He was among us but few cared: When Ninoy was in the US
On August 31, 1983, after a 12-hour procession of his casket through the streets of Manila, Ninoy Aquino was buried at the Manila Memorial Park. That was some 30 years ago. Over a million people packed the streets. From the aerial views, this immense gathering of humanity had never before been seen for a funeral and probably will never be seen again in Manila’s or Philippine history.
During his 3-year exile in the USA, from May 8, 1980 to August 21, 1983, the most number of people that gathered to hear him speak was perhaps no more than 500. This was on February 15, 1981 in Los Angeles that was organized by the Movement For A Free Philippines (MFP), one of the major US-based anti-martial law groups.
At that time, the Filipino population in that immigrant gateway California city was estimated at 200,000, the most of any county in the mainland. In the absence of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, to gather 500 attendees required a considerable outreach effort.
A more difficult challenge faced the organizers. By 1981, Marcos' martial law had reigned supreme for 9 years in the Philippines. And the climate of anxiety that pervaded there had filtered across the Pacific Ocean, dampening any urge among Filipino-Americans to indulge in political activities related to anti-Marcos movements.
Apathy and fear
Indeed apathy, tinged with fear, was the conduct of choice among the Filipinos all over America. Reports from human rights organizations of disappearances, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions of anti-martial law critics had spread. And “spies” were commonly rumored to attend meetings of activists in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. They had reason to be wary. Ninoy was fully aware of this. “Why put yourself and your relatives in trouble?” he asked his audience. To those who were present, he expressed his appreciation despite all the warnings to keep away from politically-inspired events. (Watch Ninoy's speech in Los Angeles on February 15, 1981)
Files I obtained through the Freedom of Information Act for my book released May 2013, “Fighting From A Distance: How Filipino Exiles Helped Topple A Dictator” included 196 pages on Aquino from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Heavily censored and released from “Secret” designation, many relied on informants (names blacked out), as they tracked his speaking engagements among Filipino groups and universities.
(An FBI 1981 report on former Senator and Foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus, leader of MFP, had only 4 pages. It reported the organization's funding sources, its alleged ties with “Marxist Soviet oriented groups,” and ended with a profile of him as a “male, Filipino” and belonging to the “white race”!) It did not help that a leader of one of the activist groups admitted in print that its members subscribed to a "leftist" ideology for the violent overthrow of the Marcos regime.
Both exile leaders (Raul was stranded in the USA in 1972 when martial law was declared) chose the US East Coast to wage their campaigns. Some 460 miles apart, Raul focused on his lobbying efforts from his home in McLean, Virginia while Ninoy settled with his family in Newton, Massachusetts, across from Boston College. Those 3 years living in a two-story, spacious house on a hill on 175 Commonwealth Avenue were among the happiest time in their lives, Cory Aquino told the Associated Press during her return visit on September 22,1986 after she was elected president.
They lived the American suburban life – picnics, Masses at the St. Ignatius Church on Chestnut Hill – away from the swirl of crowds and followers that were constant companions during Ninoy’s Senate days. Released in 1980 after 7 years and 8 months in an army prison cell in Fort Bonifacio, Ninoy’s arrival in the USA to undergo a heart operation was his first free day. For 3 years, his base as a research fellow and lecturer was at Harvard University and at the Center for International Affairs of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MFP’s first office was at the National Press Club in Washington DC (in its early years its physical presence was a post office box in Manhattan).
Ninoy and Raul are the two most prominent figures, among several others, described in my book. They were the public faces of the movements, delivering speeches all over the country, testifying before US Congressional committees, quoted in the media, writing widely in American publications.
Their followers honed to an expert degree the ways of rallies, demonstrations, leafletting, and letter-writing campaigns. Raul offered MFP’s presidency to Ninoy but the latter refused, not wanting to be identified with any one group among the many activists. In time, the US White House grew increasingly alarmed that the exiles’ campaigns against US military aid to the Marcos regime would jeopardize their air force and naval bases in the Philippines, so vital to their Vietnam war effort.
Thus began FBI surveillance on them and other MFP leaders. Agents dropped by for “friendly, polite” interviews at their homes and in one instance they barged in and took files from an office room in the San Francisco home of Steve Psinakis, close friend of Ninoy.
How effective were these protest movements? Numerically, MFP had 1,000 active members nationwide. The two other major groups that emerged in 1972 – the Union of Democratic Filipinos (known as KDP) and the Friends of the Filipino People – were estimated to have a core membership of no more than 200 combined. It was an intense dedication to a cause, not numbers that sustained their efforts.
Also driving them were like-minded allies in the Philippines who regarded them as their overseas front fighters, relatively immune from martial law's clutches. In Hawaii where he had fled after being deposed in 1986, Marcos himself acknowledged that the exile lobbying helped in his downfall. He argued that the primary reason for the shift in the once-friendly US posture toward his regime was “ the contrived image of Philippine reality” implanted in the US public opinion “by the articulate and well-financed representatives of anti-Marcos expatriates residing in North America."
He added that the Committee hearings in the US Congress “were given the widest circulation by the American press (and that) the wildest charges (against him) were given credence.”
Left unsaid was that it took the exiles 14 years to make the media, American public opinion and the Congress see beyond their bases. The majority of Filipino immigrants chose to be silent through through those decades. But then let us note that some 31 months transpired after Ninoy’s assassination on August 21, 1983 before the EDSA masses smashed into Malacañang Palace.
Those who viewed the massive funeral procession could not but wonder why that great outpouring did not swerve towards the Palace instead of into the cemetery. We could have been spared 3 more years of agony. And the exiles could have returned home earlier to help rebuild a broken country as they were able to do.
Last June, the traditional Philippine Independence Day festivities drew thousands at the usual celebratory grounds – at Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan, at parks in Jersey City, and Passaic in New Jersey. Food stalls dominated. I handed out postcards of my book, picking out those who looked in their late 50s or 60s and who most likely lived through the martial law years in the US. Many, a good many, in fact, said, No, I did not know that these things were going on here during that time.
There is talk of a generation gap – those in the Philippines born after martial law who know next to nothing about those years. And those that Benjamin Tolosa Jr, an Ateneo professor, said during the 30th anniversary of the Aquino assassination "who can only understand the events of the 1980s through the generation that experienced it." – Rappler.com
Pete Fuentecilla has been living and working as an editor and journalist, based in New York City, since 1968."Fighting From A Distance" was released by the University of Illinois Press in May 2013 and is available on Amazon.com.