for The Aquino Movie that never was
(Photo by Kris Lanot Lacaba)
Sometime after the momentous events that would come to be known as the EDSA Uprising, or the People Power Revolution of 1986, or EDSA 1, film director Lino Brocka got me to write a storyline for a film on Ninoy Aquino that he was planning to make, with Phillip Salvador in the title role. I don’t remember now if Lino was already a member of Cory Aquino’s Constitutional Commission at the time, but in the end the project got shelved, Lino walked out of the Constitutional Commission, and the two of us ended up doing Orapronobis (given the title Les insoumis in France, Fight for Us in the U.S.), a film that was highly critical of the role armed vigilantes and paramilitary groups played in the Cory administration.
A few years later--towards the end of the Cory administration, if I am not mistaken--film director Tikoy Aguiluz tried to revive the project. He even distributed T-shirts to announce the making of The Aquino Movie. This project, too, never got off the ground.
Today being the 26th anniversary of Ninoy’s martyrdom (and coincidentally the 38th anniversary of the bombing of Plaza Miranda, besides being the 96th birth anniversary of my late father-in-law, the poet Serafin Lanot), I’m posting this shelved storyline for all it’s worth.
Storyline by Jose F. Lacaba
AUGUST 21, 1983. Former Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., 50, well-known in his country by his nickname Ninoy, comes home to the Philippines after three years of exile in the United States. He’s traveling on a fake passport under the name Marcial Bonifacio, and underneath his white shirt he’s wearing a bulletproof vest, aware of the danger that awaits him under the ruling Marcos dictatorship--the regime that kept him in prison for seven years, then sentenced him to die by musketry, and finally, when he suffered a heart attack in his prison cell, grudgingly sent him into exile.
When the plane lands at the Manila International Airport, soldiers in uniform and plainclothesmen come up and order Aquino to disembark. American and Japanese journalists traveling with the former senator attempt to follow, but a burly plainclothesman blocks their way. Aquino walks down the ramp alone, followed by a uniformed escort. Suddenly shots ring out. Aquino falls to the tarmac, face down, arms outstretched like one crucified, blood oozing from his head.
In an instant, members of a SWAT team guarding the airport grounds are pumping bullets into another man in civvies named Rolando Galman. The authorities will later claim that Galman was a Communist hitman who somehow broke past tight airport security to assassinate Aquino. It is a story that most people find too incredible to believe, especially since the dictatorship’s propaganda machines have for decades been trying to depict Aquino as both a Communist stooge and a CIA agent.
During the week-long wake for the assassinated senator, a long and endless line of mourners come to the Aquino house day in and day out to view the remains. At a time when a gathering of more than a dozen people is decreed by the dictatorship to be punishable by death, this expression of sympathy for the deceased is also supremely an act of protest.
At a Mass just before the funeral, we hear Corazon “Cory” Aquino, the assassinated senator’s widow, newly returned from exile in the United States, speak quietly about her husband, and now we go back in time to follow the political career that will end in the spilling of blood on an airport tarmac.
In the early Fifties Ninoy Aquino is the Boy Wonder of Philippine journalism. At the age of 18 he is a war correspondent in Korea. At 20 he is covering the last dying moments of French colonialism at Dien Bien Phu, the British counter-insurgency efforts in Malaya. On his return home he helps negotiate the surrender of the supreme commander of the Huks, the Communist-led People’s Liberation Army.
One year after his marriage at the age of 21 to the heiress of the largest landed estate in the country, he becomes the Boy Wonder of Philippine politics. In quick succession he becomes the youngest mayor of a Philippine town, the youngest governor of a Philippine province, and the youngest senator in the land. He’s a young man in a real hurry.
By 1971, the fourth year of his six-year term as senator, Aquino is already being touted as the opposition party’s best bet for the presidency--the only man, when he comes of age, believed capable of trouncing the wily President Ferdinand Marcos or the beautiful First Lady Imelda Marcos in a presidential election.
But in 1972, one year before the presidential election, Marcos declares martial law. On the pretext of saving the republic from the Communist menace, Marcos shuts down newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations, then hauls opposition politicians, student activists, trade unionists, peasant leaders, journalists, teachers, poets, along with a few token smugglers and drug dealers, into military prison camps.
The very first person to be picked up is Senator Ninoy Aquino.
The night before the official announcement that martial law has been declared, military officers interrupt a party caucus at the Manila Hilton and arrest Aquino. He is taken to Camp Crame, where he undergoes the experience of being fingerprinted like a common criminal. He is thrown in with other political prisoners in the Camp Crame gym. A few hours later, he is led out, along with ten other men, and driven to Fort Bonifacio, another military camp in Metro Manila, where a detention center for maximum-security prisoners has been established. It is here in the Fort Bonifacio prison that Aquino will be spending most of the next seven years.
