Muted anniversary of Benigno Aquino's killing in Marcos-led Philippines

The September 1983 edition of the opposition tabloid magazine Mr & Ms, featuring the late senator Benigno Aquino Jr, in Philippines on Aug 21, 2022. PHOTO: MARA CEPEDA

MANILA - Thirty-nine years ago, his death at the hands of a kill squad that allegedly had the tacit consent of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr sparked a popular revolt that forced the Marcoses to flee the Philippines.

But on Sunday (Aug 21), the anniversary of former senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr's assassination in 1983 was a muted affair.

Neither President Ferdinand Marcos Jr nor his Vice-President Sara Duterte issued a statement to commemorate the day, as was the tradition of past leaders.

Members of the Aquino clan marked the day without much fanfare, offering flowers and prayers at his tomb in Paranaque City before attending Mass.

Mr Aquino was a staunch Marcos critic and was among the first to be imprisoned when the strongman declared martial law in September 1972.

He was shot dead at close range in 1983, moments after touching down in the Philippines after three years of self-exile in the United States.

Opposition leaders used to join Mr Aquino's family for a short programme, while the mayor of the capital city of Manila would lead wreath-laying rites at the airport now named after Mr Aquino.

This ceased in the past years, after Mr Rodrigo Duterte, father of Ms Sara Duterte, took the presidency for six years till this June.

The muted remembrance this year was not surprising for Filipino historian Xiao Chua.

"The political winds have shifted, so our celebration today is more simple," said Mr Chua, at a history fair organised by civil society groups to honour Mr Aquino. "Our government officials may not join us, but ordinary Filipinos are here to remember."

The fair, attended by about 100 people, was organised by Project Gunita, a coalition of civil society groups named after the Filipino word for "remember". It was held at the Monument of Heroes, an unassuming shrine in Quezon City to the martyrs who fought the Marcos dictatorship.

Documentaries and historical films about martial law were screened for free, while books by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines were put up for sale.

Various exhibits detailing the rampant corruption, killings, disappearances, and media censorship under Marcos Sr were on display.

"We are happy that you are remembering today all the people who dedicated their lives to reclaim our democracy," Mr Aquino's eldest daughter Ballsy Aquino-Cruz said in a video message. "The public may have forgotten some of them already, so it's only right that we remember and thank them today".

Two young Filipinos read about the assassination of former senator Benigno Aquino Jr at the history fair in Quezon City. PHOTO: MARA CEPEDA

Political analysts and historians like Mr Chua have reported a rise of online efforts in recent years to reframe Marcos Sr's 21-year regime.

This included disinformation attempts on social media to whitewash abuses during nine brutal years of martial law, coupled with targeted attacks against the Marcos clan's political opponents, according to a study by researchers at the Philippine Media Monitoring Laboratory.

Mr Aquino, elected to the Senate in 1967, was the bane of the Marcos administration.

In a Senate speech in 1972, he exposed the president's "Oplan Sagittarius" plan to use the series of bombings in Metro Manila - to be blamed on communists - as justification to declare martial law.

Mr Aquino was thrown in jail shortly after military rule was declared in 1972.

He stayed on in the US after he was allowed to get bypass surgery there in 1980, but decided to return home in 1983.

Just before disembarking his plane at the Manila International Airport, Mr Aquino told reporters: "If it's my fate to die by an assassin's bullet, then so be it. I cannot allow myself to be petrified by the fear of assassination and spend my life in a corner."

Minutes later, he was killed by a bullet to the head - an act that shook the nation and brought more than a million supporters to the streets on Aug 31 during his funeral procession.

After investigations, more than 20 military men were charged in 1985, but they were later acquitted.

Mr Aquino's assassination further galvanised the opposition, culminating in the bloodless People Power Revolution that ousted Marcos Sr in 1986.

The dictator was replaced by Mr Aquino's widow, the late democracy icon Corazon Aquino. She opened a new investigation into her husband's death, with the court convicting 16 military men for murder.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.