The day that marked end of Marcos dictatorship

Thirty-nine years ago, the opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. ended his three-year exile in the United States by coming home. Aware that a death sentence earlier issued against him by a military tribunal could still be enforced, he expected to be arrested upon his arrival in Manila. A dozen government security forces boarded his plane, picked him up from his seat in full view of the other passengers, and, using a side door, escorted him down to the tarmac. There he was killed.

That fateful day was Aug. 21, 1983.

Ninoy had written a speech he was supposed to deliver upon his arrival. In it, he wrote: “Six years ago, I was sentenced to die before a firing squad by a Military Tribunal whose jurisdiction I steadfastly refused to recognize. It is now time for the regime to decide. Order my IMMEDIATE EXECUTION OR SET ME FREE.” (Caps in the original text)

The charges against him hinged on his alleged membership in the communist movement and the supposed plot to overthrow the government. This he staunchly denied in his undelivered speech. “I was sentenced to die for allegedly being the leading communist leader. I am not a communist, never was and never will be.”

No one expected that the death sentence hanging over his head would be carried out so swiftly and so brazenly. Except Ninoy, who had an uncanny premonition of what might happen. It could happen very quickly, he told a group of reporters before embarking on his final journey.

But, given the situation the country was in, it was for him a small price to pay. “The nation-wide rebellion is escalating and threatens to explode into a bloody revolution. There is a growing cadre of young Filipinos who have finally come to realize that freedom is never granted, it is taken. Must we relive the agonies and the blood-letting of the past that brought forth our Republic or can we sit down as brothers and sisters and discuss our differences with reason and goodwill?”

The last sentence reinforced the suspicion that he was coming home to sit down with Marcos to persuade him to talk to the opposition and jointly find a peaceful way out of the political impasse that was threatening to explode into a bloody civil war. Who is he, I remember some people asking, to speak for the opposition?

But Ninoy had a firm grasp of the political culture, which allowed him to see the political crisis not so much as a danger but as an opportunity. His long years in politics had taught him that even the bitterest of political enemies could defer to each other and talk like friends. He had known Marcos for a long time and this made him confident that, if he could just get a chance to talk to him one-on-one, he would be able to persuade him to loosen his dictatorial grip and accept a transition plan in which he would have to share power.

He sensed that Marcos was facing the classic problem of all dictators: how to end the emergency that legalized the imposition of martial law and gradually move toward political normalization—without signaling weakness or vulnerability. In other words, how does he who rides a tiger dismount without ending up in the beast’s belly?

Marcos might have planned for an eventual transition as methodically as he had plotted the imposition of martial law in 1972. But, at 66, which was how old he was in 1983, he most likely didn’t expect to be as physically debilitated as he felt after undergoing a kidney transplant procedure. Ninoy saw that Marcos had run out of time and that his options were closing one by one.

It would be fascinating to ask what would have happened if Ninoy had not been assassinated, and got his wish to have a long discussion with the ailing dictator, his fraternity “brod.” The meeting would have been cordial, perhaps even warm. There might not have been an easy agreement on what to do next. But the political and economic crisis that put the country on the brink of civil war could have been averted.

But people do things without thinking of the larger consequences. Whoever planned the killing of Ninoy — and to this day, we are still not certain who they were — did something either stupid or masterful. Stupid as in rashly acting out of panic, and masterful as in creating the precise conditions to bring a situation to a head. In any event, no one would have anticipated the peaceful civilian uprising at Edsa that led to the ignominious fall from power of the Marcoses.

Ninoy’s tragic death exposed the fragility of the economy, the cracks in the seat of power, the fault lines in the ranks of the opposition, and dissensions within the military. The assassination of a prominent political figure focused global attention on the human rights violations and atrocities committed by the regime. Ironically, despite his protestations about being tagged a communist, Ninoy’s death gave the communist movement an influential seat at the table of middle-class protest.

Instead of paving the smooth transition to a constitutional government, the scheduled May 1984 Batasang Pambansa election became a fierce battleground between the Marcos regime and the boycott movement that took to the streets in growing numbers. The call to boycott the 1984 election created a fusion between the middle-class-led parliament of the streets and the underground movement’s peasant organizations that emerged from the countryside. It was the highest point in the life of the Maoist CPP-NPA-NDF. They, however, misread what was going on at Edsa in late February and made the fatal mistake of staying away.

Without Ninoy’s supreme sacrifice of his own life, the Edsa revolt might not have happened, and the Marcoses might not have left at all.