Grand yellow welcome turns grim: They shot him
(Editor’s Note: The author was a member of the Batasang Pambansa representing Manila from June 1984 to March 1986, and mayor of Manila from May 1986 to June 1992.)
I learned that Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was returning from the United States two months before his fateful arrival on Aug. 21, 1983.
Although the actual date of his return was kept secret, the former senator and leader of the opposition against the Marcos dictatorship had communicated his plan secretly to his allies and comrades in the Philippines.
Ninoy had sent a letter dated June 27, 1983, from Boston, Massachusetts, to former Senator Eva Estrada Kalaw, an active leader of the opposition, saying that he had picked a “tentative date” for his return.
He said the actual date of his arrival would be “verbally” disclosed to local opposition leaders by Salvador “Doy” Laurel, an opposition stalwart.
Ninoy instructed Eva to “share this letter with Mel Lopez, Titong Roces, Doc Martinez, Neptali Gonzales, Monching Mitra and Pareng Apeng (Tarlac Governor Apeng Yap).”
He added: “Pareng Mel and Doc, I need your maximum support in the pakulo (dramatic event) because it may be my last for a long time. You have only five weeks to prepare.
“I am preparing for the worst and we won’t get another chance like this for a long time. However, if we can really gather a crowd, this could be a repeat of the Laban noise rally five years ago (on the eve of the interim Batasang Pambansa elections in 1978).”
Ninoy’s remarks showed that he already had the grim premonition that his decision to return could lead to the “worst” scenario, possibly his death.
On receiving a copy of Ninoy’s letter, I immediately began preparing for the event, not expecting that it would turn into a tragedy that would change the course of our nation’s history. I contacted my political leaders and followers to prepare for a rousing welcome for Ninoy at the Manila International Airport (MIA).
I also sought the help of opposition leaders in neighboring cities and municipalities. Among those who responded affirmatively were Vice Mayor Calixto (for Pasay), former Commission on Elections Chair Jaime Ferrer (Parañaque), Tony Martinez (Caloocan), and Peping Esguerra (Quezon City).
I also enlisted the help of movie producers Antonio and Baby Martinez, Alfonso Policarpio, Ninoy’s publicist, and Prof. Manoling Yap.
Other opposition leaders outside Metro Manila also started organizing welcome delegations from their own bailiwicks. They included Doy Laurel, who later became Vice President of the Philippines (for Batangas), Apeng Yap (Tarlac), Bren Guiao, former Governor Jose Lingad and his son, Ignacio (Pampanga), and Sixto Antonio (Bulacan).
Coming from Taipei
Despite attempts to keep Ninoy’s arrival secret, the news quickly spread throughout Metro Manila and perhaps to other parts of the country where opposition to Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship was intense.
Ninoy had informed us in his letter that he was taking a Japan Airlines plane because he did not trust Philippine Airlines (“The government has full control of [its] aircraft”).
He said he was to be accompanied by journalists and TV crews from the United States, Japan and possibly Australia.
Eventually, he settled for a China Airlines plane embarking from Taipei.
Ninoy traveled with a fake passport in the name of “Marcial Bonifacio” because the Philippine government had refused to issue him an official passport.
He chose “Bonifacio” because it was at Fort Bonifacio that he was held for seven years and seven months from the time martial law was declared in September 1972 until his departure for the United States in May 1980 to undergo heart surgery.
“Marcial” was apparently a reference to Marcos’ martial law, which kept Filipinos in political chains for 14 years.
Aug. 21, 1983, the date of his arrival, was the 12th anniversary of the bombing that almost decimated the opposition Liberal Party leadership during its political rally in Plaza Miranda in connection with the 1971 midterm national elections. (Running for reelection as a Manila councilor, I was one of those wounded in the bombing.)
Ninoy, a poet-politician, had planned his return with abundant symbolism, the better to rattle Marcos, who was also known to believe in symbols and omens.
According to Time magazine’s Sandra Burton, as Ninoy and his entourage of reporters and TV crews entered Gate 6 of the Taipei airport to board the China Airlines plane, a ground hostess told him: “Since 9:45 a.m. in Manila they’ve already known you are on board.”
At around that time, thousands of opposition followers were gathering in places near the MIA where Ninoy was expected to land at 1 p.m. Hundreds more were boarding buses in provinces north and south of Metro Manila.
I and my Manila contingent of some 8,000 greeters, many of them from my council district of Tondo, massed on the grounds of the Philippine Village Hotel half a kilometer away from the airport.
From there we marched to the MIA terminal, waving yellow flags and banners welcoming Ninoy home.
By 11 a.m., the huge parking area in front of the terminal ramp was packed with welcomers.
But unknown to us, others from the provinces of Bulacan, Batangas, Pampanga, Laguna and Tarlac had been stopped at military checkpoints before reaching Manila. Soldiers under the command of Gen. Prospero Olivas manned the checkpoints, sending the buses back or ordering their occupants to disembark.
Agents of the dreaded Military Intelligence Services Group under Colonel Rolando Abadilla threatened to arrest and detain those who insisted on proceeding to the MIA. This group’s reputation for brutality effectively discouraged many from making it to the airport.
At the MIA, I joined the opposition leaders gathered on the ramp just outside the glass-walled passengers’ lobby.
There I met Doy Laurel, Ninoy’s sisters Lupita and Tessie, former Sen. Lorenzo Tañada, Cory Aquino’s brother-in-law Baby Lopa, and other opposition leaders.
Doy invited me to join them in the arrival area. Just about then, at 1:04 p.m., Lupita informed the group that the plane carrying Ninoy had landed.
I told Doy that I would wait outside the terminal building to be with my men who were prepared to give Ninoy a rousing welcome on behalf of Manila.
But eight to 10 minutes later, a distraught Lupita rushed out of the terminal. She embraced me and sobbed in Filipino: “Ninoy’s been shot! He’s dead!”
Doy emerged from the lobby. I handed him a megaphone and he turned to the waiting crowd below the ramp, leaning on the rail. We held him by the waist to keep him from failing to the pavement below.
In his distinctive Batangueño accent, Doy shouted in Filipino: “They killed him, they killed Ninoy!”
At first, the people did not understand; they thought Doy was announcing Ninoy’s arrival. They began to chant: “Ni-noy! Ni-noy!”
But when finally the truth sank in, there was stunned silence.
I took the megaphone from Doy and, my voice choking with emotion, denounced the killing of Ninoy as “cowardly” and “murder most foul of our democracy.”
Then a cry rang out for the crowd to march. “To Baclaran! To Baclaran!”—referring to Baclaran Church about a kilometer away, the favorite place of worship of those seeking special favors.
With their yellow flags and welcome banners now drooping and trailing on the ground, the sorrowful throng marched solemnly to the church where they knelt and prayed for the soul of their champion.
They did not know then that the shot that felled Ninoy would herald the inglorious end of the dictatorship three years hence through People Power.