Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on August 5, 2009

Sometime in 1992 as the administration of the late former president Corazon C. Aquino was coming to a close, my boss at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM) called me to a brief meeting. He explained that Mrs. Aquino and her supporters were thinking about her legacy, how her tumultuous administration could best be characterized, and how she should be remembered.

Mrs. Aquino’s husband, Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino, Jr. predicted years before his brazen August 21, 1983 assassination that anyone who succeeded the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos would “smell like horse manure six months after taking office.” The reasons were obvious: Mr. Marcos had bankrupted the country, the Philippines was torn by dissent and competing interests, and its private sector was in disarray, uncompetitive, and incapable of generating enough jobs for a fast-growing population.

That his wife would have to endure the reality of his forecast would probably have come as a surprise to Mr. Aquino. His “plain housewife” galvanized a nation fed up with the greed and incompetence of Mr. Marcos and his cronies. And more. The February 1986 People Power Revolution-the product of a fragmented opposition united by Mrs. Aquino-inspired downtrodden citizens in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin and South America to rise up against their own corrupt dictators.

Yet Mrs. Aquino had to survive seven attempts by military renegades to remove her from power. Most of those attempts were led by the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM). Ironically, RAM was led by military officers linked to then Defense Secretary and now Senator Juan Ponce Enrile. The principal military leader behind the coups, Gregorio Honasan II, twice elected Senator after being pardoned by former President Fidel V. Ramos, when asked if his actions had helped the Philippines in an AIM forum responded flatly, “No.”

In fact, the repeated coups-the last two resulted in many civilian deaths-scared much-needed investors who took their job-creating strategies elsewhere. Customers of Philippine exporters, worried about interruptions to their supply chains, looked for alternative, reliable partners. Mrs. Aquino’s distracted administration-focused on survival-watched helplessly as power and transportation infrastructure strained, major reforms including agrarian reform ground to a virtual halt amidst political and administrative bickering, and the delivery of basic services crashed.

So my response that day late in Mrs. Aquino’s administration was straightforward. “There’s only one thing that she can truly say was a profound accomplishment, and that is that she restored Philippine democracy after 20 years of dictatorship,” I advised my boss. And then I added, “And that is a great thing, bigger than anything else she might have accomplished even had circumstances been kinder.”

I have no way of knowing whether and in what form that recommendation-probably the best political advice I’ve given anyone, ever-was conveyed to Mrs. Aquino. My former boss and I have long since gone our separate ways, and the relationship with Mrs. Aquino that I didn’t have was a bit tortuous since I was at the time working for the late Ramon V. Mitra, Jr. Neither Mr. Mitra-nor I-ever got over Mrs. Aquino’s abandonment of his quest for the presidency.

As Mrs. Aquino is laid to rest today beside her husband, I’m reminded of an earlier close encounter. On August 21, 1983, I found myself in the lobby of what would eventually become the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. I was there to pick up a group of high-level officials from Malaysia attending an AIM program. I was surprised to see a number of friends from the Foreign Correspondents Association, who told me they were there to cover Mr. Aquino’s arrival. Regretful that I couldn’t linger, I gathered my guests and left the airport.

As we pulled away and drove along the Domestic Terminal Road, I turned on the radio, and heard that Mr. Aquino had been shot. Like millions of Filipinos, I was stunned, and stunned that I had been so close physically to that tragedy. I was also incensed, and in the weeks that followed I celebrated the protests and proudly wore a black badge with the words, “Hindi ka nag-iisa,” often despite thinly veiled threats.

Another AIM official came to me in those days with footage of two Japanese documentaries on the assassination, and because I had lived in Japan and spoke passable Japanese, I was asked to translate them. For two days I isolated myself in my small office, and recorded my translation of the documentaries-which appeared to show that Mr. Aquino’s escorts had murdered him. I turned them over to my superior, and shortly thereafter left the Philippines for several years.

I’m not sure what happened to those tapes. I’ve been told that they were used during the protests and in the 1986 campaign. A New York Times reporter once told me, “You’re the voice.” Again, I have no way of knowing if I was. Regardless, I was excited and proud to have tried to help democracy along, and like so many others, I’m grateful for my family, friends, and myself for Mrs. Aquino’s resiliency, and the freedom she restored to her country.

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