MARTIAL LAW WILL BE A TURNING POINT IN THE SENATOR’S LIFE. Up until then, he has been the most wildly successful Filipino politician not only because he is blessed with a boyish charm, a rapid-fire speaking style, and a razor-sharp mind, but also because he has been a skilled practitioner in the politics of guns, goons, and gold. Though he can give tit for tat in a political debate, he has not hesitated to counter terror with terror when the occasion called for it. Seven years of imprisonment, however, will turn him into a Gandhian disciple, an advocate of nonviolent resistance.
One summer night in the sixth month of martial rule, Aquino and Jose W. Diokno, another imprisoned opposition senator, are handcuffed and blindfolded and bundled out of Fort Bonifacio. The two have become symbols and rallying points of resistance: the fact that their names both end in NO is made much of by people voting “no” in the martial law regime’s rigged plebiscites and referenda.
A helicopter brings the two prisoners to Fort Magsaysay, a heavily guarded military camp in Central Luzon, sandbagged and ringed with barbed wire. They are then led to separate, solitary, brightly lighted cells, where they are stripped of wedding rings, watches, shoes, all personal belongings.
In solitary confinement, practically blind without his eyeglasses, Aquino paces his cell barefoot for hours on end. To keep himself from going mad, he sets his mind to recalling every little detail of his life. He starts a one-way conversation with the God who has never occupied a central place in his life, raising questions about the injustice he has been suffering.
Meanwhile, Cory Aquino has been given a package containing her husband’s personal effects. Cory and Diokno’s wife Nena trudge from one military office another, asking about their husbands’ whereabouts, trying to find out if their husbands are dead or alive. In one office, the military man in charge earnestly searches his files, then confesses to the two women that he does not know where Senators Aquino and Diokno are. Several weeks of anguish and near-despair pass by before Cory Aquino, Nena Diokno, and their children are finally allowed to visit Aquino and Diokno in Fort Magsaysay.
One month after their inexplicable transfer to Fort Magsaysay, Aquino and Diokno are brought back to Fort Bonifacio. Not long afterwards, the trial of Ninoy Aquino--by a military tribunal whose members have been personally handpicked by Marcos--begins. He is charged with participation in a Communist conspiracy to overthrow the government, subversion, illegal possession of firearms, and murder. Aquino tells the tribunal: “Some people suggest that I beg for mercy. But this I cannot in conscience do. I would rather die on my feet in honor than live on bended knees in shame.”
One year after the declaration of martial law, Aquino is taken to Malacañang Palace for a one-on-one dialogue with Marcos. “Why don’t you just give up and join me?” Marcos asks. But Aquino is unyielding.
The trial resumes, and drags on for years. At one point, after his lawyers point out the unconstitutionality of a military trial for a civilian, Aquino announces he will no longer participate in the proceedings. In the summer of 1975, he begins a hunger strike. It is a protest fast that does not even get reported in the mainstream media, which are still tightly controlled by the dictatorship. It lasts for 40 days, during which time the once roly-poly Ninoy, refusing all food and drinking only water, loses nearly 45 pounds.
Towards the end of his fast, his wife Cory has to help him along as he staggers to get to the bathroom, where she gives him a bath like a baby. Three folding chairs are lined up from his steel cot to the bathroom so that he can stop and rest along the way. Jaime Cardinal Sin is allowed to visit him to administer the last rites.
On the 40th day of the hunger strike, Aquino collapses and loses consciousness. He is rushed to a military hospital and force-fed.
Dragged back into court in 1976, Aquino tells the military tribunal: “To acquit me, you have to declare Marcos guilty. This you cannot do.” Indeed, it does not. In November of 1977, the military tribunal hands down its decision: death by musketry. Sentenced along with Aquino are Bernabe Buscayno, better known as Commander Dante, chief of the Communist-led New People’s Army (NPA), and Victor Corpus, a renegade military officer who in 1970 defected to the NPA with a cache of firearms from the Philippine Military Academy.
The international outcry against the death sentence stuns Marcos, and he is forced to promise a re-opening of the Aquino trial. The death sentence is never implemented.
In 1978 Marcos calls for an election for his newly established parliament. Aquino is allowed to file a certificate of candidacy--but he is not permitted to leave his prison cell to campaign. His seven-year-old daughter Kris does the campaigning for him. Ranged against the opposition ticket led by Aquino is the administration party led by Imelda Marcos. The campaign heats up, and on the eve of the election, Metro Manila erupts in an unprecedented noise barrage that is in large part a show of support for the opposition coalition, which is named Laban (meaning: "Fight"). Cars go around the city dragging tin cans. Churches ring their bells. Tens of thousands of residents come out into the streets banging pots and pans and shouting the opposition party’s name and slogan: Laban! Laban!
But the ballot boxes have been stuffed even before the noise barrage begins. The election results show Imelda Marcos topping the polls and her party making a clean sweep. Led by former Senator Lorenzo Tañada, the grand old man of Philippine politics, a group of about 600 stage a funeral march for the “death of democracy.” All 600 are arrested and brought to Fort Bonifacio on charges of sedition and subversion.
