Thursday, August 21, 2008

Remembering Ninoy

August has always been a dreary month. Ever since I could remember, August is when the rains pour from the heavens most, and whenever the sun peeps after days of rain, it would be scorching hot. For the Chinese, August, more often than not the seventh month in their lunar calendar, is called "ghost month". It is when the spirits of the dead roam the earth. It is not an auspicious period to start a business, open a store, move house, or choose a lifetime partner. Everything is put off until after the ghost month, which is marked happily by moon cakes and tea festivals.

On a personal note though, August is the birth month of the wife and a daughter, so ghost month or whatever, it is occasion for the family to somehow celebrate. But on August 21, 1983, when I left the house before six in the morning to supervise the positioning of welcome streamers and placards for Ninoy Aquino's homecoming at the international airport, the "ghost" month became more meaningful. I first motored to our family compound in Pasay, where an Isuzu Forward truck was waiting to be loaded with the streamers on which were printed the words, "Ninoy, Hindi Ka Nag-iisa", and a small UNIDO logo at the right hand corner. I also brought sandwiches and cold drinks as Ninoy would be coming in at about noon, or so Tita Eva (Sen. Eva Estrada-Kalaw, Ninoy's cousin) intimated the day before. (The homecoming was originally floated as August 7, which was why on July 30, during the small birthday celebration of my wife in our Tagaytay home, I intimated to Doy and Eva and Tessie Aquino-Oreta the slogan we planned for his arrival.)

I need not recount what happened hours after at the tarmac, and the pathos thereafter. That is well recorded in the annals of our contemporary history.

But today, as we reminisce about the man who reminded millions of Filipinos that they are "worth dying for," let me share with you excerpts from a letter he wrote to me six months to the day before he was killed. It was written on February 21, 1983, in San Francisco, and hand-carried by his friend Doy Laurel, my ninong who was the head of the main opposition coalition at the time, UNIDO, of which I was deputy secretary-general.

"It is most encouraging to learn that you have cast your lot with the opposition and Doy tells me that you're doing a terrific job. I read your papers and I wanted to respond earlier but didn't know how to get to you safely. This is the first great opportunity.

"I think the (latest) position paper you drafted which Doy showed me is excellent. However, I have my doubts on the last page recommendation because I've done a lot of re-thinking since we last discussed our problem at length and I really am now convinced that violence should be resorted to only as the last final resort (he underlined these words) and even then I doubt whether it will really solve our problem. I've been reading and re-reading Gandhi and I've been reading every book I can get my hands on the Cuban and Nicaraguan experience. I have a book in Boston which I will try to get to you and Doy, written by Manuel Llorena entitled "The Unexpected Revolution". The author was the spokesman of (Fidel) Castro's July 26th Movement and was responsible in getting Herbert Matthews to Sierra Maestra and introduce Castro's revolution to the world. He broke off with Castro six months before victory was achieved because he saw the drift of the revolution towards communism as crafted by Che Guevarra and others. This book details the fate that awaits moderates in the current struggle.

"The other book deals with the Nicaraguan revolution by Henri Weber. This book also details how the moderates lost out to the Sandinistas once victory was achieved. My point is: our opposition takes the road to violence, since we are all amateurs in the game, the veteran revolutionaries will swallow all of us whole, and as Mao said, "politics emanates from the end of the barrel of the gun". The bottom line is, the moment we take the high road of violence, we must be ready to bed with the communists with all the consequences this would entail. Marcos is a temporary phenomenon because his entire KBL revolves around his persona. The moment he dies, the entire dictatorship goes out with him. Communism is an institution. The moment it gets its foot in the door, there is no backing out. A man may die as a dictatorship will surely die, but an institution lives on. There has never been a successful communist revolution that was reversed. The moment the genie is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back.

"I'll be elaborating on this thesis in my aide memoire to Doy which I hope he will share with you. If you have better ideas, please feel free to amend, or add your thoughts. Doy will explain to you the other details."

Six months later, he was brutally shot in the tarmac of the international airport, after he was accosted by armed soldiers from a China Airlines plane. But his death provided the spark that finally ended the long night of our generation.

Today we find ourselves in similar fettle. As his son Noynoy, now senator of the republic, noted after a mass at the Ateneo last Sunday, "after 25 years, it's as if the nation has not moved at all". The world has changed dramatically since Ninoy wrote about Cuba and Nicaragua. Communist governments have learned to live with the economics of free markets, and some of them have in fact revelled in levelled playing fields. Most nations of that changed world have in fact passed us by, when two generations ago their sons and daughters looked upon us with a tinge of envy. Now we are pariahs, sons and daughters of one of the most corrupt countries in the planet, a people so wretched that they could not even stand up against one who defiled the most fundamental sanctums of democracy - the free and honest vote.

And those who moved against Marcos, before or after Ninoy's death, are now nearing the twilight of their lives. The generation that is now called upon to move are those who grew up when Marcos was in power, and were perhaps young men and women when Ninoy died, along with those who never knew what it was like to be under a dictatorship that for a while "made the trains run on time", and those who saw their hopes for a better life dissipate under the ravaged institutions of a restored democracy that does not work.

Twenty-five years after, and we find ourselves where we were before, even worse. Twenty-five years ago, the prices were lower, the living was easier. The regime was intolerant, media was shackled, but for a brave newspaper called We Forum, now Malaya. (Ironically, the son of the man who founded this paper was abducted a year and three months ago by uniformed men, and after the usual reactions of concern, people do not seem to care, or remember.)

Today, prices are sky-high, the living is miserable. The regime lies and cheats and steals, and even if media reports incidents of the same, the people seem unmoved, unwilling to take the burdens of forging a new nation, a real democracy, from the fetters of a dictatorship removed and replaced by the forms of a democracy that simply does not work because its institutions have died after assaults upon integrity had been tolerated for long.

Dreary, this August of our lives in this eighth year of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's illegitimate reign. The economy wobbles and life is harsh. The national territory is about to be dismembered. The dogs of war have been unleashed once again in the southern front, not by a government in control of the situation, or morally justified in taking arms, but a government obsessed merely with prolonging its hold on power. Sons and daughters of the race, both the uniformed soldier and the helpless civilian, will once again be the victims of violence both senseless and unwarranted, veritably sacrificed at the altar of political expediency and absolute incompetence. Nothing could be more criminal.

Meanwhile, justices in majestic robes quarrel about the dung in their midst, not because they want to throw away the dirt, but because some were smarter than the others. Meanwhile too, legislators wallow in the putrid excess of fat from pork barrels, unable to give up their addiction and for once consider lofty national interest, mindful only of how to buy off, and cheat, in the next farce of an election. Meanwhile even, lord bishops of the Church of our birth incant prayers for patience and sacrifice, even as they connive with the ruling evil to protect parochial and byzantine interests.

Who shall the people run to? There is no Ninoy in the horizon to risk life for nation or provide inspiration for struggle much easier in truth than when Marcos was alive. To be playthings of Marcos for thirteen and a half years, and then playthings once more of Gloria for seven years and seven months running, we must truly be the most masochistic race on earth.

What a country!

Malaya, August 21, 2008