Former senator Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr. was killed on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983.
His death was a watershed moment in Philippine history, motivating millions of people to take to the streets to oppose President Ferdinand Marcos’ regime, who would subsequently call for a tumultuous snap election before fleeing the country and handing over the president to Aquino’s wife. The victorious overthrow of the tyrant became recognized as the People Power Revolution across the world. This shocking event is one of the controversial political events in the 80s.
Who is Benigno Aquino?
On November 27, 1932, Benigno Simeon Aquino, Jr., known as “Ninoy,” was born into a wealthy landowning family in Conception, Tarlac, Philippines. Servillano Aquino y Aguilar, his grandpa, was a commander in the anti-colonial Philippine Revolution. Benigno Aquino Sr., Ninoy’s father, was a long-serving Filipino politician.
Ninoy grew raised in the Philippines, where he attended several renowned private institutions. His adolescent years, on the other hand, were tumultuous. Ninoy’s father was imprisoned as a collaborator when he was just 12 years old, and he died three years later, shortly after Ninoy turned 15.
Ninoy, an average student, opted to go to Korea at the age of 17 to report on the Korean War rather than attend university. For his reporting on the conflict for the Manila Times, he was awarded the Philippine Legion of Honor.
Ninoy Aquino studied law at the University of the Philippines when he was 21 years old in 1954. He was a member of the same Upsilon Sigma Phi fraternity as Ferdinand Marcos, his eventual political opponent.
Aquino married Corazon Sumulong Cojuangco, a law student from a prominent Chinese/Filipino banking family, the same year he began law school. The pair initially met at a 9-year-old birthday celebration and reconnected after Corazon returned to the Philippines after completing her undergraduate education in the United States.
Aquino was elected mayor of Concepcion, Tarlac, a year after they married in 1955. Ninoy was only 22 years old at the time. Aquino set several milestones for being elected at such a young age, including vice-governor of the province at the age of 27, governor at the age of 29, and secretary-general of the Liberal Party of the Philippines at the age of 33.
Finally, at the age of 34, Ninoy was elected as the nation’s youngest senator.
President Ferdinand Marcos, Aquino’s former fraternity brother, was blasted from his Senate seat for establishing an aggressive government and corruption and luxury. Aquino also attacked First Lady Imelda Marcos, calling her the “Philippines’ Eva Peron,” even though the two had dated briefly as students.
As a senator, he settled into his role as the Marcos regime’s chief dissenter, charming and always ready with a nice soundbite. He was a vocal critic of Marcos’ financial policies, lavish spending on personal projects, and massive military spending.
Aquino’s Liberal Party had its campaign start event on August 21, 1971. Aquino himself was absent from the event. Two massive explosions shook the gathering just after the candidates mounted the platform, the result of unknown assailants hurling fragmentation grenades into the audience. Eight individuals were murdered, and the explosives injured more than 120.
Imprisonment and People’s Power
Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in the Philippines on September 21, 1972. Ninoy Aquino was one of the individuals apprehended and imprisoned on false accusations. He was tried in a military kangaroo court on allegations of murder, subversion, and weapons possession.
Aquino embarked on a hunger strike on April 4, 1975, to protest the military trial system. His trial went on even as his physical state deteriorated. For 40 days, the frail Aquino ate nothing but salt pills and water, dropping from 120 to 80 pounds.
After 40 days, Aquino’s friends and family persuaded him to eat again. His trial, on the other hand, dragged on and on until November 25, 1977. On that day, he was convicted guilty on all counts by a military commission. Aquino was scheduled to be shot by a firing squad.
From behind bars, Aquino was a key organizer in the 1978 legislative elections. He formed the “People’s Power” or Lakas ng Bayan party, a new political party or LABAN for short. Despite receiving widespread popular support, the LABAN party’s candidates all lost in a manipulated election.
Nonetheless, Aquino’s election demonstrated that he could be a robust political catalyst even from a solitary confinement cell. Although he was facing the death penalty, he was a significant danger to the Marcos dictatorship.
Exile in the United States
Aquino suffered a heart attack in his jail cell in March 1980, eerily similar to his father’s tragedy. After a second heart attack at the Philippine Heart Center, he suffered a clogged artery, but Aquino refused to allow surgeons in the Philippines to operate on him for fear of Marcos’ foul play.
On May 8, 1980, Imelda Marcos surprised Aquino’s hospital bedside, offering him a medical leave to the US for surgery. She did have two conditions: Aquino had to agree to return to the Philippines and swear not to criticize the Marcos administration while in the US.
Following Aquino’s recovery from surgery, his family chose not to return to the Philippines. Instead, they relocated to Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Aquino obtained scholarships from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, allowing him to give a series of talks and publish two books during his time there. Despite his prior promise to Imelda, Aquino was a harsh opponent of the Marcos government while in the United States.
Ninoy Aquino’s Death
Ferdinand Marcos’ health, and therefore his iron hold on the Philippines, began to weaken in 1983. Aquino was concerned that the country would devolve into anarchy if he died, with an even more radical administration emerging.
Aquino chose to return to the Philippines, although he knew he would be imprisoned or assassinated if he did. The Marcos government attempted to prevent his return by withdrawing his passport, refusing him a visa, and warning international airlines that trying to transport Aquino into the country would be denied landing permission.
On August 13, 1983, Aquino embarked on a week-long journey from Boston to Los Angeles, stopping in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan along the way. Because Marcos had severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the Taiwanese government had no responsibility to help him achieve his aim of keeping Aquino away from Manila.
On August 21, 1983, as China Airlines Flight 811 landed at Manila International Airport, Aquino urged the foreign media accompanying him to have their cameras ready. “It might all be gone in three or four minutes,” he said with terrifying foresight. He was murdered by an assassin’s bullet minutes after the plane landed.