Assassination of Philippine Opposition Leader Benigno Aquino Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr., transformed him into a martyr and mobilized a massive reaction against the rule of Ferdinand Marcos.

Summary of Event

Benigno Aquino, Jr., knew that his return to Manila from three years of exile in the United States was fraught with danger. President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda, had warned Aquino that his life was threatened. Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile had asked him to delay his return. The supreme court of the Philippines had declared that Aquino’s alleged crimes of “subversion, murder, and illegal possession of firearms” still warranted punishment by a firing squad. Aquino, however, knew that Ferdinand Marcos’s health was deteriorating, and he feared that Imelda Marcos or General Fabian Ver would try to take over the government. He believed that only through his leadership could a bloody civil war between the military and the radical masses be averted. [kw]Assassination of Philippine Opposition Leader Benigno Aquino (Aug. 21, 1983) [kw]Philippine Opposition Leader Benigno Aquino, Assassination of (Aug. 21, 1983) [kw]Leader Benigno Aquino, Assassination of Philippine Opposition (Aug. 21, 1983) [kw]Aquino, Assassination of Philippine Opposition Leader Benigno (Aug. 21, 1983) Assassinations and attempts;Benigno Aquino, Jr.[Aquino] [g]Southeast Asia;Aug. 21, 1983: Assassination of Philippine Opposition Leader Benigno Aquino[05210] [g]Philippines;Aug. 21, 1983: Assassination of Philippine Opposition Leader Benigno Aquino[05210] [c]Crime and scandal;Aug. 21, 1983: Assassination of Philippine Opposition Leader Benigno Aquino[05210] [c]Government and politics;Aug. 21, 1983: Assassination of Philippine Opposition Leader Benigno Aquino[05210] Aquino, Benigno, Jr. Marcos, Ferdinand Aquino, Corazon Marcos, Imelda Ver, Fabian Holbrooke, Richard Sin, Jaime

Using false passports and scheduling a complex and secret itinerary, Aquino arrived in the Philippines from Taipei, Taiwan, on China Airlines on August 21, 1983. Special agents had alerted General Ver of the “secret arrival,” however, and armed military men surrounded the plane. Three uniformed soldiers escorted Aquino into a movable passenger tube and, instead of proceeding through to the waiting room, directed him out a service door and down the exterior service stairs. Before he reached the bottom of the stairs leading to the tarmac, Aquino was shot in the back of the head. The soldiers threw his body in a van and disappeared.

Aquino’s assassination was the bloody conclusion of a rivalry between Aquino and Marcos. The Marcos government’s flagrant attempts to cover up for the perpetrators included kidnapping, murder, intimidation, and falsification of evidence. Marcos’s policies of retribution and economic exploitation of the country frightened the middle class and the nation’s traditional ruling families, and they mobilized around Benigno’s wife, Corazon Aquino, to drive Marcos out of power.

Benigno Aquino had been the major liberal critic of Marcos and a contender for the presidency. It was widely believed that Marcos had declared martial law Martial law;Philippines in 1972 in order to prevent Aquino from running for the presidency. Within hours of the proclamation of martial law, Aquino was arrested and charged with subversion. He endured years of prison confinement and was many times isolated and abused. After several abortive military trials, he was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to death by firing squad, but international appeals and local political movements saved him. In 1978, he campaigned for office from jail. His party, Lakas ng Bayan (Strength of the Country), was known by its acronym, Laban (Fight). The symbol for the party was a closed fist with thumb and pinky extended, forming the letter L, and this gesture became famous as a visual statement against Marcos and his government.

Because of ill health, Benigno Aquino was finally allowed to leave the Philippines with his family. He spent three years in the United States preparing for his return and for renewed political struggles. His support was drawn from many sectors of the Philippines and from his international connections.

Airport security personnel lift the body of Benigno Aquino, Jr., into a van after he was shot while deplaning in Manila. The assassin’s body lies to the left of the truck.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Aquino began his career as a newsperson covering the Korean War, and his close relationship with foreign journalists helped him to achieve international notoriety during his imprisonment and exile. While working at the Manila Times, he attended the prestigious law school of the University of the Philippines, and he became famous for his oratorical ability and charismatic leadership. After his graduation, he married Corazon and started a career in politics. At the age of twenty-two, he became the youngest mayor in the Philippines. At the same time, he successfully managed a sugar plantation, increasing its productivity and providing good treatment for its workers. At twenty-eight, he became the youngest governor in the Philippines in his home province of Tarlac. His administration brought prosperity and stability to the area.

