Cover Ninoy speaks before Military Commission No. 2 at Fort Bonifacio on August 27, 1973.

In honour of Ninoy Aquino’s death anniversary in 1988, the late journalist Teddy Benigno wrote about the Philippines’ greatest modern-day hero and martyr, in the hope that the country will pay tribute and remember his life, patriotism and sacrifice that helped change the course of our history

The author, the late Teodoro ‘Teddy’ Benigno, was one of the most prominent and principled jounalists in the Philippines. He wrote “Ninoy Aquino: The Heart and Soul” in 1988. He is survived by his wife Luz and son Mark.

This feature story was originally titled as A Hero Remembered, and was published in the September 2006 issue of Tatler Philippines

August 21, 1983. A day forever etched in the memory of Filipinos. The noonday sun beats down a prostrate, blood-splattered figure in safari white. The name: Benigno Aquino Jr, Ninoy for short. His age: 50. Clutched in his right hand: a broken rosary. His mission: reconcile the Filipino people and restore democracy. His assassin or assassins: still legally unknown. The government in power at the time: the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Earlier on, Mr Marcos had proclaimed martial law; then locked him up seven years and seven months in Fort Bonifacio. The name on Ninoy’s passport: Marcial Bonifacio.

Ninoy. No name in Philippine history has ever held the nation in such heroic grip, except that of Jose Rizal. There was another riveting similarity. The fusillade that brought Rizal down at the Luneta triggered the Philippine revolution against Spain. The bullet that snuffed out Ninoy’s life stirred up the bloodless EDSA revolution on February 22–25, 1986.

Each man, dying almost a century apart, brought out the best in the Filipino. Each had the same attributes: a superbly gifted mind, a bottomless passion for liberty, but most of all—courage. Courage to look the enemy in the eye, courage to brave every battlefield, courage to die for one’s convictions.

IMPRISONMENT

The greatest punishment fate could inflict on Ninoy was to lock him up in a tiny prison cell. Outside Fort Bonifacio, the whole wide world was Ninoy’s stage. For Ninoy was larger than life; and his every move, his every word, his every gesture held everybody in thrall. And he loved people.

Alone in his cramped cell, unable in seven years and seven months to see the moon and the stars, Ninoy gradually realised he was in for keeps. His close prison-mates were gradually released: Monching Mitra, Chino Roces, Soc Rodrigo, Teodoro Locsin, Max Soliven, Jose Mari Velez, Pepe Diokno, Nap Rama.

Only Pepe Diokno remained to eventually share with Ninoy the terrible Torment of Laur. But Diokno too was subsequently freed after two years in Fort Bonifacio.

And so the prison vise grew tighter and tighter. The man in the palace presumably felt that power; superior, total and unrelenting power would eventually break the man in prison. Ninoy was made to understand that all he needed to be free was to do one thing: Grab his typewriter and scribble a message to Marcos that he was ready for a deal. A deal to cooperate with, to serve as he wished under the Marcos dictatorship.

Ninoy of course refused.

And thus Laur. Up on the hills in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, an even tinier cell awaited Ninoy. Laur was psychological torture of the worst kind. Not a hand was laid on him in physical punishment. No pistol was thrust against his temple. No electrode was strapped on his nipples or testicles to make him scream for mercy. Laur was something else. Laur was complete isolation from the world. Not even Cory, or any member of family, nor Senators Lorenzo Tañada or Jovito Salonga, Ninoy’s top two lawyers, knew of Laur. For that matter, neither Ninoy nor Pepe Diokno knew they were in Laur except afterwards.

In Laur, they stripped Ninoy of his eyeglasses, his watch, his wedding ring, his belt, his comb, his shoes. Each day, he had to ask for water, toothpaste, toothbrush, permission to go to the toilet from his guards. Laur was Ninoy subsisting on soda crackers or biscuits. Laur was where Ninoy cursed the Filipino people, the leader of the country, and even God. And in his celebrated letter to Senator Soc Rodrigo, June 19, 1973, Ninoy wrote:

“What terrible crimes have I committed to deserve this fate? The magnanakaws [thieves] are living it up and I who tried to walk the narrow path of public service with integrity am now about to meet an uncertain fate? Is this justice?”

