Foreign Correspondent: Assassination of Philippine leader 35 years ago holds lessons for today

Aquino’s death set in place a people’s revolution in a country once again controlled by an authoritarian ruler.

By Reese Erlich

October 7, 2018


This year marks the 35th anniversary of the assassination of Philippine leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. The leading crusader against the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos was brutally murdered after he stepped off a plane in the Manila airport August 21, 1983.

His murder set in motion the People’s Power Revolution of 1986, which brought his wife Cory Aquino to power. Their son Benigno Aquino III served as elected president from 2010-16.

Ninoy Aquino is idolized as an apostle of nonviolence in the Phillippines

In the years since his death, Ninoy has become almost a saint in the Philippines, an apostle of spirituality and non violence.

But in a never before published 1981 interview I did with him in Boston, Ninoy emerges as a far more complex character. While professing non-violence, he admitted ties with a group that bombed tourism hotels in Manila. While professing to be a man of the people, he revealed himself as a coldly vindictive and profane politician. Aquino’s legacy continues to impact contemporary Philippine politics as seen in the election of right-wing authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte.

Marcos Years

Ferdinand Marcos was elected Philippine president in 1965 but imposed martial law in 1972 and ruled as a brutal dictator for 14 more years. The United States backed Marcos almost to the very end. US corporations had major investments in the Philippines, and the Pentagon maintained two important military bases there as well. As always, US military and corporate interests were more important than democracy or human rights.

Ninoy and Cory Aquino both came from wealthy and powerful families who had fallen out with Marcos. Ninoy was arrested in 1972 for opposing the dictatorship and spent over seven years in prison. In 1980 Marcos allowed him to travel to Houston for heart surgery.

Then Aquino landed a fellowship at Harvard University where he met with many Filipino exiles and students. He told me of an incident that revealed Aquino wasn’t the saint his supporters would later claim. A business administration student refused to meet with Ninoy, saying Marcos might see it as black mark on his parents.

“Fuck you,” he said to the student, still seething as he recalled the incident months later. “What about your black mark with me? What if I come to power? I have all your names and I will remember you.”

“I stared out the window,” Aquino told me, “and for the first time at Harvard, I cried.”

“Ninoy was an old-school politician, but he couldn’t abide by the injustice and impunity of the Marcos regime,” Rene Ciria-Cruz told me in a recent interview. Ciria-Cruz was a Marxist and anti-dictatorship activist in the 1980s, who is now U.S. bureau chief for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

In 1983 Aquino returned to Manila with a plane full of supporters and journalists. Ninoy was shot as he walked onto the tarmac. Marcos’s military officers were later convictedof planning the assassination.

“I met him before he went on his fateful trip home,” continued Ciria-Cruz. “He had fantasized about flying his plane, filled with bombs, into the presidential palace. We thought it was just macho posturing. But it also became clear that he was approaching his fight not as a personal rivalry with Marcos but with a real concern for the country.”

Leftist Opposition Movements

Aquino was interested in talking with me because just months before our interview, I had interviewed members of the New People’s Army, which was led by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). The communists had become a growing political force because of their staunch opposition to Marcos. The CPP carried out a Maoist strategy of people’s war in which the peasants in the countryside would surround the major cities and bring down the regime. The NPA aimed its armed actions against politicians, businessmen, the military and police, although civilians were inevitably killed.

The Aquinos, on the other hand, were social democrats who called for nonviolent struggle to restore democratic institutions and reform the crony capitalism of the Marcos regime. Unable to participate in elections, however, the soc dems — as abbreviation happy Filipino activists called them — turned to armed struggle as well.

Clandestine groups known as the Light a Fire Movement and the April 6 Liberation Movement set off bombs in hotels to discourage tourism and hurt Marcos’ economy. They intended only to destroy property, but one U.S. tourist was killed and 33 other civilians were wounded.

The Marcos administration accused Aquino of leading the Light a Fire Movement, which Ninoy publicly denied. In December 1980, Imelda Marcos, the president’s politically powerful wife, met with Aquino in New York. In my interview Aquino let slip his support for the terrorist tactics.

Referring to the bombings, Aquino told me Imelda Marcos was “candid enough to admit that we have caused damage to tourism and foreign investments.” I asked him who was the “we.”

“All the opposition groups I suppose,” he replied rather lamely, knowing that his allies were bombing the hotels. He had let the cat out of the bag. Aquino went on to admit that he had the ability to stop the bombings if the Marcos regime made concessions.

Anti-Marcos activist Ciria-Cruz said Aquino was connected with Light a Fire, “but he was most likely not the leader who determined and knew all the details.”

Several Light a Fire leaders later became prominent officials in the Cory Aquino administration.

Aquino Legacy

The soc dem effort at armed struggle failed militarily, with some of the leaders getting caught smuggling arms through the Manila airport. But after Ninoy’s assassination Cory Aquino took the reins of the anti-Marcos opposition. By February 1986 mass demonstrations and a rebellion in the military forced Marco to flee to the US and brought Cory to power.

She carried out many of Ninoy’s policies, according to Ciria-Cruz. “Cory’s publicly declared goal was to reestablish liberal democracy and its institutions, to be merely a transition government, and that was it.” She didn’t fight to eliminate poverty or develop an independent foreign policy.

“I think Ninoy would have done the same thing,” Ciria-Cruz continued. “I didn’t detect any predisposition for groundbreaking social reforms from both of them. Other traditional politicians disenfranchised and marginalized by Marcos became resentful of the US, if not openly nationalistic, which led to the willingness of some politicians to remove the US bases after Marcos was ousted.”

Nino’s son Benigno Aquino III carried out many of the same centrist policies and did little to fight poverty, establish full rights for workers or implement land reform. Corruption remained rampant.

Right Wing Back in Power

In 2016 right wing populist Rodrigo Duterte took advantage of popular discontent with the centrists. Like Trump, he talked tough about helping ordinary people by cracking down on drugs and corruption.

Duterte arrested over 50,000 peopleon minor offenses such as public intoxication or using drugs.  He has jailed one senatoron trumped up corruption charges and is trying to arrest another.

Critics have compared Duterte to Marcos. David Borden, a leader of the US-based Stop the Drug, told me Duterte has created “a dangerous situation for anyone who criticizes the president, and he is a danger for democracy.”

Filipinos are increasingly opposed to Duterte’s policies. The lasting legacy of Ninoy Aquino may well be the need for another Filipino uprising against a dictatorial ruler.


Reese Erlich’s syndicated column, Foreign Correspondent, appears every two weeks. His new book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy is now available. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his  webpage.

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