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  • Writer's pictureMohamed Soltan

The Fascinating Story of Ninoy Aquino: From Presidential Candidate to Exile

Ninoy Aquino was a Filipino politician who was elected as a senator in 1967, during the reign of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. He became known as an outspoken critic of Marcos’ regime and captured media attention with his speeches denouncing the corruption and opulence of Marcos and his cadre. After years of opposition and an attempt to investigate Marcos’ role in the 1968 Jabidah massacre, Aquino was imprisoned for several years. He was later exiled, then assassinated upon returning to his home country in the early 1980s.  


The Young Man in a Hurry 


Ninoy Aquino was the son of a well-known landowner and politician and the grandson of a Philippine general. Although he was reportedly not fond of school, Aquino enjoyed entertaining his family’s visitors and giving speeches from an early age. He was often described as “the young man in a hurry” because of his energy, drive, and succession of impressive accomplishments. 

When he was still a teenager, Aquino worked for the Manila Times as the publication’s youngest war correspondent, covering the Korean War. It was for his feats in this role that he was awarded the Philippine Legion of Honor by President Quirino. Aquino went on to serve as a foreign correspondent in Indo-China. In this role, he covered the last moments of French colonialism in Asia. The young journalist was also witnessed the reality of communist totalitarian rule in North Korea. 

Aquino became wealthy through marriage, having wed the daughter of one of the country’s most prominent manufacturers and landowners. It was not very long before he ventured into politics. He was elected mayor of Concepción in 1955 at just 22 years of age, then vice-governor of Tarlac province in 1959. In 1961, he was elected governor of Tarlac province, a senator in the Philippine legislature in 1967, and national leader of the Liberal Party in 1968. 


Outspoken Critic of a Dictator 


The Jabidah massacre took place in March 1968 and culminated in the deaths of numerous army recruits. The ultimate cause of the massacre was a dispute over the ownership of Sabah, a region in Malaysia; Marcos’ government maintained that the area was the property of the Philippines. Reportedly, his government assembled a special military unit code-named Jabidah whose mission was to destabilize the region and thus strengthen the case for Marcos to step in and assert control. Although precisely what occurred remains a mystery to this day, many maintain that the Jabidah recruits mutinied after learning the true nature of their mission. Others say they refused to fight due to delays in receiving pay, or their poor living conditions in Sabah’s remote jungles. 

Whatever the reason, it is widely accepted that the recruits refused to comply with their orders and demanded to be returned home. According to accounts, while one batch of recruits were disarmed, with some trainees returning home and others transferring to a regular training camp in Luzon, another group of recruits were reportedly killed by army troops with just a single survivor, Jibin Arula, managing to escape. 

As a senator, Ninoy Aquino investigated the incident. He subsequently made allegations that what happened in Jabidah formed part of a wider plan by Marcos to ensure his grip on power. Fellow opposition members soon rallied around Aquino, joining him in criticizing the Marcos administration’s role in the incident. Widespread press coverage of Aquino’s denouncement caught Marcos and the government off-guard. 


Marcos’ Most Famous Political Prisoner 


Ninoy Aquino planned to run for president in the 1973 elections, but his plans were thwarted when President Marcos declared martial law. Aquino spent the next eight years in prison, and in November 1977, he was sentenced to death. 

However, after three years on death row, he had a heart attack in March 1980. The Marcos administration allowed him to travel to Dallas, Texas, for heart bypass surgery. Aquino subsequently settled down in Boston, Massachusetts, where he stayed with his family in self-exile. 

He remained in the United States with his family for three years, receiving research grants from both MIT and Harvard. Two years after martial law was lifted in his home country, he prepared to return to the Philippines, intending to campaign in the upcoming elections.  

Even during his time in exile, Aquino had continued to make waves as a staunch critic of the Marcos regime and its abuses. Indeed, he remained steadfast and outspoken in his denunciation of the administration right until the very last moment. According to reports, prior to boarding the aircraft that would carry him home to the Philippines, Aquino warned foreign journalists travelling with him to watch the next few moments closely, asserting that they could well be his last. 


The President That Never Was 


Sadly, Aquino’s fears proved correct. On August 21, 1983, he was assassinated at Manila Airport shortly after disembarking the aircraft. Ten days later, following a 12-hour funeral procession before an audience of some 2 million mourners, Aquino was laid to rest in Manila Memorial Park. During the service, he was famously eulogized as “the greatest president we never had.” 

Aquino’s assassination triggered widespread demonstrations across the Philippines, and accusations that the government was complicit in his death. In October 1984, an independent commission concluded that a conspiracy led by Gen. Fabian C. Ver, the Philippine armed forces chief of staff, was responsible for the assassination. Ver and his co-conspirators were subsequently acquitted of the charges by judges appointed by Marcos. 

This move proved to be a step too far for the Marcos administration, however. It set in motion a chain of events that ultimately culminated in the regime’s undoing and paved the way for Aquino’s widow, Corazon Aquino, to be elected president of the Philippines. 

Inspired by the outpouring of public support she received in the wake of her husband’s death, Corazon Aquino became leader of the anti-Marcos movement. She ran against Marcos in 1985, but he was proclaimed the winner in a blatantly falsified result. By February 25, 1986, however, the Marcos administration had crumbled following massive peaceful demonstrations and the loss of support from the military and Catholic Church. Marcos was forced into exile, and Corazon Aquino became the Philippines’ first female president. 

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