Filipinos across the Emirates paid tribute yesterday to Corazon Aquino, the former president who restored democracy to their country in 1986 by leading a peaceful revolution against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Aquino died in Manila at age 76 early yesterday following a 16-month battle with colon cancer.
Flags at the Philippine Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the consulate in Dubai were lowered to half-mast, and special masses were scheduled in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai. A book of condolence has been opened at the embassy. Aquino's son, Senator Benigno Aquino Jr, issued a statement in Manila saying: "Our mother peacefully passed away at 3.18am of cardio-respiratory arrest. "She would have wanted us to thank each and every one of you for all the prayers and your continuous love and support. It was her wish for all of us to pray for one another and for our country."
The current Philippine president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, declared 10 days of national mourning. Nasser Munder, the labour attaché at the Philippine overseas labour office in Abu Dhabi, said Aquino had "done a lot to restore democracy and overcame several coup attempts. "She also restored the confidence of the people, and we take pride in her good governance. At the end of her term, she stepped down with no rancour or hatred."
Noel Servigon, the consul general and chargé d'affaires at the Philippine Embassy, recalled that he had volunteered for the Cory Aquino for President Movement in 1986, when he was a law student at the University of the Philippines. He said he met Aquino in 2003 when she attended the Human Rights Congress in Vienna, where he was vice consul. "When I escorted her to a side trip to Prague, I told the former president about what I had done as a Cory Aquino for President Movement volunteer," Mr Servigon recalled. "She was so delighted to know me as her longtime supporter that she gave me a copy of her book with her personal dedication. I still bring that book with me to all my other postings."
Aquino, who was president from 1986 to 1992, was diagnosed with colon cancer in March 2008 and had surgery to remove part of her colon in April this year. She had been at the Makati Medical Centre in Manila since late June. She was born on January 25, 1933, into one of the country's richest families, the Cojuangcos, and grew up in a world of wealth and politics, being the daughter of a three-time congressman.
She attended a convent school in New York and in 1953 completed a degree in French, with a minor in mathematics, at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, also in New York. Back in Manila, she enrolled at a law school at the Far Eastern University, but quit a year later and married Benigno Aquino, a young journalist with a taste for politics and, significantly, an ardent opponent of Marcos. They had four daughters and a son.
Benigno was imprisoned after the imposition of martial law in 1972 on charges of subversion and possessing firearms. While he was locked up, Cory served as his link to the outside world. In 1980, Benigno Aquino was allowed to go to the US for medical treatment. Three years later, ignoring warnings that his life was in danger, he flew back to the Philippines. When he stepped off the plane at the Manila airport, two soldiers shot him to death. Marcos was widely blamed, but his complicity was never proved.
Corazon Aquino became the standard bearer for the opposition, and in 1986 she challenged Marcos in a presidential election widely regarded as fraudulent. Two weeks after Marcos was declared the winner, military officers revolted with the backing of Aquino and her supporters. Up to a million supporters waved rosaries and flowers as they stopped Marcos's tanks advancing toward Aquino-backed army rebels. Marcos and his wife, Imelda, fled the country.
Aquino, calling the uprising a "people power" revolution, was sworn in as president and recognised around the world. The largely peaceful revolution later served as an inspiration to dissidents in South America and South Africa. "Filipinos should be grateful to her because of her presence in the political scene," said Florencia Ardivilla, the assistant labour attaché in Dubai. "Democracy was restored when she became the president of our country. During her term, I did not hear anything about her being involved in any questionable transactions."
Art Los Banos, 42, a public relations consultant in Dubai, said: "Although she was soft on certain economic and political issues because of her various advisers coming from divergent interests, President Aquino was very sincere in restoring and furthering the ideals of a democratic government." Aquino was a reluctant leader at the start. "What on earth do I know about being president?" she told The New York Times in 1985 before taking up the challenge to run against Marcos.
In fact, Aquino's presidency was less successful than the revolution. She endured a series of coup attempts and was never able to accomplish major goals such as land reform and reconciliation with communist rebels. Still, she was lauded for her courage. After retiring from the presidency in 1992, she led street protests in 1997 to stop her successor from amending the constitution to remove limits on his term in office.
In 2001, she helped topple the government of Joseph Estrada, who had been accused of corruption and mismanagement. In 2005, she called on Ms Arroyo to step down. Mr Los Banos spoke with nostalgia about the Corazon Aquino generation of which he was a part. "I graduated in 1987 when the former president was in her second year as president," he said. "I have witnessed all the birth pains and virtues of a newly restored democracy, which she had firmly encouraged and promulgated during her term. The most historic of them all was the constitutional transfer of power to President Fidel Ramos on June 30, 1992."
Emmanuel Mascarina, 51, a transport co-ordinator at the Ras al Khaimah free trade zone, said Aquino would be remembered as a symbol of democracy who continued the legacy of her late husband. "She restored democracy and was a woman of courage and faith," he said. "She survived seven military attempts to overthrow her presidency, but I believe that she is one of our country's greatest leaders." Rene Fernandez, 42, a nurse in Abu Dhabi for 13 years, said he met Aquino once in 1987 when she launched a project in Cebu City in the Philippines.
"For me, she is a role model, and I would compare her to my mother," he said. "As the widow of the former senator Benigno Aguino, she took good care of her family and of the Filipino nation as well." Leonila Sanchez, 52, a health professional and a resident of Abu Dhabi for the past 27 years, said even her Indian friends at St Joseph's Cathedral had been praying for Aquino's recovery. "She was the most honest and religious president," Ms Sanchez said.
The US president Barack Obama also paid tribute to Aquino, saying: "Her courage, determination, and moral leadership are an inspiration to us all and exemplify the best in the Filipino nation." Imelda Marcos, who returned to the Philippines after her husband died in exile, said: "Now that Cory is with the Lord, let us all unite and pray for her and for the Filipino people." firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting from Reuters