Filipinos Mourn the Death of a Leader Who Helped Bring Democracy

By Carlos H. Conde
International Herald Tribune/New York Times
Published: Aug. 2, 2009

Filipinos across the country mourned former President Corazon Aquino on Sunday, with thousands lining up outside a Catholic school in the capital for a last glimpse of the woman they credited with ushering in Philippine democracy nearly a quarter of a century ago, ending two decades of dictatorial rule.

The same reverence for Mrs. Aquino — who served as president for six years after leading the movement to oust Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 — had been evident across the archipelago since Saturday morning, when it was announced that she had died of colon cancer at 76. Yellow ribbons, Mrs. Aquino’s symbol of defiance against Mr. Marcos’s rule 23 years ago, were everywhere Sunday — on arms, trees, lampposts, car antennas and Web sites. Prayers and Masses for the former president were scheduled across the country.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo announced that she would cut short her visit to the United States to attend Mrs. Aquino’s funeral on Wednesday. Mrs. Arroyo had earlier decreed that Wednesday would be a nonworking holiday and declared a 10-day national period of mourning.

In a statement Saturday, the president paid tribute to Mrs. Aquino — who, in recent years, had taken an active role in street demonstrations against Mrs. Arroyo — calling her a ‘‘national treasure’’ who had ‘‘helped lead our nation to a brighter day.’’

At La Salle Greenhills, a Catholic school in Manila where Mrs. Aquino’s body had been brought for public viewing, a line of mourners had stretched for at least a kilometer since Saturday evening, despite heavy rains. On Sunday, the line grew even longer, with mourners wearing yellow shirts, yellow caps, yellow buttons and yellow ribbons.

A soft-spoken homemaker who became a global icon of democracy, Mrs. Aquino was regarded in the Philippines with an affection that bordered on the spiritual. Her preference for the company of nuns and priests, and the constant presence of a rosary in her hand — even in her casket Sunday — only deepened her appeal in this deeply Roman Catholic country.

Indeed, many of the mourners Sunday had decided to pay their respects to Mrs. Aquino rather than go to church.

‘‘She was an inspiration to all of us, and I want my children to know who she was and what she did for my country,’’ said Elpidio Albaracin, a 40-year-old who had lined up outside La Salle Green Hills early Sunday morning with his 3-year-old son Andrew. Egged on by his father, Andrew softly muttered the ‘‘Cory! Cory! Cory!’’ chant that reverberated across the country in 1986, as the bloodless ‘‘people power’’ revolt swept Mr. Marcos out of office.

James Bicaldo, a quality analyst at Transcom Asia, a call-center company, took a day off from work Sunday to be at Mrs. Aquino’s wake. He said he mourned her death deeply because he considered himself a ‘‘people power baby.’’

‘‘I was only three years old when my parents brought me to anti-Marcos rallies. They would teach me the Cory chant,’’ said Mr. Bicaldo, 25. ‘‘She inspires me and many Filipinos to fight for freedom.’’

An offer to hold a state funeral for Mrs. Aquino was declined by her children. Although the family did not make its reasons public, many assumed it was because of her political opposition to Mrs. Arroyo.

Her son, Senator Benigno S. Aquino III, said Saturday that although the Aquino family would be civil toward Mrs. Arroyo, he was ‘‘not looking forward’’ to seeing the president at his mother’s wake or funeral.

World leaders offered their condolences. President Barack Obama was ‘‘deeply saddened’’ by Mrs. Aquino’s death, according to a White House statement that extolled her for ‘‘courage, determination, and moral leadership’’ that served as ‘‘an inspiration to us all and exemplify the best in the Filipino nation.’’ President Hu Jintao of China sent condolences to Mrs. Arroyo, said a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jiang Yu, who said the ‘‘Chinese government and the Chinese people deeply lament’’ Mrs. Aquino’s death, according to The Associated Press.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer said in an editorial Sunday that the former president’s death had brought together ‘‘rich and poor, old and young, partisan and the apathetic, men and women, soldiers and civilians.’’

‘‘Unity is a rare thing in our country; we have it now, and adding to the feelings of grief is the wistful realization that it took the passing of Cory to reunite a divided nation,’’ the editorial said.

About Carlos H. Conde

Researcher at Human Rights Watch (@condeHRW @hrw_ph). Former journalist (NYT, IHT, among others).
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