliver speeches critical of the Marcos government. Throughout these years abroad, Aquino was aware that his life in the U.S. was temporary. He never stopped affirming his eventual planned return to the Philippines – even as he enjoyed American hospitality and a peaceful life with his family on American soil.
In the first quarter of 1983, Aquino received news about the deteriorating political situation in his country and the rumored declining health of President Marcos (due to lupus). Aquino believed that it was expedient for him to speak to Marcos and present to him his rationale for the country’s return to democracy – before extremist generals took over in the wake of Marcos’s impending death and made such a change impossible. Moreover, Aquino worried that the Filipinos might have resigned themselves to Marcos’s strongman rule and that without his leadership the centrist opposition would die a natural death.
Aquino decided to go back to the Philippines, fully aware of the dangers that awaited him. Warned that he would either be imprisoned or killed, Aquino answered, “if it’s my fate to die by an assassin’s bullet, so be it. But I cannot be petrified by inaction, or fear of assassination, and therefore stay on the side…”
His family, however, learned from a Philippine Consular official that there were orders from Ministry of Foreign Affairs not to issue any passports for them. They therefore formulated a plan for Aquino to fly alone (to attract less attention), with the rest of the family to follow him after two weeks. Despite the government’s ban on issuing him a passport, Aquino acquired one with the help of Rashid Lucman, a former Mindanao legislator. It carried the alias Marcial Bonifacio (Marcial for martial law and Bonifacio for Fort Bonifacio, his erstwhile prison).
The Marcos government warned all international airlines that they would be denied landing rights and forced to return if they tried to fly Aquino to the Philippines. Aquino insisted that it was his natural right as a citizen to come back to his homeland, and that no government could prevent him from doing so.
Marcos wanted Aquino to stay out of politics, however Aquino asserted his willingness to suffer the consequences declaring, “the Filipino is worth dying for.” He wished to express an earnest plea for Marcos to step down, for a peaceful regime change and a return to democratic institutions. Anticipating the worst, he revealed that he would be wearing a bullet-proof vest, but he also said that “it’s only good for the body, but in the head there’s nothing else we can do.” Sensing his own doom, he told the journalists accompanying him on the flight, “You have to be very ready with your hand camera because this action can become very fast. In a matter of a three or four minutes it could be all over, you know, and [laughing] I may not be able to talk to you again after this.”
In his last prepared statement – one he was never able to deliver – he said, “I have returned on my free will to join the ranks of those struggling to restore our rights and freedoms through non-violence. I seek no confrontation.”
Upon the airplane’s arrival in Manila, soldiers boarded the airplane to arrest Aquino. The soldiers escorted him off the airplane and onto the jet bridge; however, instead of following the jet bridge to the terminal, they exited the jet bridge down the service staircase onto the apron, where a military vehicle was waiting to bring him to prison. Sometime between his egress from the aircraft and his boarding of the ground vehicle, several gunshots were heard. When the firing stopped, Aquino was dead.
People Power Revolution
Following her husband’s assassination in 1983, Aquino’s widow Cory became active and visible in various demonstrations and protests held against the Marcos regime. She began to assume the mantle of leadership left by her husband Ninoy and became the symbolic figurehead of the anti-Marcos political opposition. In the last week of November 1985, Marcos surprised the nation by announcing on American television that he would hold a snap presidential election in February 1986, in order to dispel and remove doubts against his regime’s legitimacy and authority.
Initially reluctant, Aquino was eventually prevailed upon to heed the people’s clamor, after one million signatures urging her to run for president were presented to her. Running on the offensive, the ailing Marcos derided Aquino’s womanhood, saying that she was “just a woman” whose place was in the bedroom. In response to her opponent’s sexist remark, and in reference to the fact that the ailing and feeble Marcos was increasingly seen as being largely a front man for his wife, Imelda, Aquino simply remarked that “may the better woman win in this election.” Marcos also attacked Aquino’s inexperience and warned the country that it would be a disaster if a woman like her with no previous political experience was to be elected president, to which Aquino cleverly and sarcastically responded, admitting that she had “no experience in cheating, lying to the public, stealing government money, and killing political opponents.”
The snap election called by Marcos which was held on 7 February 1986 and was marred by massive electoral fraud, violence, intimidation, coercion and disenfranchisement of voters. Election Day proved to be bloody as one of Aquino’s staunchest allies, former Antique province Governor Evelio Javier, was brutally murdered, allegedly by some of Marcos’ supporters in his province. Furthermore, during the counting and tallying of votes conducted by the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), 30 poll computer technicians walked out to dispute and contest the alleged election-rigging being done in favor of Marcos.
Incumbent President Marcos as declared the winner on February 15, 1986. In protest, Aquino called for a rally dubbed “Tagumpay ng Bayan” (People’s Victory Rally) the following day, during which she claimed that she was the real winner in the snap election and urged Filipinos to boycott the products and services by companies controlled or owned by Marcos’s cronies. The rally held at the historic Rizal Park in Manila drew a mammoth-sized crowd, sending a strong signal that Filipinos were quite tired of Marcos’ two decades of rule and the lengths to which he would go to perpetuate it.
Further, the dubious election results drew sharp reactions from both local quarters and foreign countries. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) issued a statement strongly criticizing the conduct of the election which was characterized by violence and fraud. International observers, including a U.S. delegation, denounced the official results. The United States Senate likewise condemned the election.
Aquino rejected a power-sharing agreement proposed by the American diplomat Philip Habib, who had been sent as an emissary by U.S. President Ronald Reagan to help defuse the tension.
In what came to be known as the People Power Revolution, peaceful demonstrations took place on a long stretch of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, more commonly known by its acronym EDSA, in Metro Manila from February 22–25, 1986. They involved over two million Filipino civilians, as well as several political and military groups and religious groups. The protests, fueled by the resistance and opposition from years of governance by President Marcos and his cronies, culminated with the absolute ruler and his family fleeing Malacañang Palace to exile in Hawaii. Ninoy Aquino’s widow, Corazon Aquino, was immediately inaugurated as the eleventh president as a result of the revolution on February 25, 1986.
Marcos never ceased to maintain that he was the duly elected and proclaimed president of the Philippines for a fourth term, but unfairly and illegally deprived of his right to serve it.
In his dying days, Marcos offered to return 90% of his ill-gotten wealth to the Filipino people in exchange for being buried back in the Philippines beside his mother. However, Marcos’s offer was rebuffed by the Aquino government. He died and was buried as he lived his final days, in exile in Hawaii.
However, in 2016, after a contentious legal fight, his remains were reinterred in at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, the Philippine National Cemetery, despite opposition from various groups.
This article was adapted in part from:
- Benigno Aquino, Jr.
- Assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr.
- Ferdinand Marcos
- Corazon Aquino
- People Power Revolution
Read more on this subject -> The Origins of the Philippine-American War ◦ The Brutality of the Philippine-American War ◦ The Philippines in the American Empire ◦ “The White Man’s Burden”: Kipling’s Hymn to U.S. Imperialism ◦ Stereoscopic Visions of War and Empire ◦ In The Trenches: Harper’s Weekly Covers the Philippine-American War ◦ Ninoy and Marcos – “A Pact with the Devil is No Pact at All.”
History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos by Luis Francia.
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