MANILA, August 18, 2003 (STAR)  By Teodoro C. Benigno ( First of two parts ) - He had finally cast his spell. Not in all of modern history had the largest crowd gathered on the face of the earth to honor a man being borne to his grave. Metro Manila was rent into two mighty convulsions. The first was a deafening din of Ninoy! Ninoy! Ninoy! That crackled like a bullwhip. The second was a reverential hush. A national hero had suddenly sprung in the nation’s midst, and bent the Filipino to meditation. The day was August 31, 1983. The historical guns of August had narrowed to a single shot. This was the lone soldier’s bullet that ripped into the brains of Ninoy Aquino just minutes after he had returned from a three-year exile to honor his pledge that "The Filipino is worth dying for".

Ten days later, that single shot drew two million mourners lining the funeral route like the sands of the sea. The world, particularly media, was unbelieving. Two million? Just over a million attended Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral. The equally – beloved Chou En-lai drew about a million who trekked to Tiananmen Square in Beijing to mourn his death. The communists and other brethren of Italy turned out in the same number as Enrico Berlinguer, the idol and patriarch of the left, passed away. Not Ho Chi Minh, not Gamal Abdel Nasser, not Mao Zedong could lure half the funeral crowds of Ninoy.

Over at Malacañang Palace, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos cowered, dazed. They wondered how a single Filipino, who they had jailed for seven years and seven months, could light up the fires of national jubilation. True. In a sense, on that day the citizenry had broken its chains. Even government employees by the tens of thousands played hookey. But the Marcoses still had residual power, the power of a fatally wounded bull to lurch in the air with steel sharp horns and inflict wounds on the body politic. They played their last card three years later, the snap presidential elections of 1986. They lost. They tumbled from the heights and fled like stricken geese to Honolulu.

It was a funeral procession like no other.

Even the military and police concealed their guns, strapped them inside their uniforms. Food, sandwiches, soft drinks and water were handed out free of charge by vendors. When the rains briefly came, the funeral march did not slow down a bit, even as all of them were drenched. When some mourners sought to open their umbrellas, they were shushed not to imitate Imelda and her ubiquitous parasol. "Huwag gayahin si Imelda!" They obeyed. What was it really, this stupefying spectacle of sullen and sudden defiance against the dictator? Why had the parched earth of the opposition suddenly sprung a heaving greensward of two million people?

It was, in a sense and in retrospect, the funeral march of the first great Filipino since the Revolution.

Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Apolinario Mabini and Emilio Aguinaldo had become distant with the passage of time. They became convenient flags in the closet to be unfurled during National Heroes Day. They were names that rung a remote even if reverential bell. Although their epic had been written in blood, the nation had not progressed and prospered. The colonial powers had imposed a heavy, crippling burden on a tribal archipelago. Almost a hundred years later, another dictatorship sprouted over this unfortunate largely Christian land.

Ferdinand Marcos, who must have learned the mystique of power from Mein Kampf, slew democracy with one sword stroke. With the skill of Machiavelli, he inveigled the military and the police to join him, dangling rewards that only the Mongol emperors with their gold and silver hoard could provide. So it was August 31, 1983. What is it about the Philippines that – economic and political dwarf as it may be – it has moments of rapture, of emotional hysteria, of spiritual vainglory? Why can it mobilize men like the endless pebbles of the sea to storm its streets and plazas in endless but fruitless demonstrations? Why can’t it mobilize ideas, concepts, dreams, ambitions to annihilate poverty, banish crime, exterminate crooks and thieves? To build a nation?

I say this because more than almost all countries, we can mobilize people by the hundreds of thousands, millions, two million in the case of Ninoy’s funeral, millions again during EDSA 1 and 2, previous millions during papal visits.

And yet, for all that, we remain puny, a dwarf among nations, gorging on and swearing by People Power, but poor, oppressed, hostage, always hostage, eternal suckers to the blandishments of the rich and the powerful, whom we cannot touch, we cannot punish, we cannot vomit. We hold up our democracy like a lotus blossom sticking out of a stinking mud swamp. Oh yes, we ride our democracy as we would an ugly, deformed Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

And so we found a hero, at last, in Ninoy.

