Stories of A Death Foretold

Manuel L. Quezon III
16 min readAug 31, 2023

Notes from a book launching

Stillness.

I read Reports of the Fact-Finding Board on the Assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., Octobter 1984 many times but only re-read it, after an interval of perhaps twenty years, as I was preparing my (column) and remarks for the launching of A Death Foretold: The Ninoy Aquino Assassination Remembered.

Here is what Good Intentions Publishing has to say about their publication:

On August 21, 1983, Ninoy Aquino returned from a three-year exile to continue his incarceration as a political prisoner, and, it was widely held, to discuss terms of reconciliation with the government that sent him to prison. Minutes after his arrival, he was shot in the head in broad daylight, just as he was being escorted out of the aircraft.

The mystery of the Aquino assassination remains unsolved. But the collective experience of Ninoy’s death, and of his public and colorful life before it, remains.

This book gathers intimate recollections and impressions of individuals who were there when it happened, whether they were home or away, whether they were politically allied or opposed, or indifferent. Because the distance of time comes with the privilege of perspective, we also sought insights from those whose minds or lives were changed over the years that followed-or whose age or youth gives them a unique viewpoint.

In understanding and accepting this experience, we understand in turn that there is value in the lived experience. There is value in remembering, in gathering memories, impressions, and insights. In doing so, we preserve the value of human experience, and its ascendancy in speaking the truth.

A Death Foretold: The Ninoy Aquino Assassination Remembered launches on August 30, 2023. 9 in. x 9.9 in, 280 pages, softbound, in full color, covering 150 accounts and featuring 200 photographs.

The book costs 1,400 pesos, and you can order a copy through this link.

This week’s The Long View

THE LONG VIEW

Philippine Daily Inquirer / 04:25 AM August 30, 2023

Today, a book titled “ A Death Foretold “ is being launched at the Ayala Museum. Its subtitle is “The Ninoy Aquino Assassination Remembered.” I have the honor of speaking at the launch, and so I won’t preempt myself. But for readers who can’t be there, I thought I’d share some additional thoughts on this project and why it matters.

It only seems to have entered the minds of the editors in passing, but for readers of both a certain age and literary inclinations, the title can’t fail to strike a chord of memory, since the 1980s were, for many readers, a time of “magical realism,” in which the imagination of Gabriel García Márquez filled the void left by the silenced imaginations of our own crafters of “Tropical Baroque” like Nick Joaquin: We found echoes of our own condition in the feverish ravings of “ A Hundred Years of Solitude,” and identified with the sickly sweet stench of decay that permeated “The Autumn of the Patriarch”; in particular, in “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” provoked a uniquely warped kind of déjà vu which took place among those who read it when it came out in English in 1982, only to find reality trumping fiction with the political murder that defined a generation that took place in 1983. Here was an entire national community implicated in a murder that, in retrospect, unfolded in unstoppable fast, then slow, motion.

Last week, I pointed out why, on the 40th anniversary of Benigno “Ninoy” S. Aquino Jr.’s assassination, to insist, as many still do, that the perpetrator remains unknown is to ignore how then President Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. took ownership of the murder by using every power at his disposal, to absolve the officers and enlisted men implicated in what his own investigative commission declared could be nothing less than a military conspiracy. To be sure, as far as the law is concerned, only a few could be convicted because the trail ended with Fabian Ver who went into exile with the Marcoses. But then that is the whole point of political liquidations: to render the law and the institutions that uphold it, incapable and, thus, incompetent.

In the book being launched today, over 130 individuals, from the point of view of a wide variety of backgrounds and political beliefs, talk about Aquino, before, during, and after, those 11 seconds of destiny-from the moment bystanders lost view of him in the loading dock at the Manila airport, to the first shot being heard-that marked the transformation of what had, up to then, been a battle of the wills between Aquino and Marcos, into a battle for survival, between Marcos and the Filipino people.

Whether in film-Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”-or on TV-the pun-addicted “CSI”-or in novels-Marquez’s “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”-the one thing we are told to be sure of, when it comes to witnesses who are sure of themselves, is that you can be sure that they are unreliable. This is because they can lie to investigators, or lie to themselves, often without malice, and in the wholehearted sincere belief that they are recounting the Gospel truth. And so we put our faith in science, on the assurance that forensics will reveal what testimony cannot. This is useful and even necessary in the determination of fact. But we also can, and often do, turn to acts of the imagination, to literature, and acts of compilation, of reportage, or history, to make sense of past times, or get a sense of those times, knowing all too well how fallible the memories of witnesses can be.

