Ninoy’s impossible dream

“It takes little effort to stop a tyrant. I have no doubt in the ultimate victory of right over wrong, of good over evil, in the awakening of the Filipino.” — Benigno “Ninoy” S. Aquino Jr.

‘Marcial Bonifacio’ could have chosen a different path. But he did not.

On the tenth year anniversary of his murder, Teodoro Benigno wrote this of Ninoy:

“What made [the fight] majestic was that Ninoy, even when almost everybody deserved him and his cause, held the conviction that the Filipino was worth dying for.”

Rarely in history do we witness a quintessential show of gallantry among men and women who would naturally seize political glory without fantasizing about heroically putting a lid on an emerging social volcano that stood beyond their elitist, plutocratic horizon. But Benigno “Ninoy” S. Aquino, Jr. was of a different mold, a different kind of political aggrupation, and a different era – the epoch when even the mightiest political figure slugged it out, in a battle of wits and wills, to fight a dictatorship.

Ninoy, of course, was no saint. Very far from it. In fact, the roots of his political background – having been born to a family of landlords and politicians in Tarlac, married to a scion of Tarlac’s biggest landlord clan, and having served three presidents as a conduit to their governments’ master-servant relations with the United States – somehow makes him one of Marcos’ kind: a product of the ruling class whose sole reasons for existence are wealth and power.

But the battle against Ferdinand E. Marcos’ dictatorship altered Ninoy’s equation.

Ninoy Aquino during his “kangaroo trial” under Military Commission No. 2’s watch (led by General Jose Syjuco) in 1973.

By refusing to bend a knee to Marcos, Ninoy earned an unalterable place in our pantheon of heroes. But it’s more than him, as he knew. Ninoy imbibed the same ferocious fervor for defiance that echoed through the heroism, the martyrdom, of other Filipinos who also chose to fight the Marcos dictatorship. He breathed the air of liberty as our other heroes did. Ninoy walked through the innermost core of hell, waded through the scorching heat of Fort Bonifacio’s cramped cells, with only faith and determination to offer.

His “lonely” battle from prison embodied hope, which also resonated through EDSA when it was time for Marcos to face the truth of eventual fate: his ouster. But that hope, empty as it seemed at that time, carried the embers of light that illumined across a people cloaked by despotic darkness. That hope, that light that flickered when many had cowered, was transcendental.

Ninoy’s transcendence emanated not from a conceited ambition to push out Marcos from Malacañang (that dream faded with Marcos’ cancellation of the 1973 elections through martial law), but from a deep-seated aim, his impossible dream, which he shared with the rest of the country who also sought to end the Marcos regime, to attain genuine liberation and oppose the insolence of a tyrannical regime — even at the highest cost for himself.

When martial law’s proclamation shrouded the entire archipelago, Ninoy had a choice to forget about his opposition to Marcos and offer a hand for the dictatorship. To scribble down a message of allegiance to the monster he vowed to fight tooth and nail. In fact, Ninoy’s biography includes one instance wherein a military officer who guarded him back in Fort Magsaysay’s fortress mischievously asked him to endorse Marcos’ New Society in exchange for his freedom.

Of course, Ninoy refused the rogue offer – obstinately.

Some pundits had suggested that, looking back, his political rivalry with Marcos could be viewed as an equivalent of a chess match – where both men, of equal gumption, political talent, and largesse, were fighting each other in a close fight that left the country on the edge. That, in my opinion, is way too simplistic a commemoration of Ninoy’s struggle to achieve his impossible dream – because his fight, what his wife’s first presidential spokesperson called his “lonely but majestic fight,” mirrored something greater, much more significant, than a chess match: an entire nation’s revulsion against the pitfalls and evils of Marcos’ monstrous dictatorship.

More so, Ninoy – as he professed himself in his persiflages to Marcos – was never alone in the battle.

On Ninoy’s tumultous funeral march, activists unfurled this historic protest banner that brandished faces of the martyrs in the struggle against dictatorship: Ninoy, Edgar Jopson, community doctors Bobby Dela Paz and Johnny Escandor, and tribal chieftain Macli-ing Dulag.

