Man of the Year
by Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr.
January 8, 1972–There was rice shortage again. Prices were never higher. Unemployment was appalling, lawlessness reigned. Justice was compartmentalized, with one law for the rich and powerful, another law, a sterner one, for the poor and weak. Graft and corruption in the government was more rampant than ever. Demonstrators against the administration were shot at by government troops as if they were game and the President shed crocodile tears. Lip service was paid to reform while chaos if not revolution threatened. Who could challenge the regime? It seemed irresistible, controlling as it did not only Congress but the local governments. How could the Opposition hope to win against the Marcos candidates in the senatorial election? Their victory would be taken as a national endorsement of the Marcos idea of government—and his perpetuation in power. Who would lead the resistance? The privileges of the writ of habeas corpus had been suspended and martial law continually mentioned if not actually threatened. Democracy was going down, down, down. Who would stop the fall? He would be the Man of the Year.
IN a conversation which took place about a week before the Plaza Miranda bombing incident on 21 August 1971, Sen. Benigno Aquino, Jr., said to this writer:
“President Marcos has threatened again to charge me with subversion. It’s a bluff, but who knows?”
“Can he have forgotten so quickly how the Yuyitung affair backfired on him?” one said. But then, one thought, Marcos is not a machine weighing dispassionately the chances of success in this or that adventure but a vain and ambitious man with a great deal of power.
“A very dangerous man,” said Ninoy. He went on to say that he had a feeling of something big about to happen.
Some Ilocano politicians were in the room, among them the young Chavit Singson. They were reporting the steep rise of violent incidents in the North. Army-trained professional killers had been unleashed on the population of Northern and Central Luzon in preparation for the elections in November. They spoke in particular of a certain “Major” whose expertise in the art of assassination had earned him a license to kill. This assassin did not have to answer for his deeds to anyone and could kill at his own discretion. He had done a fine job in the North and was moving south. According to the latest reports then, he was operating in Mountain Province. Soon, they said, he would be in Manila.
They looked apprehensive and had come to Ninoy to see what he could do for them. “Nothing,” Ninoy answered them. He had neither the money nor the muscle to help them with. But he wanted to know for certain if they would stick it out with the Opposition to the end or succumb to the threats of the authorities. So long as they identified with the Opposition they were marked men. He would not hold it against them personally if they backed out at that moment but he did not want to waste time with anyone who would have a change of heart later on. A little reluctantly they all agreed to stick it out to the end. “You are dead men on leave,” Ninoy said. They nodded their heads in acknowledgment of the fact.
“If Singson makes it in Ilocos Sur and Dy in Isabela, I don’t care if we lose everywhere else,” said Ninoy. “Our cause will have been vindicated. These are the two spots most cruelly oppressed by the Marcos military machine. If we win in them, then we know we have pierced his armor. That’s consolation enough.”
That far back, Ninoy Aquino was already drawing the lineaments of the persona he would assume after the Plaza Miranda bombing and the President’s suspension of the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus, when the country tottered on the brink of dictatorship: that of the resistance-hero. Within a week Ninoy would serve as the symbol of democratic man confronted with forces that seek to suppress his individuality and freedom.
Expressing his forboding that the forces of reaction and dictatorship were ready and eager to break out in a wave of repression that would sweep away all our rights and liberties, frankly, he said, he did not know how anyone could meet, with the hope of overcoming, the threat to the Republic.
“The secret is not to be afraid,” one said. Not that one knew for certain that courage overcomes all obstacles but that to be brave and defiant is the only way consonant with human dignity to face tyranny.
A week later two fragmentation bombs were tossed onto the stage of the Liberal Party’s proclamation rally held in Plaza Miranda. Nine persons were killed and 95 others were wounded. The leadership of the Liberal Party could have been wiped out that fateful night of 21 August. Not one politician was killed but many of those who stood on the stage were seriously hurt. One lost a foot and, for a week or so, Sergio Osmeña, Jr., and Senator Salonga fought for their lives on operating tables.
Upon hearing of the tragic event the first thought that occurred to one was that this was the perfect pretext to liquidate Philippine democracy “in the interest of order and security.” The question of who perpetrated the crime seemed irrelevant in the light of the knowledge that only the government had the power to use the incident to its own advantage.
One could suspect the Communists. How often had one heard them declaim that in the confrontation between capital and labor, between the bourgeoisie and the common people, discussion is futile and serves only as an intellectual sport for the upper class, peaceful reform is a pipe dream and society’s contradictions can only be resolved through bloody revolution! The Communist argument is logical enough. There may be other ways to improve social conditions but the Communist way has an impressive record of success. But what one should do is not necessarily what one would do—especially when the conditions are far from favorable. In the present context, a total breakdown of social order could only favor the “fascists”—if one may be allowed to use that term, with its strict historical associations, to designate all who are hostile to and have no use for the democratic way of life, holding it too inefficient—meaning to say, it breeds a climate that is not always healthy for rich thieves.
