Ninoy Aquino’s assassination

If Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. had not been murdered, he would have become, sooner or later, the president of the Philippines. He was only 50 on the day he was killed, Aug. 21, 1983, just minutes after the plane bringing him home from exile landed at the then Manila International Airport. He would have easily won the vote if Ferdinand Marcos, who seized total power in 1972, had allowed free elections to be held after the formal lifting of martial law in 1981. He was the dictator’s most formidable foe. There was never any question that Ninoy Aquino’s star would rise as soon as the Marcos regime fell.

Perhaps, no other Filipino leader of his time had been as obsessed with the shifting tides of Philippine politics. Although he was a lead character on the political stage, he had the uncanny ability to describe unfolding events as though he was the scriptwriter. He juggled alternative scenarios in his mind, based on what he imagined to be the complex interplay of human motives and capabilities, and drew conclusions about what was most likely to happen. He thoughtfully weighed his options, but never hesitated to embrace the risks they entailed. His way of easing the burden of the choices he made was by testing the scenarios he formulated among his closest friends.

Though he was thousands of miles away from the action, Ninoy was very well informed about what was going on in the Philippines, in the United States, and in the Asean region. He had amazing connections in all these places. He talked to a lot of people. One of his last conversations was with Steve Psinakis, a Greek engineer who worked with the Lopez group of companies and had joined the family in political exile abroad. Ninoy called Steve shortly before his fatal trip to Manila. An audio recording of that fascinating phone conversation, most likely made at Steve’s end, recently surfaced on YouTube [].

It is a valuable artifact of our recent history, and there is no reason to doubt its authenticity. The voices are clear and recognizable, and the sharing is vintage Ninoy. He had called up Steve, who was a member of the US-based Movement for a Free Philippines, to say goodbye to him and his wife, Presy Lopez. Ninoy said he was calling from the airport. He explained why he was making that trip despite the risks. He had heard, he said, from Jaime Cardinal Sin, that Marcos was terminally ill because of an end-stage renal disease, and was hooked up to a dialysis machine. His doctors supposedly said that in his condition, surgery would be fatal.

Ninoy was seeking a dialogue with the dying dictator, hoping to be able to persuade him to pave the way for a peaceful transition to a duly-elected government. His great fear was that Marcos would hang on to power through Imelda and her backer, the military chief, Gen. Fabian Ver. Should that happen, he was sure there would be chaos.

Ninoy was fully aware that he would either be immediately thrown back to prison or, in the worst possible case, murdered on the ground. He, in fact, welcomed the first possibility because, he said, it would give him time to play his trump cards. But there was nothing he could do to prevent the latter. He was hoping no one would be stupid enough to kill him in broad daylight.

Psinakis worried that while Marcos could be pragmatic, there might be “hardliners” like General Ver who, believing “they’re next in line,” would feel threatened by Ninoy’s return.  To this anxious thought from a friend, Ninoy responded by saying that he had indeed been alerted to three scenarios. First, that the government would try to intercept and force his plane to turn back. Second, that Ninoy’s plane would be allowed to land, but the airport would be sealed from the public. “The third one, and this is the real iffy. They have two guys stationed to knock me out at the airport. And they will try them for murder, they’ll convict them, but they have assurances.”

Ninoy’s information proved strangely accurate. Raymond Bonner offered this account in his book, “Waltzing with a dictator: The Marcoses and the making of American policy”:  “The Marcos government first tried to intercept Aquino’s plane and divert it to a local air base, where presumably Aquino could have been eliminated out of the public eye. Two Philippine Air Force F-5 fighter jets were sent on the mission, and Filipino airmen monitored the scrambling and searched for the China Airlines jet from radar consoles and scopes on the ground at two bases. American airmen at these bases, which are used jointly by the two countries, found the Filipino activity highly unusual but were not informed about what was happening; some were told bluntly that it was none of their business.”

There were indeed two gunmen waiting at the airport. One shot Ninoy as he went down the ramp by the side of the plane escorted by soldiers. The other shot Rolando Galman, the fall guy who was blamed for the shooting of Ninoy.

Sadly, Ninoy was mistaken in his assessment of the health condition of Marcos. The man was indeed very ill, but he was not dying. A kidney transplant, done in secret about two weeks before Ninoy’s arrival in Manila, extended the dictator’s life by six more years after the airport assassination.

It is no longer important who actually shot Ninoy. The question is: Who in the Marcos government ordered him killed? It is easy to point a finger at General Ver, whose reputation was that of the doggedly loyal protector of the Marcos family. But, it is difficult to imagine that he would have done anything without the knowledge and approval of the Marcoses.