By Miriam Grace A. Go
BANGKOK — For five months now, the Bangkok Post has been running daily on its front-page left ear the text of “Article 39.” The editors apparently thought that with their prime minister’s tussles with the media becoming more frequent, it wouldn’t harm to remind him and the public that “freedom of thought and expression is guaranteed” under the Thai Constitution.
The Bangkok Post, of all newspapers in the region, should know. Twenty-nine years ago, when Ferdinand Marcos clamped down on Philippine media, Thailand’s only English-language newspaper became the Philippines’ free press.
In February 1973, five months after Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines, the Bangkok Post ran a series of papers that gave the international community a different account of what was happening in the Philippines. The papers, written by opposition Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. from his prison cell, were smuggled to Thailand to become The Bangkok Post’s “world-exclusive.”
For three decades, the story behind the big story remained untold. We pieced together this account on how the “subversive” material landed on the lap of then Bangkok Post editor in chief Theh Chongkhadikij.
Peter Finucane, then chief subeditor of the paper, recalls that “Theh handled everything” and did not discuss the planned series with the other editors. “He made everything confidential—received the papers himself, wrote the page-one blurb himself—to protect his sources,” says Finucane.
During the three days that the Bangkok Post ran “The Aquino Papers,” the leading oppositionist had already been in detention in a maximum-security cell at the Philippine military’s Camp Bonifacio in Manila for five months. Proclamation 1081, the decree imposing martial law was signed on Sept. 17, 1972, and announced on September 22. It was dated September 21. On September 23 Aquino was arrested—by the police officer who had served as the provincial commander when Aquino was still governor of Tarlac.
Counting on connections
The Bangkok Post had run stories about martial law in the Philippines, but these were bits and pieces from wire agencies, and the treatment depended on which agency the articles came from.
Those from the Associated Press were always favorable to the Marcos administration, quoting official government reports—like how most Filipinos were “pleased with the sharp improvement in the peace and order situation,” among other “martial law reforms.” They therefore supposedly favored postponing the 1973 presidential elections so Marcos could continue in power for seven more years.
But when the stories were from the Agence France Presse, where some of Aquino’s allies had connections, there usually was a negative slant—like how Marcos was blocking attempts to annul a Constitution drafted by a rubber-stamp commission, or how troops were sent out to areas where anti-government forces were expected to gather.
The Marcos government had closed down independent newspapers in the Philippines. Television news had to go through prior censorship. Conscientious journalists, with the collaboration of the political opposition, had to resort to “mimeograph journalism” to keep the public informed about the excesses of the dictatorship. Many “subversive” journalists, as Marcos would call them, were arrested and detained. Those who were later released were kept under surveillance and prevented from giving interviews.
Obviously, the only way to get the word out was to have Aquino’s writings published outside the country. Alfonso Policarpio Jr., or “Poli,” senior executive assistant to the senator, approached journalist Juan L. Mercado and asked: “Can you get the papers out of the country?”
Mercado, released by the military two months earlier, had resumed work with the Press Foundation for Asia (PFA), and Policarpio was counting on the PFA’s extensive network in the regional media. That included Bangkok Post editor in chief Theh, who had visited the Philippines earlier to write about the country’s underground press. “I had known Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. for many years, as a journalist, a politician and a governor,” Theh would later say in his introduction to “The Aquino Papers.”
Mercado recalls, “It was Poli’s job to get the paper out from Camp Bonifacio. My job was to get it from Manila to Bangkok.”
From a rest room to Bangkok
It was actually Aquino’s oldest daughter, Ballsy, who smuggled the papers out from Fort Bonifacio. “During our visiting hour, Ninoy had been able to communicate with Ballsy through sign language for her to go to the rest room after he had come from there,” recalls Corazon Aquino, the wife who would later become president. In the rest room, Ballsy got the folded pieces of paper containing her father’s writings and put them in her pocket.
Cory says Ninoy had instructed her to give a copy of the papers to Policarpio and to U.S. journalist Robert Chaplen of The New Yorker who was then in Manila. Policarpio, in his book, says Aquino had addressed copies of the papers to Stanley Karnow of The Baltimore Sun, T.J.S. George of the Far Eastern Economic Review, Carl Zimmerman of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, and Theh Chongkhadikij of The Bangkok Post.
When Policarpio gave the papers to Mercado, the latter was still under “city arrest.” How then would he get the papers out?
“A carrier pigeon,” recounts Mercado. “One of my friends then was the Air India manager who flew out of Manila regularly. I asked, ‘Would you carry an envelope to Theh as part of ‘company mail’? He suspected, I knew, that this was ‘subversive’ stuff. But he didn’t flinch. Neither did he ask questions. He brought it out of Manila.”
Mercado later learned from Theh that his friend even handcarried the envelope to the Post. “‘God bless Air India,’ I’ve always said since then,” Mercado says.
On Feb. 20, 1973, Bangkok Post ran on its front page, just above the banner headline, an article titled “Aquino: I’m prepared to rot in prison.” It quoted much from Aquino’s letter “to all my co-workers in the journalistic field.” Aquino, who was a reporter before entering politics, said he would not accept President Marcos’s offer of an amnesty “because I do not believe I’ve committed any crime. And I cannot support his New Society because I believe firmly that he has violated our Constitution and broken our laws.”
In the same issue, the Post announced that it would, starting the following day, publish in full Aquino’s “situationer-memo.” Of the media outfits that the Aquino camp targeted for the papers’ publication, it was only the Post that ran the papers in full.