Who could ever sweep under the rug the underpinnings of Ninoy’s battle against the dictatorship? The ideals that sustained his struggle — democracy, freedom, justice — incidentally are also our own, in our post-Ninoy world. But the saddest conclusion to his martyrdom was that, even if the people eventually got rid of the reviled dictator, much of what Ninoy held as his “impossible dream” remained that – a dream, however it sustains our own battles.

I think the greatest repudiation to Ninoy’s legacy, the one he stamped on the nation’s consciousness with the permanence of his blood that splattered on that blood-soaked airport tarmac on the day of his murder, was what the successors of the dictator he fought against – including his very wife and son – had done when it was already their chance to take over Malacañang.

Sure, Cory restored basic civil liberties and institutions of democratic rule alongside the ratification of a Constitution that followed and reflected democracy’s basic tenets (without even counting in the fact that Cory was a staple in street protests whenever democracy was besieged through the last three presidencies that she witnessed before her death), but her regime also perpetuated human rights abuses and other fascist methods to stifle dissent while reaffirming cacique rule of the ruling class and American imperialism’s stronghold over the country’s political, socio-economic, and cultural affairs – a far cry from Ninoy’s vision of “a free society,” as he exposited in a manifesto that he wrote back in Fort Bonifacio:

WE DREAM

OF A COMMUNITY OF LIBERATED CITIZENS enjoying the full benefits of a Free Society:

– FREE to choose, criticize and remove our duly elected governors;

– FREE from the imprisoning walls of ignorance, poverty and disease;

– FREE from the exploitation of a privileged and propertied few;

and– FREE from the entangling webs of super-power hegemony, imperialism and neo-colonialism.

Before martial law threw him into seven years of solitary confinement, with an imminent threat of execution hanging across his neck as an albatross, Ninoy was a traditional politician. Again, he’s far from a saintly figure; he was even remotely progressive before martial law. He employed guns, goons, and gold to win elections. He served three presidents in portfolios that involved the capitulation of Huk rebellion and working with American imperialism through the Central Intelligence Agency (his CIA ties became the reason for Marcos’ initial hesitance to allow him a furlough in the United States when he suffered from heart ailment in 1980).

But he was an ironic trapo, too – the only trapo I know who maintained that level of ties with communist intellectuals, Huk rebels (and even New People’s Army fighters), and one who has heavily read on communism, its theory, and its history. A public intellectual who straddled between his politics and his books. While he never involved himself with the communist movement, Ninoy succinctly analyzed the roots of the armed struggle based upon what he had accumulated from his books and his engagements with the communist movement – and, unlike Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s assertion that government officials should condemn communist rebels as “enemies,” not once did Ninoy denounce the communists as enemies.

In his concluding statement on his lopsided military trial, which Cory had published in a posthumous tome a year after his assassination, Ninoy wrote:

If I have gone out of my way to meet with insurgents, if I have given them shelter and medical aid when they came to me, bleeding and near death, it was because I was convinced these dissidents were freedom-fighters first – in their own light – and if they were communists at all, they were communist last.

… They might have been dissidents. But to me they were brother Filipinos who deserved the right to be heard. My intention was to prevent them from becoming hopelessly desperate – and to give them a feeling of belonging. By lending them a hand and a sympathetic ear, I wanted to hold out to them the hope for a better future.

Imagine if Ninoy became president on the heels of Marcos’ downfall.

Ninoy’s “kangaroo court” trial in 1973. (Philippine Tatler)

When the trapo in him vanished in thin air, a Renaissance in Ninoy’s ideology and virtues ensued as martial law’s fascism whipped him with the intensity of a bullfighter. Inside his solitary prison, when his company had been sustained by the books lining up his shelves, the utensils that filled his kitchen, and the calendar on which he counted his days as Marcos’ prize political prisoner, it dawned on Ninoy that there was more to him than political power.

