The Explainer: Ninoy from politician to national hero

That was a scene from “A dangerous life,” where

The three great martyrs of our modern nationhood are Jose Rizal, Jose Abad Santos, and Benigno Aquino, Jr. All three faced death with serenity; all three could be said, to have welcomed it. Tonight, how one of them, Ninoy, made the transformation from politician, to national hero.

I’m Manolo Quezon. The Explainer.


I. Means and motive


In the days leading up to August 21, 1983, a pop song from the 70s got a new lease on life. That song, was this:

I’m comin’ home, I’ve done my time.  Now I’ve got to know what is and isn’t mine.

If you received my letter tellin’ you I’d soon be free

Then you’ll know just what to do if you still want me. If you still want me



Tie a yellow ribbon ’round the old oak tree

It’s been three long years.  Do you still want me?

If I don’t see a ribbon round the old oak tree

I’ll stay on the bus, forget about us, put the blame on me.

If I don’t see a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree.


This song telegraphed to the small, anxious band of people who opposed the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, that one of their leading lights was coming home. And what he set out to achieve by going back to Manila from Boston.

Ninoy Aquino had been warned of the risk involved in becoming a balikbayan. Imelda Marcos had warned him there were people loyal to them whom they could not control and who might kill him. Even Aquino’s friends had misgivings.

Tonight we have as a special guest, the son of Teodoro M. Locsin, Sr., a fellow victim of martial law and one of Ninoy’s friends. I’d like to ask Rep. Teodoro Locsin, Jr. to join us, and read from his father’s account of his last conversation with Ninoy.

The account begins with Aquino telling Locsin he’d decided to go home. Locsin asked if he’d thought of what might happen to him.

We discussed the possibilities: arrest on arrival, followed by imprisonment again or house arrest or execution. Perhaps, freedom — who knows? I asked him if he seriously believed that he would be set free — to campaign in the coming [1984] elections against the regime, or as one of the Opposition candidates?

I reminded him of his conviction by the military court for murder which bears the death penalty.


And this was Ninoy’s reply:

“I don’t think they’ll shoot me. As for that conviction—if I were guilty, would I be going home? My return would be the best proof of my innocence. How could they shoot me then?”

Locsin then asked, what did Ninoy hope to do, upon his return? This is what Aquino told Locsin:

“I’ll go to Marcos, if he’ll see me. I’ll appeal to his sense of history, of his place in it. He would not be publishing all those books of his if he did not care for the judgment of history, if he did not want to look good in it. And that would be possible, I’ll tell him, only if there was an orderly restoration of democracy and freedom for our people. Otherwise, there would be only revolution and terrible suffering. I give the moderate opposition five years to restore democracy, after that there will be only the Communists as an alternative to Marcos or his successor. I’ll offer my services to him, but my price is freedom for our people.”


At this point, Locsin had to ask, even if Marcos decided to see Ninoy, would he even listen to him? Ninoy said:

“I can only try. If he is as sick as they say he is, then, more than ever, I must talk to him. If he dies suddenly, there will be a brutal struggle for power. Orderly succession is possibly only under a democratic regime. He must set up a system to make such succession possible before he goes. I must talk to him if I can. Who know, he may listen. He will know he is talking to a man who does not care for life and its comforts and must be telling him the disinterested truth. On the 38th day of my hunger strike, I though I was as good as dead. A dead man. I have regarded the years that followed as a second life that I should be able to give up. I have already lived and died and I am ready to go. I cannot spend that extra life here in American just living well, while our people are suffering. I must go home.”


Ninoy added he was betting that there was good in Marcos, perhaps deep inside him. He was willing to risk his liberty on this bet. Locsin said, you can lose more than your liberty. Ninoy responded by saying:

“I have died, I told you. This is a second life I can give up. Besides, if they shoot me, they’ll make me a hero. What would Rizal have been if the Spaniards had not brought him back and shot him? Just another exile like me to the end of his life. To the end of my life. But if they make that mistake…”


Locsin tartly replied, he’d rather have a live friend than a dead hero. He went on to ask, what, specifically, would Aquino propose?

