A comrade during my politically active EDSA Revolution days reminded me once to keep in mind that we Filipinos have such short memories. How right he was. Barely a generation has passed and already a bill has been filed in Congress by no less than the son of the President to nullify a gesture made by our country to honor a martyred hero on the very site of his assassination, our international airport.
Former Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr.’s funeral cortege on Aug. 31, 1983 took all of 12 hours — from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. — to traverse the distance from Santo Domingo Church in Quezon City to the Manila Memorial Park in Parañaque. Hundreds of thousands of our people marched for hours to honor Ninoy’s incredible sacrifice. His arrival speech, which he was unable to deliver, ended with the statement “The Filipino is worth dying for.”
The memorial plaque on the tarmac at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, on the precise site where he was shot, has the following inscription: “On this spot Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino was assassinated on 21 August 1983. It is eternally enshrined: for wherever a martyr has shed his blood for truth, justice, peace and freedom there is sacred ground. The sun cannot bleach, the wind cannot blow, the rain cannot wash that sanctity away. From the ground like this springs that which forever makes the Filipino great.”
An initiative of the Ninoy Aquino Movement (NAM) led by the late Senator Heherson Alvarez, the renaming of the airport was based on Republic Act 6639 dated Nov. 27, 1987 (Ninoy Aquino’s birthday). Out of her typical delicadeza (an alien concept, it seems, these days), then President Corazon Aquino did not sign the bill but she did not veto it; so it lapsed into law and was carried out.
Let us be kind. Let us assume that Paolo Duterte and his cohorts and co-sponsors of House Bill #7031 (Congressmen Lord Allan Velasco and Eric Yap) are not motivated by political malice, but by ignorance. They were all too young to appreciate the gravity and significance of what Ninoy Aquino fought and died for. They have no inkling of the sacredness of that hallowed ground.
They probably have no memory of the seven years and seven months of Ninoy Aquino’s forced incarceration, from the declaration of Martial Law by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in September 1972 to his family’s departure for the United States where he had heart bypass surgery. They cannot have been conscious of Ninoy’s solitary confinement in Nueva Ecija together with the late and also heroic and brilliant Senator Jose Diokno. Perhaps they have never heard about the 40 days of protest fasting against his military trial that Ninoy Aquino went through while in jail. All those years, the hero could have chosen to give up his protest and obtain his release to be with his young family by accepting the dictator’s conditions. But he obstinately refused to compromise. He was convicted for murder, illegal possession of firearms, and subversion by a military tribunal together with NPA leader Bernabe (Dante) Buscayno and rebel Lt. Victor Corpus. However, the politically astute Marcos did not carry out the penalty of death, conscious perhaps of the powerful impact it would have on the Filipino people. After all, the execution of our national heroes — Jose Rizal at the Luneta and the Gomburza (Filipino rebel priests Gomez, Burgos and Zamora) in what is now Trece Martires in Cavite — led to the revolution against Spain. There is historically a demonstrated limit to the Filipino people’s tolerance of abuse.
The story of Ninoy Aquino’s life from the time he was 18 years old is an extraordinary one of audacity and true courage. As a teenager, he volunteered to be a war correspondent in Korea. When he was barely into his twenties, he was a consultant to President Ramon Magsaysay who trusted him enough to let him negotiate the surrender of Hukbalahap founder Luis Taruc, which he accomplished. He became the country’s youngest mayor, then governor of Tarlac. Barely qualified by age, he was eventually elected senator where his articulate audacity was soon discovered; and he became a media celebrity and was clearly presidential timber.
National heroes Jose Rizal and Ninoy Aquino demonstrated their courage in their willingness to die for their principles and love for their country. Today, “courage” is brazenly demonstrated by a willingness to kill or to order killings of fellow Filipinos. And based on political surveys, this kind of behavior is approved of, or at least not condemned by Filipino voters. The Marcos family and many of their cronies and their descendants are back in power and big business. How did we come to this?
Perhaps the delicadeza of Presidents Cory Aquino and her son, Benigno (Noynoy) Aquino III deterred them from pushing for memorials and educational campaigns regarding Martial Law, the threats to human rights, the rule of law (not of men), freedom of expression, including press freedom and other provisions of our Constitution.
What can the private sector do?
Perhaps the private sector should take it upon itself to launch educational projects and memorials to educate and remind our people of our democratic rights and responsibilities. We cannot leave this to the government or the politicians who are not likely to be objective. After all, democracy is not granted to us. We the citizenry need to be vigilant and to constantly earn and protect it. We have lost these freedoms before, and now seem to be in the process of losing them again. Our history is replete with heroes who have died to defend them. Can we let their sacrifices be in vain? Are we really worth dying for?
To start with, here is a concrete suggestion from a good friend. How do we sharpen and lengthen our short memories? Civil society could mobilize resources to build a Martial Law museum soon, before the generations that experienced it have passed away. This is urgent. We owe it to our children and their descendants. It has been said often enough that those who cannot remember their mistakes are bound to repeat them.
Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.