A balanced presentation
Considering that he is known by journalists of his time to be Aquino’s close friend, Theh was remarkably balanced in handling the story. “The Aquino Papers,” he wrote, “are probably like the Pentagon Papers, giving only one part of the story a documented part but still only one part.” Although the senator was obviously giving “an honest account of what he knows or thinks he knows,” the editor cautioned his readers that Aquino’s “astonishing revelation, sensational charges and extraordinary claims…must not be taken for gospel truth.”
“In his clandestine writings, the Senator has been helped by his journalistic training and his accounts of various important events have a professional precision but the reader must keep in mind that he is a politician with great rhetorical skill,” Theh wrote.
“The Aquino Papers-Day One” talked about how the Philippine peso devalued by 58 percent and the economy plunged after Marcos spent an estimated P900 million in public funds—“20 percent of the total money in circulation then”—to ensure his reelection. University students were getting restless, and anti-government demonstrations were being mounted despite risks of arrest.
“Day Two” of the series cited the worsening rebellion, by communist guerrillas in Luzon and by Muslims in the South seeking to avenge the execution of 25 of their “brothers.” The slain men had been recruited and trained by the Marcos military allegedly to invade Sabah, the object of a territorial dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia. The mass killing would later be known as the Jabidah massacre.
“Day Three” revealed the details of a “martial law master plan,” prepared by a Marcos think thank, that landed in the hands of “opposition intelligence operatives.” The master plan gave Marcos seven options to remain in power indefinitely, the last option being the declaration of martial law.
Who wouldn’t give credence to that document, Aquino asked, when weeks before September 22 Marcos sent the biggest batch of army colonels (300) to the Commission on Appointments for confirmation, insisted on a huge increase in the military budget that ate up almost one-fourth of the national budget, and wanted a pay increase for soldiers and a five-year modernization budget for the military?
Marcos’s rebuttal – and revenge
In March the Bangkok Post ran in full Marcos’s reply to the Aquino articles. Cabled by Press Secretary Francisco Tatad, it said: “The account raises personal and other false issues which were the subject of much political discussions some years ago. Nothing in that account has not been said, or published at least once, by the man who had sent it to the Post. It seeks an exchange—a polemic—on a number of concluded and closed issues, without ever taking up what is happening in the Philippines today.”
In his 8,000-word reply, Marcos mentioned Aquino’s name only once, at the beginning, and subsequently referred to him only either as “the man” or “the detainee.” To downplay the significance of the Post exclusive and to cast doubts on Aquino’s integrity, Marcos concluded, “Perhaps some of our detainees will write memoirs, others, articles for the newspapers.… They will seek an outside audience, having no one to listen among their own people.… Our only wish is that those who speak and listen to them at this time will bear in their hearts the truth that he who has not the innocence of Socrates is least likely to have his wisdom.”
Finucane, the Post’s chief subeditor at the time, says the series did not create much stir in Thailand, the country being preoccupied then with stories closer to home, such as the Vietnam war and its own student uprising that led to the ouster of the military government in October that year. But it created a tempest in the Philippines.
Not content with having the last word on the debate, Marcos sought to teach the usual suspects a lesson.
Cory Aquino says their visiting privileges were suddenly suspended. It was only when she asked Deputy Defense Minister Carmelo Barbero for the reason that she learned about the series in the Post.
“My children and I were not allowed to visit Ninoy for 43 days as punishment for the Bangkok Post publication of Ninoy’s article. The New Yorker magazine also came out with Robert Shaplen’s article on Ninoy, but luckily we were not punished for that,” Cory Aquino says.
Policarpio was arrested and detained in Camp Crame.
Ninoy Aquino and his cellmate, then opposition Sen. Jose Diokno, who didn’t know anything about the papers, were transferred to solitary confinement—and almost starved to death—in Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, northeast of Manila.
“Before Ninoy was sent to Fort Magsaysay… he was told [by the commander of the detention center] to just say that he never wrote the article and that it was done by his speech writer. This way, the camp authorities would not be blamed for being lax in their security measures. But Ninoy insisted that he and he alone wrote that article,” Cory Aquino says.
Exiles, deaths, and political upheavals
Ninoy Aquino was found guilty by a military court of charges of subversion, went on hunger strike, and was allowed to seek treatment for a heart ailment in the United States on condition he would not speak against the Marcos government. He broke that promise.
In 1983 Aquino, coming home from his U.S. exile, was shot and killed at the airport by soldiers believed acting under the direction of Marcos’s generals.
Three years later, in a popular revolt, Marcos was toppled and Aquino’s widow was installed as president. Marcos died in Hawaii, where he had been forced into exile, in 1989. In 2001, Cory Aquino took part in another people’s revolt to topple another undesirable president.
Policarpio has passed away, leaving behind a book called Ninoy Aquino: The Willing Martyr and manuscripts for another book. Mercado, still with the Press Foundation for Asia, says this is the first time his grown-up children will be hearing about his role in the “smuggling” of the Aquino papers. The Air India executive has retired in New Delhi but wants to remain anonymous.
Theh passed away in 1995. Three names in the Post’s 1973 staffbox—reporters Veera Prateepchaikul and Anuraj Manibhandu and chief subeditor Peter Finucane—are very much around as the newspaper’s editors.
Judging from the space that the newspaper has devoted to that long-running reminder on press freedom, and its coverage of regional issues that remains strong, the Bangkok Post appears ready as ever not just to lend a hand to a besieged press, but to herald an international scoop when it has one.