Laur was where Ninoy himself said he cried like a baby, where he was sitting in a corner on the floor telling himself: “Now I’m going to die without talking to Cory. I won’t see my children anymore.”

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Above Ninoy’s 35th birthday on Times St., Quezon City (November 27, 1967)

The terror that was Laur finally met its match on the fourteenth day. Ninoy did not know whether he was hallucinating or not. He was then squatting on the floor when he saw or thought he saw the image of the Virgin Mother on the blank wall.

And so Ninoy returned to the rosary. For nine days he said the rosary almost all day long. And he prayed as he had never prayed before: “Dear Lord, I just want to see my wife and my children for thirty minutes. After that I can die.”

On the ninth day, Cory and the five Aquino children came and the captain of the guards said: “Sir, you have thirty minutes.”

The ninth day was April 8, 1973. Fortythree days after Cory saw Ninoy last in Fort Bonifacio. Cory related to Ninoy how Senator Tañada wept publicly for the first time in his appearance before the Supreme Court. This was after Ninoy and Pepe Diokno disappeared from Fort Bonifacio. Tañada begged to know where Ninoy and Pepe were. Were they still alive? Was Ninoy already dead? If he was still alive somewhere, could Cory and the children visit him?

The April 8 rendezvous in Laur was a page torn from Gulag archipelago. Ninoy could not contain his tears. He later wrote in his diary: “I felt ashamed that Cory was the stronger one and she kept telling me you can do it.”

It was a strange and eerie spectacle. Two rolls of chicken coop stood between Ninoy, Cory and the kids. Behind Ninoy was an army photographer clicking away. Behind Cory and the kids was another army photographer also clicking away. Cory gritted her teeth and firmed up her resolve: “Hindi kami patatalo. [ We will not be defeated]” Ballsy Aquino, the eldest child, told Ninoy: “Dad, our luck will change.” So did Noynoy, so did Viel and Pinky. It was a family cheering squad, dauntless and unafraid, telling Ninoy not to lose hope; that despite all the sad things befalling the family, there was hope. Kris, then only two years old, would recall she saw her dad like an animal in a cage.

The key word was hope. And with hope, also faith and prayer. After Laur, Ninoy no longer relished political power as the end game of his life. The man in the palace would still shoot his last bolt with the forthcoming court trial of Ninoy; but by this time, the man in prison had crossed his Rubicon. Nothing terrestrial held any terror for him anymore.

Four months after Laur, the martial-law government of Ferdinand Marcos filed formal charges of subversion, murder and illegal possession of firearms against Ninoy. If Ninoy could not be broken in Laur and had to be brought back to Fort Bonifacio, then the trial and eventual sentence of death would finish him off.

The trial was what Ninoy and his legal counsel predicted it would be. A kangaroo court. A mockery of justice. A travesty of due process where witnesses were either threatened or suborned, where Ninoy was depicted as a serial communist. Ninoy was no more a communist than Ferdinand E. Marcos was. But communism was a dirty word, a swear-word.

In his opening statement before military Commission II, Ninoy announced that he would boycott the trial. He said: “My act of non-participation is therefore an act of protest against the structures of injustice that brought us here. It is also an act of faith in the ultimate victory of right over wrong, of good over evil. In all humility, I say it is a rare privilege to share with the Motherland her bondage, her anguish, her every pain and suffering.”

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Above Physical check-up, prior to heart by-pass operation

And as the dour, barrel-chested General Jose Syjuco and his commission members glowered at the defendant, Ninoy said: “Sirs, I know you to be honourable men. But the one undesirable fact is that you are subordinates of the president. You may decide to preserve my life, but he can choose to send me to death. Some people suggest that I beg for mercy. But this I cannot in conscience do. I would rather die on my feet in honour, than live on bended knees in shame.”

