By Lisandro Claudio
18 August 2010
Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was the pre-eminent figure of the anti-Marcos struggle. Even before the declaration of martial law, he was already one of the most vocal critics of the regime’s authoritarian and militarist tendencies. It is perhaps for this tenacity and, of course, his supreme sacrifice in 1983 that the nation considers him a hero.
As we look back on his legacy, it may be productive to ask: how did Ninoy concretize his opposition to Marcos? To what extent did he believe in fighting Marcos’s military fire with fire?
It is public knowledge that Ninoy supported the bombing of key strategic locations by the politically moderate Light a Fire Movement (LAFM) in the early 80s. Ninoy knew that the dictatorship could not be fought through parliamentary means alone. But was it only in the 1980s that Ninoy discovered this? Or was he more prescient than many of his contemporaries? As a historian, this is a question I’ve asked many times.
For some time now, I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork in Hacienda Luisita for my PhD thesis at the University of Melbourne. As my thesis concerns the Marcos period, I asked many questions about the Marcos military, its arch-nemesis the New People’s Army (NPA), and the NPA’s political organization, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). In my interviews, a number of my respondents told me that there was a significant Communist presence on the hacienda because of an informal alliance between Ninoy Aquino and the CPP-NPA. According to some accounts, Ninoy, who was the hacienda’s first administrator, allowed NPA rebels to hide in its sugar cane fields.
These statements piqued my curiosity, so I decided to see if I could verify them. For a historian familiar with Ninoy’s life story, the claims of my respondents did not seem far-fetched (though, of course, they still needed verification). I had, for instance, read a number of works by academics claiming that it was Ninoy who introduced founding CPP Chairman Jose Maria “Joma” Sison to renegade Huk commander Bernabe Buscayno (aka Kumander Dante), allowing for the formation of the CPP’s New People’s Army (see, for example, Dominique Caouette’s and Kathleen Weekley’s respective histories of the CPP).
I also knew that Aquino was never a virulent anti-Communist. In his book “The Aquinos of Tarlac,” Nick Joaquin notes how Ninoy’s stint as a war correspondent in Korea and Southeast Asia in the early 1950s allowed him to develop a view of Communism that transcended simplistic Cold War rhetoric. He quotes Ninoy as saying, “To me, Communism and democracy had been black and white: Communism was bad, democracy was good. But when I saw how the North Korean prisoners were tortured and yet stuck to their own creed, I began to wonder.”
Ninoy adds in another chapter: “The Filipino is aware of and has enjoyed America’s benevolence; but to the rest of Asia, the American looks like the Frenchman, the Britisher and the Dutchman. To Asians, these people are the symbols of oppression. And many Asians would prefer Communism to western oppression.”
Ninoy was appointed by President Ramon Magsaysay to serve as personal emissary to Luis Taruc, leader of the Huks, a rebel group based in central Luzon. Photo courtesy of iamninoy- iamcory Movement
This is perhaps why Ninoy was fond of conciliatory approaches to left-wing uprisings in Central Luzon. Joaquin narrates that when President Ramon Magsaysay asked the young reporter how he could enhance his public image, Ninoy recommended that the president open discussions with Huk Supremo and Communist ally Luis Taruc. Serving as the presidential emissary to the Supremo, Ninoy negotiated a settlement with Taruc. Because of this, Ninoy notes that he “had terrific credentials among the Huks: the boy who befriended Taruc.”
My research suggests that Aquino’s ties with the organized Left extended even after the collapse of the Huk rebellion and the emergence of the young Turks who founded the CPP in 1968.
When I interviewed the CPP’s founding Chairman Jose Maria Sison via email, he told the story of how Ninoy sought him out in 1967, a year before the founding of the CPP. He narrates: “I became friends with Ninoy in late 1967 through his young Senate aide Raul Roco who was then my neighbor in Sta. Mesa Heights. Ninoy had come to my house but I was not home. Raul eventually brought me to Ninoy’s house on Times St.”