And yet we want to hear, see, read testimony. Not so much for the facts, though each of us likes to play amateur detective, even to the point, like the narrator, who is the author, in “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” when he encounters the mother of the murdered man: “I found her prostrated by the last lights of old age when I returned to this forgotten village, trying to put the broken mirror of memory back together from so many scattered shards.” For each shard is itself a complete mirror, reflecting the one and only truth, in the end, the one giving testimony, is capable of bearing witness.

Readers of a religious inclination, understand this compulsion, that to bear witness is a near-sacred thing: Just as bearing false witness is, literally, a profanity. The point of this book, it seems to me, is not to collect testimony to try to solve the so-called mystery of the Aquino assassination: It is to recapture Aquino’s journeys -to the Senate, Fort Bonifacio, Boston, and back, in the eyes of those who viewed it with indifference, admiration, or hostility at the time, or who shifted to or from these attitudes since.

Notes for a book launch

I spoke extemporaneously at the book launching of A Death Foretold: The Ninoy Aquino Assassination Remembered but here are the notes I prepared for my keynote talk. You have to be ready with your hand camera because this action can become very fast. In a matter of three or four minutes, it could be all over, and I may not be able to talk to you again after this.

I.

This book features a different face of Ninoy on its cover. It’s an equally serious one, from a photo taken minutes before landing: in this a photograph of Ninoy Aquino in his China Airlines seat, he is deep in prayer, alone with his thoughts.

It is a picture of stillness in marked contrast to what came next:

You have to be ready with your hand camera because this action can become very fast. In a matter of three or four minutes, it could be all over, and I may not be able to talk to you again after this.

It was over in less than a minute.

About thirty-six seconds passed, from the time Ninoy Aquino stood up, to the moment he disappeared from view as the soldiers took him down the access stairs. About 11 more seconds passed, from the time people lost of sight of Ninoy, before the first, and as we now know, the fatal, shot rang out.

Sandra Burton’s microcassette tape recorder, captured those eleven seconds and the next few seconds, after that:

Click to listen to an excerpt from Sandra Burton’s recording.

Here, forever preserved, is the primal scream of a foreigner, the late Sandra Burton, it is an assault on the ears: a voice that demands not only an explanation, but an accounting. But August 21 should never be a whodunnit, an armchair detective exercise, but rather, a whydunnit, because to reflect on the foul deed and why it had to be done is not just a means to discover the possible Ninoy in each of us, but to confront the Marcos that potentially lurks in even the most pious, sincere and peaceable among us.

From the day Rizal understood the misfortunes of his native land and decided to work to redress them, his vivid imagination never ceased to picture him at every moment of his life the terrors of the death that awaited him; thus he learned not to fear it, and had no fear when it came to take him away; the life of Rizal, from the time he dedicated it to the service of his native land, was therefore a continuing death, bravely endured until the end for love of his countrymen.

II.

This book bears the title A Death Foretold which is actually a reminder, because in the minds of its conceptualizers and editors, “it really is about Ninoy himself foretelling his own death-yet completely welcoming it.”

When Sarge Lacuesta, one of the capable members of the team that put this book together told me this, I thought of how, writing of Rizal, Apolinario Mabini offered up this reflection:

From the day Rizal understood the misfortunes of his native land and decided to work to redress them, his vivid imagination never ceased to picture him at every moment of his life the terrors of the death that awaited him; thus he learned not to fear it, and had no fear when it came to take him away; the life of Rizal, from the time he dedicated it to the service of his native land, was therefore a continuing death, bravely endured until the end for love of his countrymen.

To foretell your own death is not only to begin to confront death itself, but to invite fear to be your constant companion.

III.

Then as now, in 1984 as in 2023, to talk of death demands pinpointing a birth.

In 1984, a slim volume by a lady no longer with us, Cynthia SyCip, came out. It asked many people close to Ninoy the whys of his life; in it were the recollections of his mother, his sisters, a brother, and associates. One of them was Napoleon Rama, among those arrested at the very start of martial law. He recounted how, mere hours after they had been arrested as September 22 turned into September 23, the names of a dozen of them in the Camp Crame gym, were called out and told to get on a bus.

Their destination was unknown. Ninoy told his fellow prisoners, if the bus reached Buendia and turned right, it meant they were going to Luneta to be shot. Along the way, he saw people standing by the side of road, staring at them, faces full of curiosity but without any signs of sympathy. “Look at our people,” Ninoy told his seatmate, Napoleon Rama, “They know that we’ve been fighting for their rights, that we’ve risked our lives and that freedoms have been taken away from them, and yet, they are not doing anything… Look at them, they’re just watching us, curious, so, I don’t think there’s hope for the Filipino.”

