Letter to Ninoy

Thirty-four years ago, one man's courage confronted the cowardice of a group of assassins and changed the course of Philippine history. That's not hyperbole but fact. It was an act that touched all of us. For some of us, it changed our lives. The Philippines gained a martyr. We, the Aquino family, lost a brother, a father, a husband. A single bullet signaled the beginning of the end of dictatorship and tyranny. A single bullet snatched from us an extraordinary human being: kind, compassionate, charismatic, committed.

What Ninoy Aquino did and what he stood for should never be forgotten. Yet sadly, our memories fade with the passage of time, which is why anniversaries are so important in keeping the memory alive, in reminding us why we are what we are today.

Since August 21, 1983, a lot has been written and spoken about Ninoy and the Philippines. On this anniversary, I would like to remember Ninoy in a very personal way by sharing a letter I have written him from San Francisco.

Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. and his brother-in-law Ken Kashiwahara on that fateful China Airlines Flight 811 from Taipei to Manila   in 1983 (Photo courtesy of Ken and Lupita Kashiwahara)

Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. and his brother-in-law Ken Kashiwahara on that fateful China Airlines Flight 811 from Taipei to Manilain 1983 (Photo courtesy of Ken and Lupita Kashiwahara)

August 21, 2017

Dear Ninoy.

You left us so suddenly that Sunday in Manila, we didn't have a chance to talk. We couldn’t imagine it at the time but your homecoming became a part of history, your ideals a reality. Your dreams have been realized ten times over. They weren't so impossible after all.

I will always remember that day, China Airlines flight 811, entering Philippine airspace, the view from our airplane window capturing the history of the moment. Below, the Philippine landscape -- lush, green, fertile, full of promise. Above, scattered puffs of white clouds, punctured with rays of sunshine, full of hope.

I never told you but you were the most extraordinary man I had ever met, a man subject to the pains and sufferings of human emotions, but far better at handling them than the rest of us mortals.

Your difficult decision to return home is not one most of us could have made, leaving the comfort of your home in Boston to seek nothing less than a return to democracy for your country. Impossible and dangerous, many people said. We tried to talk you out of going, but you had already made up your mind. I thought you had sacrificed enough. Seven years and seven months in prison was more than anyone could ask. But boy, were you stubborn! One more time, you had to put aside your personal safety because of your concern for your country. In the larger sense, we understood and accepted that, but in a more personal sense, we, your family, simply didn't want you taking more risks than you had to. But as always, once you made up your mind, we were behind you all the way.

You had not been forgotten, as you feared, and more importantly neither had what you stood for.

A lot of people say your sacrifice was not in vain and they're right, of course. But frankly, I wish you hadn't felt the need to make that sacrifice. I miss your insight, your inspiration, your infectious ebullience, your persistent optimism. Yes, I even miss your damned pre-dawn phone calls. You often forgot that Boston and San Francisco are not in the same time zones. Or at least, you never realized that some of us had to sleep at night.

But I must tell you, in those dark days of despair and paranoia, your upbeat outlook is what kept us all going. Remember? Wondering from day to day what Marcos was up to, what he would do with you when you returned, whether he would let you set foot in your own country?

A lot of people don't realize that the preparation for your trip was nerve-wracking: four months on an emotional roller coaster, a battle of nerves with the other side firing all the salvos.

It didn't have to be that way. Your original plan was simple enough: go home openly, announce your flight ahead of time and even take Kris and Noynoy with you. After all, what threat would you be to the dictatorship? Marcos had effectively erased you from the Philippine landscape with his controlled press. Or so we thought.

I remember clearly how you were forced into keeping your travel plans secret because of the intimidation that began when the government refused to issue you a passport and continued with rumors of assassination plots. It was clear Marcos was determined to keep you away, but we were never sure what he was up to, were we? Remember wondering if Marcos agents would try to kidnap you along the way? Remember how each official pronouncement, each rumor prompted speculation about what it really meant? First, your government contacts suggested you would not be re-imprisoned if you returned. Then they reinstated your death sentence. There was that announcement that Marcos was going into seclusion, a rumor that he was undergoing surgery, speculation that a hit squad was being sent to the United States.

