Ninoy Aquino: The unforgotten martyr

Christopher Bonoan

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Ninoy Aquino did not fear death as much as he feared obscurity. He knew the perils of his homecoming, and he was all for it.

China Airlines Flight 811 was no ordinary flight.

At about 11:15 am on August 21, 1983, China Airlines Boeing 767 bound for Manila, carrying over a hundred passengers, cleared the Taipei runway.

Of the passengers on board, the traveller in seat 14-C on the aisle, second section coach, seemed to enjoy considerable attention from the international press. A few passengers also kept him busy throughout the flight with handshakes and requests for autographs; young Filipino women kissed him, giggling as they wiped away the lipstick smudge on his rosy cheeks. Instantly, he was the dazzling politician again.

The traveller was obviously carrying a sham passport which bore the name of “Marcial Bonifacio,” a name that stood for martial law and his old dungeon, Fort Bonifacio. But the bold initials “BSA” etched on the breast patch of his cream safari suit gave him away all too quickly.

Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr, the erstwhile undisputed leader of the opposition, was finally returning home after 3 years in exile.

As the plane winged to Manila, Ninoy prayed to himself, his fingers sliding along the beads of his rosary. Then he stood up and went to the restroom and donned his bullet proof vest. As the plane touched down, his brother-in-law turned to him and said, “Noy, we’re home.”

Ninoy looked up and gave the mysterious Mona Lisa smile as a response. This is it! I can only imagine Ninoy’s growing sense of anxiety as he sat there waiting for the events to unfold – the final act of the tragedy that he himself had predicted moments earlier.

Meanwhile, thousands had come to the airport eager to welcome Ninoy. The streets heading to the airport were filled with people coming from different parts of Metro Manila. Yellow ribbons were draped over buses and jeeps and even around trees symbolizing the return of a freed prisoner.

At the airport’s VIP Lounge, another crowd was in place. Family and close friends, including Ninoy’s 73-year-old mother Doña Aurora, as well as some of the grand old names in the opposition headed by Ninoy’s childhood buddy, Doy Laurel, converged in one piece.

At about 1:00 pm the welcoming group decided to move out of the lounge as Ninoy’s plane taxied smoothly toward Gate 8. But as the group approached the doors leading to the tube, they were in for a surprise – all doors were locked. They simply could not move out of the room. What was left was a tiny glass opening and so one of them had to peep through and motioned the guards to open the door. The guards, although visibly shaken, simply ignored them. And so they tried to force the door open, but to no avail. When queried why the doors were locked, all the military officers could say was: “We are only following orders!”

Suddenly, one of the glass doors opened. But it was too late. Passengers started to come out in droves, their faces looking scared and grim. In a split of second, news broke out that Ninoy had arrived. He had come home for the last time.

Almost 50 seconds since he stood up from seat 14-C, a single shot coming from the back of his head sent Ninoy Aquino straight to immortality…and to martyrdom.

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Exile years

Almost 3 years before his fateful homecoming, Ninoy Aquino spent 7 years and 7 months in solitary confinement at Fort Bonifacio only to be released on May 8, 1980. Ninoy then was stricken with severe chest pains while in detention and had to undergo a delicate form of triple-pass heart surgery. By stroke of humanitarianism (and people may argue…let them), President Ferdinand Marcos allowed his arch political rival to travel to the United States on condition that he would not speak out against the Marcos regime while abroad.

The operation was successful and Ninoy recovered. For the next 3 years, Ninoy Aquino had seemingly no reason to return home. Not only did he live a happy life with his friends and family in Boston, he was also offered and accepted fellowships at the prestigious Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But Ninoy Aquino became more and more restive as news from home grew worse. While one of the conditions of his “temporary release” was that he refrain from making any derogatory statements against the Marcos regime, Ninoy finally decided to break the pact: “A pact with the devil is no pact at all.”

From then on, Ninoy Aquino was back to his old self again. He lectured from one forum to another, travelled to many countries of the world, armed with a single message – democracy must be restored in the Philippines and he is willing to pay the price.

It seemed for Ninoy Aquino, no amount of rational options could darken the lure of a lifelong ambition – the highest office. Many of his friends, prominent figures in politics, tried to dissuade him from returning to the Philippines as a death sentence awaited him in Manila. They knew he would be killed in no time.

But Ninoy Aquino understood history very well. He intimated that the Spaniards made a big mistake when they recalled and shot Rizal when they could have simply ended his life via a mere exile. In other words, Ninoy Aquino did not fear death as much as he feared obscurity. He knew the perils of his homecoming, and he was all for it.

Of the many accounts in the granary of Ninoy’s fateful homecoming, Doy Laurel’s memoirs “Neither Trumpets Nor Drums,” published in 1992, deserves a fair hearing and is quoted below:


I looked at my watch. It was 9:40 am. As we were nearing the airport, my last visit to Ninoy in Boston crossed my mind. Cory was cooking in the kitchen. Using the hot weather as alibi, Ninoy suggested that we go outside the house to see his Akita pet dog. Once outside, he confided to me that he had only two more years to live. Since his heart bypass operation, he said his days had been numbered. Instead of dying in bed or being run-over by a Boston taxicab, he told me he would rather die in his own country, meaningfully and with a big splash. And so he was willing to face all risks attending his homecoming.

Martyrdom in hindsight

It would seem that Ninoy’s ambition, or obsession, so to speak, did not reach reality. But no, reality bit us hard that it actually did. We celebrate his martyrdom today. His widow, Cory became the very first woman President. His youngest, Kris continuously awes the public with her mediocrities and notoriety. His second child, Noynoy, is our incumbent president, as if governing a country runs in genes or worst, as if governance (not even good governance) is a right transferrable to heirs.

Undoubtedly, he knew what he wanted and he knows how to get it. He died in vain and so he was never forgotten. This is not to malign the dead especially on the day the nation celebrates the death anniversary of one of its beloved heroes, but seriously, apart from his death what else can we remember about Ninoy Aquino?

From statutes, peso bills, airports, banners, T-shirts to streets, books and all, why has Ninoy acquired “the force of symbols” more than any other Filipino mythical figure like Claro M. Recto or Jose P. Laurel? Again, he knew what he wanted and he knows how to get it: “the big splash.” The big splash! –

Christopher Diaz Bonoan is a law student on leave and a former congressional staff. He is a certified bibliophile and Beatles’ maniac. He maintains an online journal/blog entitled “Discourses of a Free Mind” which advocates historical and legal education of our youth.


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