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Philippine President Benigno (Noynoy) Aquino III, centre, flashes a laban, or 'fight' sign with a group of visitors at the presidential palace. (ROMEO RANOCO/REUTERS)
Philippine President Benigno (Noynoy) Aquino III, centre, flashes a laban, or 'fight' sign with a group of visitors at the presidential palace. (ROMEO RANOCO/REUTERS)

Globe Focus

The son also rises: Meet the new Aquino saviour Add to ...

On Aug. 25, 1973, in the first year of martial law in the Philippines, from a cell at the Fort Bonifacio military base, the imprisoned senator Benigno (Ninoy) Aquino Jr. wrote a letter to his only son. In it, he explained to the 13-year-old why he preferred to risk facing a firing squad rather than defend himself in dictator Ferdinand Marcos's kangaroo court.

"It is my last act of defiance against tyranny and dictatorship," he wrote. "I have no doubt in the ultimate victory of right over wrong, of evil over good, in the awakening of the Filipino. Forgive me for passing unto your young shoulders the great responsibility for our family."

Benigno (Noynoy) Aquino III, the senator's son, was sworn in on Wednesday as the 15th President of the Philippines, and with a speech that echoed his father's words, he vowed to fight the evils of the previous administration.

After an election campaign marred by the typical dirty tactics, Mr. Aquino beat seven other candidates and won 42 per cent of the vote. The stature of his father and his mother, Corazon Aquino, as champions of democracy and corruption-fighters helped propel the younger Mr. Aquino into power, but living up to their legacy will be an extremely difficult task.

The new President has inherited a country ruled by a kleptocracy, divided by class and shackled by poverty. He must contend with Islamic separatists, communist rebels and the degradation of the fabric of democracy. He also has to wean the economy off its dependence on the $17-billion of annual remittances from Filipinos overseas. Meanwhile, he faces a near-record budget deficit of $3.6-billion. But, above all, his main promise is to fight corruption, which is estimated to siphon more than 30 per cent of the national budget.


Noynoy's journey to the presidency began decades ago, with his father's defiance of the Marcos regime.

Though Ninoy did not die as he feared after writing that letter in 1973, what followed was a tumultuous decade marked by his long imprisonment, a hunger strike and a death sentence.

In 1980, Ninoy suffered a heart attack and was allowed to travel to the United States for an operation. He remained there in exile with his family until 1983, when he returned alone to the Philippines to unite a fractured opposition.

He was assassinated on arrival at the Manila airport. Lying on the tarmac in a pool of blood was the man called by one colleague "the greatest president we never had." Noynoy, then 23, learned of his father's death on CNN.

After Ninoy's death, his widow returned to the Philippines and took on his fight against the Marcos regime. When the president called a snap election two years later, Ms. Aquino was his main rival. Mr. Marcos won through blatant cheating.

In response, masses of yellow-shirted Filipinos protested, peacefully squaring off with military and police in what is now known as the People Power Revolution. Defections in the top military brass eventually turned the tide. After ruling for more than two decades, the Marcoses fled to the United States. It was their turn to live in exile.

Corazon Aquino was proclaimed president on Feb. 25, 1986. The peaceful process that had ousted a dictator earned international admiration. Her tenure represented a new beginning: reforms were implemented; the constitution was rewritten; and a commission was appointed to pursue the vast wealth the Marcoses had stolen. However, healing was slow and painful.

In fact, Noynoy retains a graphic reminder of a coup attempt against his mother in 1987, during which he and his security detail were attacked. Three guards were killed and he was hit by five bullets, including one still in his neck.

His mother's term was followed by that of General Fidel Ramos, another People Power personality who had helped to turn the armed forces against Mr. Marcos. His tenure retained that glow of hopefulness, and in a country where poverty allows that some corruption is reasonable, both the Ramos and Aquino administrations had a sheen of moderation and progress.

That honeymoon ended in 1998 with the election of Joseph Estrada. The victory of the former actor, famous for playing a hero of the downtrodden, seemed a victory for democracy. However, indignation swelled on rumours of his personal and political indiscretions.

When, in 2000, a former gambling buddy revealed Mr. Estrada's kickbacks from an illegal numbers racket, opposition figures moved to impeach him. Eventually, the people took to the streets, massing as they had in 1986. In what is known as the Second People Power Revolution, the populace, their leaders and then the military rejected the excesses of the Estrada administration.

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