Manila — The Fact-Finding Board probing last year's airport slaying of Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. began taking testimony Monday from witnesses in the United States who claim to have information on the assassination.
The trip to Los Angeles appears to be the last avenue open to the board in its quest to unravel the mass of contradictory evidence it has unearthed.
Back in Manila, however, many Filipinos have already written off the chances of the board finding conclusive evidence as to who shot the popular Mr. Aquino, the political archrival of President Ferdinand Marcos.
The five-person board, headed by retired Justice Corazon Agrava, was established by Mr.Marcos last October amid massive antigovernment rallies and an international outcry triggered by the assassination. Since then, the board has heard the testimony of 161 witnesses and established a reputation for sincerity and thoroughness.
The military escorts guarding Aquino when he was shot either have maintained that they saw nothing or have supported the official version that Aquino was shot on Manila's airport tarmac by Rolando Galman, a lone gunman alleged to be acting for the outlawed Communist Party.
Nevertheless, the board's investigation has uncovered other circumstantial evidence supporting the belief of opposition parties and Aquino's family that Aquino was shot by his military escorts.
Two private security guards assigned to the China Airlines flight that flew Aquino back to Manila Aug. 21 have testified that they heard a shot, then saw a slumped head of a man in white (Mr. Aquino) between two men in uniform, all three of them descending the stairs to the tarmac. Subsequent civilian witnesses , mostly airport maintenance men and other civilian guards, also testified that Aquino was still on the stairs when the first gunshot was heard.
But no one other than military personnel has yet publicly testified that they actually saw the shooting. Nor has anyone directly accused the military escorts. Without such direct evidence, it will be difficult for the board to come up with a firm contradiction of the official version.
The Filipinos' frustrations over the board's seeming helplessness seem to have found an outlet in the parliamentary elections May 14, when Marcos's ruling party received a severe blow. The latest count from the Commission on Elections, an independent group overseeing the elections, shows opposition candidates winning 53 of the 183 seats contested. Earlier, Mr. Marcos said the opposition would get at most 40 to 45 seats.
Arturo Tolentino, the only member of the ruling party to win a seat in the city of Manila, has admitted that the opposition's strong performance was helped by the deep resentment by Filipinos against Marcos's administration, which is suspected of complicity in the murder.
''The election was the first outlet for such feeling,'' Mr. Tolentino said.
But Tolentino said there is little chance of the truth ever coming to light.
He was echoed by Bernardo Villegas, vice-president of the Center for Research and Communication, an independent economic research group which has been critical of the government's economic management. Mr. Villegas said that like the Warren Commission which investigated the assassination of former American President John F. Kennedy, the Agrava board would never be able to fully settle the issue.
Villegas suggested that Filipinos would do better now to concentrate on solving the economic crisis precipitated by the flight of capital after Aquino's death.
But the Agrava board is persevering. In the US, it is scheduled to hear the testimony of Ruben Regalado, a Philippine Airlines maintenance employee who fled Manila after the assassination. Regalado has said that he saw Galman being held by military personnel when Aquino was shot and that Galman was then shot by one of Aquino's escorts who had claimed to be unarmed.
The board will also hear the statements of a former Philippine Army major and another Filipino who claimed to be a former member of a government ''hit squad'' known as the ''Monkeys.'' Both claimed in affidavits before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that they knew the Aquino assassination to be a ''military operation.''
Even if the board can piece together who shot Aquino, the question would remain as to who ordered it. The evidence so far is extremely damaging to the Philippine military.
Mrs. Agrava has already expressed concern in this respect, telling reporters: ''I am afraid, really afraid, that when we come out with our report, it might create a situation that could be risky.''
There are some in the military who have been embarrassed by the incident. A group of retired officers, comprising mostly of generals and colonels, recently issued a statement calling for the resignation of Gen. Fabian Ver, chief of staff of the armed forces.
Meanwhile, President Marcos appears to be in a no-win situation. An indictment of military personnel would reflect badly on his government, and at least a few of his loyal supporters have to be sacrificed. An inconclusive finding would simply widen popular suspicion of government complicity.