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It has been exactly 34 years since a hero died for his countrymen. He was fatally shot in an airport now named after him.

Benigno Simeon Aquino Jr., more fondly called as Ninoy, was a journalist, a public servant, a fearless critic, and a Filipino through and through. He was the voice of the voiceless. He was and still is an icon of democracy.

Once the youngster who thought of himself as an average student, Ninoy had so much more to offer with his character. At 17 years old, he was the youngest Korean war correspondent of the country for The Manila Times.

At the time, the first battalion of Filipino soldiers were deployed to assist South Korean-US forces against the communist invasion of North Korea and China. He could well be considered as part of the Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea (PEFTOK), braving the danger and almost certain death in the war zone.

When he returned from Korea, then president Elpidio Quirino awarded him the Philippine Legion of Honor award, unarguably an above average feat for any 18-year-old.

Not long after his journalistic achievements, his political career took off. He became a close adviser to then Defense Secretary and future president of the country, Ramon Magsaysay. He was appointed to negotiate with Hukbalahap rebel group leader Luis Taruc.

Ninoy was later credited for Taruc’s unconditional surrender after four short months. He was awarded his second Philippine Legion of Honor award with the degree of Commander in 1954.

He continued to break boundaries in the political arena when he became mayor of Concepcion, Tarlac at the age of 22. By 27, he was the country’s youngest vice governor for the province of Tarlac, then its governor two years later. In 1967, he became the youngest elected senator in Philippine history, at only 34 years old.

In his first year in the Senate, Ninoy has already made it clear that he will be a vocal and persistent public servant. Aquino’s voice thundered the halls of the Senate, alleging that Marcos was well on his way to establishing “a garrison state” by “ballooning the armed forces budget,” saddling the defense establishment with “overstaying generals” and “militarizing our civilian government offices.”

The Plaza Miranda bombing was a turning point that officially began heated exchanges between Marcos and Ninoy.

When the dictator declared Martial Law on September 21, 1972, Aquino was the first of the many arrested members of the opposition, along with fellow senators Jose Diokno and Jovito Salonga.

He was charged with murder, illegal possession of firearms and subversion together with New People’s Army (NPA) leaders Lt. Corpuz and Bernabe Buscayno. Aquino was known to be a close friend to rebel groups such as the NPA and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

Due to the injustices in his military trial, Aquino embarked on a symbolic hunger strike on April 4, 1975. His weight dropped to as low as 36 kilos after 40 days of fasting, much like Jesus Christ. Weeks into the strike, all he consumed were salt tablets, sodium bicarbonate, amino acids, and two glasses of water a day. Years of prison time and multiple trials forward, the Military Commission found Aquino and two co-accused guilty of all charges and sentenced them to death by firing squad. It was never carried out as Marcos himself altered the decision in May 1980.

“I was sentenced to die for allegedly being the leading communist leader. I am not a communist, never was and never will be,” Ninoy wrote in a speech he was meant to deliver upon returning to the country from the US.

Even in prison, Ninoy was eager to challenge the dictatorship by running at the Philippine parliamentary election under the Lakas ng Bayan party he formed himself. All 21 candidates under the party would lose the elections.

In March 1980, Aquino suffered from a heart attack. Another one followed upon being transferred to the Philippine Heart Center. President Marcos allowed Aquino to seek medical attention in the United States, together with his entire family.

With a new life in Massachusetts, he continued his campaign against the regime, giving a series of lectures, working on two books and delivering articulate speeches on American soil. But he knew he would eventually come home.

“I could have opted to seek political asylum in America, but I feel it is my duty, as it is the duty of every Filipino, to suffer with his people in time of crisis,” he wrote.

At the time, the Philippine economy and political situation was in a decline and President Marcos, gravely ill reportedly due to lupus.

Ninoy decided to come back early 1983 to encourage Marcos with his rationale on the country’s return to democracy. Despite warnings and speculations on his arrest – or worse, death – with his planned return, he was unfazed and his determination could not be stronger.

“If it’s my fate to die by an assassin’s bullet, so be it. But I cannot be petrified by inaction, or fear of assassination, and therefore stay in the side,” Aquino said in what would be considered his final interview on a plane from Taiwan to Manila.

On August 21, 1983, as bodyguards assigned by the Marcos government escorted him out of the plane, a bullet went through the back of his head and out of his chin. Ninoy lay dead at the then Manila International Airport tarmac.

The country mourned the loss of someone touted to be the next president. More than two million people lined the streets to honor the hero in a funeral procession that lasted from 9 in the morning to 9 in the evening.

While he was also not immune to criticisms throughout his life such as the supposed land distribution of Hacienda Luisita to farmers and his being a member of an elite political clan in what we may now describe as ‘trapo’ or traditional politicians, he was in so many ways faithful to the Filipino people and the desire to restore democracy . Ninoy gave his life for what he deemed worthy of dying: the Filipino people.

His death provoked the bloodless People Power Revolution and catapulted his wife, Corazon Aquino into presidency in 1986, toppling the Marcos regime altogether.

“I return from an exile and to an uncertain future with only determination and faith to offer – faith in our people and faith in God,” he ended his speech, one that Filipinos heard even without being delivered. It was the hero in Ninoy Aquino.

Photos from TIME and Ninoy Aquino Official Website


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