MANILA, Philippines (AP) – Former Filipino President Benigno Aquino III was buried with thousands in the streets of Manila on Saturday to remind him that he was facing China in bitter territorial disputes, a peace deal with Muslim guerrillas, and democracy in Southeast Asia defended a nation where his parents helped overthrow a dictator.
Aquino died Thursday at the age of 61 of diabetes-related kidney disease after a long public absence after his six-year term ended in 2016. Family and friends sang a patriotic song after a silver urn containing Aquino’s remains was placed next to the tomb of Aquino’s mother, former President Corazon Aquino. The military honors included 21 gun salutes at the private cemetery.
Aquino’s family did not want him or his parents to be buried in the national hero cemetery, where former presidents and top officials, including dictator Ferdinand Marcos, were buried. Aquino’s mother and murdered father, a senator from the opposition to Marcos, helped lead a resistance that sparked an army-backed âpeople’s powerâ revolt in 1986 that ousted Marcos.
“On his journey, his two heroic parents will be there to hug him,” said Archbishop Socrates Villegas during mass.
Villegas praised Aquino for living up to the image of a humble and incorruptible politician who abhorred the trappings of power. Villegas fought back tears and said he envied Aquino because he was now in a place “where God’s commandments are no longer broken and God’s name is no longer blasphemed, where vulgarity and brutality and terror are conquered by compassion”.
The remarks broadcast live by the TV channels were a weird criticism of the current populist President Rodrigo Duterte, whose cheeky style, eloquent rhetoric and tirades against the dominant church in the country were in sharp contrast to Aquino. Church leaders have criticized Aquino’s successor for brutal crackdown on illicit drugs that killed thousands of petty suspects and alerted Western governments and human rights watchdogs.
Although Duterte publicly mocked the opposition Aquino was associated with, he called for sympathy for Aquino to be transformed into an “opportunity to unite in prayer and put aside our differences.”
“His memory and the legacy of his family to dedicate their lives to the cause of democracy will stay in our hearts forever,” said Duterte.
After Mass, Aquino’s urn was carried to the cemetery in a convoy, with thousands of people lining the roadsides and taking photos. Some wore yellow clothing or ribbons, the color associated with the political opposition led by Aquino.
“We say goodbye and want to thank a decent man who became president,” said a supporter, Teddy Lopez, who was waiting for the convoy outside the cemetery. âWe were respected by the whole world in his time. “
President Joe Biden called Aquino a “valued friend and partner of the United States” who has served his country “with integrity and selfless commitment.”
Aquino, whose family spent years in exile in the United States during Marcos’ reign, had tumultuous relations with China as president.
In 2013, after Beijing dispatched ships to occupy a shoal off the Philippine coast, Aquino cleared the filing of a lawsuit challenging the validity of China’s far-reaching claims in the South China Sea in international arbitration. The Philippines largely won. However, China refused to participate in the arbitration and dismissed the 2016 tribunal ruling.
âThere are people who thought that the rule of law did not apply to great powers. He rejected that view and proved it wrong, “said former Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario, who served under Aquino.
Del Rosario, with Aquino’s approval, led efforts to bring the country’s disputes with China to international arbitration. Aquino’s challenge to the rising superpower was praised by Western and Asian governments, but it plunged relations with Beijing to an all-time low.
At home, one of Aquino’s greatest successes was the signing of a peace agreement with the largest Muslim separatist rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, in 2014, which eased the decades of fighting in the south of the country.
Teresita Deles, who served as Aquino’s peace advisor, said the pact prevented the rebels, now helping manage a Muslim autonomous region, from continuing an uprising at a time when Islamic State was trying to gain a foothold in Southeast Asia .
âIt changed the whole landscape of her life. The children’s education has not been interrupted for seven years and the fields are being replanted, “Deles told The Associated Press.
But while Aquino cracked down on corruption – by arresting his predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and three powerful senators – and initiated programs to reduce poverty, the deep-seated inequalities and weak institutions in the Philippines remained too disheartening. Arroyo was eventually acquitted of corruption allegations for insufficient evidence.
Opponents hit on missteps, although Aquino left his office with high approval ratings. Filipino presidents are limited to one term of office.
Aquino fought Duterte in 2016, warning that an impending dictator would undo the democratic and economic dynamism he had achieved during his tenure. He also warned of possible dangers if Marco’s namesake and son, who was running separately for the vice presidency at the time, would triumph. He criticized Marcos’ son for refusing to acknowledge that his dictator father “did the country wrong”.
Aquino then warned that the late dictator’s backers were trying to rewrite the horrors of the era of martial law under Marcos.
âI would also like to remind you that the dictatorship has many faces,â said Aquino in February 2016. âThere are other personalities who want to reinstate all of this in order to deprive people of the right processes and place power in the hands of one Man to lay down determine what is right and what is wrong and who is innocent and who is guilty. “
Duterte won by a large margin and later had Marcos buried with military honors in the Heroes’ Cemetery. US-based Human Rights Watch described Dutertes first year in office when he launched his bloody anti-drug raid as a “human rights disaster.”
Marcos’ son lost the vice-presidential race by a narrow margin and is reportedly considering running for the same office or even the top post when Duterte’s term ends next year.
Associate press journalists Joeal Calupitan and Vicente Gonzales contributed to this report.
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