Seven years later, having undergone psychological torture and solitary imprisonment, having survived a 40 day fast and heart surgery, Ninoy offered up two insights into his becoming a changed man.

First: “He who would be a leader of his people must learn to forgive them.”

Second, “When we start to feel the pain of those who have been victimized by tyranny, it’s only then we can liberate ourselves… The feeling right now is ‘Fred was tortured, thank God it’s Fred, not me.’ That’s the tragic part. Society is atomized. Until the Filipino nation can feel the loss of one life as if it was their own, we’ll never liberate ourselves.”

…When a whole population takes on the status of bystander, the victims are without allies; the criminals, unchecked, are strengthened; and only then do we need to speak of heroes. When a field is filled from end to end with sheep, a stag stands out. When a continent is filled end to end with the compliant, we learn what heroism is. And alas for the society that requires heroes.

IV.

The deed was supposed to take place unseen, and on the whole, so it was; but in the end it was the sounds and the words that were said, that betrayed the perpetrators, belying their alibis: words do matter.

V.

I once shared this quote with the late President Benigno S. Aquino III and he was struck by it to the extent that he used it in one of his speeches. I would like to share it with you, too. It’s by a writer named Cynthia Ozick, from her essay, “Of Christian Heroism”:

VI.

Rafael Palma, for some of us merely a name of a Hall in UP, was an eyewitness to Jose Rizal’s execution. As Rizal fell down dead, the Spaniards cheered three or four times. But this is what Palma noticed most of all, as the crowd dispersed. “I even saw,” he wrote in his diary, “some Filipinos laughing.”

VII.

To hold a book in your hands is to be alone with your thoughts as you reflect on the thoughts of others. It is to recapture, through a timeline, that raw moment of horror -and horror it must have been- when Ninoy had to come to terms with the fact that his fate was no longer subject to the ordinary rules of logic, even a dictator’s logic: because of the very real possibility that reason could have already abandoned the dictator if not those plotting to succeed him.

VIII.

Some observations that I decided not to include in my remarks:

At one point or another every person interviewed for this book had to undergo an examination of conscience, as did every team member who produced this volume: that is the power of words; that is the provocative effect words can have.

Rizal had his share of skeptics when he was alive and even now after being long dead; but he left nothing to chance and left a valedictory poem to put his own passing in proper context. Similarly, Ninoy Aquino left nothing to chance and the book we are launching today ends with the manifesto he intended to read if he survived his return. Foremost in Ninoy’s mind, of course, as he himself told so many people, was that coming home might lead, not to prison, but the grave.

Ninoy tells Burton he is baffled about news from the palace. Warnings issued for him to stay away have gotten so out of hand, it’s “overkill.” He’s convinced it may be Marcos’s men running the show in Manila. He quips: “That is why I am saying that my friend ain’t the guy I knew before.”

The book you either already hold in your hands or will hold in your hands soon enough, confirms what Mabini deduced, through two things in the timeline of this book. These things are two remarks made by Ninoy Aquino told the journalist Sandra Burton on their way to Taipei’s airport.

Burton asks Ninoy why he thinks a man like Marcos has tolerated him for so long. Ninoy answers that he was the president’s sparring mate. “He would be lonely without me.”

At first,

Ninoy tells Burton he is baffled about news from the palace. Warnings issued for him to stay away have gotten so out of hand, it’s “overkill.” He’s convinced it may be Marcos’s men running the show in Manila. He quips: “That is why I am saying that my friend ain’t the guy I knew before.”

But then, in jest, Ninoy illuminates a horrifying truth:

Burton asks Ninoy why he thinks a man like Marcos has tolerated him for so long. Ninoy answers that he was the president’s sparring mate. “He would be lonely without me.”

To hold a book in your hands is to be alone with your thoughts as you reflect on the thoughts of others. It is to recapture, through a timeline, that raw moment of horror -and horror it must have been- when Ninoy had to come to terms with the fact that his fate was no longer subject to the ordinary rules of logic, even a dictator’s logic: because of the very real possibility that reason could have already abandoned the dictator if not those plotting to succeed him.

By any definition, faith -faith in the Filipino or faith in God, and Ninoy articulated both-requires surrender. We have never focused enough on what Ninoy offered Marcos: redemption, if he would only put himself in the hands of his people. This, a dictatorial ego could never accept. But the Filipino people instinctively understood and began their redemption story.

I have spoken on the Sycip book at length because today’s book stands on the shoulders of giants, those who first gave testimony not only to Ninoy’s life but their own lives as it intersected with, and was affected by, Ninoy’s.

