Even to me, a foreigner, here in Manila the significance of President “Noynoy” Aquino’s government having made today a national holiday to mark the 150th anniversary of José Rizal’s birth is obvious. Rizal was a man of many talents and republican convictions who opposed colonial rule until executed by Spanish firing squad in 1896. The current President’s father Benigno (“Ninoy”) Aquino was the Liberal Party leader who returned from exile in 1983 to oppose US-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos, only to be assassinated as he arrived at Manila airport. I suspect that for ordinary Filipinos both murdered men have hero status bearing comparison with President John F Kennedy for Americans.
The current President took a little time off from affairs of state to welcome Liberal delegates from around the world to his palace last Saturday and give the keynote speech of Liberal International Congress. He seemed to me an unassuming man, and my impression is reinforced by reading that when asked what he would wear at his inauguration he is said to have replied: old glasses and a watch, a new fountain pen, a new barong [type of knife], old pants, decent underwear. But the words of his speech on Saturday were steely. He reaffirmed his intention to follow the “straight path” and to root out the Philippines’ notorious corruption. Not just words: news reports here during my short visit have daily confirmed that Aquino appointees are investigating scandals surrounding powerful figures during his predecessor Gloria Arroyo’s presidency, and recommending prosecutions.
He needs all his resolve. As popular uprisings plunge the Middle East into uncertainty, I am reminded that the first “people power” revolution – certainly the first in recent times – was in the Philippines. In 1986 millions of unarmed people poured into the streets and with courage and faith stayed there, facing down the army, until the rapacious and hated Marcos was forced to flee into exile. The murdered Ninoy Aquino’s widow, Corazon (“Cory”), was elected President and brought in a new constitution. But the interests that supported Marcos were still there, subsequent presidencies have been scandal-ridden, and currently the country is looking to Noynoy Aquino for real change. He was swept to power by popular vote; the first anniversary of his inauguration comes up on 30th June.
According to reports, Noynoy Aquino campaigned - wearing a trademark yellow shirt, which will resonate with UK Liberal Democrats - on the pledge “no corruption, no poverty”, mixing with the poor and listening to them. The painful memory of his father’s fate on the airport tarmac in 1983, as well as the torture and injustice suffered by friends and colleagues at the hands of Marcos cronies, are surely the motivation for the President’s decision to follow his father and mother into public life, although he is wealthy enough to live in comfort and safety. I admire his resolve, and wish him all the very best with the two enormous tasks of tackling corruption and poverty.