On September 20, 2011 — just one day before the 39th anniversary of the start of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines — President Benigno Simeon Aquino III, popularly known as “PNoy” (a play of the term “Pinoy” which describes any Filipino), will speak before the Asia Society in New York. His visit marks another milestone in the significance of the Philippines and the Asia Society’s long history.
In the dark moments of Marcos dictatorship when the voice of democratic freedom was muted, Asia Society provided the platform for Ninoy Aquino, the president’s martyred father, who gave the call for international community to take notice of the ongoing atrocities and rallied the Filipino democratic movement when in his speech he uttered the words, “The Filipino is worth dying for.” On August 21, 1983, Ninoy Aquino lived and died on those words, felled by an assassin’s bullet in the tarmac of the Manila International Airport. His death proved to be the death knell for the Marcos dictatorship as millions of Filipinos flocked to bring Ninoy’s bloodied body in his final resting place.
Shattered but moved by the brutal death of her husband, Cory Aquino, took on the cudgels of leadership for the democratic forces in the Philippines. With the late Cardinal Sin at her side, she gave momentum to the snowballing support to remove the dictator which culminated in the Filipino outcry against the massive cheating in the 1987 presidential snap elections and the defection of former Marcos allies, then defense minister, Juan Ponce Enrile, and chief of constabulary, General Fidel Ramos.
Known as the EDSA People Power, the Filipino democractic victory over a tyrant sparked other freedom movements in other parts of the world. Cory Aquino assumed the presidency and led the transition from martial rule to democracy by crafting a new constitution. During her state visit in the United States as the new Philippine president, she spoke at the Asia Society of her and her country’s struggle to keep democracy alive. The transition was difficult as it was marked by seven bloody coup attempts by Marcos loyalists and rightist elements. President Aquino herself almost died in an ambush during a coup attempt in 1989.
As Cory Aquino was propelled to the presidency by her husband’s martyrdom, her own death in August 2009 led her son to the presidency after Filipino hopes for a better government remained unmet by the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo presidency. Running on the platform of good governance and eradication of poverty, President Benigno S. Aquino III was elected president, millions of votes ahead of all the candidates. Reeling from almost a decade of President Arroyo’s term tainted by allegations of electoral fraud, massive corruption, human rights violations and the perceived threat of Arroyo’s plan for dictatorial rule, the Filipino’s looked to PNoy as a source of hope for much needed reforms.
With his parents' legacy, President Aquino’s pedigree is one of martyrdom, sacrifice and hope for Philippine democracy. As he takes the podium at the Asia Society, he is stepping on the platform upon which his parents had spoken in defense of his people’s freedom and welfare. When the world remembers the Aquinos and Asia Society, it shall remember Ninoy, the martyr, and Cory, the champion of People Power who defeated the dictator and endured the challenges of democratic transition. How their son will be known in the world is uncertain as of now, but one can be sure that his heart is devoted to freedom and integrity in governance.
Arnel Paciano Casanova is the former executive director of Asia Society in the Philippines.