In Philippines election, a tale of courage behind the Aquino success

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The man who did more than anyone else to restore democracy in the Philippines – Benigno Aquino Jr. – would have been proud that his son was clearly winning the vote tally in an election for president this week.

The late Aquino made the ultimate sacrifice for democracy, laying down his life for it.

Ninoy, as he was affectionately called, made a courageous decision in 1983 that would not only trigger events leading up to the “people power” overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos three years later but would also inspire movements for democracy across Asia, from South Korea to Indonesia.

At the time, Aquino was the leading political opponent of Marcos, who had been duly elected as president but then declared martial law in 1972. After being imprisoned for years as a dissident, Ninoy was allowed to go to the US.

Living near Boston in exile, he met me for lunch one day in August, 1983, as I had reported recently from the Philippines. I was startled when he told me that he would return to his country within days.

Why? I asked. He said he suspected Marcos was looking for a way to step down. Ninoy wanted to try to meet with him and cut a deal that would let Marcos live in peace if democracy were restored in the former American colony.

Unfortunately, when Ninoy stepped off the plane in Manila a week later, he was gunned down. It was a shot heard ’round the Far East, and beyond. The plot behind the killing remains a mystery today.

Back in Boston, I kept in touch with his widow, Corazon "Cory" Aquino, often asking her if she would pick up the mantle of opposition. She demurred for two years but eventually did. She led the peaceful street movement that forced Marcos to flee the presidential palace on a US helicopter on Feb. 26, 1986. He later died in exile in Hawaii.

(A personal footnote: I was the first journalist to enter the empty palace after the Marcos family fled, discovering, among other luxury items, the 3,000 shoes of Imelda Marcos as well as her two bulletproof bras.)

As president, the humble but steely Cory tried hard to cement democracy in the Philippines, despite many coup attempts against her. The presidents who came after her also had their problems in a troubled land of many islands, ruthless politics, and 90 million people. Cory passed away last year.

With the couple’s son elected as president Monday, the Aquino family’s mark on freedom in the Philippines – and indeed Asia – will now continue.

Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III promises his own revolution, this one against the country’s rampant corruption. If he has half the courage of his parents, he too will go down in history as a leader who made a difference.

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