“I’ll propose a caretaker government to be set up composed of independent and respected men so that free and honest elections could be held and democracy finally restored.”


Locsin wondered if Marcos would even consider the idea –it meant the unthinkable, letting go of power. Ninoy knew this:

“Yes. First, he must step down. Resign. He has had so many years of power! Now, he can resign. He can retire from public office to the thanks of a grateful people that will forget what it had suffered in its joy at being free again. We are a forgiving people. What a graceful exit that would be from power. He’ll go with honor.”

But we know what happened on August 21, 1983. As he’d expected, the moment the plane landed, soldiers appeared to whisk Ninoy away. A world just beginning to enter the era of 24 hour global media coverage, saw, for a few fleeting seconds, the expression of grim determination of a martyr. 

Three years after the assassination, Teodoro M. Locsin, Sr., in an editorial for the Philippines Free Press, had to point out that what happened wasn’t inevitable.


This is part of that editorial:

But just think what would have happened to Ninoy – if he had been taken safely from the plane and escorted to a waiting limousine and brought to Malacanang. There Marcos and Imelda would be waiting to welcome him! Ninoy would have gone unsuspectingly and fallen into the trap. He would be alive today but politically dead. There would have been no millions accompanying his body for kilometers and kilometers to its grave, in outrage and grief at what they had done to him. No mass demonstrations against the dictatorship. No fearless confrontation of its clubs, guns and gas. No ceaseless cry for justice for Ninoy – and all the other victims of the regime. No People Power that drove the Two into headlong flight with their awful family and retainers and no such freedom as the Filipino people now enjoy.

Ninoy would be still alive but politically dead. And dead, politically and economically, would be the Filipino people with the exception of Marcos and his KBL Gang. (They would still be looting and killing together.)

But as the editorial concluded, they killed Ninoy.


When we return, the duel that made Ninoy Aquino a hero and unmade Ferdinand Marcos’ dreams of greatness.


II. The duel


That was perhaps the most famous scene from “A dangerous life,” where President Marcos, as he prepares to flee Malacanang, reverently kisses the presidential desk, a symbolic farewell to his absolute power.

Today, with Ninoy officially proclaimed a hero, and Edsa I also enshrined as a great victory for democracy, we tend to forget how easily Filipinos abandoned their democratic experiment when Marcos proclaimed martial law.

Again, writing around the time of Edsa I, Teodoro M . Locsin published a meditation on one of Ninoy’s most famous statements. “The Filipino is worth dying for,” Ninoy said. Locsin had to ask, “is he?”


Let’s ask the son to read the father’s thoughtful words:

When Ninoy Aquino was arrested, together with thousands whose only crime was love of truth, justice and liberty, no vioce of protest was heard; there were no demonstrations by those still “free”. Traffic flowed smoothly. Business went on as usual. The Church went on in its non-militant way, preaching submission, by its silence, to the brutal rule. Marcos’s Iglesia was all for it, of course. Thus was upheld the judgment of the Communist Prophet: “Religion is the opium of the people.” Politicians went on their, to use Shakespeare’s term, scurvy way. But what else could be expected of them? But what was heart-breaking was the general indifference to the death of liberty. The Filipino people did not give a damn.

Locsin went on to point out:

There was, of course, no lack of apologia for venality and cowardice. “A thousand reasons…but not a single excuse!” Who really believed that the bombings that preceded the declaration of martial law were done by the Communists, as Marcos claimed? If not the Father of Lies, he was a Liar Born, everybody knew. As for the fake assassination attempt on his secretary of defense, Juan Ponce Enrile, everybody knew it was a fake—as Enrile has since confessed. But nobody cared.


