The ideal opposition senator

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

Every Aug. 21, Filipinos pause to remember the many faces of the greatness of former senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. Having served in the Cabinet of his widow, President Corazon Aquino, I have seen him through the eyes of his family. Because of this, I choose to remember him as one of the great personalities who once made the Philippine Senate a bulwark of democracy and a gathering of visionary national leaders.

There was a period in our history when the opposition in the Senate was comprised of men of stature. Even during the presidency of the very popular Ramon Magsaysay, the Senate opposition was led by two intellectual giants, senators Claro M. Recto and Lorenzo Tañada.

Their speeches spoke of differences in the political philosophies and national visions from that of the administration at the time. I do not think anybody will attribute their role in history to the committees they chaired or the projects they funded through their pork barrel.

After Recto’s retirement, Tañada was joined by his fellow La Sallian, senator Jose W. Diokno. Together with other opposition senators, they showed that it was possible to have brilliant politicians who also possessed personal integrity and who would fight for social justice and equal opportunity for all.

During the Marcos presidency, prior to the martial law years, the opposition included leaders like Gerry Roxas and Soc Rodrigo.

In the 1967 election, with Marcos utilizing all his power and using Machiavellian methods, the young – barely 35 years old – Ninoy Aquino was the only opposition candidate elected to the Senate. He later said that his first two years in the Senate were very tough because he was trying very hard to prove that he was worthy of his seat.

Nick Joaquin quotes Ninoy talking about those years: “My God, I was forced to study to learn every trick in the book. I memorized the rules of the Senate; I burned the midnight oil going over the old Senate journals, reading up on old debates. I was determined to be a good parliamentarian. I was averaging 18 hours a day reading, reading. I had a staff lining up things for me to read and I’d come home with a bulging briefcase and sit down and read again… and I was trained by a great fiscalizer, Ambrosio Padilla, who was in his seat when the bell rang at five and stayed there until 11 in the evening, who asked no quarter and gave no quarter and went over every bill with a fine-toothed comb… Most of all I learned from Tañada. Before making an attack I’d prepare an outline of it and submit it to Tañada and he’d grade it… (he) was an exacting mentor but he gave me the discipline to be a good prosecutor.”

In these few words, the neophyte senator was already exhibiting certain facets of his future greatness. He understood that greatness did not come from being glamorous, although he was considered to be a celebrity. Nor did it come from simply grabbing power, even though he was the scion of a powerful political clan. He was willing to undergo the rigors of intellectual learning and the discipline required to educate himself. At the same time, he had the wisdom to choose the right mentors and the humility to listen to them.

Indeed, Ninoy Aquino was an ideal opposition senator that other politicians should strive to emulate and be remembered for.

Ninoy Aquino’s martyrdom triggered the People Power Revolution that led to the downfall of the Marcos dictatorship and the restoration of democracy in the Philippines.

He suffered persecution and death for espousing a cause he believed in. Although there have been martyrs throughout history, their numbers are very few because their ultimate fate – death – is considered by many as too great a price to pay. Martyrs do not seek death, but they are willing to die rather than renounce their beliefs. But it is also true that martyrdom serves as the ultimate motivation for others to continue fighting for their causes and beliefs.

Ninoy Aquino’s death has all the characteristics of martyrdom. Ninoy could have saved himself by staying in exile and swearing allegiance to a tyrannical ruler. But he refused and decided to come home, fully aware of the possible consequences.

Ninoy suffered a violent death. Upon his arrival in the Philippines, he was shot to death as soon as he stepped on the last step of the service stairway.

Like Martin Luther King Jr., his death provided more inspiration for more civil disobedience and marches that eventually became known as the People Power Movement.

Like Dr. Jose Rizal, Ninoy’s execution became the symbol of the Marcos tyranny and further fueled the courage and commitment to freedom of the Filipino people. Two scenes – Rizal being shot by Spanish soldiers in Luneta and Ninoy’s body lying still and bloodied on the airport tarmac – are among the most distinguished images in Philippine history. These two scenes have also epitomized the ideals of Filipino heroism and love of freedom.

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