It was during the trial that Ninoy staged a hunger strike. It was Ninoy’s way of protesting the unfairness of it all. Ninoy was told that hunger strikes could only attract attention if the press was free; if there was no dictatorship; if the weakening throb of his heart and the ravages wrought on his once robust body could be communicated to the world outside. Mahatma Gandhi’s fast succeeded in arousing India and the world. The world press was right there at his bedside. And the press was a kettledrum which Gandhi pounded with magnificent effect.

And to Cory, his mother and his family, he wrote on April 14, 1975: “There comes a time in a man’s life when he must prefer a meaningful death to a meaningless life. Let Mr Marcos realise there are still Filipinos who are prepared to suffer and lay down their lives for a cause bigger than their own physical survival.”

During Ninoy’s hunger strike, Cory filled the role of Pieta. She had to be fearless as Ninoy was fearless, persevering as Ninoy was persevering, resolute as Ninoy was resolute. No tears rolled from her eyes as she nursed Ninoy day after day until his weight fell from 160 to 123 pounds.

On the 30th day, Jaime Cardinal Sin came to administer the final rites. On the 32nd day, the military rushed an unconscious Ninoy to the Veteran’s Memorial Hospital. At the hospital, they force-fed him with dextrose as his blood pressure dangerously dipped to 60-40. On the 40th day, realising that he had been force-fed, Ninoy broke his fast.

To renew the fast would have been very dangerous. Ninoy by then had received information that Malacañang would stop his fast at the point when he was already a vegetable—to keep him alive.

After Laur, after the hunger strike, death and Ninoy had looked each other squarely in the face. Neither blinked. On the contrary, they parted like comrades-in-arms and agreed to another rendezvous—this time for always.

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THE DEATH SENTENCE

On November 25, 1977, the military commission sentenced Ninoy to death by military-musketry. Marcos must have finally decided it was the most convenient way to settle the simmering years-long duel with Ninoy.

Why not? By this time, who cared for Ninoy anyway? Many of his friends and followers had deserted him. At the rare parties to which the Aquinos were still invited, Cory and her in-laws found themselves alone at the table.

The men and the women who prior to martial law had high praises for Ninoy had long joined the queue to Malacañang. There the Philippine version of Camelot held court. There, favours were bestowed, money and gifts distributed, power and prestige ladled out to the chosen.

Crestfallen, Cory and the rest of the Aquinos visited Ninoy at Fort Bonifacio after the death verdict. To their surprise, Ninoy was in high spirits, smiling his cherubic smile. He assured them that Marcos would not make a martyr out of him, not yet. If he was going to die at the hands of his enemies, Ninoy said, it would be done in another way.

True enough, Marcos suspended the execution, and called for a reinvestigation of the case. In the Philippines, there was little reaction. But abroad, particularly in the US and the West, the outrage against Ninoy’s death sentence poured out like angry lava.

Ninoy had become an excruciating dilemma for the dictatorship. Alive, Ninoy was still a problem. Dead, Ninoy would also pose a problem. All right then, let Ninoy rot in Fort Bonifacio. The stay of Ninoy’s execution by firing squad was to be perceived as an act of presidential magnanimity. What mattered was power and the Marcoses were then firmly and solidly in power. Across two oceans, the US Government generously gave its blessing to the Marcos dictatorship. Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan successively backed him up.

So Ninoy again lapsed into oblivion.

But not long afterwards, fate quickened. The political gods had something in store for the Philippines. The 1978 Batasang Pambansa election. Against an earlier decision of the political Pambansa elections. Against an earlier decision of the political opposition to boycott, Ninoy decided to participate. Thus was born Laban (Fight), a ragtag group of 21 opposition candidates, with nothing but patriotism in their mind, audacity in their hearts and fire in their bellies. Thus was born the Laban sign of extended forefinger and thumb. It looked like a ludicrous, futile effort, with Ninoy campaigning from jail. In the beginning, very few attended Laban rallies. The people were still scared stiff.

But something happened. Marcos instructed then-Defence Minister Juan Ponce Enrile to smite Ninoy on nationwide television as a CIA agent. The charge was shocking, considering that Ninoy had earlier been convicted as a communist subversive. Ninoy asked for equal opportunity for rebuttal, also on TV. Surprisingly, Marcos granted the request.

