Ken Kashiwara’s Letter to Ninoy
By Ken Kashiwahara
Following was delivered on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Sen. Benigno S. Aquino Jr. on Aug. 21, 2023 at Our Lady of Mercy Church.
ON this day 40 years ago, one man’s courage confronted the cowardice of a group of assassins and changed the course of Philippine history. It was an act that touched us all. For some of us, it changed our lives. The Philippines gained a martyr. We, the Aquino family, lost a brother, a father, a husband. A single bullet signaled the beginning of the end of dictatorship. A single bullet snatched from us an extraordinary human being.
Since August 21, 1983, a lot has been written and spoken about Ninoy. On this anniversary, I would like to remember him in a very personal way. I miss talking to him. So I decided to write him a letter and imagine that he’s listening.
You left us so suddenly that Sunday in Manila, we didn’t have a chance to talk. We couldn’t imagine it at the time but your homecoming became a part of history, your ideals a reality. Your dreams have been realized ten times over. They weren’t so impossible after all.
I will always remember that day, China Airlines flight 811, entering Philippine airspace through scattered puffs of white clouds, punctured with rays of sunshine, full of hope.
I never told you but you were the most extraordinary man I had ever met, a man subject to the pains and sufferings of human emotions, but far better at handling them than the rest of us.
Your difficult decision to return home is not one most of us could have made, leaving the comfort of your home in Boston to seek nothing less than a return to democracy for your country. We tried to talk you out of going. I thought you had sacrificed enough. Seven years and seven months as a political prisoner was more than anyone could ask. But boy, were you stubborn! One more time, you had to put aside your personal safety because of your concern for your country.
A lot of people say your sacrifice was not in vain and they’re right, of course. But frankly, I wish you hadn’t made it. I miss your insight, your inspiration, your infectious ebullience, your persistent optimism. Yes, I even miss your damned pre-dawn phone calls! You often forgot that Boston and San Francisco were not in the same time zones. Or at least, you never realized that some of us had to sleep at night.
But I must tell you, in those dark days of despair and paranoia, your upbeat outlook is what kept us all going. Remember? Wondering from day to day what Marcos was up to, what he would do with you when you returned, whether he would let you set foot in your own country?
A lot of people don’t realize that the preparation for your trip was nerve-wracking: four months on an emotional roller coaster, a battle of nerves with the other side firing all the salvos.
It didn’t have to be that way. After all, what threat would you be to the dictatorship. Marcos had effectively erased you from the Philippine landscape with his controlled press. Or so we thought.
I remember clearly how you were forced into keeping your travel plans secret because of the intimidation that began when the government refused to issue you a passport and continued with rumors of assassination plots. It was clear Marcos was determined to keep you away. Remember wondering if Marcos agents would try to kidnap you along the way? Remember how each official pronouncement, each rumor prompted speculation about what it really meant? First, your government contacts suggested you would not be re-imprisoned if you returned. Then they reinstated your death sentence. There was speculation that a hit squad was being sent to the United States.
Any ordinary mortal would have succumbed to the enormous pressures. I for one wouldn’t have blamed you one bit had you cancelled your trip. But then, that’s what made you so special: your commitment to a cause, your daring to dream; which is why, on your death anniversary especially, I feel such a sense of loss.
Remember how paranoid we were about our phones being tapped? We were forced to talk in code. The emotional strain was intense. But fortunately, for me at least, there were moments of comic relief. As you’ll recall, you sent Lupita ahead to Manila to help prepare your arrival. One night, she called me with an important message. The message, of course, was in code. I never told you the entire story.
Anyway, Lupita called and said: “The old man boyfriend of the girl in San Francisco is leaving for the United States”. “What??” I replied. “The old man boyfriend of the girl in San Francisco is leaving for the United States,” she repeated, implying that your life was in danger.
“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” I said. Impatient with my skills as a cryptographer, Lupita finally said: “Naku! Just tell Ninoy, he’ll understand.” I felt somewhat ignorant.
So I called you. Remember that phone call? “Noy,” I said, “Lupita said ‘the old man boyfriend of the girl in San Francisco is leaving for the United States.” And you replied: “I haven’t the slightest idea what she’s talking about.” You don’t know how good that made me feel.
I’ll never forget how the pressure on you to abandon your homecoming continued right to the end. Remember when you were recognized at the Singapore airport? Remember the Taiwan immigration officer questioning the passport with your fake name: Marcial Bonifacio? Marcial for martial law. Bonifacio the name of your prison. And I’ll always remember that crucial phone call you received at the Taipei Grand Hotel the night before we left for Manila, a call from your Taiwanese friend telling you that China Airlines had discovered you were in town. The questions were obvious. Would the Taiwan government try to pick you up to please Marcos? Or stop you at the airport? The answers were critical to your decision to continue with the journey or abandon it.
I was amazed that you decided to roll the dice and expose your plans to the Taiwan government through a back channel and remember how relieved you were when the official answer came back: we have never heard of Ninoy Aquino and we do not know if he is in Taiwan.
You were subdued that last night. After what you’d been through, I could understand why. Up to the last minute, rumors were still flying, that you’d be hit at the airport when we landed, that the plane would be turned around. But they were just more rumors we thought. There was no turning around now.
I saw the exhaustion on your face when you finally went to bed after midnight, lying face down, hands outstretched, fingering your rosary beads and praying.
What you said then spoke volumes about your outlook on life. “I’m so tired,” you said, “maybe it’s better if they take me straight to prison so I can rest for a while.”
