Ninoy Aquino's Assassination
Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino was, like his life-long rival Ferdinand Marcos, a consummate politician, Philippine-style. Born in 1932, he interrupted his college studies to pursue a journalistic career, first in wartime Korea and then in Vietnam, Malaya, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Like Marcos, a skilled manager of his own public image, he bolstered his popularity by claiming credit for negotiating the May 1954 surrender of Huk leader Luis Taruc. The Aquino family was to Tarlac Province in Central Luzon what the Marcos family was to Ilocos Norte and the Romualdez family was to Leyte: a political dynasty. Aquino became the governor of Tarlac Province in 1963, and a member of the Senate in 1967. His marriage to Corazon Cojuangco, a member of one of the country's richest and most prominent Chinese mestizo families, was, like Marcos's marriage to Imelda Romualdez, a great help to his political career. If martial law had not been declared in September 1972, Aquino would probably have defeated Marcos or a hand-picked successor in the upcoming presidential election. Instead, he was one of the first to be jailed when martial law was imposed.
Aquino's years in jail--physical hardship, the fear of imminent death at the hands of his jailers, and the opportunity to read and meditate--seemed to have transformed the fast-talking political operator into a deeper and more committed leader of the democratic opposition. Although he was found guilty of subversion and sentenced to death by a military court in November 1977, Aquino, still in prison, led the LABAN (Lakas Ng Bayan--Strength of the Nation) party in its campaign to win seats in the 1978 legislative election and even debated Marcos's associate, Enrile, on television. The vote was for seats in the legislature called the National Assembly, initiated in 1978, which was, particularly in its first three years essentially a rubber-stamp body designed to pass Marcos's policies into law with the appearance of correct legal form. (The LABAN was unsuccessful, but it gained 40 percent of the vote in Metro Manila.)
Allowed to go to the United States for medical treatment in 1980, Benigno Aquino, accompanied by his wife, became a major leader of the opposition in exile. In 1983 Aquino was fully aware of the dangers of returning to the Philippines. Imelda Marcos had pointedly advised him that his return would be risky, claiming that communists or even some of Marcos's allies would try to kill him. The deterioration of the economic and political situation and Marcos's own worsening health, however, persuaded Aquino that the only way his country could be spared civil war was either by persuading the president to relinquish power voluntarily or by building a responsible, united opposition. In his view, the worst possible outcome was a post-Marcos regime led by Imelda and backed by the military under Ver.
Aquino was shot in the head and killed as he was escorted off an airplane at Manila International Airport by soldiers of the Aviation Security Command on August 21, 1983. The government's claim that he was the victim of a lone communist gunman, Rolando Galman (who was conveniently killed by Aviation Security Command troops after the alleged act), was unconvincing. A commission appointed by Marcos and headed by jurist Corazon Agrava concluded in their findings announced in late October 1984, that the assassination was the result of a military conspiracy. Marcos's credibility, both domestically and overseas, was mortally wounded when the Sandiganbayan, a high court charged with prosecuting government officials for crimes, ignored the Agrava findings, upheld the government's story, and acquitted Ver and twenty-four other military officers and one civilian in December 1985.
Although ultimate responsibility for the act still had not been clearly determined in the early 1990s, on September 28, 1990, a special court convicted General Luther Custodio and fifteen other officers and enlisted members of the Aviation Security Command of murdering Aquino and Galman. Most observers believed, however, that Imelda Marcos and Fabian Ver wanted Aquino assassinated. Imelda's remarks, both before and after the assassination, and the fact that Ver had become her close confidant, cast suspicion on them.
For the Marcoses, Aquino became a more formidable opponent dead than alive. His funeral drew millions of mourners in the largest demonstration in Philippine history. Aquino became a martyr who focused popular indignation against a corrupt regime. The inevitable outcome--Marcos's overthrow--could be delayed but not prevented.
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