In March of 1980, after seven years and seven months in solitary confinement, Aquino suffers a heart attack while doing push-ups in his prison cell. A triple heart bypass is deemed necessary, but Aquino refuses an operation in the the Philippines, afraid that heart surgeons can finish him off on orders of the dictator. Knowing that the world will condemn him if Aquino dies in prison, Marcos reluctantly agrees to let Aquino go to Dallas, Texas, for an operation at the Baylor Hospital, internationally renowned for heart surgery.
Aquino is made to promise that, while in the United States, he will not do or say anything that will embarrass the Marcos regime.
THE TRIPLE HEART BYPASS IS A SUCCESS. Afterwards, Harvard offers Aquino a fellowship in international studies, and he decides to accept it. His family is allowed to follow him to Boston.
It is a quiet, idyllic time for the Aquino family. Ninoy Aquino immerses himself in books, and his children, enjoying the company of their father for the first time in their lives, get the impression that he is renouncing politics and starting a new life in America, a life of scholarly contemplation. But before long, Aquino is on the speech circuit, addressing Filipino exile groups, lambasting the conjugal dictatorship of the Marcoses with his old impassioned eloquence and mordant wit. Reminded of his promise to the Marcoses, Aquino replies: “A pact with the devil is no pact at all.”
Three years after coming to America, Aquino learns from reliable sources that Marcos is suffering from a crippling disease, lupus erythematosus, and is on the verge of death. It is time, Aquino decides, to return to the Philippines.
On one of her shopping sprees in the States, Imelda Marcos summons Aquino to her hotel and tries to dissuade him from going back home. There are reports, she says, that Aquino will be killed if he returns: the Communists are out to get him. The members of Aquino’s own family try to persuade him to remain in Boston, where they have spent some of the happiest moments in their family life. But Aquino has made up his mind, and the danger to his life only adds to the lure of his country’s siren call. He quotes Gandhi to justify his decision: “The willing sacrifice of the innocent is the most powerful answer to insolent tyranny that has yet been conceived by God and man.” He solemnly declares that “the Filipino is worth dying for,” but he also manages to joke: “I would rather die for a cause than be run over by a Boston taxicab.”
The Marcos regime has warned all international airlines that their rights to land or transit in Manila will be cancelled if they take Benigno Aquino Jr. But secret sympathizers in a Philippine consulate come up with a passport carrying Aquino’s photo but in the name of one Marcial Bonifacio.
In August of 1983, Marcial Bonifacio boards a plane in the company of a gaggle of foreign journalists. On a stopover in Taipei, he tells the journalists: “You have to be ready with your cameras because this action can become very fast. In a matter of three minutes, it could be over. I am taking some precautions. I have my bulletproof vest. But if they hit me in the head, there’s nothing I can do.”
It is practically a prediction of what is to come when the China Airlines plane lands at the Manila International Airport.
When Aquino’s body is taken to the cemetery to be buried, the nation witnesses the biggest outpouring of grief and rage ever. Tens of thousands join the funeral march, and hundreds of thousands line Metro Manila’s major streets to catch a glimpse of the casket and to offer food and drinks to the marchers. It takes nearly twelve hours for the funeral cortege to reach its destination. Halfway through, a sudden rainstorm drenches the crowd and floods the streets, but hardly anyone runs for cover. It is the longest funeral march in the country’s history, but it will hardly merit mention in the dictatorship’s controlled media.
Within days of the funeral, the anti-dictatorship protest movement--heretofore limited to left-wing militants and disempowered opposition politicians in the cities, and armed Communist guerrillas and Muslim secessionists in the countryside--spontaneously balloons into a broad, massive popular front that cuts through classes and ideologies and involves hundreds of thousands, even millions, in almost daily demonstrations. Many of these protest actions are festive affairs, marked by the spirit and satiric humor of the theater of the absurd, which explains why this period of upheaval will later be known as the Confetti Revolution. But some rallies are raucous events that end in violent dispersal by riot police armed with truncheons, tear gas, and water cannons.
In November of 1985, more than two years after the Aquino assassination, an ailing Marcos is forced by public pressure and international opinion to call a snap election. Cory Aquino, housewife and mother and a martyr’s widow, is prevailed upon to run for President: she is the only one who can unify the fractured opposition against the still formidable Marcos political machine.
Like her husband before her, Cory Aquino is cheated of victory in the counting of the ballots. She calls for a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience. In February of 1986, a rebel military faction attempts a coup. Marcos gets wind of the plot and starts to move to crush the rebellion. But for four days in February millions of people come out into the streets and surround the military camps where the rebels are holed up. People power, armed only with rosaries and flowers, defies tanks and planes. On the fourth day, the dictatorship falls. The Marcoses are forced to flee to Hawaii.
Cory Aquino assumes power as President of the Philippines. In her inaugural speech, she acknowledges the country’s immense debt to her husband for the restoration of democracy. But for the vagaries of history, it is Benigno Aquino Jr. who should have been President.