The Left is noisy but basically powerless. Were it not for the protection afforded it by the liberal bourgeoisie, the Left would be either dead, in jail or scratching out a bare existence in the mountains. It has neither the talent nor the muscle to command popular respect and obedience. It cannot, therefore, impose its kind of order on the country should anarchy break out and a power vacuum appear. Since constant self-criticism is the hallmark of the Marxist movement, no doubt the Left in this country is fully conscious of its limitations. What to do about them is the question.
The rumor that Ninoy Aquino had masterminded the bombing to rid himself of rivals for his party’s nomination for Presidential candidate spread swiftly throughout the country. The press in time discredited that rumor but what was puzzling then was the celebrity with which the story spread. The bombing and the rumor seemed connected, parts of one clever scheme whose aim was to destroy the Opposition. The Opposition was bombed and the Opposition was to be blamed.
On Monday, 23 August, President Marcos made the announcement that he had as of midnight, Saturday, suspended the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus. The reason for this extraordinary measure, he said, was that there was a Maoist rebellion in progress.
Twenty persons had been arrested and were being detained in Camp Crame. All but one of them could not by any stretch of the imagination be described as Maoist. That was an oversight on the part of the President none made a note of the. His suspension of the writ had stunned the nation. The people felt, anyway, that is was not a question of whether he was rationally justified in the action he had taken. The power at his disposal could “justify” anything he did. The question was how far could he go, how far would he go. Hardly anyone believed the President’s words, but everyone paid heed to his power. From the outset it was a contest of nerves between the power of tyranny and the courage without arms of democratic men.
From noon onwards, on the day of the President’s announcement, the hours passed slowly in deathly calm. It was like a foretaste of life under a dictatorship: a life of quiet fear. A little longer the nation might have becomed accustomed to the situation, so easy is it to acquire the habit of obedience!
Suddenly the tense calm was broken. The voluble and tireless Ninoy Aquino began his counter-offensive and the spell of fascism was broken. Wherever he appeared, he carried a submachine gun at a time when no one outside the Administration would have dared be seen with one.
At the Manila Medical Center, the milling crowd at the entrance parted to admit the rotund frame of Senator Aquino come to check up on the condition of his colleagues. He passed by the government troops without even glancing at them, tight-lipped and looking confident of his ability to stand up to the Administration.
It was that picture that crystallized the people’s timid resentment against the Marcos Administration into an unshakeable determination to resist. The people fixed their eyes on Ninoy. If he got away with defying the President, how much better would they—the whole nation—fare!
The Administration caught on fast. Before it could expect the nation to submit, it would have to break the will of Senator Aquino. An object lesson would have to be made of him.
On Tuesday, President Marcos went on television. He laid the blame for the bombing of the LP rally on the Communists, who were planning, he said, to stage a revolution, of which the first act was the bombing incident at Plaza Miranda. He charged Senator Aquino with lending support to the Communist insurgent movement. He had “reliable” information that Ninoy Aquino had frequently met with such Huk field commanders as Dante, Mallari, Alibasbas, Freddie and Ligaya. He brought out a carbine with telescopic sight and a nickel-plated grease gun, which, he claimed, had been given by Ninoy to Huk commanders.
President Marcos presented two men, Max Llorente and Hernan Ilagan, who had been, he said, close friends of Senator Aquino until they discovered what he was really up to. Neither of them spoke a word all the time they were on TV. They just stood before the cameras with blank expressions until the President motioned for them to go away.
The evidence against Senator Aquino, he said, was overwhelming. It was only because he had hitherto “erred on the side of generosity” that he had not yet arrested the senator. But his tone suggested that that was a fault he would soon correct.
A raid on a Communist camp in Tarlac had uncovered a master plan to raze Manila and kidnap or assassinate prominent persons, the President went on. The bombing in Plaza Miranda was merely the prelude to a wave of Red Terror and a general civil war. He warned the radicals that the armed forces could cope with any situation they might create. He asked them to abandon the rest of their master plan, since it had no hope of succeeding, anyway. To avoid a costly confrontation between the Communists and the army, he would not hesitate to declare martial law and crush the insurgents before they had time to stage their planned insurrection.
