From Aquino's Assassination to People's Power
Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino was, like his life-long rival Ferdinand Marcos, a consummate politician, Philippine-style. Born in 1932, he interrupted his college studies to pursue a journalistic career, first in wartime Korea and then in Vietnam, Malaya, and other parts of Southeast Asia. Like Marcos, a skilled manager of his own public image, he bolstered his popularity by claiming credit for negotiating the May 1954 surrender of Huk leader Luis Taruc. The Aquino family was to Tarlac Province in Central Luzon what the Marcos family was to Ilocos Norte and the Romualdez family was to Leyte: a political dynasty. Aquino became the governor of Tarlac Province in 1963, and a member of the Senate in 1967. His marriage to Corazon Cojuangco, a member of one of the country's richest and most prominent Chinese mestizo families, was, like Marcos's marriage to Imelda Romualdez, a great help to his political career. If martial law had not been declared in September 1972, Aquino would probably have defeated Marcos or a hand-picked successor in the upcoming presidential election. Instead, he was one of the first to be jailed when martial law was imposed.
Aquino's years in jail--physical hardship, the fear of imminent death at the hands of his jailers, and the opportunity to read and meditate--seemed to have transformed the fast-talking political operator into a deeper and more committed leader of the democratic opposition. Although he was found guilty of subversion and sentenced to death by a military court in November 1977, Aquino, still in prison, led the LABAN (Lakas Ng Bayan--Strength of the Nation) party in its campaign to win seats in the 1978 legislative election and even debated Marcos's associate, Enrile, on television. The vote was for seats in the legislature called the National Assembly, initiated in 1978, which was, particularly in its first three years essentially a rubber-stamp body designed to pass Marcos's policies into law with the appearance of correct legal form. (The LABAN was unsuccessful, but it gained 40 percent of the vote in Metro Manila.)
Allowed to go to the United States for medical treatment in 1980, Benigno Aquino, accompanied by his wife, became a major leader of the opposition in exile. In 1983 Aquino was fully aware of the dangers of returning to the Philippines. Imelda Marcos had pointedly advised him that his return would be risky, claiming that communists or even some of Marcos's allies would try to kill him. The deterioration of the economic and political situation and Marcos's own worsening health, however, persuaded Aquino that the only way his country could be spared civil war was either by persuading the president to relinquish power voluntarily or by building a responsible, united opposition. In his view, the worst possible outcome was a post-Marcos regime led by Imelda and backed by the military under Ver.
Aquino was shot in the head and killed as he was escorted off an airplane at Manila International Airport by soldiers of the Aviation Security Command on August 21, 1983. The government's claim that he was the victim of a lone communist gunman, Rolando Galman (who was conveniently killed by Aviation Security Command troops after the alleged act), was unconvincing. A commission appointed by Marcos and headed by jurist Corazon Agrava concluded in their findings announced in late October 1984, that the assassination was the result of a military conspiracy. Marcos's credibility, both domestically and overseas, was mortally wounded when the Sandiganbayan, a high court charged with prosecuting government officials for crimes, ignored the Agrava findings, upheld the government's story, and acquitted Ver and twenty-four other military officers and one civilian in December 1985.
Although ultimate responsibility for the act still had not been clearly determined in the early 1990s, on September 28, 1990, a special court convicted General Luther Custodio and fifteen other officers and enlisted members of the Aviation Security Command of murdering Aquino and Galman. Most observers believed, however, that Imelda Marcos and Fabian Ver wanted Aquino assassinated. Imelda's remarks, both before and after the assassination, and the fact that Ver had become her close confidant, cast suspicion on them.
For the Marcoses, Aquino became a more formidable opponent dead than alive. His funeral drew millions of mourners in the largest demonstration in Philippine history. Aquino became a martyr who focused popular indignation against a corrupt regime. The inevitable outcome--Marcos's overthrow--could be delayed but not prevented.
The People's Power movement, which bore fruit in the ouster of Marcos on February 25, 1986, was broad-based but primarily, although not exclusively, urban-based, indeed the movement was commonly known in Manila as the EDSA Revolution. People's Power encompassed members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the business elite, and a faction of the armed forces. Its millions of rural, working-class, middle-class, and professional supporters were united not by ideology or class interests, but by their esteem for Aquino's widow, Corazon, and their disgust with the Marcos regime. After her husband's assassination, Corazon Aquino assumed first a symbolic and then a substantive role as leader of the opposition. A devout Catholic and a shy and self-styled "simple housewife," Mrs. Aquino inspired trust and devotion. Some, including top American policy makers, regarded her as inexperienced and naive. Yet in the events leading up to Marcos's ouster she displayed unexpected shrewdness and determination.