Ambition towered over Ninoy’s consciousness more than anything else. But martial law banished that foible on Ninoy’s mind. Suddenly, he rose from the rubbles of his match with death that loomed over his head as Marcos inched his way through dictatorial perpetuation with a firm resolve for democracy, notwithstanding the price tag. Inside the dungeon that was Fort Bonifacio’s walls, Ninoy coveted an indefatigable commitment to the struggle.

The walls of his matchbox prison in Laur, where the dictator’s men held him at gunpoint with an imaginary Russian Roulette through psychological torture for 43 days, brought him closer to his family, his countrymen, and his God. He questioned his faith, his God, and asked why the thieves roamed free while he rot in Laur’s isolation. But by questioning God, he summoned his unyielding faith to his God, entrusting himself to his will, obtaining moral fortitude and conviction from Christ’s own life and struggle.

Ninoy prayed the rosary like he never did when he was an impatient politician. He jettisoned his presidential ambitions with his defiance of New Society’s tyrannical regime. Squaring off with death in the torment that was Laur, and in the unchartered terrain of battle that was his hunger strike, Ninoy crossed his Rubicon. The dictator’s ephemeral power could not scare him off, so much so that even assassination did not deter his final act of defiance on Manila International Airport’s tarmac.

Say what you will about Ninoy, including disinformation fuelled by Marcosian historical revisionism, but one thing stands the ultimate test of time: Ninoy’s impossible dream is still our nation’s aspiration in the time of Duterte. Social justice, civil liberties, individual freedom, democracy, genuine prosperity that cuts through social classes – the same dream that once preoccupied Ninoy’s mind as he sought solicitude from long years of incarceration, the same wish that punctuated his bloodied return from self-exile, still suffuses our battle against a new dictator.

Fear was contagious in Marcos’ dystopian world – but so was courage. (Rappler)

As with Ninoy in his era, our people constantly stand on the crosshairs of this regime’s tyranny because Duterte’s raison d’etre is diametrically opposed to our covenant for justice, freedom, and democracy. Much similar to the consequences of his obstinacy in fighting Marcos, we are smeared with a subversive tag, denounced as traitors, hunted down as incorrigible insurrectos by forces of dictatorship who, once more, strives to rob us of our freedom – for the “crime” of exercising democracy’s fundamental principles.

Yet, in the same spirit that guided Ninoy’s final journey against martial law, we stand proudly on the front lines of subverting the remnants of wicked tyranny that is very much identical to the one Ninoy died fighting against. In each day when the people asserts itself through the struggle to achieve what Ninoy and all the other heroes and martyrs of martial law had worked so hard to achieve, we still battle against his “unbeatable foes,” rushing to the edge of that cliff where others would not dare go, still dreaming of Ninoy’s impossible dream: a nation that is truly free from poverty and injustice, a society where democracy can genuinely exist.

Ninoy admonished the late dictator about the curse of despotism that, in 1986, turfed him out of Malacañang. Marcos refused to listen until it was too late to listen – when the gunshot that snuffed out Ninoy’s life became the reverberating hymn, the uproarious pulse, of our nonviolent conclusion to the Marcos dictatorship’s violence. No dictator has ever lived through history, Ninoy told his fiercest enemy. He was correct. History was never kind to tyrants, even if that same tyrant scored a spurious “hero’s” burial.

And so here our people stand, once more, in another juncture of history where Ninoy and his band of freedom-fighters once stood – what another martyr of the people, Lean Alejandro, called the “line of fire.” The place of honor where battle lines have been drawn between tyrants and a citizenry roaring to defy him with democracy’s muffled tone. Within our struggle, the wax of the candle that is Ninoy’s impossible dream still flickers – and it is the pursuit of our own impossible dream that invigorates our renewed battle against the despot bedeviling our Motherland.

We may be tagged as today’s treasonous fighters, but Ninoy’s own words would redeem for us history’s ultimate vindication for freedom-fighters: “Yesterday’s traitors are tomorrow’s heroes!”

The burial that became a symbol of snowballing protest, heralding the end of the Marcos dictatorship.

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Karl Patrick Suyat

editor-in-chief, up journalism club • institute for nationalist studies • bookworm