Cory turned to me and said: “I want to say to the press that I will refuse to accept condolences from anyone in the Marcos government unless all political prisoners are released.” It was clear the gauntlet was being thrown.

Any ordinary mortal would have succumbed to the enormous pressures. I for one wouldn't have blamed you one bit had you cancelled your trip. But then, that's what made you so special: your commitment to a cause, your daring to dream; which is why, on your death anniversary especially, I feel such a sense of loss.

Remember how paranoid we were about our phones being tapped? The code we developed as we discussed every possible route to Manila? First we planned to go through Japan, then through the Middle East, then through Korea, finally settling on Taiwan. The Middle East became the "long route," and Korea the "17 year old route" in honor of your stint as a teenage correspondent during the Korean War.

The emotional strain was intense. But fortunately, for me at least, there were moments of comic relief. As you'll recall, you sent Lupita ahead to Manila to help prepare your arrival. One night, she called me with an important message. The message, of course, was in code. I never told you the entire story.

Anyway, Lupita called and said: "The old man boyfriend of the girl in San Francisco is leaving for the United States." "What??" I replied. "The old man boyfriend of the girl in San Francisco is leaving for the United States," she repeated, implying that your life was in danger.

"I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about," I said. Impatient with my skills as a cryptographer, Lupita finally said: "Just tell Ninoy, he'll understand." I felt somewhat ignorant.

So I called you. Remember that phone call? "Noy," I said, "Lupita said 'the old man boyfriend of the girl in San Francisco is leaving for the United States." And you replied: "I haven't the slightest idea what she's talking about." You don't know how good that made me feel.

Ninoy and Ken in San Francisco, 1981 (Photo courtesy of Ken and Lupita Kashiwahara)

Ninoy and Ken in San Francisco, 1981 (Photo courtesy of Ken and Lupita Kashiwahara)

I'll never forget how the pressure on you to abandon your homecoming continued right to the end. Remember when you were recognized at the Singapore airport? Remember the Taiwan immigration officer questioning the passport with your fake name: Marcial Bonifacio? And I'll always remember that crucial phone call you received at the Taipei Grand Hotel the night before we left for Manila, a call from your Taiwanese friend telling you that the national carrier China Airlines had discovered you were in town. The questions were obvious. Would the Taiwan government try to pick you up to please Marcos? Or stop you at the airport? The answers were critical to your decision to continue with the journey or abandon it.

I was amazed that you decided to roll the dice and expose your plans to the Taiwan government through a back channel and remember how relieved you were when the official answer came back: We have never heard of Ninoy Aquino and we do not know if he is in Taiwan.

You were subdued that last night. After what you'd been through, I could understand why. Up to the last minute, rumors were still flying: that you'd be hit at the airport when we landed; that the plane would be turned around. But they were just more rumors we thought. There was no turning around now.

I saw the exhaustion on your face when you finally went to bed after midnight, lying face down, hands outstretched, fingering your rosary beads and praying.

What you said then spoke volumes about your outlook on life. "I'm so tired," you said, "maybe it's better if they take me straight to prison so I can rest for a while."

Even with all the talk of assassination plots, you were the perennial optimist to the end, still hoping you might be placed under house arrest.

Still, your energy seemed limitless. After only four hours sleep, you were up at 5 a.m. on that fateful Sunday in August, praying your rosary again, calling Cory in Boston. To me, it was a touching moment. She read the Bible, you spoke to each of your children and cried, then sat down and wrote each of them a letter.

But by the time we sat down to breakfast, your spirits were so high you couldn't wait to get to the airport. Remember joking with all of us: your good friends Noy Brizuela and Kiyoshi Wakamiya, and your brother in law, Len Oreta.