But it was a story still unfolding, then. Sycip’s book has Doña Aurora remarking on the silent crowds gathering at Times Street, This book, has Antonio Montalvan speaking of the sound of silence-how, in Cagayan de Oro, the people marched silently in indignation.

Postscript: A personal reflection

Recollections that I decided not to incorporate into my talk:

If there was once upon a time, Jose W. Diokno, in these pages are Chel and Cookie Diokno, if Butz Aquino spoke to Sycip, here we have the testimony of Paul Aquino. If Sycip talked to Noynoy Aquino, here, are added, the voices of Ballsy Aquino and her cousin, Jackie.

This book contains 130 plus voices -each with a different life story and point of view- who remind us the value of something new about something old, is that it can dispel the complacency that comes from familiarity. After all, it can breed contempt.

We are never far from the past. Just last Monday, as we were working on his memoirs, Cesar Buenaventura turned to me and said, “Nothing to do with work, but were you, by any chance, in Washington DC in 1983?”

“Why yes,” I said, “why do you ask?”

He replied that one of his golf buddies is the renowned surgeon George Garcia. It seems he recently recounted to Cesar how, out of the blue, he was asked by another doctor to urgently see Nonong Quezon who, apparently, was very sick. “Do you remember that?” Cesar asked me.

I did, and do, vividly. Because we’d arrived in America on August 19, to start a new life away from the dictatorship, only for my father to fall violently ill with what his generation used to call arriba y abajo on August 20,-it was because of this that poor George Garcia got asked to do a house call as a favor-and so it came to be that on August 21in the East Coast, by then August 22 in Manila, Ninoy Aquino came crashing back into my consciousness.

I say crashing back, because I’d been conscious of him five years prior. When I was around eight years old, I came down with pneumonia. It was while I was in the hospital that I first heard about Ninoy Aquino. In that mysterious way that news and information traveled before social media, a mimeographed leaflet ended up in my hospital room and into the hands of my father who proceeded to explain to me what a “ noise barrage “ meant.

It is a strange thing to see unease, even fear, in the words and deeds of one’s elders. It can be both ridiculous and sublime, for example in the story of how Luis Araneta joined that noise barrage. He was seated, all by himself, at the head of that gigantic dining table of his, in his immense home. At the appointed time, 8 PM, he solemnly, and defiantly, started ringing a tiny dinner bell…

Tragic -and comic, yes, but a tiny bell can be as loud as the thundering peals of church bells. Ninoy’s own brother, Paul, tells us in this book, that among the many forms that April 6, 1978 noise barrage took was the clinking of big glasses at parties throughout the land. There was, he recalled, a euphoria in that act of defiance. But what followed the next day was the crushing reality of elections when in his village where 3,000 normally voted, there ended up 6,000 votes, and how, confident that Laban had won, exhausted volunteers went home later that night to rest, only to discover at the next day’s counting, that the KBL had won -though the actual ballots themselves had disappeared.

Between 1978 and 1983 Ninoy Aquino himself disappeared from my childish consciousness, but there were other Aquinos that made a vivid impression on me.

One of the adults around whom I always felt at ease as a child, perhaps because her strong personality made me somehow feel safe, was Ninoy’s elder sister, Mila Aquino Albert. I think it was in 1981 because it was year dominated by the question of whether or not to boycott that year’s elections, that I found myself hovering around her as her brother, Tony Aquino, joined the gathered adults. He proceeded to recount how, as a young officer in Bataan, he swam shark-infested waters to Corregidor so that he could personally report to President Quezon about the prejudice of some Americans against the Filipino troops.

As thrilling as his story was, it was my father’s reaction afterwards, that has stuck with me all my life. I think I mentioned how Tony Aquino didn’t look particularly heroic and that he even joked that if he’d known the waters around Corregidor were shark-infested, he wouldn’t have gone there the way he did.

So my dad said let me tell you a story. They were on Corregidor, he remembered, and there had just been an air-raid. It seems my father had been ashamed of having been terrified during the raid and his father noticed it and said to him, the brave man isn’t the one who feels no fear, but rather, the man who feels fear and still does his duty.

In Washington, watching the news on TV, he called my attention to that split second as Ninoy was being hustled from his seat, when the camera focused on his face and showed the mingled concern and determination on Ninoy’s face. “Remember what lolo said,” my dad remarked, “now look at Ninoy Aquino’s face.” The face of a man determined to do his duty.

Originally published at https://mlq3.substack.com.

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Manuel L. Quezon III

Columnist, Philippine Daily Inquirer. Editor-at-large Spot.ph. Views strictly mine. I have a newsletter, blog, podcast, and Patreon.