Sison recalls that, while “Cory served coffee,” Ninoy proposed to him that they launch a joint hunger strike against Marcos to demand reforms. The young activist who headed the radical Kabataang Makabayan (KM) politely declined because he was busy organizing the peasant, labor, and youth sectors. Unbeknownst to Aquino, Sison was also preoccupied with the formation of the CPP.
Sison has always denied that it was Aquino who introduced him to Dante. He claims it was CPP Vice Chairman Arthur Garcia, with the aid of Tarlac Rep. Jose Yap, who arranged the meeting. “The stories about Ninoy introducing me to Dante revolve around the trip arranged by Yap,” notes Sison. Yap, a member of the Liberal Party, was one of Aquino’s closest allies.
I asked Ka Dante if I could interview him about his relationship with Ninoy, but he declined, saying he was busy tending his Tarlac farm. However, in a 1989 interview with Bob Drogin of the LA Times, Dante, after discussing his long friendship with Ninoy, claimed “It was really Ninoy who made Sison and me talk.” Dante narrates that Aquino took Sison to Hacienda Luisita where two of Ninoy’s aides brought the young Marxist to the renegade Huk commander. Despite disagreeing with Dante’s version of the story, Sison confirms that “Ninoy had maintained a certain amount of good relations with the old people’s army units headed by Bernabe Buscayno in Tarlac.”
These good relations were most evident in Hacienda Luisita. According to Dante, the NPA never attacked the hacienda because of the rebel army’s ties with Ninoy. In a personal interview, Rodolfo Salas (aka Kumander Bilog), CPP Chair from 1977-1986 and NPA Commander-Chief from 1976-1986 (he replaced both Sison and Dante when they were jailed) added, “Ninoy protected us in there. So we were able to organize the unions in Hacienda Luisita. The wife of Art Garcia was a nurse. We made her work in the hospital of Hacienda Luisita, and that’s how we organized the union.” Interestingly, he adds that “Ninoy supported the unionization, but the Cojuangcos didn’t.”
Salas’s predecessor, Sison, offers a slightly different interpretation of CPP-NPA penetration into Luisita: “Hacienda Luisita is a big place of several thousands of hectares. It was an area of mass work by the NPA. The peasants and farm workers welcomed the NPA. Ninoy did not have to open the place for the NPA. But certainly it was helpful that Ninoy was not known to be hostile to the NPA. His local loyalists did not run to the military to report the presence of the NPA.”
The Benefits of Cooperation
According to “Joey,” a former CPP politburo member, “I can confirm that Ninoy provided us with arms, a training area, and lodging.” In exchange for this aid, the CPP-NPA would support Ninoy’s electoral bids. In the same 1989 interview with Drogin, Dante’s wife Fatima claimed, “They brought most of the wounded to Ninoy’s house.” She adds that the rebels even “borrowed money from Ninoy. And he would pay doctors not to tell on the NPA.”
Salas, who served as the Party’s liaison officer with Aquino before martial law, told me a similar story. “We were the underground (UG) liaison officers. There were other people liaising with him through legal organizations, but we were strictly UG. We were trying to build an army.”
Prior to martial law, Salas, along with Ruben Tuazon, a former Ninoy employee turned NPA rebel, would visit Ninoy in his Times St. residence where they would wait for the senator in the kitchen. When Ninoy met them, he would give them guns (“at most, 3 at a time,” says Salas), cash, or both. Salas recalls that Ninoy showed concern for his favorite NPA Commanders, asking questions like “How is Kumander Pusa? How is Kumander this and that?”
Salas himself brought wounded NPA soldiers either to Times St. or to the old Aquino residence in New Manila. Out of curiosity, I asked him if he ever saw Cory, to which he replied, “Yah we’d see her, but we never took notice of her.”
These meetings were just the tip of the iceberg. For Salas, Aquino significantly contributed to the expansion of the NPA. For example, he claims “Ninoy was very instrumental in helping the NPA enter Isabela through Mayor Dy [Faustino Dy Sr]. Dy wanted to run for governor of Isabela, but his opponent [a Marcos ally] had a private army. ” To aid his friend, Aquino brokered an alliance between the NPA and Dy. Salas recalls: “I remember we used Dy’s house as a base. I slept there myself when I was in Isabela.”
