The Struggle Against Forgetting

by Juan L. Mercado

Our paths crossed, for the last time, at  San Francisco International Airport. The wife, five kids and I were flying, via Manila, to my United Nations duty station in Bangkok.  Former Senator Benigno Aquino was booked on a Boston flight.  Our final chat, before departure gates,  is what comes to mind when the country recalls the 28th anniversary of his murder, at Manila’s airport tarmac, this Sunday.

As a Senate reporter, we covered  Ninoy as youngest member of the Upper Chamber. Journalists knew of his stint, as Manila Times correspondent ,in the Korean conflict. As martial law detainees, we were hauled, in habeas corpus proceedings,  before a Supreme Court, crafted in the dictator’s image.

Among other things, we reminisced over securing a “carrier pigeon” —  an Air India manager — to sneak his article, smuggled from a Fort Bonifacio prison cell to the Bangkok Post. That was February 1973.

“I will not accept President Marcos’ offer of an amnesty because I do not believe I’ve committed any crime,” Aquino wrote  in the first-ever challenge to martial law. “He violated our Constitution and broke our laws.” Information Minister Francisco Tatad cabled a furious 8,000 word reply to the three-part Bangkok Post series titled: “The Aquino papers.  It never mentioned Ninoy’s name.

Reprisals followed. Aquino and Senator Jose Diokno, were hustled into solitary confinement in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija — and half-starved to death. Prison guards turned away  Corazon Aquino, Carmen Diokno and families for 43 days. Deputy Defense Minister Carmelo Barbero told  Cory it was ‘punishment’ for the Post series,”

Flight boarding calls cut our talk short.  “Why didn’t you introduce me?” our 12-year old son Francis groused as Ninoy waved goodbye. “He’s will be the next  president of the Philippines.”

That was not to be.  While military agents “guarded” Aquino, a single bullet tore into his jaw, on the service gangway from his China Airlines plane.

In Bangkok, a reporter from The Nation phoned for a reaction: “Marcos claims he heads a ‘command society.’ He has all the powers; so he has all the responsibility”, was all I could mumble.  As a numb afterthought, I added: “Manila will be renamed Aquino International Airport.”

The censored press suppressed Aquino’s arrival address,  aborted by that murder.  “I have returned of my own free will to join the ranks of those struggling to recover our rights and freedoms through non-violence,” Aquino planned to say. “I seek no confrontation.”  He flayed the supine Supreme Court justices’ abdication of the cherished right of habeas corpus.

Aquino thought a direct appeal to the ill, isolated Marcos could usher in peaceful change. He saw the danger. “If they kill me, they’re out in two years,” he predicted. That forecast fell short of the People Power Revolt by three years. Was this stupidity?  Or principled stubbornness?

The Duke of Norfolk badgered the imprisoned Thomas More to heed Henry VIII’s demand for consent to his divorce. “Think Master More,” the Duke urged. “Indignatio principis mors est.” [“The prince’s anger is death.”]  More replied: “Is that all, my Lord? Then, there’s no difference between your Grace and me — but I shall die today and you, tomorrow.”

The dictator’s anger took form in Military Commission No. 2 finding Aquino “guilty” of subversion. They sentenced him to “death by musketry.” Censorship ensured that few heard what Aquino said after the sentencing.

But Aquino, we’re told, asked  his judges: Do your honors recall those who sentenced Andres Bonifacio?. They could not.   Aquino ticked off the names of Gen. Mariano Noriel, Col. Agapito Banzon and others. “Today, few remember them.  But we meet in a fort that is named in honor of the very man they sentenced to death.”

This was historical irony. Bonifacio’s trial has been documented by retired Justice Abraham Sarmiento and others. And deadline-pressed laymen, like us, hope that scholars of Ambeth Ocampo’s competence will one day compare transcripts of these two mistrials.

Ninoy’s funeral brought two million mourners into the streets. They tuned in to Radio Veritas, the only station that dared report the rites. “No umbrellas,” people chanted as rain fell. “Only Imelda uses an umbrella!” —  a jeer at cronies who trotted, with parasol, behind the First Lady.

When the coffin passed Rizal Park, crowds forcibly lowered the giant Philippine flag to half-staff. Did that presage People Power three years later?  But the the blood of martyrs is the seed of heroes.

Ninoy’s features today grace our currency and stamps. Schools and streets are named after him. So is the Manila International Airport.  “Cory is  just a housewife”, Marcos sneered when the opposition asked her to seek the presidency. “Wives should  stay in the bedroom”.  Marcos lived long enough to see housewife installed by People Power as the  country’s 13th  President. Cory’s funeral dwarfed those of Ninoy.

The Aquinos never demanded a plot in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. The Marcoses, in contrast, have wheedled, unsuccessfully so far, for such an interment. Sorry old questions, fester: Who were the mastermind(s)? Why have they escaped accounting? And who remembers the judges of Military Commission No. 2?  

Now a  44-year-old  Delta  Airlines pilot, Francis never got to talk to Ninoy. From his Minneapolis base, he sees the nation mark his death  yearly.. “It’s your fault,” he will  josh this old man once again.

Indeed, the “struggle of man against power,” as Czech novelist Milan Kundera once said, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”


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