Filipino Opposition Leader Aquino Is Assassinated on Return Home

Benigno Aquino, Jr., became a focus of the opposition to President Ferdinand Marcos. After years of imprisonment in the Philippines and three years of exile in the United States, he returned to the Philippines only to face the bullets of assassins at Manila airport. His scandalous murder provoked public outrage and led to the overthrow of the dictatorial Marcos, the election of Corazon Aquino as president in 1985, and to his martyrdom.

Summary of Event

The rivalry between Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos and his chief political opponent, Benigno Aquino, Jr., came to a violent end on August 21, 1983, when Aquino, who had also become a voice for democratic change, was assassinated at Manila International Airport after leaving the airplane that brought him back to the Philippines. He had just returned to his homeland from the United States, where he had been in exile for three years. [kw]Aquino Is Assassinated on Return Home, Filipino Opposition Leader (Aug. 21, 1983)
[kw]Assassinated on Return Home, Filipino Opposition Leader Aquino Is (Aug. 21, 1983)
Aquino, Benigno, Jr.
Marcos, Ferdinand
Aquino, Benigno, Jr.
Marcos, Ferdinand
[g]Asia;Aug. 21, 1983: Filipino Opposition Leader Aquino Is Assassinated on Return Home[02070]
[g]Philippines;Aug. 21, 1983: Filipino Opposition Leader Aquino Is Assassinated on Return Home[02070]
[c]Murder and suicide;Aug. 21, 1983: Filipino Opposition Leader Aquino Is Assassinated on Return Home[02070]
[c]Government;Aug. 21, 1983: Filipino Opposition Leader Aquino Is Assassinated on Return Home[02070]
[c]Politics;Aug. 21, 1983: Filipino Opposition Leader Aquino Is Assassinated on Return Home[02070]
[c]Violence;Aug. 21, 1983: Filipino Opposition Leader Aquino Is Assassinated on Return Home[02070]
Galman, Rolando
Ver, Fabian
Aquino, Corazon
Marcos, Imelda

Philippine presidential candidate Corazon Aquino visiting, in December, 1985, the grave site of her late husband Benigno Aquino, Jr., who was assassinated in 1983.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Marcos had been elected president of the Philippines in 1965. Limited by the constitution to two terms in office, he was mandated to leave the presidency in 1973. Aquino, a popular senator, was the most likely victor in the forthcoming presidential election. Instead of leaving office, Marcos declared martial law in 1972, assumed dictatorial powers, and imprisoned Aquino for seven years before exiling him to seek medical care in the United States.

Aquino resided in Newton, Massachusetts, and taught at Wellesley College, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard University. Aquino also kept in touch with the opposition to the Marcos regime. In August, 1983, Aquino decided to return to his homeland. Marcos had been in ill health, his dictatorship was increasingly unpopular, and Aquino hoped that the opposition would coalesce upon his return. However, both Marcos’s flamboyant and powerful wife, Imelda Marcos, and Marcos’s loyal supporter, the chief of the armed forces, General Fabian Ver, had publicly warned Aquino against returning to the Philippines.

Because the Filipino government was monitoring Aquino’s travels, Aquino began his trip with evasive maneuvers, traveling with a fake Philippines passport under the name Marcial Bonifacio. On August 13, he flew from Boston to Los Angeles. He then flew to Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong, and finally landed in Taipei, Taiwan. Aquino had determined to fly to Manila from Taipei, in part because Taiwan did not have diplomatic relations with the Philippines and, thus, was somewhat immune from Marcos’s pressure.

On the morning of August 21, Aquino telephoned his family from the Grand Hotel in Taipei. He spoke with each of his children and listened to his religiously devout wife, Corazon Aquino, read a passage from the Bible. At 11:15 a.m., he left for Manila on China Airlines flight 811, accompanied by his brother-in-law and American Broadcasting Company (ABC) news reporter Ken Kashiwahara, friend Noy Brizuela, about ten other journalists, and two Japanese television crews. Although Aquino believed the presence of the media afforded him some protection, he was also wearing a bulletproof vest.

Aquino’s plane landed at 1:03 p.m. The plane was detained on the runway and several soldiers boarded the plane. While the other passengers were ordered to stay in their seats, the soldiers led Aquino out of the plane and onto the tarmac. Passengers on the plane reported hearing a jumble of voices, with shouts of “Shoot him! Shoot him!”

A single gunshot rang out moments later, at 1:15 p.m. Within seconds there was a barrage of shots. Two men lay dead on the tarmac: One was Aquino and the other was an unknown shooter later identified as petty gangster Rolando Galman. Aquino had sustained a fatal gunshot wound to the back of the head. The Marcos government claimed that Aquino had been killed by Galman, who in turn had been killed by an avalanche of bullets from the soldiers. This claim was met by widespread skepticism, if for no other reason than that Galman would have had to penetrate the one-thousand-person security force with which the Filipino army had surrounded the plane to get off his perfect shot. In contrast to the reaction of the Marcos government, Corazon Aquino would gain widespread sympathy for the dignified manner in which she returned to the Philippines for the funeral of her murdered husband.