Why couldn’t we honor the man as he should be honored? Why do we just admire his courage, not imitate it? Why can’t we rise as Ninoy did to heights of self-abnegation where his life, his material fortune mattered not at all? Why do we just warble Ninoy’s song during moments like this, the 20th anniversary of his death? Why don’t we get into the heart and soul of the singer, who stormed whatever there was to be stormed, who nestled a fist on the dictator’s jaw and said f–k you. Maybe the lessons Ninoy imparted have not been fully learned, fully appreciated, fully embedded in our guts.

Maybe we all have to go back to that those two days, August 21 and August 31, to dig deeper as many of us go back again and again to the Bible to seek what is hidden so we may uncover a gusher and get knocked out of our penitential pants.

That funeral. Little boys and girls climbed trees, even men. They were bundled like huge agitated bunches of grapes kilometer after kilometer. They stuck out from any aperture, an eye-popping blend of rich and poor, squatters and business tycoons, priest and proletariat, nuns, bar girls, sales girls, sweepstakes vendors, prostitutes and prelates, perfumed matrons and sweating laundrywomen. They were all there to witness this unforgettable sweep of history. It took Ninoy’s death to make them breathe this first gust of freedom. It was also a first pilgrimage out of the grip of dictatorship, a pilgrimage of hope.

As Ninoy himself told me in Boston July 1983 before he set out on his fatal journey: "What the Filipinos need is hope. I shall give them hope. And that is why I am going home. If I don’t return now, up the road in five years will be a full-blown communist revolution. This kind of violence will set us back by ten years, fifteen years." This was the stormy song on his heart. These were the endless stirrings in his soul. Cory couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t stop him. Nobody could stop him. As it turned out, he was right. His only protection was a bulletproof vest. A single bullet in his head would kill him.

I had the great privilege of visiting Ninoy as a journalist and friend during his last two years in Boston. We had long, extended conversations and as I look back, I realize how lucky I was. The man was extremely intelligent and superbly informed, as he was at times confusing and confounding. Cory Aquino often left us alone, busy as she was with the children and house chores.

Ninoy had made up his mind. He had to return home – and soon. Six loaded pistols jammed against his ribs wouldn’t have mattered. Like Columbus, like Magellan, like Hernando Cortes, Ninoy saw distant shores that had to be explored and, in his case, re-explored. At one time, the two of us had to go out to the front yard. There he told me that he and Cory were at daggers drawn on his decision to return. "We had a big fight," Ninoy said, "maybe the biggest fight of our married life. Cory just could not take it. I told her the nation was bigger than myself, that I had to heed the wishes of the Filipino people, that I had to help break the chains of the Marcos dictatorship."

The voice was clear, crisp, the words coming out like bullets for that is the way Ninoy talked. The difference was that the eyes no longer smiled. His jaw was grim, like the chamber of a .45. Ninoy was certainly not the Man of La Mancha. He was a dozen times the Count of Monte Cristo writ on the wall. He was – without a loin cloth – the bapu, Mahatma Gandhi seeking deliverance from the raj, British rule, with a will that could churn a thousand typhoons. Most of all, Ninoy was the patriot who would stare Marcos eyeball to eyeball, and stare him cockeyed and goggle-eyed.

Ninoy figured, "I have to be at the ground floor because Mr. Marcos is a dying man and I have to be able to talk to him, if only for an hour. This will be our rendezvous with history. I will reach out to Mr. Marcos’ heart, and there I will find a concealed Jesus Christ. There is a Christ in every man. I will stir that Christ to life, convince the dictator to join hands with me, and together we shall liberate the people and restore democracy."

If those words could be reduced to stone tablets, they would have fallen at my feet like cobbles peeled from a magic mountain.

(To be continued)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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