The Old Political Opposition
Martial law had emasculated and marginalized the opposition, led by a number of traditional politicians who attempted, with limited success, to promote a credible, noncommunist alternative to Marcos. The most important of these was Salvador H. "Doy" Laurel. Laurel organized a coalition of ten political groups, the United Nationalist Democratic Organization (UNIDO), to contest the 1982 National Assembly elections. Although he included Benigno Aquino as one of UNIDO's twenty "vice presidents," Laurel and Aquino were bitter rivals.
The Catholic Church
During the martial law and post-martial law periods, the Catholic Church was the country's strongest and most independent nongovernmental institution. It traditionally had been conservative and aligned with the elites. Parish priests and nuns, however, witnessed the sufferings of the common people and often became involved in political, and even communist, activities. One of the best-known politicized clergy was Father Conrado Balweg, who led a New People's Army guerrilla unit in the tribal minority regions of northern Luzon. Although Pope John Paul II had admonished the clergy worldwide not to engage in active political struggle, the pope's commitment to human rights and social justice encouraged the Philippine hierarchy to criticize the Marcos regime's abuses in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Church-state relations deteriorated as the statecontrolled media accused the church of being infiltrated by communists. Following Aquino's assassination, Cardinal Jaime Sin, archbishop of Manila and a leader of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, gradually shifted the hierarchy's stance from one of "critical collaboration" to one of open opposition.
A prominent Catholic layman, José Concepcion, played a major role in reviving the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) with church support in 1983 in order to monitor the 1984 National Assembly elections. Both in the 1984 balloting and the February 7, 1986, presidential election, NAMFREL played a major role in preventing, or at least reporting, regime-- instigated irregularities. The backbone of its organization was formed by parish priests and nuns in virtually every part of the country.
The Business Elite
The Aquino assassination shattered business confidence at a time when the economy was suffering from years of mismanagement under the cronies and unfavorable international conditions. Business leaders, especially those excluded from regime-nurtured monopolies, feared that a continuation of the status quo would cause a collapse of the economy. Their apprehensions were shared by foreign creditors and international agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Inflation and unemployment were soaring. The country's GNP became stagnant by 1983, and then it contracted--by -6.8 percent in 1984, and -3.8 percent in 1985, according to the IMF. There was a steep decline both in domestic and foreign investment. Outward capital flows reached as high as US$2 million a day in the panic that followed Aquino's death. The Makati area of Manila, with its banks, brokerage houses, luxury hotels, and upper-class homes, became a center of vocal resistance to the Marcos regime.
Left-wing groups, affiliated directly or indirectly with the Communist Party of the Philippines, played a prominent role in anti-regime demonstrations after August 1983. While the New People's Army was spreading in rural areas, the communists, through the National Democratic Front, gained influence, if not control, over some labor unions, student groups, and other urbanbased organizations. Leftists demanding radical political change established the New Nationalist Alliance (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan--BAYAN), in the early 1980s, but their political influence suffered considerably from their decision to boycott the presidential election of February 1986.
The Armed Forces
Corruption and demoralization of the armed forces led to the emergence, in the early 1980s, of a faction of young officers, mostly graduates of the elite Philippine Military Academy, known as the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM). RAM supported a restoration of pre-martial law "professionalism" and was closely allied with Minister of National Defense Enrile, long a Marcos loyalist yet increasingly unhappy with Ver's ascendancy over the armed forces.
United States Reactions
Given its past colonial association and continued security and economic interests in the Philippines, the United States never was a disinterested party in Philippine politics. On June 1, 1983, the United States and the Philippines signed a five-year memorandum of agreement on United States bases, which committed the United States administration to make "best efforts" to secure US$900 million in economic and military aid for the Philippines between 1984 and 1988. The agreement reflected both United States security concerns at a time of increased Soviet-Western tension in the Pacific and its continued faith in the Marcos regime.
