In 1983, I was a young university student in Cebu dabbling in student activism in a time when being "radical" was fashionable and being labeled "leftist" was a badge of honor. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were still desperately clinging to power after almost 20 years of a conjugal dictatorship and as unrest and discontent spread across the land, the youth in the universities and colleges in the cities became the vanguard of a growing, increasingly strident clamor for democratic change.
I had already been in more than a few rallies and demonstrations in Cebu City and had gotten my name in a few student watch lists. But like so many of the confused young men and women of that turbulent time, my idealism was raw, my political ideology unsure and I was in the protest movement because it was the exciting and adventurous "in" thing to be associated with. To play at revolution and flirt a bit with the radical left was heady wine for many in the academe who saw the leftist forces as offering the only viable alternative to a political system crushed, corrupted and stagnated by almost two decades of authoritarian rule.
That we were aware that the things we were engaged in was dangerous for us was clear. The Marcos dictatorship's deplorable record in the field of human rights was public fact. But the irrepressible idealism of the youth is often accompanied by a false sense of invincibility. It was just, in many ways, a game we played, a pesky David trying to get the measure of Goliath. There was no way we could possibly win but there was glamor and excitement in the act of trying.
Only the truly young and the naive could dream such foolish dreams.
Then on the 21st of August of that year, Ninoy Aquino was assassinated as he was trying to come home after years of exile in the United States. For many Filipinos, he was personification of democratic, non-violent opposition to the Marcos regime and his death on the tarmac of the international airport that now bears his name was the catalyst that brought all the anti-dictatorship forces together and unified them despite their political and ideological differences.
We who watched on television and monitored on the radio the massive outpouring of grief and indignation at Ninoy's death suddenly realized, as many all over the country did, that a milestone had been passed, a threshold reached. Democratic change and the fall of the dictatorship had suddenly become an achievable end. The bloody murder of one man had made possible what years of both peaceful and armed struggle had failed to achieve - to lay the groundwork for the return to democracy, a goal realized peacefully by the miracle of the EDSA People Power Revolt three years later. All largely because of the selfless sacrifice of one man.
There many today, however, who proclaim that Ninoy's heroism has been made in vain and that it has already been corrupted by the political leaders and the nation that had so gloriously benefited from it. In truth, much of the glory and the legacy that was EDSA has faded from the collective consciousness of the contemporary Filipino. That singular event like the ersatz EDSA's that followed it has lost much of its mystique and meaning. It has become a mere date to be commemorated, an event to be eulogized and praised by empty words and banal speeches.
But for the many of us who were there that dark day in August 1983 when Ninoy was slain, who saw his vision became reality in 1986 and who fought for and shared that same vision, the memories of those times of boundless idealism and its unforgettable victory over repression and despotism are bittersweet.
I remember myself and a couple of my friends riding on board an owner-type jeep and racing through the still deserted streets of Cebu City in the early hours of that fateful day in February 1986 when the news that Marcos and his family had fled the country came over the radio and television. The jeep's canvas top was down, the driver was honking his horn like mad and we were screaming our heads off in excitement and jubilation.
For one splendid moment, Ninoy's dream was real and we savored it and held it in out hands. What a glorious time that was.