Filipinos set aside political rivalries to mourn former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino

P’Noy (1960–2021)
P’Noy (1960–2021)
Image: Reuters/Erik De Castro
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The Philippines is awash in yellow as it mourns the death of former president Benigno Aquino III. Known widely by his nicknames “Noynoy” and “PNoy,” Aquino passed away in his sleep on June 24 due to renal failure, according to his sister Aurora. He was 61.

The yellow ribbons on Filipino Facebook feeds and yellow flowers on the lawn of the Aquino residence in Manila evoke the campaign color of the Philippines’ preeminent pro-democracy clan. Aquino was the only son of Benigno and Cory Aquino. His father’s assassination was the impetus for the 1986 People Power Revolution that led to the ouster of longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his cronies. His mother Corazon succeeded Marcos and became Asia’s first female president that same year.

Beningo Aquino III served as president from 2010 to 2016 and governed with the maxim called “Straight Path” (“Daang Matuwid” in Filipino), alluding to his plan to steer the country away from the systemic corruption that had re-emerged in the country at that time.

Wake of Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino
Military guards stand next to Aquino’s urn in Manila.
Image: Reuters/Lisa Marie David

The economy soared during his presidency and Aquino garnered the highest satisfaction rating of recent leaders when he left the office.

He also reasserted the Philippines’ fishing rights in the South China Sea, successfully bringing a lawsuit against China in an international tribunal. “We stood up to China because it was the right thing to do,” Aquino said in February this year. “China’s aggressiveness gave us the opportunity to finally resolve this long-standing dispute in this part of the region.” Filipino journalists also remembered their vast freedoms during the Aquino administration. It’s a dramatic contrast to the media landscape today when strongman president Rodrigo Duterte has been cracking down on dissenting voices in the press.

But his tenure was also marked by several political tragedies—the gravest involving the death of 60 police operatives and civilians during a failed attempt to quash an international terrorist ring in the country’s southern region in 2015. Aquino felt responsible for the tragedy. “This happened under my term. Let me stress it: I will bear this basic truth with me to my grave,” he said then.

Duterte, who is Aquino’s opposite in terms of leadership style and political ideology, called on Filipinos to “unite in prayer and set aside differences” to honor his predecessor. “His memory and his family’s legacy of offering their lives for the cause of democracy will forever remain etched in our hearts.” said Duterte, who recently threatened to imprison Filipinos who refused the Covid-19 vaccine. He said Aquino’s passing was sobering. “We are always put on notice of our mortality in this world.”

Imee Marcos, a senator and the eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Imelda also paid tribute to Aquino. “I will always treasure the memories of our long years together as freshmen legislators and members of a tiny opposition,” she said, recalling the time she and Aquino were first elected to the Philippine congress in 1998. “Far beyond politics and much public acrimony, I knew Noynoy as a kind and simple soul. He will be deeply missed.”

Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who was jailed for corruption under Aquino’s term, similarly expressed her sympathies.

Aquino’s family acknowledged the outpouring of condolences from all sides of the political spectrum. Greeting a mob of supporters and media at the crematorium, Aquino’s youngest sister Kris described a simplified memorial service for her brother due to the pandemic. “Under normal circumstances, he would be lying in state in Malacañang [the presidential residence], but we respect the fact that not every person in the Philippines has been vaccinated,” explained Kris, an actress who appeared in the 2018 movie Crazy Rich Asians, “Please bear with us. We didn’t anticipate this would happen; we were all taken by surprise [by his passing].”

A public wake is planned for Aquino at his alma mater, Ateneo de Manila University, tomorrow. His ashes will be buried next to his parents’ at the Manila Memorial Park cemetery on Saturday. Aquino was never married and is survived by four sisters.