Ninoy on TV was a revelation. Traffic on almost all of Metro Manila came to a dead stop as the citizenry stormed their TV sets to watch Ninoy. The intellect was there—bright, nimble, luminous. The wit was there—subtle, rollicking and pungent. And most of all, the heart was there. As a result, the Laban rallies started to pick up like swollen water breaking the dikes, the ever bulging Laban crowds roared into the April 6 noise barrage. It was one huge electrifying din of church bells ringing, kettle pounding, cars honking, pans tossing and empty gasoline cans rattling. Tens of thousands roistered all over the city shouting the name of Ninoy, flashing the Laban sign.

The jubilation was short-lived. On Election Day, April 7, Marcos pulled out all the stops. The communists, he said, orchestrated the noise barrage. The nation had to be saved. And so it was Marcos fashion. Not one Laban candidate made it in the counting despite surveys that showed Ninoy as a topnotcher.

Marcos pulled out the most potent weapon from his political arsenal—fear. Fear and the communist bogey. Fear of arrest. Fear of harassment, intimidation, persecution. Laban campaign manager Lorenzo Tañada led a “death of democracy” march from Quezon City to the Manila Cathedral April 9, 1978. The march expected to pull in thousands of supporters along the way. This time nobody dared to join the marchers, who numbered about 500. Fear gripped Manila anew. When Tañada and the marchers were arrested along España and shunted into buses, hardly anybody bothered to look their way. The man in the palace had won his bet. Whoever said the Philippines was a nation of cowards must have been right.

So Ninoy was forgotten again. But not before he demonstrated that Filipinos could be roused, that their hearts could be touched if only for an instant.

There was something else about Ninoy. Somewhere in his psyche, he had a soft spot for Ferdinand Marcos. Ninoy believed that whatever Marcos had done to him and his family, Marcos still had a sense of history; that Marcos cared for whatever history and posterity would say about him; that Marcos could be talked to; that presumably Marcos could link hands with him and together, they could restore democracy.

And so, when the dictator allowed Ninoy out on a furlough October 11, 1979, for his and Cory’s 25th wedding anniversary, Ninoy developed his “rendezvous with history” formula. As visitors once again streamed into his Quezon City residence, Ninoy openly advocated the formation of the council of elders. The council would overhang the Marcos government as a supreme advisory body. A coalition government including the opposition would follow. National elections would be held. If he so desired, Marcos could then bow out in a blaze of glory; with a niche in history unmatched by any other Filipino living or dead.

So Ninoy waited for Marcos’ call. They were to rendezvous at a neutral site, two political giants joining hands, Ninoy lending his spiritual hand so Marcos could dismount the tiger of martial rule; Marcos lending his power-laden hand so the dictatorship could be dismantled and democracy restored.

Besides, Ninoy at the time revealed that Marcos was stricken with lupus erythematosus. Ergo, failing health and obsession with a favourable verdict from history would compel Marcos to reach out for the only man who had the moral stature to help him—Ninoy. The historic rendezvous never materialised. It was an impossible dream.

Tatler Asia
Above Ninoy in Boston (1981)

Ninoy returned to Fort Bonifacio. An important man came to call—General Fabian Ver. Ver told Ninoy he was wrong about the president having lupus. Ver said the president was as strong as ever. Ver gently told Ninoy that Marcos was not buying his historic rendezvous idea.

And so the cobwebs of oblivion gathered anew around Ninoy’s Fort Bonifacio cell. There were talks, even negotiations about a possible exile to the US but they petered out. Some close advisers of Marcos feared that Ninoy in America would be a political bullet on the loose; a mischief maker who would use the CIA to stage a “bay of pigs” assault on the Philippines.

That was the tragedy of the Marcos power philosophy. The man in the palace could never believe that Ninoy had changed, that Ninoy was sincere, that Ninoy had been hit by God, that Ninoy really wanted to help him. The tragedy of Ninoy’s spiritual philosophy was his insistence that Christ existed in every man; that given a chance, he, Ninoy, could bring out the son of Nazarene in Ferdinand Marcos. The truth was that for Marcos, power was the ultimate fix, power at the very top. Secretly, he may have admired Ninoy. For Marcos respected men of courage, of vision of tenacity. Napoleon was an idol of Marcos and Marcos revelled in Napoleon’s famous quote: “A great man comes from the encounter between a great mind and a great opportunity.”