Once more the Administration had the psychological advantage. People started losing heart. It was rumored that before the night was over, Senator Aquino would be arrested. After him, it would be only a question of time and accommodations in the stockades before all persistent critics of the Administration were in their turn arrested.
Later that night, Ninoy Aquino appeared on Channel 13. For once he looked serious. Opposite him, Juan Ponce Enrile, secretary of national defense, sat, grinning.
“I have been charged,” said Ninoy Aquino, “with the most serious crime against the Filipino people by President Marcos. I have, he has charged, subverted the state and planned the overthrow of the government in a conspiracy with the Communists. I have armed and funded the Huks, he told a press-TV-radio conference earlier tonight. And he hoisted before the people what he asserted was military intelligence information to nail down these charges.
“I say to him now: these are devious lies. I deny them flatly.
“He also hauled up arms I supposedly gave to the Huks. These, I charge him back, are his fabrications. Likewise, he brought before the TV cameras two supposed witnesses against me, one a longtime friend. I tell him: I will confront his witnesses.
“I say his charges are fabrications. And I challenge him to prove they are not.
“I say these are part of a sinister plot to obliterate the Opposition. And his very act is my proof. I say his motive is, far from securing the security of the people and the Republic, rather to secure the politics of his Party. This—again—is proven by his unholy timing.
“He says he has had the goods on me—that I have armed, funded and comforted the enemies of the state since 1965 and 1966. Why did he wait until tonight to unwrap the bill?
“I say that where the black bombers failed to wipe out the Opposition at Plaza Miranda, he would now succeed. This is his motive.
“I tell him: Mr. President, don’t do me any favors. Do your duty—and file your charges against me.
“Your duty is clear. And don’t forget your oath to apply the law evenly—if harshly. I know Lady Justice has worn a peek-a-boo since you came to power, but let Justice be blind once again in my case and let Justice take her full course in the charges you have leveled against me.
“I demand, in fact, Mr. President, that you bring to court—and prove that I am guilty or be shown as the biggest liar in Philippine political life.
“I ask him to charge me formally so he and I can meet before the bar of Philippine justice.
“If I am guilty, I will pay for my alleged crimes.
“If I am innocent, he must face the people and account for the lies, the plots, the smears he has so freely and ruthlessly waged against me. But if this is the price I must now pay for having abided unflinchingly with the faith you have put in me, I say: So be it. It is a privilege, not a sacrifice.”
Aquino stood up. Enrile squeezed his arm and gave him a reassuring smile, as though to say it was all a game, a show, and no real harm would come to him. But Ninoy’s dark expression did not change. If the President was in earnest, he did not like being threatened. If the whole thing was a ploy to save the President from having to make embarrassing explanations concerning the bombing incident and the measures he had adopted, he did not like being used. He walked out of the room without saying a word. We drove to his house in his car.
“Jesus Christ!” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “Imagine the canard he is trying to foist. Ako pa ang nag-bomba together with the New People’s Army.”
On the night of the bombing he had not been on stage with the other Liberals. He was at a goddaughter’s despedida de soltera. His absence had lent some credence to the speculation that he had planned the bombing.
“Christ’s sake, this guy is really determined to send me to jail,” he said.
He leaned back in the seat. The ordeal there was over. He looked contented. Now there was no more having to choose. He had flung the President’s threat back in the man’s complacent face and he was happy with his decision. All that remained was for the authorities to pick him up.
“So what? So one or two years in a stockade. At least I’ll died with my boots on.”
Had he plans of escaping into the hills? I asked.
“Ha, oblige him? Nah, I’ll stick it out here.”
If they came for him, what would he do?
“Aba, I’ll go. Christ’s sake! And tell your father not to forget the pocketbooks when he’s brought in, too. I’ll bring in the Philippine Reports and resume my law studies in jail and when I come out, take the bar. This is the only chance I’ll have.”
At this we started laughing.
“ ‘I erred on the side of generosity,’ did you hear that? Boy oh boy, what a shit of bluffer. He’s thrown everything at me, but I’m numb. I told you that even before all this, at the Inter-continental. I’m really numb.”
I asked him about the two witnesses Marcos had presented.
If one added up all the time he had seen Hernan Ilagan, it would amount to three hours, he said. As for Max Llorente, he saved the man’s life once and his skin several times over. This was how the man repaid him!
“The classic Filipino,” said Ninoy. It was a favorite phrase of his. He had used it in previous conversations to describe Filipinos who lived off the fat of the land but refused to pay for any of it.
I asked him about the affidavits made by other witnesses implicating him in the crime of subversion.
“All his witnesses are dead, anyway. Putang ina. Hahahaha. Naku linabas ang mga baril, ayong mga lahat na…. Hahahaha. Jesus, what a farce! Aye, God! Goddamned this guy, he’s good, this Marcos. He almost convinced me I’m a Huk.”
