Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ninoy Aquino's Death Anniversary: In Requiem

What is the definition of a “great man?” For me, it is someone who willingly puts aside their personal safety and interests for a cause that is far greater than themselves. In some cases, they are willing to die for their cause. Several prominent names come immediately to mind: Jesus, Gandhi, Socrates, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, José Rizal.

Based on this criteria, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino belongs in the “great man” category. True, his killing did not have a major impact on world history as a whole. Plus, Ninoy wasn’t always the moral agent that he evolved into towards the end of his life. This shouldn’t take anything away however, from the ultimate sacrifice he made for Filipinos.

Ninoy’s assassination on August 21, 1983 dramatically altered the reality of the Philippine socio-political scene. His murder galvanized a people that had up until then, given no exceptional grounds for its dictatorial leadership to fear being overthrown by them for the foreseeable future. In the full light of Ninoy’s death, Filipinos found the inner strength to begin standing up to the Marcos regime. It would take three more years before the regime was finally deposed in the EDSA I revolt, the genesis of which was sparked by the murderous deed of a ruling clique that had grossly violated the bounds of propriety, legality, and morality.

It is said that historical crises can nourish a person’s capacity to mobilize against injustice and tyranny. This is what happened to Ninoy in the period from the start of his banishment to America in 1980 to the moment of his immortalized death. Even in exile and as a recovering heart-surgery patient, Ninoy consistently gave a compelling account of a Philippine administration that was rotting from both within and without. Keeping with the general thrust of his public statements before his martial law arrest in 1972, Ninoy painted a picture of a country being run into the ground by an unholy collection of warlords, sycophants, thieves, and executioners, at the center of which was Ferdinand Marcos.

Ninoy said the time had come for a peaceful transition to democracy in the Philippines. He called on Marcos to leave office before such a transition became untenable, only to have his pleas and warnings fall on deaf ears. The explosive nature of the situation and circumstances ensured that a confrontation between the two men would take place.

Ninoy had undergone a stunning transformation: formerly a cocky, shrewdly-expedient politician and purported womanizer before his incarceration at the hands of Marcos, he emerged from his ordeal a penitent, morally-idealistic, born-again Christian. Ironically it was Ninoy, who as a young provincial governor once said that “a governor is measured, not by the high standards of political morality” but rather by “the actual, physical, material benefits he has brought home to his people.”

The ascendancy of the kinder, gentler Ninoy during his exile involved a re-energizing of his love for country and a leap of faith in the workings of a modern democracy. Ninoy felt that the Philippines was caught in an internal struggle “between those who have been mesmerized by the ‘efficiency’ of authoritarianism and those who still hold that democracy with all its flaws and inefficiency is man’s best hope for betterment and progress.” For him, there was no doubt as to which system should be adopted and why: “Man’s sense of justice makes democracy possible; man’s injustice makes it necessary.”

If ever there was an episode during Ninoy’s renaissance as a human being that has been forever ingrained in my memory, it was not so much the visceral and shocking immediacy of his demise. It was the reported attempt by Imelda Marcos to bribe Ninoy into changing his mind about returning home to help restore Philippine democracy.

Imelda was said to have offered Ninoy a cool $10 million to stay in the US. How easy it would have been for Ninoy to take the money and live comfortably for the rest of his life. It took Ninoy about two seconds to refuse the “gift” of a lifetime. Accepting the money would have meant selling out his conscience, his destiny, his spiritual values, and his people. Ninoy’s simple act of altruism in the place of material gain, along with his momentous act of martyrdom, gives us a revealing glimpse of his greatness both as a man and as a Filipino.


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