Biography of Ninoy Aquino

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By Kallie Szczepanski

disturbing video shot in 1983 shows Filipino army personnel boarding a plane and ordering opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr., more commonly called Ninoy Aquino, to disembark. He smiles, but his eyes look wary. Aquino walks out onto the tarmac of the Manila International Airport, while uniformed men prevent his companions from following.

Suddenly the sound of a shot rings through the plane. Aquino’s traveling companions begin to wail; three more shots sound. The western cameraman filming the event captures the image of two bodies lying on the ground, shot to the head. Soldiers hustle one of the bodies onto a luggage cart. Then, the soldiers come at the cameraman.

Ninoy Aquino was dead at the age of 50. Beside him, Rolando Galman also lay dead. Ferdinand Marcos’s regime would blame Galman for killing Aquino – but few historians or citizens of the Philippines give any credence to that claim.

Ninoy Aquino’s Family History:

Benigno Simeon Aquino, Jr., nicknamed “Ninoy,” was born into a wealthy landowning family in Conception, Tarlac, the Philippines on November 27, 1932. His grandfather, Servillano Aquino y Aguilar, had been a general in the anti-colonial Philippine Revolution (1896-1898) and Philippine-American War (1898-1902). Grandfather Servillano was exiled to Hong Kong by the Spanish in 1897, along with Emilio Aguinaldo and his revolutionary government.

Benigno Aquino Sr., aka “Igno,” was a long-time Filipino politician. During the Second World War, he served as Speaker of the National Assembly in the Japanese-controlled government. Following the expulsion of the Japanese, the U.S. jailed Igno in Japan, then extradited him to the Philippines to be tried for treason. He died of a heart attack in December of 1947, before his trial could take place.

Ninoy’s mother, Aurora Aquino, was his father Igno’s third cousin. She married him in 1930 after Igno’s first wife died, and the couple had seven children, of whom Ninoy was the second.

Ninoy’s Early Life:

Ninoy attended several excellent private schools in the Philippines as he was growing up. However, his teen years were full of turmoil. Ninoy’s father was jailed as a collaborator when the boy was only 12, and died three years later just after Ninoy’s fifteenth birthday.

A somewhat indifferent student, Ninoy decided to go to Korea to report on the Korean War at the age of 17 rather than moving on immediately to university. He reported on the war for the Manila Times, earning the Philippine Legion of Honor at 18 for his work.

In 1954, when he was 21, Ninoy Aquino began to study law at the University of the Philippines. There, he belonged to the same branch of the Upsilon Sigma Phi fraternity as his future political opponent, Ferdinand Marcos.

Aquino’s Early Political Start:

The same year that he started law school, Ninoy Aquino married Corazon Sumulong Cojuangco, a fellow law student from a major Chinese/Filipino banking family. The couple had first met at a birthday party when they were both nine years old, and became reacquainted after Corazon returned to the Philippines following her university studies in the United States.

Just a year after they married, in 1955, Ninoy was elected mayor of his home town of Concepcion, Tarlac. He was only 22 years old. Ninoy Aquino went on to rack up a string of records for being elected at a young age: he was elected vice-governor of the province at 27, governor at 29, and secretary-general of the Philippines’ Liberal Party at 33. Finally, at 34, he became the nation’s youngest senator.

From his place in the senate, Aquino blasted his former fraternity brother, President Ferdinand Marcos, for setting up a militarized government, and for corruption and extravagance. Ninoy particularly took on First Lady Imelda Marcos, dubbing her the “Philippines’ Eva Peron,” although as students the two had dated briefly.

Ninoy the Opposition Leader:

Charming, and always ready with a good soundbite, Senator Ninoy Aquino settled in to his role as the primary gadfly of the Marcos regime. He consistently blasted the Marcos’s financial policies, as well as their spending on personal projects and enormous military outlays.

On August 21, 1971, Aquino’s Liberal Party staged its political campaign kick-off rally. Ninoy Aquino himself was not in attendance. Shortly after the candidates took the stage, two huge explosions rocked the rally – fragmentation grenades hurled into the crowd by unknown assailants killed eight people and injured about 120 more.

Ninoy immediately accused Marcos’s Nacionalistas Party of being behind the attack. Marcos countered by blaming “communists” and arresting a number of known Maoists for good measure.

Martial Law and Imprisonment:

On September 21, 1972, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines. Among the people swept up and jailed on fabricated charges was Ninoy Aquino. Ninoy faced charges of murder, subversion and weapons possession, and was tried in a military kangaroo court.

On April 4, 1975, Ninoy Aquino went on a hunger strike to protest the military tribunal system. Even as his physical condition deteriorated, his trial continued. The slight Aquino refused all nourishment but salt tablets and water for 40 days, and dropped in weight from 54 kilos (120 pounds) to 36 kilos (80 pounds).