The assassination of Aquino shocked United States diplomats in Manila, but conservative policy makers in the administration of President Ronald Reagan remained, until almost the very end, supportive of the Marcoses, because no viable alternative seemed available. In hindsight, United States support for the moderate People's Power movement under Corazon Aquino, backed by church and business groups, would seem to be self-evident common sense. Yet in the tense days and weeks leading up to Marcos's ouster, many policy makers feared that she was not tough or canny enough to survive a military coup d'état or a communist takeover.
The Snap Election and Marcos's Ouster
Indicative of the importance of United States support for his regime, Marcos announced his decision to hold a "snap" presidential election on an American television talk show, "This Week with David Brinkley," in November 1985. He promised skeptical Americans access for observer teams, setting February 7, 1986, a year before his six-year presidential term ran out, as the date for the election. He believed his early reelection would solidify United States support, silence his critics in the Philippines and the United States, and perhaps banish the ghost of Benigno Aquino. Marcos's smoothly running, well-financed political machine and the divided nature of the opposition promised success, but his decision proved to be a monumental blunder.
Cardinal Sin, an astute negotiator described by one diplomat as "one of the best politicians in the Philippines," arranged a political alliance of convenience between Corazon Aquino and Salvador Laurel, who had announced his own candidacy but agreed to run as Aquino's vice-presidential candidate. Aquino had immense popular support and Laurel brought his superior organizational skills to the campaign. Their agreement to run together was arranged just in time for the deadline for submission of candidacies in early December. The church hierarchy gave its moral support to the opposition ticket. Cardinal Sin, realizing that poor people would not refuse money offered for votes and that the ethic of utang na loob would oblige them to vote for the briber, admonished the voters that an immoral contract was not binding and that they should vote according to their consciences.
On the day of the election, NAMFREL guarded ballot boxes and tried to get a rapid tally of the results in order to prevent irregularities. A team of United States observers, which included a joint congressional delegation, issued a mild criticism of electoral abuses, but individual members expressed shock and indignation: Senator Richard Lugar claimed that between 10 and 40 percent of the voters had been disenfranchised by the removal of their names from registration rolls. The results tabulated by the government's Commission on Elections (COMELEC) showed Marcos leading, whereas NAMFREL figures showed a majority for the Aquino-Laurel ticket. On February 9, computer operators at COMELEC observed discrepancies between their figures and those officially announced and walked out in protest, at some risk to their lives. The church condemned the election as fraudulent, but on February 15, the Marcos-dominated National Assembly proclaimed him the official winner. Despite the election fraud, the Reagan administration's support for Marcos remained strong, as did its uncertainty concerning Corazon Aquino. Yet a consensus of policy makers in the White House, Department of State, Pentagon, and Congress was emerging and advised the withdrawal of support from Marcos.
On February 22, Enrile and General Fidel Ramos, commander of the Philippine Constabulary, issued a joint statement demanding Marcos's resignation. They established their rebel headquarters inside Camp Aguinaldo and the adjoining Camp Crame in Metro Manila, which was guarded by several hundred troops. Marcos ordered loyal units to suppress the uprising, but Cardinal Sin, broadcasting over the Catholic-run Radio Veritas (which became the voice of the revolution), appealed to the people to bring food and supplies for the rebels and to use nonviolence to block pro-Marcos troop movements.
Hundreds of thousands responded. In the tense days that followed, priests, nuns, ordinary citizens, and children linked arms with the rebels and faced down, without violence, the tanks and machine guns of government troops. Many of the government troops defected, including the crews of seven helicopter gunships, which seemed poised to attack the massive crowd on February 24 but landed in Camp Crame to announce their support for People's Power. Violent confrontations were prevented. The Philippine troops did not want to wage war on their own people.
Although Marcos held an inauguration ceremony at Malacañang Palace on February 25, it was boycotted by foreign ambassadors (with the exception, in an apparently unwitting gaffe, of a new Soviet ambassador). It was, for the Marcoses, the last, pathetic hurrah. Advised by a United States senator, Paul Laxalt, who had close ties to Reagan, to "cut and cut cleanly," Marcos realized that he had lost United States support for any kind of arrangement that could keep him in power. By that evening, the Marcoses had quit the palace that had been their residence for two decades and were on their way to exile in the United States. Manila's population surged into Malacañang to view the evidence of the Marcos's extravagant life-style (including Imelda's muchpublicized hundreds of pairs of expensive, unworn shoes). An almost bloodless revolution brought Corazon Aquino into office as the seventh president of the Republic of the Philippines.
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