Even with all the talk of assassination plots, you were the perennial optimist to the end, still hoping you might be placed under house arrest.
Still, your energy seemed limitless. After only four hours sleep, you were up at 5 a.m. on that Sunday in August, praying your rosary again, calling Cory in Boston. To me, it was a touching moment. She read the Bible, you spoke to each of your children and cried, then sat down and wrote each of them a letter.
But by the time we sat down to breakfast, your spirits were so high you couldn’t wait to get to the airport. Remember joking with us? Probably to relieve the tension.
Remember how we laughed when someone suggested handcuffing us together? It was a joke. Looking back on it now, perhaps we should have. A few days after we landed, your mother asked me about us being handcuffed. How did she know? She never to talked to anyone who was in your hotel room that morning. It’s still a mystery.
But despite all the pressures and uncertainties of the journey ahead, you took time to pause and reflect on your life, particularly your regret that Cory had to suffer during the frequent absences required by your political life. You even felt badly that Kris wasn’t able to accompany us because you thought it was not safe.
Your faith in God gave you strength. I understood that when I turned to talk to you on the plane and you were deep in prayer, head bowed, fingering your rosary beads. You hoped for the best but settled for what God gave you: a “victory” if we just land, you said. After all you’d been through, I thought, it would be indeed.
Well, let me tell you, it was a victory the likes of which the world had never seen. After your brutal assassination at the airport, millions of people visited you lying in state at your house and at Santo Domingo Church, and said goodbye as you rode the final leg of your journey to Manila Memorial cemetery.
It took eleven hours to get there, not your speed, I know, but so many people wanted to see you. When we passed Rizal Park, the heavens opened up with a torrent of rain, thunder and lightning. I assumed that was you making your presence known. People became energized, looking to the skies, arms raised, shouting “Laban!” and “Ninoy!”
You had not been forgotten, as you feared, and more importantly neither had what you stood for. That was your biggest victory: stirring the conscience and consciousness of the nation, forcing people to choose between human degradation and human dignity, between freedom and slavery, between action and apathy. They proved you right. The Filipino was worth dying for.
I’m sure you’re wondering what happened in the days and weeks after your assassination. What would Cory do? Would the U.S. continue to prop up Marcos which was critical to his survival? Trying to appear concerned, Marcos offered condolences to Cory. Her reply set the tone for the future. One day, as we marched with your coffin to Santo Domingo Church, she turned to me and said: “Ken, I want to say to the press that I will refuse to accept condolences from anyone in the Marcos government unless all political prisoners are released.” I called a press conference. The gauntlet was thrown, the torch you carried passed on. She was not going to remain silent.
And what about U.S. support? In the days following your assassination, the U.S. Embassy kept calling me saying Ambassador Armacost wanted to meet with me. I kept refusing because he was often derisively called Arma-close, for his closeness to Marcos. But I finally relented and met with him. He asked me only one question: did Ninoy ever express concern about the Communists? Marcos had blamed them for your killing. I told the Ambassador, No. Never. His reply: then Marcos is guilty of criminal negligence at the very least. That was the beginning of the end of America’s support for Philippine dictatorship. While other countries were afraid of offending Marcos, Ambassador Armacost asked if he could visit your family to offer his condolences. I said, absolutely. He then asked if he could attend your funeral. I said, absolutely. He was one of the few foreign leaders there. After that, he returned to Washington and became one of the strongest proponents of cutting ties with Marcos.
It took me a long time to get over the trauma of August 21. I have never felt such anger and bitterness as I did when I heard those gunshots at the airport, nor such sadness for your friends, your country and our family. We were all cheated and deceived. The flame of hope had been savagely snuffed out. You came in peace only to be greeted by violence..
In the months that followed, I couldn’t bear to hear the songs “Bayan Ko” and “The Impossible Dream”, so painful were the memories they would trigger. It was a full year before I could bring myself to return to Manila and face reminders of the tragedy. History has remembered you with reverence and respect. The very airport where you were assassinated has been renamed the “Ninoy Aquino International Airport.” A park in Manila has been named after you. You have been memorialized in books, songs and poems. Your statues grace plazas throughout the country. You’d laugh at how you’re depicted in some of them, but then it’s the thought that counts.
I am saddled with mixed emotions on this 40th anniversary. Yes, the country is free because of your courage, your commitment and ultimately your sacrifice. But there is still much to be done.
When we left Manila and taxied past the spot where your body lay, I vowed to keep your name and memory alive, which we have tried to do. I think we have succeeded here as your friends and supporters continue to attend these gatherings. But in the Philippines, I’m afraid too many have forgotten. Otherwise, the last presidential election might have turned out differently.
The last time I saw you, you were lying in bloody but peaceful repose in your coffin with what appeared to be a grin on your face, as if to say to all of us that you knew what you were doing. I was a bit angry at you at the time, for leaving all of us the way you did, even though it wasn’t the ending you had planned. But I said to you then: “Rest in peace, my brother, you deserve it.” I feel the same sentiments today, although if I know you, “rest” is still not in your vocabulary.
But for all that your sacrifice achieved, I for one, would give it all up to have you back with us. We all miss you and love you and leave you with the thought that became your rallying cry. Ninoy, you are not alone. Ninoy, Hindi Ka Nag Iisa!
Retired ABC News San Francisco Bureau Chief Ken Kashiwahara is the husband of Lupita Aquino Kashiwahara. He was the last family member to see Ninoy Aquino alive when their plane landed in Manila on Aug. 21, 1983.