Ninoy’s concerned friends and family convinced him to begin eating again after 40 days. His trial dragged on for years longer, however, until November 25, 1977. On that day, the military commission found him guilty on all counts. Ninoy Aquino was to be executed by a firing squad.

People’s Power:

From prison, Ninoy played a major organizational role in the 1978 parliamentary elections. He founded a new political party, called the “People’s Power” or Lakas ng Bayan party, LABAN for short. Although the LABAN party enjoyed huge public support, every one of its candidates lost in the thoroughly rigged election.

Nonetheless, the election proved that Ninoy Aquino could act as a powerful political catalyst even from a cell in solitary confinement. Feisty and unbowed, despite the death sentence hanging over his head, he was a serious threat to the Marcos regime.

Ninoy’s Heart Problems and Exile:

Sometime in March of 1980, in an echo of his own father’s experience, Ninoy Aquino suffered a heart attack in his prison cell. A second heart attack at the Philippine Heart Center showed that he had a blocked artery, but Aquino refused to allow surgeons in the Philippines to operate on him for fear of foul play by Marcos.

Imelda Marcos made a surprise visit to Ninoy’s hospital room on May 8, 1980, offering him a medical furlough to the United States for surgery. She had two stipulations, however; Ninoy had to promise to return to the Philippines, and he had to swear not to denounce the Marcos regime while in the U.S. That same night, Ninoy Aquino and his family got on a plane bound for Dallas, Texas.

The Aquino family decided not to return to the Philippines immediately after Ninoy’s recovery from surgery. They moved instead to Newton, Massachusetts, not far from Boston. There, Ninoy accepted fellowships from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which allowed him leisure to give a series of lectures and write two books. Despite his earlier pledge to Imelda, Ninoy was highly critical of the Marcos regime throughout his stay in the U.S.

Return to the Philippines:

Early in 1983, Ferdinand Marcos’s health began to deteriorate, and with it his iron grip on the Philippines. Aquino worried that in the event of Marcos’s sudden death, the country would descend into chaos and an even more extreme government might emerge.

Ninoy Aquino decided to take the risk of returning to the Philippines, fully aware that he might well be re-imprisoned or even killed outright. The Marcos regime tried to prevent his return by revoking his passport, denying him a visa, and warning international airlines that they would not be allowed landing clearance if they tried to bring Aquino into the country.

Starting on August 13, 1983, Aquino flew a meandering, week-long flight route from Boston through Los Angeles, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan to his final destination of Manila. Because Marcos had cut off diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the government there was under no obligation to cooperate with his regime’s goal of keeping Ninoy Aquino away from Manila.

As China Airlines Flight 811 descended in to Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983, Ninoy Aquino warned the foreign journalists traveling with him to have their cameras ready. “In a matter of 3 or 4 minutes it could all be over,” he noted with chilling prescience. Minutes after the plane touched down, he was dead.

Ninoy Aquino’s Legacy:

Before the open-casket funeral, Ninoy’s mother Aurora Aquino insisted that her son’s face be left bare of makeup so that the mourners could clearly see the bullet wound. She wanted everyone to understand “what they did to my son.”

After a 12-hour-long funeral procession, in which an estimated two million people took part, Ninoy Aquino was buried in the Manila Memorial Park. The leader of the Liberal Party famously eulogized Aquino as “the greatest president we never had.” Many commentators compared him with the executed anti-Spanish revolutionary leader, Jose Rizal.

Inspired by the outpouring of support she received after Ninoy’s death, the formerly shy Corazon Aquino became a leader of the anti-Marcos movement. In 1985, Ferdinand Marcos called for snap presidential elections in a ploy to reinforce his power. Cory Aquino ran against him. In the February 7, 1986 elections, Marcos was proclaimed the winner in a clearly falsified result.

Mrs. Aquino called for massive demonstrations, and millions of Filipinos rallied to her side. In what became known as the “People Power Revolution,” Ferdinand Marcos was forced out of office and into exile that same month. On February 25, 1986, Corazon Aquino became the 11th President of the Philippine Republic, and its first female president.

Ninoy Aquino’s legacy did not end with his wife’s 6-year presidency, which saw democratic principles reintroduced into the politics of the nation. In June 2010, his son Benigno Simeon Aquino III, known as “Noy-noy,” became President of the Philippines. Thus, the long political history of the Aquino family, once tarnished by collaboration, now signifies open and democratic processes today.


By Kallie Szczepanski,

Karnow, Stanley. In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, New York: Random House, 1990.

John MacLean, “Philippines Recalls Aquino Killing,” BBC News, Aug. 20, 2003.

Nelson, Anne. “In the Grotto of the Pink Sisters: Cory Aquino’s Test of Faith,” Mother Jones Magazine, Jan. 1988.

Nepstad, Sharon Erickson. Nonviolent Revolutions: Civil Resistance in the Late 20th Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Timberman, David G. A Changeless Land: Continuity and Change in Philippine Politics, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1991.

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