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Ninoy Aquino’s consul ‘bittersweet’ about ‘little’ place in history

Editor's Note: Former senator Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. was assassinated at the Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983. GMA News Online published this on August 21, 2014. We are reposting it today, Ninoy Aquino Day.


When Sen. Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. was assassinated at the Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983, ushering a turbulent period that would eventually lead to President Ferdinand Marcos' downfall three years later, Jose Ampeso knew he played a role in that epochal juncture of Philippine history but kept it a secret for 20 years.

Ampeso, then the Vice Consul at the Philippine Consulate in New Orleans, would disclose his closely-guarded secret two decades after, when it could no longer threaten his life: He was the US-based Filipino diplomat who issued two passports to Ninoy and enabled the then anti-Marcos opposition leader to return to the country.

Ninoy's cold-blooded murder on the tarmac shocked the world and sparked the "People Power" revolt that ousted Marcos and swept his widow and democracy icon, Corazon Aquino, to power. His only son, who became President, carried his name and legacy.

"I kept this to myself for almost 20 years," Ampeso, now retired after a 41-year career at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), told GMA News Online in an interview in Manila.

"It was a brave act. Nobody would do it. Who would do it? Everybody was afraid," Ampeso said.

"If it didn't happen, then it won't be part of history. Do I consider myself part of history? Just a little," he admitted.

On hindsight, Ampeso described those moments as "bittersweet."

He said he cried in the US when he learned that Aquino, a close friend and his brod at the Upsilon Sigma Phi of the University of the Philippines, was murdered upon arrival in Manila. But he relishes the fact that Aquino's death sparked the rebirth of democracy in the country and paved the way for Ninoy's wife and son to later assume the role many people wished he got but never did: the presidency.

"For one Aquino, who passed away, who got assassinated, they produced two presidents," he said. "Let the world judge me, but those who know me from within, they have said that whatever is good, especially, for the good of the country, Joey will do it."

Marcial Bonifacio

Ampeso recounted those epic moments in recent history.

Ninoy, he said, secretly asked him while in US exile to provide him two passports, one in his real name and the other under an assumed name: Marcial Bonifacio.

"It was from him. Marcial is Martial Law and Bonifacio is Andres Bonifacio," he said.

"I asked him to clear it with no less than Marcos himself, probably, through a fraternity brother and classmate by the name of Roque Ablan. I think they did and he said, 'Yes I already cleared it,'" he said. The retired diplomat was referring to former Ilocos Representative Ablan, a fraternity brod, whom he said was close to both Ninoy and to Marcos, also an Upsilonian.

Ampeso recalled that he double-checked with Ablan if the latter did get the go-signal of Marcos for the issuance of Ninoy's passports.

"You cleared it with him from above?" Ampeso said he asked Ablan. "He said, 'Yes.' Then I said, 'How about from below?' That he didn't answer."

"You know who this below is?" Ampeso said. "These are the people who act rather violently."

Ampeso said he then did it, "I issued the passports."

He recalled working on Ninoy's passports in great secrecy, without informing his superior at the Philippine consulate at the time and the DFA, then headed by Carlos P. Romulo. He said he made sure there was no evidence that could later link him to Ninoy's passports.

Other anti-Marcos activists made the same requests, but he advised them to apply for passports the regular way.

After producing the two passports, he traveled and handed them to Ninoy at the La Guardia airport in New York.

He remembered Ninoy's parting words, "Joey, pag nasa Manila na 'ko, magkita tayo."

Not guilty

Ampeso was driving home from a community event at midnight in New Orleans, when the radio blurted out the shocking news of Ninoy's brazen killing in Manila.

"I had to stop right away, I was driving on the highway. Somehow, tears fell in my eyes naturally. I felt bad. I said to myself I now have to be careful," he recalled.

He said that he felt he was closely observed, but he was never investigated.

Ampeso would later disclose the crucial role he played that allowed Ninoy to make that now-historic journey home in 1983.

Asked if he felt any sense of guilt for issuing Ninoy's passports, he replied: "Not at all." However, he "felt bad for the loss of the life of a brod, a potential leader of the country."

The late President Corazon Aquino, he said, once expressed the family's gratitude for what he did.

"One time, I bumped into her and she said, 'Joey, salamat ha.' Then sabi ko, 'Kaya nga namatay Ma’am eh.'"

Mrs. Aquino, he said, then comforted him: "No, no, no, no. Nakamtan na niya yung gusto niya sa buhay nya."  —KBK/NB/YA/KG, GMA News