Every day from then on the Marcos Administration hurled a new charge or threat at the senator, who exposed every charge as a lie and met each threat with smiling nonchalance. And yet the threats were real enough. One night the PC ringed his house to frighten his family. Members of the medical staff of the Central Azucarrera de Tarlac were picked up and questioned by the PC, who tried to force them into signing affidavits implicating Ninoy with the Huks. Houseboys and cooks were also arrested. His brother-in-law, Antolin Oreta, Jr., was “invited” by the army and then detained.
That he had had dealings with the Huks, Ninoy did not deny.
“What can I do about that? I have lived in Tarlac where the Huks operate most. The point I’m driving at with my frequent mention of Huks is that as governor of Tarlac I tried to arrive at a condition of peace that was not reached through bloodshed. In my six years of governorship, I don’t think there were more than 21 Huk killings. It was not until Mr. Marcos arrived on the scene that these things began to escalate. From 1966 up the present about 1,500 have been killed. My policy as governor had been to let everyone come to my office and talk things over: Huk and non-Huk, Nacionalista and Liberal. I believed that was the only way I could maintain peace in the province. I told the Huks, ‘This is a free country. So long as you don’t kill anyone this is a free country for you. You can speak against me, attack me in the barrios. Go ahead. I believe in our democracy. You have the right to air your views. If the people should ultimately prefer your system to the one I espouse, who am I to oppose the people?’
“The Army calls this co-existence.
“I call it survival. Moreover I have extreme faith in our democratic way of life. I firmly believe that exposed to both the democratic and Communist ideologies, the people will opt for democracy.
“When the Huks complained about bad roads, I immediately repaired them. When the Huks said a landowner was abusive, I immediately approached the landowner, and if the Huks were speaking the truth, I asked him to mend his ways. The landowners have called me a radical but all I did was ask them, ‘Which would you prefer? To negotiate with the Huks or get your head chopped off?
“The Army called it co-existence. Well, they can call it anything they want, but the Army was happy then. There was peace.”
As for his frequent meetings with the Huks, he had arranged these meetings not to solicit Huks support for his candidates but, on the contrary, to ask the Huks not to interfere in Tarlac politics. One such meeting had been at the request of Danding Cojuangco, the President’s right hand man, who was then running for governor, according to Ninoy.
To deprive the Liberals of support from any sector, the Marcos Administration continued its smear campaign against the spokesman for the Liberal Party. The charge of Communism dangling over Aquino’s head kept the Chinese, for one, from giving him any aid. The memory of the fate of the Yuyitung brothers was still fresh in their minds. To deny the Liberals American support, President Marcos invited a New York Times correspondent to interview him. He repeated his charges against Ninoy and said that if the Communists fielded a candidate in 1973, meaning Ninoy Aquino, he would be compelled to field his wife, Imelda, as his party’s candidate for President.
In answer, Ninoy said that eight years of Marcos are enough and to inflict six more years of Imelda on the country would be unthinkable! Addressing himself to the President, Ninoy said:
“If Mr. Marcos is fielding his wife in ’73 just to stop Ninoy Aquino, I’m telling him now, I’m not running. Keep your wife home, Mr. Marcos, do not tire her out with a gruelling campaign. I would like to spare her the hardship. I will not run in 1973, so long as Imelda’s doesn’t run either. Let Imelda and I make a blood compact, vowing not to run in 1973 as Presidential candidates.”
Asked to comment on Ninoy’s proposal, President Marcos answered:
“I refuse to comment on a speech by a comedian.”
Ninoy Aquino’s audacity and defiance bore fruit on November 8. The Liberal senatorial candidates swept the elections. In Ilocos Sur, Singson won as governor and in Isabela, despite the presence of Task Force Lawin, Dy won as well. Ninoy’s cause had, indeed, been vindicated. Even the poorest and most downtrodden emulated the example he had set. In Tarlac, the barrio folk themselves went out to protect the ballots they had cast, forming long processions to escort the ballot boxes to the municipalities. The senator had given a new lease on life to the democratic idea, which cynics had dismissed as an empty catchphrase incapable of firing anyone’s imagination, let alone convincing anyone to risk his life for it. The “people’s victory,” as Ninoy called it, of November 8 proved them wrong.
Because he stood for the people’s will to resist tyranny, drawing upon himself all the fury of its wrath without flinching, Sen. Benigno Aquino, Jr., did more than anybody else to make that victory possible and is, therefore, the Man of the Year 1971 in the Philippines.