By Raïssa Robles
Thirty-one years ago on August 31, millions of Filipinos formed a funeral cortege that stretched miles and miles across the nation’s capital to bury a man who had come home, foolishly thinking he could convince an aging dictator to loosen his grip on power.
That man, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., was treacherously shot dead as he was led down a flight of stairs from the aircraft he had arrived in. His feet never even touched the ground.
Ninoy’s murder in a tightly secured area while surrounded by soldiers ironically had a strange effect on the Filipino psyche. It freed many Filipinos from the constant fear of living under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Just a year before, in 1982, American secretary of state George Schulz was reported to have sneeringly dismissed the Philippines as “a nation of 40 million cowards and one son of a bitch.”
The Marcos dictatorship itself, though it had warned Aquino against coming home, probably thought Ninoy was a spent force. Two days before Ninoy’s arrival, the Palace pet journalist Teodoro F. Valencia, wrote that nothing tragic would happen to Ninoy – as Imelda Marcos had warned. Here is an excerpt from Doroy Valencia’s Daily Express column of August 19, 1983:
Unfortunately, I don’t have the August 22, 1983 Daily Express issue the day after Ninoy’s assassination. But I do have the August 23, 1983 issue. Its front page has a very dark photo of Ninoy’s corpse in his coffin – perhaps darkened deliberately – but no photo of him when he was alive.
The August 23 Daily Express headline contains a very familiar name –
The first paragraphs of the story state:
LT. GEN. Fidel V. Ramos PC chief, yesterday assured that “everything is well,” as he denied reports of sporadic civil disturbance said to be an offshoot of the assassination of former Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr. last Sunday.
Ramos told a nationwide TV interview with newsmen that a check with his field commanders showed that the situation is generally peaceful.
The PC chief mentioned reports that a big department store and power installations had been bombed. These reports, he said, were untrue.
He also squelched reports that there was an impending move to restore martial law.
Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile took time to also deny reports that he was under “house arrest.”
Now one thing that people living under a dictator learn pretty quickly is how to read between the lines of a “news report” in a government-controlled daily.
Hence, the paragraph stating that Ramos “also squelched reports that there was an impending move to restore martial law” was a warning for the public to behave, or else. (Marcos had allegedly “lifted” Martial Law in 1981, a paper exercise seeing as how he continued to retain and exercise dictatorial powers).
As for the report that Enrile was not under house arrest, that was a puzzle to the general public. But those in the power loop knew that by then, Enrile was at odds with the power faction led by First Lady Imelda Marcos and her brother Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez.
One interesting thing about this news is the non-mention of Marcos’ most loyal aide, the Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Fabian Ver, whom Ninoy mercilessly made fun of in the speeches he delivered across America.
The propagandists behind the August 23 Daily Express front page also probably did not see the supreme irony behind having a sidebar with the word “Mabuhay” and a news item on the First Lady Imelda being “irked by traffic” beside a picture of the body of a murdered enemy of the regime.
But notice the third news item on this sidebar about Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq warning “severe action” against anti-government protesters. That tiny bit about ul-Haq was printed by the Marcos propaganda machine for a purpose: It was meant to serve as a warning to all those who would think of protesting Ninoy’s death.
The assassination made the public sense for the first time how much it was being lied to by the government.
The lower fold of the August 23 Daily Express front page had a photo of the slain gunman.
Three days after Ninoy’s death, the government claimed Ninoy was killed by a lone gunman who, the public was supposed to believe, managed to penetrate a heavy security cordon and disguise himself. And the public was supposed to buy the fact that the regime, which made it a point to know everything, did not know who the assassin was.
Public rage was further stoked by this Daily Express headline of August 23, 1983:
Apparently, after three days, the military had finally figured out the gunman’s name because the word “Rolly” was embroidered on his underwear.
The story gave rise to a sardonic joke that my hubby Alan still remembers:
Why did it take so long to identify the killer?
Kasi mabagal magburda si Mrs. Ver.
The massive lying continued. On Friday, August 26, 1983 the Times Journal – controlled by Imelda’s brother Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez ran this headline –
In case you’re wondering who scrawled the words “TOOTA” over the photos of Supreme Court Chief Justice Enrique Fernando (center), former Justice Felix Antonio (left) and Batasang Pambansa Speaker Querube Makalintal (right), it was my late father – University of the Philippines College of Law Professor and human rights lawyer Jose F. Espinosa.
My dad expressed his real feelings by scribbling and doodling on newspapers. All the time. That angry red mark showed that he believed the inquiry on Ninoy’s s death was a sham.
By Wednesday of August 31, 1983 – the day of Ninoy’s funeral – the public was well stoked. The cowardly fear that US State Secretary Schulz reportedly mocked was gone, replaced by silent simmering anger.
That rage was initially expressed by marching in the streets behind Ninoy’s coffin placed on a flatbed truck decorated with yellow flowers. Ordinarily, rallies and street demonstrations were barred during what Marcos called his “smiling Martial Law.”
August 31 caught the dictatorship flat-footed. The government could not bar hundreds of thousands of mourners from following a hearse. So it did the next best thing. Its mouthpiece newspaper, Daily Express, printed the “funeral route” the day before:
The Long Walk to Freedom
That several millions actually turned out for Ninoy’s funeral astonished even the mourners themselves.
No TV station covered the mammoth funeral. One newspaper chose to run a story about a man being struck and killed by lightning in Luneta.
Only some radio stations like DZRH and Radyo Veritas were brave enough to give a blow-by-blow account of the procession that lasted from morning till night.
For the first time, the dictatorship seemed at a loss on how to handle the huge, huge presence of foreign media. Some had accompanied Ninoy on his trip. Others had flown in as soon as they heard he died.
Luckily – through floods and an earthquake – I was able to save some photographs of Ninoy’s funeral, which I would now like to share with you.
I believe it’s the first set of photographs that you will see of the funeral that so astonished the world and stunned Filipinos into thinking they could free themselves from an oppressive regime.
Even before Ninoy’s coffin was carried out of Sto. Domingo Church, the crowd had already thickened outside.
Luckily, a building across Sto. Domingo church gave a bird’s eye view –
To the astonishment of reporters, the crowd was everywhere along the funeral route –
Military spies were everywhere. People knew that anyone could be picked up anytime and never heard of again. Still, some mourners defiantly marched while brandishing this sign –
They were drawing inspiration and strength and courage from a dead man –
And they promised the dead man this –
Abandoning the dictator’s Rule of Law, lawyers turned out in droves :
The dead man’s brother led the long walk to freedom –
Even when the procession wended its way into the outer suburbs of Manila, the crowd remained thick with anticipation –
The day-long funeral began with a whisper – Ninoy, hindi ka nag-iisa – which hardened into a vow to fight for what Ninoy died for:
After Ninoy’s murder, the dictatorship had less than three years left before it was overthrown and the Marcoses chased out of the country.
Today, 30 years later, what Ninoy sacrificed his life for remains partly fulfilled. Yes, his widow Corazon restored democracy.
But it’s really up to us and the generations to come to shape that democracy.
We can draw inspiration from what Ninoy wrote in his piece entitled What’s wrong with the Philippines? [underlining is mine]:
“The government itself must be made to respond to the demands of the middle class – the innovating, the modernizing class – for a mass market. The archaic and regressive tax structure must be revamped. The wealth that the oligarchy rapaciously covets and hoards must get down to the masses in the form of roads, bridges and schools; these are what the tao understands as good or bad government.“
And always, we’ll remember if we can topple dictators, we can build a nation.