21 August 2008

25th Death Anniversary of Ninoy Aquino

25 years ago today, a Sunday, just after his plane landed at Manila International Airport, some soldiers escorted Benigno S. Aquino Jr, known to everyone as 'Ninoy', off the plane through a special exit. A minute or so later he was dead on the tarmac, allegedly shot by Rolly Galman, a known 'hit-man', who himself was shot by soldiers. The black joke that went around at the time was that Ninoy found Rolly waiting for him outside St Peter's office. In other words, nobody believed that Galman had killed Ninoy.

The official name of the military here is the Armed forces of the Philippines (AFP). In effect at that time it was the ARM or 'Armed Forces of Marcos'. But I am still inclined to believe that Ferdinand Marcos, still dictator at the time but quite ill, had nothing to do with the assassination. But assassination it was by people afraid that Aquino might succeed Marcos.

I happened to be in Manila the day of Ninoy Aquino's funeral. I think it was the biggest gathering ever of people in the Philippines until then, all along the route. It was my first time to experience applause as a coffin went by. But I felt it was totally appropriate. It was an expression of prayer for the repose of Ninoy's soul, of gratitude for his sacrificing his life - he certainly knew he would be in danger if he came home from the USA - and of defiance for the Marcos regime, of which the murder of Ninoy was the beginning of the end.

One of the worst features of the Marcos dictatorship - he was a legitimate president until his second term ran out in 1973, the year after he declared Martial Law - was the censorship of the media. That was the time of 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland and people here often asked me about the situation there. The fact is that every single fatal incident in Northern Ireland was reported in the Philippine newspapers, not as big news but reported, nevertheless. However, most of the far greater violence in the Philippines itself was never reported in the local media. Our main source of reliable news was Radio Australia. Because there were so many parishes at the time in areas of conflict run by Columbans, we knew that its reports were accurate. The BBC World Service was also another reliable source of major news. During the fall of Marcos in February 1976 I followed the events through the World Service and through a local station in Cebu, where I was based at the time.

The censorship was still in force at the time of Ninoy's burial. The papers showed only close-ups of the funeral crowds, so that the huge numbers couldn't be seen. The day after the funeral one paper had a banner headline: MAN KILLED BY LIGHTNING AT LUNETA. This wasn't untrue. The Luneta is the park in the centre of Manila. The poor man in question was watching the funeral procession from the branch of a tree, rather like Zacchaeus, when he was struck by lightning.

Manila International Airport is now named 'Ninoy Aquino International Airport' or 'NAIA', pronounced 'NIGHa', for short.

Not long before he died, Ninoy Aquino said, 'The Filipino is worth dying for'. All the evidence is that during years of imprisonment, when he was sentenced to death, and during exile in the USA, Ninoy's Catholic faith was deepened. It is certainly the driving force in the life of his widow Corazon, known to everyone as 'Cory', who defeated Marcos in the 1986 election and who is now struggling with cancer. Please remember her in your prayers.

May Ninoy Aquino rest in peace.

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