- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 9, 2009


As former Philippine President Corazon C. Aquino was laid to rest on Wednesday, I was reminded of a close encounter with the death of another Aquino.

On Aug. 21, 1983, I was in the lobby of the Manila international airport to pick up a group of high-level Malaysian officials for a business conference. I was surprised to see a number of friends from the Foreign Correspondents’ Association, who told me they were there to cover the arrival of Sen. Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino Jr. — Mrs. Aquino’s husband — back in Manila after years in exile in America. Mr. Aquino, like many dissidents during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, had been driven from his country after being incarcerated and sentenced to death. His publicized return, which was not approved by the Marcos government, was intended to instigate public opposition to the regime.

As we pulled away from the airport, I turned on the radio and heard that Mr. Aquino had been shot fatally moments earlier. Like millions of Filipinos, I was shocked by the loss of such a major figure and stunned that I had been so close physically to the tragedy. I also was incensed, and in the weeks that followed, I joined the protests against authoritarian rule and proudly wore a black badge with the words “Hindi ka nag-iisa,” Tagalog for “You are not alone.” This became the rallying cry for the mass movement against a strongman.

The badges, which attracted threats from the authorities, served a vital purpose. After 20 years of rule by censorship and thuggery, an oppressed, fearful people would not rise up without assurance that the movement was substantial and growing.

In the days that followed, a colleague came to me with footage from two Japanese documentaries, and because I had lived in Japan and spoke Japanese, I was asked to translate them. For two days, I isolated myself in a small office and recorded my translation of the documentaries, which included two accounts based on firsthand observations from the airport that purported that Mr. Aquino’s military escorts had murdered him. The Marcos government was trying to pin the murder on a lone gunman, but these transcripts of foreign journalists on the scene credibly demonstrated that the returning Filipino politician had been assassinated by government guards ostensibly sent to protect him.

As the country turned into a tinderbox and my own safety was threatened, I left the Philippines for several years. However, the tapes examining the assassination were used to support protests against the Marcos government. The tapes were played to crowds across the country and made available at video rental shops (hidden on the shelf next to X-rated features) to help the opposition inspire a wary population to hit the streets and demand change.

A New York Times reporter once told me, “You’re the voice.” I had no way of knowing any of this because I was lying low in America, but I was proud to hear that I might have had a small part in helping democracy along.

During the martial-law years of 1972-81, Mr. Aquino predicted that anyone who succeeded Mr. Marcos would “smell like horse manure six months after taking office.” The reasons were obvious: The dictator had bankrupted the country, the Philippines was torn by dissent and competing interests, and its private sector was in disarray. The economy was uncompetitive and incapable of generating enough jobs for a fast-growing population. That his wife would have to endure the reality of his forecast probably would have come as a surprise to Mr. Aquino.

Before the assassination, Cory — as Mrs. Aquino is known to millions of Filipinos — was “a plain housewife,” in her words. But it was fitting that this unassuming person galvanized a nation fed up with the greed and incompetence of cronyism to become president in 1986 after Mr. Marcos was ousted. Her example of peaceful resistance inspired downtrodden around the world to demand better from their own corrupt governments.

Mrs. Aquino’s legacy as president is mixed. In reality, she never had an opportunity to succeed. Seven attempted coups d’etat scared away investors. Customers of Philippine exporters, worried about interruptions to their supply chains, looked for alternative, reliable partners. Mrs. Aquino’s distracted administration watched helplessly as power and transportation infrastructure strained, social and economic reforms stopped, and delivery of basic services ground to a halt.

Until her last days, Mrs. Aquino continued to speak out against abuse of power and the deteriorating rule of law in the Philippines. In a foreword for “Global Filipino,” by Brett M. Decker, managing editor of the Opinion pages of The Washington Times, Mrs. Aquino said, “The Philippines cannot create a progressive secular society that has no room for faith.”

She decried the politics of the day for becoming “rough and ruthless.” At the December 2008 party launching Mr. Decker’s book in Manila, Mrs. Aquino shocked the nation by publicly apologizing to former President Joseph Estrada, who also was present, for supporting his overthrow in 2001 to install Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the current Philippine president, in office. Though she was a revolutionary leader, Mrs. Aquino learned that governing institutions can mature only if the democratic process is respected.

Mrs. Aquino will be remembered as an important symbol of hope and faith in democracy in the face of persecution. It’s an example still needed in the Philippines and many other mean spots around the world.

Michael Alan Hamlin is managing director of TeamAsia, a Manila-based business consultancy, a columnist for the Manila Bulletin newspaper and author of numerous books.

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