Aquino achieved national popularity when he became the youngest member of the Philippine congress in 1967. He availed himself of the “privilege hour,” in which an individual could speak about anything with full immunity, and focused his impressive oratorical skills on attacking the Marcoses. He revealed Marcos’s intent to declare martial law, castigated Marcos for lifting the writ of habeas corpus after the Plaza Miranda bombings in 1971, and revealed Marcos’s corrupt practices. Aquino’s own modest lifestyle contrasted greatly with the opulence of the Marcoses, and most flagrant of all Aquino’s denunciations were his attacks on the president’s wife for using public funds for lavish and wasteful projects, especially the Philippine Cultural Center, which he characterized as “Imelda’s Pantheon.”

Aquino’s incarceration in Forts Magsaysay and Bonifacio from 1972 to 1980 enhanced his reputation as a martyr for international human rights. Written in self-defense at his military trial in 1977, his Testament from a Prison Cell (1977) Testament from a Prison Cell (Aquino) was both a documentary of Marcos’s abuse of power and a statement of Aquino’s own vision for a free society that would incorporate democratic institutions with Christian policies of social justice. Aquino’s political program was greatly influenced by his Christian conversion in 1975, which occurred while he was on a hunger strike in jail. His newfound ideology found deep support among the liberals in the Filipino church and among the Filipino people in general.

In 1980, Aquino suffered a severe heart problem that necessitated surgery. Instead of facing the possibility of having Aquino die in a Manila hospital, Marcos allowed him to leave the country for medical care in the United States. After his recovery, Aquino traveled extensively for three years to organize Filipino exile groups and to publicize the problems in the Philippines. Soon after he recovered from his heart operation, he spoke before the Asia Society. The speech he made on that occasion ended with a ringing declaration of his commitment to help his countrymen oppose authoritarian rule in order to support freedom: “I have carefully weighed the virtues and the faults of the Filipino, and I have come to the conclusion that he is worth dying for.”

Officials of President Jimmy Carter’s administration, especially Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and Congressmen Stephen J. Solarz Solarz, Stephen J. and Donald Fraser, Fraser, Donald had been sympathetic to Aquino. President Ronald Reagan, Reagan, Ronald who had been a special guest at the opening of Imelda Marcos’s Philippine Cultural Center, directed his administration to support Ferdinand Marcos. For Reagan, the security of American military bases in the Philippines took priority over human rights and the welfare of Aquino and the opposition. Realizing that his influence on U.S. policy had become limited, Aquino decided to return to the Philippines.


The reaction to Aquino’s assassination was overwhelming and maintained its momentum until 1986, when Corazon Aquino became president. Millions of people gathered for the funeral procession. Archbishop Jaime Sin’s homily further expressed the Catholic Church’s regard for Benigno Aquino and underlined the need to seek peace and justice through a change in government. The government’s clumsy show trial that exonerated General Ver further outraged the population. The success of Corazon Aquino’s People’s Power movement drove the Marcoses, General Ver, and their close followers into exile. With the major witnesses absent, a new investigation of the assassination could not reveal the real perpetrators, but a 172-page report in 1990 did set the record straight: The alleged communist gunman, Rolando Galman, Galman, Rolando was innocent, and the military men who had surrounded the plane were guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. Enrile, Juan Ponce Assassinations and attempts;Benigno Aquino, Jr.[Aquino]