Sison’s account on NPA expansion in Isabela once again differs slightly from his successor: “At that time Faustino Dy was indeed pro-Ninoy against Marcos. But it was not Ninoy who introduced the NPA to then Cauayan mayor Dy. It was Ka Ruben Tuazon [the same Ruben Tuazon whom Salas claims helped him liaise with Ninoy], a peasant leader and member of the CPP Central Committee, who introduced the NPA to Dy.”
Marcos Accuses Aquino of Meeting with Communists
On September 16, 1972, President Marcos charged unnamed Liberal Party officials with meeting cadres of the CPP for subversive purposes. Aquino immediately denied the allegations.
According to declassified US government documents, however, it seems that a meeting between Aquino and CPP leaders did transpire on September 7, just two weeks before Marcos’ declaration of martial law. In a telegram by US Ambassador Henry Byroade to the State Department dated September 18, 1972, he notes:
“In private conversations with two Emboffs (embassy officials) Sept 12, Senator Aquino said that on Sept 7 he had met with Sison and several other members of CPP/ML [Communist Party of the Philippines/Marxist-Leninist] Central Committee in house in suburban Makati. At meeting, he was presented with proposal to join broad opposition front including part of Liberal Party, CPP/ML, and other radical groups. He did, however, agree to provide CPP/ML with statement of program and principles on which he invited their comments with view of established basis for possible future cooperation.”
Based on this, Byroade thought that there was “considerable basis for the charges made by Pres Marcos.”
In this September 21, 1972 airgram to Washington, the US Embassy in Manila describes a conversation with then-Senator Ninoy Aquino who tells the Americans about his meeting with Joma Sison and other Communists to discuss forming a ‘broad united front in opposition to the Marcos administration.’
In another communication to the State Department dated September 21, the US Embassy sheds further light on what Ninoy told the American officials. On September 12, Ninoy had a “lengthy luncheon with two embassy officers about the “growing strength of Communist dissidence in the Philippines.” In this luncheon, the senator “readily admitted his past ties with the several Communist factions in the Philippines.” He claimed that maintaining links with Huk rebels was a “fact of life” for a Tarlac politician.
Notably, the document confirms some of Sison’s, Dante’s, and Salas’s claims. At the luncheon, for instance, Ninoy told the American officials that he had indeed met with Sison several years before (the document, however, states that he met Sison via then Congressman Ramon Mitra and not Raul Roco). The document also states that Ninoy claimed to have helped Sison and the CPP-NPA “get established in Tarlac and, later, in Isabela province.”
As for the September 7 meeting with Sison, Ninoy said that it had been held in a house in the elite enclave of Dasmariñas Village in Makati and that it was between him, Sison, and members of the CPP Central Committee. At the meeting, the young Maoists asked Aquino to lead a revolutionary government “in the hills,” which would include “the CPP/ML and their associate groups (KM [Kabataang Makabayan], SDK [Samahan ng Demokratikong Kabataan]), the old Lava pro-Moscow group [the first Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas] (which Aquino thought would never join the Maoists), the Socialist Party of the Philippines, and other radical elements.” For his part, Ninoy was expected to bring in a faction of the Liberal Party. Ninoy declined this offer, seeing it as premature given the situation.
Aquino, however, told the embassy officials that the political situation in the Philippines was “rapidly deteriorating” and that Marcos intended to stay in power indefinitely. Given these circumstances, it would be difficult for him to become head of state through legitimate means. According to the document, Ninoy could become “willing at some point in the future to ally himself with the Communists as the leader of a revolution, if he was convinced that this is the best way for him to realize his ultimate political ambition.”
Sison confirms this meeting between the CPP and Ninoy, but says Ninoy only met with an emissary of his:
“It was Julius Fortuna [a member of the CPP Central Committee] (not me) who met Ninoy Aquino in the house of a big businessman (whose daughter was an activist) and who represented the NDF Preparatory Commission, the CPP and NPA and in effect or in a manner of speaking me. I did not meet Ninoy but it is highly probable that Julius told him that I sent Julius to him. Up to now, I do not understand why Ninoy told Enrile and others that I met him. I could only surmise that it was his way of stressing the importance of the meeting. Indeed, Julius discussed with Ninoy how to make a broad united front more effective against the Marcos regime.”
