Exactly 24 years ago yesterday, Ninoy Aquino was murdered at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport, the same airport that was later named in his honor.
1983 would stand out from memory because of many things. Michael Jackson was still black then and he was the biggest star on the planet. “Every Breath You Take” by The Police was the most requested song. Original Pilipino Music was enjoying its newfound popularity as songs by Kuh Ledesma, Asin, Banyuhay, The Apo Hiking Society, among others filled the airwaves. Ledesma and her “Ako Ay Pilipino” were huge hits.
Movies were still watched on the big screen and that year, the local film industry’s golden harvest included such gems as “Relasyon,” “Sister Stella L,” “Himala” and “Karnal.” Student activism was enjoying its second wind after the First Quarter Storm. “The Return of the Jedi” was the biggest hit globally.
But 1983 stands out from memory because of what happened to Ninoy Aquino.
I was a college student then, but that was the exact time I took a semester leave from my studies to do immersion work in Davao, helping out other student organizations and fellow activists in organizing work against the Marcos dictatorship. The League of Filipino Students and the College Editors Guild of the Philippines were heavily into building its national network.
On that fateful Sunday afternoon, I was in a meeting with fellow student writers from the Southern Mindanao chapter of the CEGP. That meeting had to be ended abruptly when someone barged into the room with the tragic news from Manila.
As we scampered to go home to our families (I was staying with an uncle and his family), the news of Ninoy’s assassination was spreading like wildfire. Although the tragic news was relayed from one person to another in hushed tones, the sense of foreboding was palpable. Davao City was the hotbed of the urban poor movement in Mindanao and the center of the uprising was a squatter colony called Agdao, but commonly referred to as Nicaragdao because of the extreme militarization in the area. I remember riding a jeepney that was strangely almost empty. The streets were also quiet and the air was electric with tension.
I got home to find my uncle and aunt frantically trying to map out a strategy to locate my whereabouts. Back then, that kind of reaction was par for the course as people were indiscriminately picked up for questioning, summarily stripped of their rights, and thrown into detention centers. Checkpoints were everywhere; the military was so powerful. My aunt and uncle feared that a clampdown was imminent and were quite sure that activists were going to be rounded up reminiscent of the time Martial Law was declared in the country.
But Ninoy’s assassination changed the course of Philippine history.
Instead of scaring off people into submission and silencing the resentment and anger that festered deep in people’s hearts, Ninoy’s death galvanized everyone and broke the general apathy toward the pervading abuses of the dictatorship. Rally after rally hit the streets sending the Philippine economy into shambles and creating a political crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Ninoy’s death was the pivotal event that unleashed public fury. His funeral was the longest ever in Philippine history as more than two million Filipinos walked out of their houses to say goodbye to a man who offered his life for freedom and liberation.
I went home to Leyte a month after Ninoy’s assassination to resume my studies. Leyte was then Imelda country and the Romualdezes were venerated like royalty in the province. The first lady was busy building her monuments in Tacloban City and in her hometown of Tolosa.
To build her grand mansion that would serve as repository of her vast collection of paintings, religious icons and other artworks, the Santo Niño Shrine and Heritage Center (perversely named after the province’s patron saint, the Santo Niño), Imelda Romualdez Marcos simply fenced off a sizable chunk of land that belonged to the university I was studying in. As editor of the university paper, I wrote a scathing editorial condemning the act, but it went largely ignored even by the university administrators. Today, the university has to contend with utter lack of space while the shrine stands there, decaying, and serving no other purpose than being a symbol of the profligacy of the Marcos dictatorship.
But Ninoy’s death would make an impact even among the people who were supposed to have been at the receiving end of the Romualdezes’ benevolence. The number of people who began to show up in rallies started to increase. I remember leading and joining Sunday afternoon rallies where placards that read “Imelda country no more!” were brandished alongside the usual slogans of the period “Ninoy, hindi ka nag-iisa” (Ninoy, you are not alone) and “Remember Ninoy.”
The protest movement and growing unrest would lead the dictator to call for snap elections that pushed Ninoy’s widow, Corazon Aquino, to throw her hat into the political ring. The chain of events would then lead to the 1986 People Power revolt that saw the dictator, his family and most of his cronies fleeing the country. Cory Aquino was installed president of the Republic.
We owe a lot to Ninoy Aquino. It was Ninoy’s death in 1983 that started the chain of events that freed the Filipino people from the clutches of the Marcos dictatorship. It was his heroism and courage that brought back freedom and democracy to the country. He could have continued to stay in the United States where he lived a comfortable life in exile. He didn’t have to come home to face a certain death, but he did because in his immortal words, “The Filipino is worth dying for.”
Yesterday, we celebrated the 24th anniversary of Ninoy Aquino’s martyrdom. While watching television over the weekend, I came across clips that sought to remind Filipinos about Ninoy’s greatness. One such clip asked who Ninoy was, mentioning facts such as “he is Kris Aquino’s father” or “he is the guy in the five hundred peso bill.” Sadly, these are the facts about Ninoy that the younger generation is familiar with.
Twenty-four years is a long time. But those among us with vivid memories of 1983 would cling on to the memories as if they happened yesterday. We must try to keep the memories alive because heroism such as the one displayed by Ninoy Aquino cannot and should not be forgotten.