Remember how we laughed when someone suggested handcuffing you to Wakamiya and me. It was a joke. Looking back on it now, perhaps we should have.

And despite all the pressures and uncertainties of the journey ahead, you took time to pause and reflect on your life with caring and compassion, particularly your regret that Cory had to suffer during the frequent absences required by your political life. You even felt badly that Kris wasn't able to accompany us because you thought it was not safe.

Your faith in God gave you strength. I understood that when I turned to talk to you on the plane and you were deep in prayer, head bowed, fingering your rosary beads. You hoped for the best but settled for what God gave you: a "victory" if we just land, you said. After all you'd been through, I thought, it would be indeed.

Well, let me tell you, it was a victory the likes of which the world had never seen. After your brutal murder at the airport, millions of people visited you lying in state at your house and in Santo Domingo Church, and said goodbye as you rode the final leg of your journey to Manila Memorial Park cemetery.

It took eleven hours to get there, not your speed, I know, but so many people wanted to see you. When we passed Rizal Park, the heavens opened up with a torrent of rain, thunder and lightning. I assumed that was you making your presence known. People became energized, looking to the skies, arms raised, shouting "Laban!” and "Ninoy!”

You had not been forgotten, as you feared, and more importantly neither had what you stood for. That was your biggest victory: stirring the conscience and consciousness of the nation and the world, forcing people to choose between human degradation and human dignity, between freedom and slavery, between action and apathy. They proved you right. The Filipino was worth dying for.

I will never forget wondering what role Cory would play after you left us and getting the answer the day after she returned home. Would she continue staying in the background as she did during your political life? Would she dare to confront Marcos? As we and several hundred thousand people marched with your casket from your home on Times Street to Santo Domingo Church, she turned to me and said: "I want to say to the press that I will refuse to accept condolences from anyone in the Marcos government unless all political prisoners are released." It was clear the gauntlet was being thrown down, the torch you carried passed on. She was not going to remain on the sideline.

It took me a long time to get over the trauma of August 21. I have never felt such anger and bitterness as I did when I heard those gunshots at the airport, nor such sadness for your friends, your country and our family. We were all cheated and deceived. The flame of hope had been savagely snuffed out, the charisma, the commitment, the courage, lying bloodied on the tarmac. You came in peace only to be greeted by violent savagery.

In the months that followed, I couldn't bear to hear the songs "Bayan Ko" and "The Impossible Dream," so painful were the memories they would trigger. Still, I visited Boston, went to your old office at Harvard, walked around the rooms of your old house, reflecting on what might have been, but remembering the happier times too. It was a full year before I could bring myself to return to Manila and face reminders of the tragedy. History has remembered you with reverence and respect. The very airport where you were assassinated has been renamed the "Ninoy Aquino International Airport." A park in Manila has been named after you. You have been memorialized in books, songs and poems. Your statues grace plazas throughout the country. You'd laugh at how you're depicted in some of them, but then it's the thought that counts.

I am saddled with mixed emotions on this 34th anniversary. Yes, the country is free because of your courage, your commitment and ultimately your sacrifice. But there is still much to be done.

The last time I saw you, you were lying in bloody but peaceful repose in your coffin with what appeared to be a grin on your face, as if to say to all of us that you knew what you were doing. I was a bit angry at you at the time, for leaving all of us the way you did, even though it wasn’t the ending you had planned. But I said to you then: "Rest in peace, my brother, you deserve it." I feel the same sentiments today, although if I know you, "rest" is still not in your vocabulary.

But for all that your sacrifice achieved, I for one, would give it all up to have you back with us. We all miss you and love you and leave you with the thought that became your rallying cry. Ninoy, Hindi Ka Nag-iisa.

Your brother in law,


Ken Kashiwahara

Ken Kashiwahara

Ken Kashiwahara is a retired ABC Television News correspondent. He was traveling with Ninoy not as a journalist but as his brother-in-law, the only family member to accompany him.

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