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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE MARTYR

Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino


A GUNSHOT. Three more. Then shouts. A jumble of figures running across the tarmac of Manila International Airport. Amid the chaos, two bodies lie dead on the apron. One, a bullet through his skull, is Filipino opposition leader Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino.

Of all the emotions that coursed through Filipinos in the days after that Aug. 21, 1983 assassination, perhaps the strongest was sadness. Aside from shock and anger at an act that appeared too brutal even for the military-shrouded regime of President Ferdinand Marcos, people felt the deadening sorrow that comes with hope's demise. Fully aware of the risks, Aquino had returned home from a three-year exile in an attempt to rebuild democracy, sensing the deepening morass of Marcos's rule. When he died, aged 50, many felt the promise of peaceful change had died with him.

Yet, dramatically -- almost miraculously -- his goals were won. Millions marched at his funeral, marking the beginning of a mass challenge to Marcos. Aquino's death invigorated and united a shaky opposition leadership. And the ensuing political drama produced, three years later, an extraordinary bloodless revolution that handed the presidency to his widow, Corazon "Cory" Aquino, and restored the Philippines' democratic institutions. "Regardless of what he might have done with his life, he became a powerful symbol," says Alex Magno, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines. To Filipinos and the world, Aquino's sacrifice meant that freedom was still a hope worth dying for.

But it isn't correct to see his crowning achievement in life as his death. Although his name can provoke cynicism in some quarters, Aquino was no mere grandstander. Even his fellow, fractious oppositionists could be heard to grudgingly acknowledge, while he was alive, that he was the first among them. He was the one who understood the big picture, who had the plan. And ultimately his ideas took hold. He opposed the Grand Project mentality of the Marcos years, the attempt at a Korean-style command economy (unlike the collectivist Koreans, Aquino said, "we are reared in individualism -- we're taught our rights before we even know our obligations"). Today the Grand Projects are gone.

His personal achievements came early. He was born to a wealthy, landowning family, the son of a senator and the grandson of a revolutionary hero. In 1950, he covered the Korean War for the Manila Times -- at age 18. Three years later, as a presidential aide, he negotiated the surrender of peasant rebel leader Luis Taruc. Just shy of 23, he ran for mayor of his hometown of Concepcion. By 35, he was the country's youngest senator. He was headed straight for the presidency, occupied by someone equally promising and equally ambitious.

Marcos became Aquino's wiliest opponent, and Aquino the president's most charismatic critic. But the rivalry between the two ran deeper than party loyalties. "He and Marcos were of the same mould," says political scientist Francisco Nemenzo. Descended from political families, both knew all the corners of the Philippine political game. Though Aquino's opposition to the strongman cast him in the democrat's role, their approaches at times intersected. Aquino once told Asiaweek he would have declared martial law -- as Marcos had -- had he been president during the troubled 1970s. "The people of Asia will accept authoritarianism," he said, "provided it's honest and competent." Aquino, says Nemenzo, "could have been another dictator."

The country never got a chance to find out. After the Sept. 21, 1972, declaration of martial law, Marcos imprisoned Aquino for seven years. Incarceration ended up strengthening him. He found spiritual piety; his canniness turned into thoughtful idealism. In 1980, Marcos allowed him to undergo heart surgery in the U.S. He was supposed to return but, to no one's surprise, he and his family stayed. Yet he never really left Philippine politics. While in exile, he maintained discussions with Muslim separatists and communist rebels. Manila oppositionists beat a path to his Boston door. An optimist to the core, he was convinced that equitable solutions could be found to the country's crushing problems.

His wife struggled with those problems -- poverty, insurgency, militarism, greed -- during her six-year term. Although she constantly asked herself, "What would Ninoy do?", her success was limited. But the homemaker-turned-president delivered on her fundamental promise: the return of freedom. The Philippines is still in the process of fulfilling Ninoy Aquino's dream of a stable and prosperous democracy. But because of him -- and her -- it is a lot closer.


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