“National amnesia causes us to forget who and what we are.” Is that the fix we’re in when the country marks, this Thursday, the 31st anniversary of Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr.’s airport tarmac murder?
The most concise summary of that assassination is perhaps found in the tape recorder of then Time magazine’s Sandra Burton. She propped it against a window of China Airlines Flight 811 jet, when it parked at what is today’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Three soldiers escort Aquino out. The tape catches the gangway exchange. “Eto na, eto na! Ako na, ako na! Pusila, pusila (This is it, this is it! Let me, let me! Shoot, shoot)!” Gunfire erupts and Ninoy’s bloodied body crumples on the tarmac.
“What happened?” a woman passenger screams, Burton’s tape continues. More gunshots. The wailing becomes louder. “Inside, inside, inside!” several men scream.
“The soldiers… shot Ninoy. He’s dead out there,” the woman cries out. “They shot Ninoy?” asks a passenger. Burton: “Yeah.” Man: “Where?” Burton: “Right at the bottom of the stairs.” Man: “When Ninoy was still on it or when?” Burton: “No, when he got off. I’m sure he’s dead.”
Man: “What did you see? Who did it?” Burton: “Soldiers.” Man: “How many of them?” Burton: “I don’t know. I think we’d better wait.” Man: “Did you recognize Aquino?” Burton: “Yeah.”
Man: “What’s your name?” Burton: “No, I’m not gonna… this is not the place to talk. We had just seen two assassinations take place right outside our window.”
As Time bureau chief, Burton flew with those covering Ninoy Aquino. She was later called to testify at the Agrava Fact-Finding Board and she turned her tape over to prosecutors. Then Justice Manuel Pamaran acquitted all respondents, including Marcos’ ally, AFP chief of staff Gen. Fabian Ver.
After People Power, the Supreme Court ordered a retrial. Constable Rogelio Moreno (tagged by the Sandiganbayan as the one who shot Aquino) and 15 others were convicted. But the mastermind(s) were never held to account until now.
Burton was 62 when she died in Bali in May 2004. “She was a female rarity in the sometimes aggressively gung-ho masculine world of foreign correspondents: courteous, fair-minded and intellectually honest,” Philip Bowring wrote then in the South China Morning Post.
These traits stood Burton in good stead when she led Time’s Beijing bureau during the drama of Tiananmen Square and the horrors of the June 4 killing. “She was never a combat journalist, but when firing began around Tiananmen she showed resolve to stay and find the facts.”
The journalist-to-the-bone is also seen in the work she did, as Time bureau chief in Hong Kong, from 1990 through the wrenching handover of the British colony in March 1997.
In the Philippines, “everyone got a little carried away by the euphoria of the ‘People Power’ revolution against Ferdinand Marcos.” But she did not let it divert her from covering Philippine events as dispassionately as circumstances allowed.
Her search for hard facts anchored sources for her 483-page book “The Impossible Dream.” Published by Warner Books, it is one of the more, if not the most accurate—and spellbinding—accounts of the Philippines’ turmoil of the 1980s.
Burton had intimate access to the Aquinos and Marcoses, during the crucial four years when their roles reversed to recast society, wrote journalist Stanley Karnow in his book “In Our Image” (Random House). Her insights do not portray “the Marcoses as unredeemable villains or the Aquinos as sinless saints.”
“For the first time, I could imagine what the Filipino voters, who had elected him twice and then tolerated his takeover, must have seen in him,” Burton writes of her first meeting with Marcos in September 1983 at Malacañang. “He was the kind of lawyer you would hire to get you off if you were really in trouble—particularly if you were guilty. He was the kind of maverick you would elect president when you deemed the system to be beyond the power of conventional leaders and remedies to repair.”
Imelda is trounced in the Burton reports as an insatiably grasping woman who fabricated her family history, then scrambled to make it reality.
She recalls a night-long interview with Imelda: “People said awful things…. But they were describing a rational woman, full of malice aforethought. The woman I was listening to could not be judged by normal standards. She was manic. Mad, perhaps. Touches of brilliance and insight here and there. But how was one to judge them in this tidal wave, this glut of diagrams, equations and pop geostrategy?”
Burton reports the transformation of Corazon Aquino from a self-effacing housewife into the quiet, determined president. Her friendship with the bereaved widow “enabled her to witness the change and to hear from Cory herself how it came about.” She takes readers from the moment Cory returns to the Philippines, overseeing her husband’s funeral, to the day she spends 10 hours in a Carmelite convent, meditating whether to run for president.
The courage of Cory Aquino comes through. And so do her “weaknesses.” Burton describes a world leader who takes time out to watch “Dallas” and “Falcon Crest,” but who never makes important decisions—no matter how urgent—without pausing to pray.
Journalists are often regarded as abrasive. Skepticism is a necessary tool of a good journalist, Bowring wrote. Like idealism, it can easily turn into cynicism at the sight, up-close, of dishonesty, avarice and vacuousness of celebrities.
The 17-year-old Manila Times correspondent who covered the Korean war, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., would have agreed. The 31st anniversary of Ninoy’s murder also shows Journalism 101 can provide an antidote to national amnesia.