What was worse was, what people seemed to give give a damn about, were those who remained stubbornly opposed to “moving on”:

The unhappy few who found their cries against the death of liberty met with indifference if not scorn. Scorn for not being practical, for continuing to dream of freedom. Or boredom—for being so right but ineffectual. Even social hostility, for reminding the submissive or collaborator of virtue. What it means to be human, not a dog, glad for evry scrap that fell from the table of the dictator and his family and partners in robbery and murder. Ninoy and Cory would afterward speak of how those they thought their friends pretended they did not know them!


Thus early on, was the dark twin of People Power –popular indifference, even hostility, to principled opposition- exposed.

You always hear it said, the Filipino loves the underdog. I beg to differ. The Filipino worships the winner –slavishly, until the winner starts losing his edge.

Only then do we turn to those we once despised, the underdogs, and turn them in turn, into winners.

So long as Marcos seemed in control, the national bootlicking wouldn’t stop. He built an arena where the bootlicking could be televised: the Batasan Pambansa. That spirit lives there still.

Most recently that bootlicking spirit was expressed, when one of Marcos’s successors declaimed, “A president is as strong as she wants to be.” Marcos had put it in cruder terms: “I do not intend to die,” he’d thundered.

But when Marcos proved unable to crush a target he’d singled out, the popular tide begin to turn.

The historian John Lukasz once published a book titled “The Duel,” portraying the historic events of May, 1940, as a duel of wills between Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. Ahead of Lukasz, Locsin had observed,

Absolute power brings absolute stupidity. Such is the lesson of all dictatorships.

And that is the moral of Lukasz’s book. It’s also the moral of the confrontation –the duel- between Marcos and Aquino.

Ninoy had been inspired to go into politics to redeem the family name. His father, Benigno S. Aquino Sr., had been one of the pillars of prewar politics; but his prominence during the Japanese Occupation –that’s him in between Jose P. Laurel and Jose B. Laurel, Jr. under American custody after the war- had earned Aquino, Sr. the hatred of the people. Ninoy vowed to restore the luster of the Aquino name.

By 1972, Ninoy had earned the ire of Marcos, and was widely discussed as a potential successor in the upcoming 1973 elections. A leading light of the opposition, a Free Press editorial cartoon portrayed him asSuper Ninoy.

In 1971, our guest tonight, interviewed Aquino. Mr. Locsin, could I ask you to read what Ninoy told you, a week before the Plaza Miranda bombing?


“Christ’s sake, this guy is really determined to send me to jail,” he said.

He leaned back in the seat. The ordeal there was over. He looked contented. Now there was no more having to choose. He had flung the President’s threat back in the man’s complacent face and he was happy with his decision. All that remained was for the authorities to pick him up.

“So what? So one or two years in a stockade. At least I’ll died with my boots on.”

Had he plans of escaping into the hills? I asked.

“Ha, oblige him? Nah, I’ll stick it out here.”

If they came for him, what would he do?

“Aba, I’ll go. Christ’s sake! And tell your father not to forget the pocketbooks when he’s brought in, too. I’ll bring in the Philippine Reports and resume my law studies in jail and when I come out, take the bar. This is the only chance I’ll have.”

At this we started laughing.

“ ‘I erred on the side of generosity,’ did you hear that? Boy oh boy, what a shit of bluffer. He’s thrown everything at me, but I’m numb. I told you that even before all this, at the Inter-continental. I’m really numb.”


And Ninoy then issued a challenge to his nemesis:

“If Mr. Marcos is fielding his wife in ’73 just to stop Ninoy Aquino, I’m telling him now, I’m not running. Keep your wife home, Mr. Marcos, do not tire her out with a gruelling campaign. I would like to spare her the hardship. I will not run in 1973, so long as Imelda’s doesn’t run either. Let Imelda and I make a blood compact, vowing not to run in 1973 as Presidential candidates.”


But Marcos had other plans.

Aquino was the first one arrested early in the morning on September 23, 1972.

Early in 1973, together with a fellow senator, Jose Diokno  he was taken by a helicopter to Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija. They were placed in solitary confinement.