Suspicion for the assassination fell on Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and on General Ver. To deflect these suspicions, President Marcos appointed a commission headed by Chief Justice Enrique Fernando to investigate the facts of the assassination. After its hearings were frustrated, the commission was replaced in October 22 by a fact-finding board chaired by Justice Corazon Agrava. After an exhaustive yearlong investigation, the Agrava board dismissed the army’s version of the assassination and blamed a conspiracy of military officers for arranging the murder. Particularly incriminating was the autopsy evidence, which indicated that Aquino had been shot from an elevated position behind him, and eyewitness testimony that he was shot by the soldiers leading him down the stairs from the plane. Marcos was compelled to suspend Ver and ordered a trial of several military men before a special court, which acquitted the soldiers. The result outraged Filipinos and alarmed the United States, the most important ally of the Marcos regime.

In November, 1985, Marcos ordered a snap presidential election, convinced he would win. To his surprise Corazon Aquino announced that she would run for president. With the urging of Manila’s Roman Catholic cardinal Sin, Jaime Jaime Sin, the powerful opposition leader Salvador Laurel threw his support behind Aquino as her vice presidential candidate. The election was marred by massive fraud, and no clear winner emerged. Millions of Filipinos took to the streets in protest, with the support of Minister of Defense Juan Ponce Enrile Enrile, Juan Ponce and General Ramos, Fidel V. Fidel V. Ramos, who broke with Marcos. On February 25, 1986, Aquino and Laurel were sworn into office. The Marcos family and key supporters, including General Ver and his family, fled to Hawaii.

Aquino would serve as president until 1992. During her administration, fourteen soldiers were tried, convicted, and imprisoned for the murder of her husband, Benigno Aquino, Jr.


World-renowned figures have fallen to assassin’s bullets, many of those killed during the twentieth century. Aquino’s assassination ranks high on the scale of national and international impact. His murder at the Manila airport on August 21, 1983, was the catalyst for the People’s Revolution in the Philippines, which, within two years, overthrew one of the world’s richest and most entrenched dictators and brought about a revolution of hope.

The assassination of Aquino was of course a personal tragedy. His death left grieving family, friends, and supporters throughout the world. One can only imagine the pain felt by the intermediaries who assisted his surreptitious return to the Philippines only to learn that he was killed within minutes of his arrival. Although their efforts had tragic consequences, in the long run they must know that they played a precipitating role in bringing democracy to the Philippines.

Although the Marcos regime was able to avoid legal blame for the killing, its efforts proved to be in vain. The quiet dignity of Corazon Aquino, the support of Cardinal Jaime Sin, the last-minute alliance with Laurel, Ramos, and Enrile brought the Philippines its long overdue democracy. Aquino in his death became a national hero. The airport where he was gunned down was named for him, and August 21, the day of his death, was declared a national holiday. Philippines
Aquino, Benigno, Jr.
Marcos, Ferdinand

Further Reading

  • Burton, Sandra. Impossible Dream: The Marcoses, the Aquinos, and the Unfinished Revolution. New York: Warner Books, 1989. An account of the assassination, investigation, and revolution by an American journalist who interviewed and accompanied Aquino on the flight to Manila. Burton also explains the basis of the adulation of the Aquinos and the hatred of the Marcoses.
  • Hill, Gerald N., and Kathleen Thompson Hill. Aquino Assassination: The True Story and Analysis of the Assassination of Philippine Senator Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. Sonoma, Calif.: Hilltop, 1983. Account of the assassination by an American lawyer and human rights advocate, with a commentary by the director of the Ninoy Aquino Movement for Freedom, Peace, and Democracy, who places responsibility for the murder directly on Ferdinand Marcos. Includes a time line and photographs of the assassination.
  • Reid, Robert H., and Eileen Guerrero. Corazon Aquino and the Brushfire Revolution. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995. A fairly dense scholarly history of Corazon Aquino’s rise to power from her husband’s assassination through her election to the Philippine presidency and her ineffectual revolution.
  • Simons, Lewis M. Worth Dying For. New York: William Morrow, 1987. Straightforward account of the assassination and the revolution it sparked. Based on hundreds of interviews and the findings of the Agrava commission.
  • Umali, Ramoncito F. Who Killed Senator Aquino: The Unsolved Assassination. New York: iUniverse, 2005. A personalized account by the janitorial manager responsible for cleaning the scene of Aquino’s assassination on the airport tarmac.

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