SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

As usual, there are laments about how much Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.’s assassination has faded from the memory of Filipinos.

Instead of counting heads at each gathering for the death or birth anniversary of Ninoy and Cory Aquino, however, their supporters can consider the public reaction to proposals that smack of a return to strongman rule or creeping authoritarianism.

The military has also changed, although communist rebels and their sympathizers may dispute it. Martial law in Mindanao is not Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law.

Now there’s a battle over a proposed revival of subversion as a crime as well as amendments to the law against terrorism.

That there’s a passionate debate raging over these proposals shows that the values Ninoy Aquino fought for are alive and well.

*      *      *

There are undoubtedly many causes for frustration.

It’s an indictment of our criminal justice system that two Aquino presidencies and 36 years later, there is still no definitive finding on who ordered Ninoy’s assassination.

And because the whole truth has not been established, conspiracy theories, some of them bizarre, continue to swirl today around what was described as the “crime of the century.”

The country’s first post-EDSA ombudsman, at the time called the tanodbayan, told some of us reporters covering the judiciary in 1986 that he had in his custody witnesses and documentary evidence that would pin responsibility for the murders of Ninoy and his alleged gunman Rolando Galman on one of the power blocs during the Marcos regime.

But in 1989, tanodbayan Raul Gonzalez had a fight with the Supreme Court, which suspended him indefinitely purportedly for ignorance of the law. Gonzalez no longer presented his witness and evidence and he made a successful career shift to politics. If he was telling us the truth, he carried the secret of that vital testimony to his grave.

This was during the presidency of Corazon Aquino.

*      *      *

In the years before Ninoy and Cory’s only son became president, the family openly opposed any clemency for the 16 members of the Marcos-era Aviation Security Command (Avsecom) who were convicted of the double murder.

The family first wanted to hear the truth from the Avsecom men. Critics called the family heartless and pointed out that the soldiers were too low in the totem pole to have any credible knowledge of who might have ordered Ninoy assassinated.

Cory Aquino often said that everyone knew who ordered her husband killed. But people have always wondered which one of the conjugal dictatorship was it.

At the time of the assassination, dictator Ferdinand Marcos was debilitated by systemic lupus erythematosus so suspicion focused on his wife Imelda, who was believed to be positioning herself to replace him in case of his death. Gonzalez told us that an Imelda crony, still a major power broker to this day, provided the logistics for the assassination, tracking Ninoy’s movements as he left the US and transited through Taiwan on his way back to Manila.

But at this point it looks like we will never know the whole truth. And the mastermind/s will never be brought to justice.

*      *      *

At the height of the controversy over the Avsecom men’s release, I had asked Noynoy Aquino what “truth” they wanted to find out exactly from the soldiers.

For one thing, he said, they wanted to know if his father was still alive when tossed into the Avsecom van, but finished off with a beating as the vehicle took a circuitous, hour-long route from the airport to the hospital at Camp Aguinaldo.

The bruises on his father’s remains provided telltale signs of this, Noynoy said. And the family wanted to know who might have ordered it, instead of having Ninoy Aquino rushed to the nearest hospital.

Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose resignation as president Cory Aquino had sought over the “Hello, Garci” vote rigging and other scandals, ignored the Aquinos’ pleas and approved the release of all the soldiers.

One of them, M/Sgt. Pablo Martinez, was riding a mountain bike along Roxas Boulevard when he was sideswiped and then run over by a Mitsubishi Montero in 2014. He had claimed that the power broker and a general were behind the assassination. The driver of the Montero, Henry Roque, 29, turned out to be a Philippine Airlines employee, and he reportedly settled the case with Martinez’s family.

Martinez, who has complained of threats to his life following his release, had also claimed that the triggerman in Ninoy’s killing was a lieutenant who was directly behind Ninoy as he was led out of the plane. The lieutenant escaped in the confusion on the tarmac and reportedly fled to the US.

The rest of the convicted Avsecom men have kept their silence; there has been persistent speculation that the power broker has bought their silence in perpetuity.

*      *      *

Today the crime of the century remains unsolved, Ferdinand Marcos is buried in the heroes’ cemetery, and his widow and children have made an impressive social and political comeback.

Noynoy Aquino uncharacteristically skipped the gathering at the Manila Memorial Park in Parañaque to commemorate his father’s death anniversary the other day. His sister Kris explained that his health was “not OK.”

The person he endorsed as successor to the presidency was trounced by a guy who promised to kill criminals, and with the track record to show that he meant it.

Still, Rodrigo Duterte was chosen in free and generally credible elections. If people picked him out of frustration over broken or dysfunctional institutions and expectations of dramatic changes, it was still democracy at work.

The crowds at annual commemorations related to Ninoy and Cory Aquino have progressively thinned. Those who fought alongside the two democracy icons have expressed frustration that younger generations know little or nothing about Ninoy Aquino Day.

Has Ninoy Aquino been forgotten?

The fears raised over recent proposals to fight security threats indicate that memories of the dictatorship remain pretty strong.

People may no longer be gathering for the Aquino commemorations. But the lessons of the past have become indelibly etched in the national consciousness.

Filipinos continue to cherish freedom – even if they may not know that the assassination of Ninoy Aquino became a catalyst in toppling the dictatorship and restoring civil liberties.

People are vigilant about threats to freedom. That vigilance has its roots in the struggle against a dictatorship, in which Ninoy and Cory Aquino played starring roles.

It’s a legacy that endures.





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