A self-conscious nationalist who was proud of his family’s anti-imperialist traditions, Benigno Aquino became a Filipino martyr in the tradition of Jose Protasio Rizal y Mercado. Like Rizal, Aquino was willing to die for his country and the freedom of his people. Aquino’s prison experiences writings, political organization, hunger strike, solitary confinements, and abusive interrogations were similar to other famous international cases of conscience and resistance, such as those of Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ironically, Aquino admired the autocratic and authoritarian rule of leaders such as Atatürk of Turkey, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and even General Park Chung Hee, who had placed South Korea under martial law in 1972. Aquino, however, became a symbol of the People’s Power movement in the Philippines. The success of this nonviolent and democratic overthrow of an autocratic ruler provided great hope and inspiration to democratic and human rights movements throughout East Asia. Democratic movements in Taiwan, South Korea, and even China looked for lessons in the Philippine experience. Largely through the success of nonviolent protest, martial law in Taiwan and in South Korea was abrogated in the mid-1980’s. Only in China was the democracy movement aborted. The Philippine symbol of personal sacrifice and political accomplishment, however, remained greatly admired in East Asia.

Benigno Aquino’s international reputation and popularity resulted in tremendous attention to his assassination from journalists and human rights organizations. Domestically and internationally, the problems of the Philippines were studied and reports about them were circulated. Under Marcos, there was very little outside interest in the Philippines, and much of the critical information available was censored by the government or by multinational businesses. Nevertheless, a large number of domestic human rights monitoring groups kept a close account of abuses. In addition to many church and lay organizations, the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) became well regarded for its reports and struggles on behalf of human rights issues.

Benigno Aquino’s assassination alarmed the Filipino citizenry to the point where they became conscious of the need to develop and monitor policies of social justice in order to further the attainment of human rights for all. This establishment of a new standard to measure political success was Aquino’s greatest domestic and international legacy. Assassinations and attempts;Benigno Aquino, Jr.[Aquino]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aquino, Ninoy. Testament from a Prison Cell. 1977. Reprint. Los Angeles: Philippine Journal, 1988. Presentation of Aquino’s major political testimony forms his political legacy to the Filipino people. Written in 1977 for his defense at the military trial that accused him of subversion and murder, outlines Aquino’s countercharges and his political philosophy. Printed in a limited edition of five thousand copies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonner, Raymond. Waltzing with a Dictator: The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy. New York: Times Books, 1987. Important study of the state department’s activities in Manila focuses on Ambassador Stephen Bosworth and his relations with Marcos. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burton, Sandra. Impossible Dream: The Marcoses, the Aquinos, and the Unfinished Revolution. New York: Warner Books, 1989. Provides a dramatic and personal description of the government’s cover-up of Benigno Aquino’s assassination and the politicization of Corazon Aquino.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Celoza, Albert F. Ferdinand Marcos and the Philippines: The Political Economy of Authoritarianism. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997. Examines the period between 1972 and 1986, the year in which Marcos was ousted from the Philippines.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamilton-Paterson, James. America’s Boy: A Century of Colonialism in the Philippines. London: Granta Books, 1998. Presents a comprehensive analysis of the rise and fall of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Includes maps and chronology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">International Commission of Jurists. The Failed Promise: Human Rights in the Philippines Since the Revolution of 1986 Report of a Visit. Geneva: Author, 1991. Extensive assessment of Corazon Aquino’s “unfinished revolution.” Conclusion praises Aquino for having rescinded most of the decrees that formed the basis for martial law but still criticizes her administration for not adequately protecting the human rights of all Philippine citizens.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Karnow, Stanley. In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines. New York: Random House, 1989. Well-documented study of U.S.-Philippine relations provides excellent discussion of the decision-making process in Washington, D.C., during the Reagan administration. Karnow, an outstanding journalist on East Asian affairs, has personally interviewed the Marcoses, General Ver, Benigno Aquino, Corazon Aquino, Juan Ponce Enrile, and other political leaders in both the Philippines and the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leary, Virginia A. The Philippines: Human Rights After Martial Law. Geneva: International Commission of Jurists, 1984. Investigates the abuses of the armed forces and the police and provides excellent documentation of the abuse of economic and social rights and a legal critique of the criminal law and the judicial system. Provides a unique survey of the abuse of tribal peoples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simons, Lewis M. Worth Dying For. New York: William Morrow, 1987. Detailed report on the investigation of Aquino’s assassination written by a journalist who received the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for articles that exposed the corruption of the Marcoses. Provides informative discussion of the events that followed the assassination.

Marcos Declares Martial Law in the Philippines

Marcos Flees the Philippines

Categories: History