These conversations between Ninoy and the CPP did not result in any concrete action. According to Salas, the implementation of martial law on September 23 and Ninoy’s subsequent jailing temporarily ended the cooperation between him and the CPP.
Ninoy in Jail and Exile
By 1978, the public knew that Salas, known then as Kumander Bilog, was the new CPP Chairman and NPA Commander-in-Chief. It was in the lead up to the Interim Batasang Pambansa (IBP) election of that year when Ninoy, the jailed leader of the opposition, attempted to make contact with the new Communist head. Salas, however, ignored the emissary because he had a military background. Ninoy would only be able to contact Kumander Bilog two years after.
On May 8, 1980, Imelda Marcos allowed Ninoy to leave for the United States for heart surgery. Ninoy would remain in exile in America until his fateful return in August 1983.
While in exile in 1980, Ninoy made contact with Salas. According to the former CPP Chair, Julie Figueroa, a cousin of Ninoy’s, served as their mediator, flying back and forth between the Philippines and the US (she could do this easily as she was a British citizen). Salas notes of his communication with Aquino via Figueroa: “It would mostly be verbal for security. But sometimes we would write short notes. Ninoy was very careful then.”
Salas and Aquino discussed “how to overthrow the dictatorship.” Specifically, Ninoy wanted to “revitalize the LP.” Salas supported this proposal because “many local LP organizations had already joined us in multi-sectoral organizations such as Bayan [the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan or New Patriotic Alliance].”
According to Salas, “the problem then was Ninoy did not have an organization. Ninoy was a really great propagandist, but he wasn’t an organization man.” It was members of the Nacionalista Party like Salvador “Doy” Laurel who had an electoral machine through the United Nationalist Democratic Opposition (UNIDO). For Salas, this sidelined Ninoy and the progressives in the LP because UNIDO – “the conservative opposition” – was at the forefront of the electoral struggle. “And since we didn’t like UNIDO, we cooperated with Ninoy,” adds Salas.
Salas believes that Ninoy decided to go home in order to lead the opposition and undercut UNIDO’s influence.
The Hero Returns
The final message Aquino sent to Salas was about his plan to return. The former top Communist notes: “We were able to communicate about his coming home. He said he had three choices: Germany, Australia, the Philippines.” Salas advised Ninoy to avoid the Philippines. He does not know if the former senator received his final message.
The rest, as we say, is history. On August 21, 1983, military men shot Aquino as he was disembarking from his airplane at the Manila International Airport. In death, Aquino accomplished what he could not in life. He united the opposition, who would eventually rally to his wife, sidelining the UNIDO in the process. The great propagandist had made his greatest statement.
In lieu of a conclusion
Any form of history writing is necessarily incomplete. One cannot capture in words the immense complexity of the past. Moreover, individual accounts tend to differ from one another. In the case of my research on Ninoy’s ties with the CPP, different sources give slightly varying accounts of the story.
Despite this, however, I think my research points to a high probability that Ninoy maintained ties with the organized Left. Sources from both the Left (CPP members) and the Right (US Embassy officials during a Republican presidency) validate the broad contours of this historical narrative.
Those who have an absolute hatred of Communism regardless of time or context (a view that Ninoy did not share) may see this evidence as compromising the legacy of a great Filipino hero. Some of my evidence may, indeed, just reinforce the well-known fact that Ninoy was an ambitious politician.
Personally, however, I believe my research sheds more light on how dedicated Ninoy was to the anti-dictatorship cause. It ultimately shows that Aquino would stop at nothing to challenge a morally bankrupt regime that had betrayed the will of the people. – HGS, GMANews.TV
Lisandro Claudio (“Leloy”) is a Phd Candidate in the School of Historical Studies, The University of Melbourne. He is also a lecturer (on leave) in the Department of History, Ateneo de Manila University.
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