x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A reluctant leader who used people power

Time magazine made Mrs Aquino its woman of the year in 1986, the year she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 2006 named her one of Asia's heroes.

Former president Corazon "Cory" Aquino, who died today at the age of 76, was a reluctant leader despite guiding her nation through a revolution that restored it to democracy in 1986. For three days in February of that year, the world watched as the woman in a bright yellow dress led millions in a peaceful uprising that toppled dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who had ruled with an iron fist for two decades.

During the next six years, Mrs Aquino, a devout Roman Catholic, changed the country's constitution. She also overhauled the election process, released political dissidents and engaged insurgents in dialogue. But her presidency was marred by at least six failed military coups, political squabbling, insurgent attacks and her failure to change a political system dominated by elite family clans. Time magazine made Mrs Aquino its woman of the year in 1986, the year she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 2006 named her one of Asia's heroes.

The magazine praised her "quiet courage", describing her as "the symbol of People Power and an inspiration to others around the world struggling against tyranny". Mrs Aquino, who suffered from colon cancer, reportedly refused further medical treatment after she was admitted to a Manila hospital in late June, with family members by her side and the country praying for her recovery. US President Barack Obama led international reaction to Mrs Aquino's death, describing her as a historic figure.

Mr Obama "was deeply saddened" by news of Mrs Aquino's death, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement. "Her courage, determination, and moral leadership are an inspiration to us all and exemplify the best in the Filipino nation. On behalf of the American people, the president extends his deepest condolences to the Aquino family and the nation of the Philippines," the statement read.

Singapore's foreign ministry called her a "remarkable woman" who would be remembered for her devotion to her friends. Born into the Cojuangco clan in the northern province of Tarlac on January 25, 1933, Mrs Aquino was a product of privilege, power and wealth. Educated in the United States and Manila, she entertained no political ambitions - but all that changed when she met and married Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino, a bright young journalist from another prominent Tarlac clan, in 1954.

Mr Aquino was seen by many as a president in the making but for Mr Marcos the then-senator was a threat. In September 1972, Mr Marcos declared martial law and jailed hundreds of his opponents and critics, including Mr Aquino, who subsequently went into exile for medical reasons. Mrs Aquino helped keep the opposition alive, speaking out on behalf of her husband and demanding change. In 1983, against the advice of friends, Ninoy flew back to the Philippines from exile in Boston to seek an audience with the ailing Mr Marcos. He was gunned down by assassins as he stepped off the plane.

His grief-stricken widow flew back to the Philippines, where she was quickly thrust into the role of uniting the opposition. "I don't seek vengeance, only justice, not only for Ninoy but for the suffering Filipino people," Mrs Aquino declared as she reluctantly accepted the nomination of her peers. After Mr Marcos won the 1986 elections, which were marred by massive irregularities, the Aquino-led opposition, backed by the Catholic Church, soon rallied about one million people on the streets.

"People Power" was born, Mr Marcos was ousted and forced to flee and Mrs Aquino took the presidential oath of office. She quickly set up a commission to draft a new constitution, dismantled the network of Marcos cronies that controlled the economy and freed scores of political activists. Mrs Aquino also began talks with communist and Muslim insurgents but her efforts would soon be undermined by problems within the coalition government she built. She later survived a series of bloody coup attempts.

In retirement, and until her illness, Mrs Aquino remained in the public eye, often speaking out against alleged abuses in government. She became a vocal critic of the president Gloria Arroyo, whose family has been accused of massive corruption, and joined street protests against Ms Arroyo until she was diagnosed with colon cancer in March of last year. In the 1990s, Mrs Aquino said the presidency had taught her a valuable lesson in governance.

"I realised that I could have made things easier for myself if I had done the popular things, rather than the painful but better ones in the long run. After all, in the long run, I wouldn't be around to be blamed," she said. *AFP