On March 19, 1980, while jogging outside his cell, Ninoy had a heart attack. The “languish in jail” scenario fell like Humpty Dumpty off the Malacanang shelf. On May 5, 1980, Cory took Ninoy to the Heart Centre of Imelda Marcos. On May 6, Ninoy suffered another attack. The doctors were one in their diagnosis: Ninoy needed a heart bypass. Ninoy and Cory insisted the bypass be performed at the Baylor Hospital in Dallas, Texas. The only surgeon who could do a bypass at the Heart Centre with sufficient skill was Dr Avelino Aventura. But the good doctor realised the grave political implications if he did the bypass. If Ninoy should die, the world could explode in his face; and the government would be hard put to explain Ninoy’s death. So Dr Aventura declined.

Finally, at Marcos’ behest, Imelda Marcos grandly swept into view in a beautiful pink terno. She visited Ninoy at the Heart Centre. In the twinkling of an eye, she arranged for the immediate departure of Ninoy and Cory for Dallas, Texas. The only proviso was that Ninoy could not attack Marcos and his martial-law government while he was abroad. A profoundly grateful Ninoy agreed. On May 8, 1980, Ninoy, Cory and three Aquino children enplaned for the US. After a three-and-a-half-hour triple heart bypass, Ninoy was a new man. Dr Rolando Solis, one of the heart specialists in attendance at Baylor, would later marvel at Ninoy’s heart. During a bypass, it is necessary to pour ice water on the heart to stop it from beating while the heart was being attached to a heart lung machine. Despite the first deluge of ice water, Ninoy’s heart continued to beat. Another deluge was necessary before it would stop.

The three years in Boston were the best three years the Aquinos ever experienced as a family. Ninoy did his level best to make up for the seven years and seven months that he was in Fort Bonifacio. He romped with the kids, queued for two hours so he could escort Kris to a movie. Two years as a fellow in Harvard University’s Centre for International Affairs and one year as a fellow in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did more wonders for Ninoy’s already prodigious mind.

Ninoy also related to journalists in Boston how Marcos envied him his erudition. “I envy you,” Ninoy quoted Marcos as saying “because you have all the time in the world. At your fingertips, you have the greatest symphonies available to you, the greatest books, which are not available to me because all my working hours are spent with people. Here you are with the greatest luxury or the greatest minds in the world.”

Three meetings with Imelda Marcos in New York failed to alter Ninoy’s course. Imelda offered him prestige, money, if only he would recant. Even some State Department officials at the time felt that Ninoy’s return to Manila would just rock the boat of US-Philippine relations. Marcos was their ally and Ninoy was an interloper. Ninoy told the Agence France-Presse in an interview: “I don’t think the Americans trust me. They’re not sure about me, what I would do, what would be my actuation if ever I should become president. And so they cannot be sure I am their boy.”

Finally, it became clear that Ninoy was coming home. The earlier muffled roll of distant drums that he was returning now hit Malacañang like a thunderclap. Ninoy had to be stopped at all costs. The orders were out. All international airlines were warned against airlifting Ninoy to Manila—or else. Imelda warned against possible assassination. So did Defence Minister Juan Ponce Enrile. In an urgent cable, he counselled Ninoy to come home only when the danger had passed. Cory and the children bowed to Ninoy’s decision. But the other members of the huge Aquino clan, particularly his mother Doña Aurora, were aghast and against.

By this time, the spiritual strength of Ninoy had reached the mountaintop. The spectral voices of danger, assassination and perdition bounced off the man who surveyed the valley below. This time, he and Marcos would go to the edge of the cliff—and there the future of the Philippines would be decided.

THE MAKING OF A HERO

The reasons for Ninoy’s return were simplicity itself. After 20 years of Marcos, the Philippines had dug itself a huge foreign debt. The economy was in rags. Ninoy said that whoever would succeed Marcos needed 10 years to enable the Philippines to recover from the economic holocaust.

