Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino, popularly known as 'Noynoy,' has died at the age of 61, officials said on June 24, 2021. Photo: AFP / Hoang Dinh Nam

Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, who oversaw an unprecedented period of economic growth and political reforms, passed away on Thursday morning at the age of 61.

The precise cause of his death has yet to be verified, but the former president, a longtime smoker, had been undergoing dialysis and also had heart surgery recently. 

A staunch advocate for liberal democracy, Aquino – affectionately known as “Noynoy” and “Pinoy” – also suffered from political persecution and increasing isolation under the incumbent populist, Rodrigo Duterte, who rarely shied away from blaming all the country’s ills on his reformist predecessor. 

On multiple occasions, Duterte’s allies even tried to prosecute the former president for various mishaps in the past, most dramatically over the so-called Dengvaxia vaccine scandal.

But his unexpected death in the midst of generalized misery caused by the incumbent’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy and belated gratitude for the long-underappreciated former president. 

Over Twitter, #SalamatPnoy (thank you, Pinoy) quickly began trending, as countless netizens, including his critics, hailed the former president as a symbol of personal decency and incorruptibility.

Politicians and celebrities from across the political spectrum, including top Duterte administration officials, were quick to express their sympathy and shared grief with the Aquino family, which has played a vital role in shaping contemporary Philippine history. 

Aquino’s parents, former president Corazon “Cory” and former senator Beningo “Ninoy,” were democratic icons who played a vital role in the downfall of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship and the restoration of democracy in the mid-1980s.

With Noynoy’s passing, the mantle of liberal democratic reform will likely pass to current Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, the de facto leader of the opposition and prospective presidential candidate in next year’s elections.  

Then outgoing President Benigno Aquino, right, and his successor Rodrigo Duterte salute during the departure ceremony for Aquino ahead of the swearing-in at Malacanang Palace in Manila on June 30, 2016. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

Robredo said she was “heartbroken” by the shocking news of the former president’s passing. “He was a good friend and an honest president. He tried to do what was right, even when it was not popular,” Robredo said.

She and her late husband, former interior secretary Jesse Robredo, were close allies of Aquino, who successfully backed Robredo’s historic victory against Ferdinand Marcos Jr in the 2016 vice-presidential race.

Traditional allies, who have borne the brunt of Duterte’s anti-Western tirades, were also quick to pay tribute to the former president.

“We mourn a friend who pushed for deepening of our relations,” said the European Union office in Manila, recognizing the vital role of the Aquino administration in strengthening bilateral ties and deepening democratic reforms in the Philippines. 

The US Embassy in Manila also hailed the former president for his role in strengthening bilateral security ties, including the finalization of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014. 

“[We] will always be thankful for our partnership,” said US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires John Law in a statement. 

Senior magistrates and liberal justices appointed during Aquino’s term were also quick to make their tributes and expressions of grief. 

“It is with profound sadness that I learned this morning of the passing of former President Benigno S Aquino III,” said Supreme Court Justice Marvic Leonen, one of the few justices who has stood up to Duterte in recent years. 

“I knew him to be a kind man, driven by his passion to serve our people. I saw him carry his title with dignity and integrity,” he added. 

Cardinal Jose Advincula, the new archbishop of Manila, also paid tribute to Aquino, a devout Catholic, who nonetheless challenged the Catholic Church by successfully passing the Reproductive Health (RH) law, which mandated the provision of free contraceptives for effective family planning among the poorest Filipinos.  

“Let us entrust him in the mercy of our loving Father. And let us now pray for his soul,” said the new Manila archbishop.

Cognizant of the groundswell of support for the former president, presidential spokesman Harry Roque expressed how Malacañang “grateful for the former President for his contribution and services to the country.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, a staunch Duterte ally and former speechwriter for then-president Cory Aquino, was also uncharacteristically generous in his tribute to the former president. 

“He wasn’t fond of me but I could not bring myself not to admire him,” the outspoken Philippine diplomatic chief said over Twitter. 

“I’m out of Twitter from grief over the death of a sea-green incorruptible, brave under armed attack, wounded in crossfire, indifferent to power and its trappings, and ruled our country with a puzzling coldness but only because he hid his feelings so well it was thought he had none,” he added. 

Aquino’s life was storied and riddled with traumatic experiences. In his youth, he witnessed the assassination (1983) of his father, Ninoy, only to later survive an assassination attempt (1989) by disgruntled military officers during his mother’s term in office. 

Former Philippine President Corazon Aquino talks with her son, then-senator Benigno Aquino, during a memorial service at Manila Memorial Park marking the 24th anniversary of the assassination of her husband former opposition leader Senator Benigno Aquino. Photo: AFP / Jes Aznar

He never married and instead turned into the de facto patriarch of the Aquino family. He served as a Congressman representing their home base of Tarlac from 1998 to 2007 and later briefly served as a senator from 2007-2010. 

His six-year term in office (2010-2016) coincided with the transformation of the Philippines into “Asia’s rising tiger” economy and a bastion of liberal democracy in the region. He also spearheaded anti-corruption initiatives against high-profile politicians as well as a historic peace agreement with Islamist insurgents, which paved the way for the creation of a Bangsamoro autonomous Muslim-majority region in the southern island of Mindanao. 

On the foreign policy front, Aquino also became the first leader to take China to an international court over the South China Sea disputes, culminating in the landmark arbitration award in 2016.

His term, however, was also racked by scandals, including a botched counter-terror operation in Mindanao that led to the death of 44 commandos. His administration also came under attack for alleged mismanagement of reconstruction efforts across central regions of Visayas following the 2013 Haiyan super typhoon. 

And despite rapid economic growth, a vast majority of Filipinos suffered from poor public services, as the Aquino administration struggled to kick off big-ticket infrastructure projects on time.

Growing dissatisfaction with the lack of inclusive development under Aquino eventually paved the way for a populist revolt under Duterte, who upended Philippine democracy. 

But the political tide may shift in the opposite direction anew. Back in 2009, Cory Aquino’s death galvanized support for her son, a reclusive and low-profile veteran legislator who would be catapulted to the presidency the following year.

Noynoy’s passing could similarly rally 11th-hour support for the liberal democratic opposition, which hopes to prevent Duterte’s allies, including his daughter Sara, from succeeding him in next year’s elections.