I’d like to ask Rep. Locsin to read Ninoy’s account of what that confinement was like.

Ninoy said,

“When my blindfold was removed, I found myself inside a newly painted room, roughly four by five meters. The windows were barred and covered with plywood panels from the outside. A space of six inches had been left between the panels and the window frame to allow a slight ventilation. A bright daylight neon tube on the ceiling was on day and night. There was no electric switch and the door had no knob, only locks on the outside. Except from an iron bed without a mattress, the room was completely bare. No chairs, no table, nothing.”


This is what they did to him:

“I was stripped naked. My wedding ring, watch, eyeglass, shoes, clothes were all taken away. Later, a guard in civilian clothes brought a bed pan and told me I would be allowed to go to the bathroom once a day in the morning, to shower, brush my teeth and wash my clothes. In case of emergency, I must call a guard. I was issued two jockey briefs and two T-shirts which I alternated every other day. The guard held on to my toothbrush and toothpaste and I had to ask for them in the morning. Apparently the intention was to make me really feel helpless and dependent on everything on the guards. . . Diokno, who was brought in with me and locked up in an adjoining cell, later told me that he had gone through the same thing.”


They wouldn’t even let him see his cell clearly:

“They took my eyeglasses away and I suffered terrible headaches. For the first three or four days, I expected my guards were the ‘Monkeys’ who were licensed to kill. Suspecting they put drugs in my meager ration, I refused to touch it. I subsisted on six crackers and water for the rest of my stay. I became so depressed and despondent. I was haunted by the thought of my family. . .”


After thirty days, Aquino and Diokno were taken to Fort Bonifacio.

In Fort Bonifacio, where the beautiful people like Borgy Manotoc make merry at clubs and beat each other up today, Ninoy was subjected to a trial for subversion and murder. Not before a civilian court, but a military one. Marcos had charged Aquino, after the Plaza Miranda bombings, with conspiring with the Communists. It was payback time. Under a democracy, the charges didn’t stick. Under the New Society, they would.

 In 1975, Ninoy went on a hunger strike. As Locsin, Sr. explained it,

Every year in prison is a year thrown away out of the limited span of man’s life; it is the death penalty by installment: life without freedom is in life, Ninoy decided to fast and, if not given his freedom, die. His death would be on Marcos’s head. A terminal cry for justice, it would be an ultimate act of life.


38 days into his fast, his mother tried to reason with him: are you trying to outdo Christ, she asked? But he wouldn’t relent. He only gave up his fast when he was told, if you end up a vegetable the government will force-feed you and you will be brain dead and still a captive.

Before that hunger strike, Ninoy had been just another out of luck and out of power politician. After that, though he remained a politician, he had begun to transform into something else. The underdog was now moral top dog. Marcos had begun his inexorable slide to being an SOB.


In the homecoming statement Ninoy never got to deliver, he said,

“According to Gandhi, the willing sacrifice of the innocent is the most powerful answer to insolent tyranny that has yet been conceived by God and man.”

A prisoner, an exile, and then a martyr, he’d accomplished in 1983, what seemed impossible a decade before:

“When we start to feel the pain of those who have been victimized by tyranny, it’s only then we can liberate ourselves… The feeling right now is ‘Fred was tortured, thank God it’s Fred, not me.’ That’s the tragic part. Society is atomized. Until the Filipino nation can feel the loss of one life as if it was their own, we’ll never liberate ourselves.”

When we return, we’ll ask Mr. Locsin what remains of that heroic sacrifice. Was –is- the Filipino worth dying for?


My view


Bravery, on August 21, was waiting for a friend to come home. Then bravery became taking the bold step to do a very Filipino thing –condole with the bereaved. Thus began the flexing of a citizenry’s political and moral muscles, atrophied by a decade of accepting martial law.

August 21 was that fork in the road, when a country realized one path, authoritarianism, could only lead to violent revolution. The other path, back to democracy, would be thorny but, ultimately, the only decent choice.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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