But even more forbidding was the communist insurgency. Ninoy dreaded the day that the flags of Marxism-Leninism, the hammer and the sickle, would ever fly over the country. Wherever the communists were in power, he said, the traffic of refugees was always from East to West. There was never any such traffic from West to East. Ninoy saw the NPA just down the road ready to blow up the Philippines and bring in civil war. While there was still time, the communists had to be stopped.

Ninoy also surmised that the health of Marcos was about to take a tailspin; that before long, he would no longer be his own man; that the generals would take over and bump off Imelda. So Ninoy had to return to be in on the ground floor; to help defuse the political time bomb; to peddle hope, for hope had gone and the smell of drift and decay was everywhere. Ninoy also had to return for that one-hour one-on-one with Marcos. For that one hour, he said, “I am laying my life on the line.” It would be the final encounter between the two, one armed with the sceptre of Christ, the other with the sword of Mars.

To the many who argued that Filipinos were not worth saving because precious few had the courage to fight the dictatorship, Ninoy replied, “I have weighed carefully the virtues and faults of the Filipino and I have come to the conclusion that he is worth dying for because he is the nation’s greatest untapped resource.” To his younger sisters Lupita and Tessie who told him that even their close friends suffered instant diarrhoea at the mere mention of Ninoy’s name, he replied: “Even if only 10 Filipinos would rise and join me, my return would be worth it.”

But there was another element to Ninoy’s decision to return. He correctly diagnosed that in any inventory of traits Filipinos admire most, courage, raw, sheer, unvarnished courage, would go up the flagpole more than any other. He was right. In a prereturn interview three weeks before he died, Ninoy said: “Filipinos respect and admire courage best of all. Well, I’m going home to prove to Marcos that I am not afraid of him. And I wasn’t to prove to our countrymen that I am going to stand my ground even at the risk of my life.”

A favourite brother-in-law of Ninoy, Ricardo (Baby) Lopa, had the shivers when Ninoy told him in Boston: “You know, if I should be killed on my return to the Philippines, that would be something. Only twice in contemporary history has this golden opportunity befallen two Asians, Jose Rizal and Mahatma Gandhi. If fate wills it, I shall be the third.”

And to Jonathan Fine, US human rights advocate, Ninoy said before leaving Boston:

Very few people in this world are given the opportunity to die for their country. Don’t you ever forget that. So don’t feel sorry for me, because this is the greatest opportunity ever given to me by God.

And so Ninoy realised his moment of truth had come. Since he was denied his passport by Imelda, he used another one with the striking appellation: Marcial Bonifacio. It was a play of names to denote martial law and Fort Bonifacio. Ninoy’s return was a countdown that the Philippine Government easily spotted and plotted with hour-to-hour precision. It’s possible that Ninoy knew that Marcos knew his every movement since he left Boston August 13, 1983.

The August sunlight was streaming down Manila when Ninoy’s China Airlines plane landed at the MIA before noon. As he descended with burly military escorts, 25 shots rang out. Only one of them, the first it seemed, killed Ninoy.

The killing was awesome. It was also obscene. It did not square with the culture of the Filipino. It was like a hand crawling out of a slimy rock. It had an animal scream to it, a primal scream of somebody gone completely mad. It was un-Christian. And because it was un-Christian, it roused a Christian nation first to shock, then to shame, then to quiet indignation, then to street outrage.

The killing opened a huge wound across the nation’s conscience. A fitful Marcos, looking like a Dorian Gray portrait grown old and waxen on TV, disowned the assassination. Predictably, he said the communists did it.

They had a score to settle with Ninoy, and they settled it. Marcos’ words fell like yellow rain on an unbelieving population. Ironically, Ninoy got more than he bargained for. Not just the Philippines but the whole world sat bolt upright and took notice of his unbelievable heroism. What happened on that airport tarmac that high noon fitted perfectly into a favourite quotation of Ninoy’s from a Chinese sage:

“There is a sublime thieving in all giving. A man gives us all and we are his forever.”