MANILA – Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, the son of pro-democracy icons who helped topple dictator Ferdinand Marcos and a defender of good governance who took China's sweeping territorial claims to an international court, has died. He was 61.
Aquino’s family told a news conference that he died in his sleep early Thursday due to “renal failure secondary to diabetes.” A former Cabinet official, Rogelio Singson, said Aquino had been undergoing dialysis and was preparing for a kidney transplant.
“Mission accomplished Noy, be happy now with Dad and Mom,” said Pinky Aquino-Abellada, a sister of the late president, using his nickname and struggling to hold back her tears.
Condolences poured in from political leaders such as President Joe Biden and Aquino's successor Rodrigo Duterte and the dominant Catholic Church. Philippine flags were lowered at half-staff on government buildings.
“For beyond politics and much public acrimony, I knew Noynoy as a kind and simple soul. He will be deeply missed,” Sen. Imee Marcos, a daughter of the late dictator, said in a statement, using Aquino’s nickname.
Biden called Aquino a “valued friend and partner to the United States” and said he enjoyed their time working together.
“President Aquino’s steadfast commitment to advancing peace, upholding the rule of law, and driving economic growth for all Filipinos, while taking bold steps to promote the rules-based international order, leaves a remarkable legacy at home and abroad that will endure for years to come,” Biden said in a statement mourning Aquino’s death.
Aquino, who served as president from 2010 to 2016, was the heir of a family that has been regarded as a bulwark against authoritarianism in the Philippines.
His father, former Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., was assassinated in 1983 while under military custody at the Manila international airport, which now bears his name. His mother, Corazon Aquino, led the 1986 “people power” revolt that ousted Marcos. The army-backed uprising became a harbinger of popular revolts against authoritarian regimes worldwide.
A scion of a wealthy land-owning political clan in the northern Philippines, Aquino, who was fondly called Noynoy or Pnoy by many Filipinos, built an image of an incorruptible politician who battled poverty and frowned over excesses by the country’s elites, including powerful politicians. One of his first orders that lingered throughout his presidency was to ban the use of sirens in vehicles that carried VIPs through Manila’s notorious traffic jams.
Aquino, whose family went into exile in the U.S. during Marcos’s rule, had turbulent ties with China as president. After China seized a disputed shoal in 2012 following a tense standoff in the South China Sea, Aquino authorized the filing of a complaint before an international arbitration tribunal that questioned the validity of China’s sweeping claims in the strategic waterway Beijing claims virtually the entire South China Sea on historical grounds.
“We will not be pushed around because we are a tiny state compared with theirs,” Aquino told The Associated Press in June 2011. “We think we have very solid grounds to say ‘do not intrude into our territory.’”
The Philippines largely won. But China refused to join in the arbitration and dismissed as a sham the tribunal’s 2016 ruling, which invalidated Beijing’s claims based on a 1982 U.N. maritime treaty. Aquino’s legal challenge and the eventual ruling plunged the relations between Beijing and Manila to an all-time low.
Born in 1960 as the third of five children, Aquino never married and had no children. An economics graduate, he pursued business opportunities before entering politics.
During his mother's tumultuous presidency, after democracy was restored, Aquino was wounded by gunfire during a failed 1987 coup attempt by rebel soldiers who attempted to lay siege on the heavily guarded Malacanang presidential palace. Three of his security escorts were killed. A bullet had remained embedded in Aquino's neck.
He won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1998, where he served until 2007, then successfully ran for the Senate. Aquino announced his presidential campaign in September 2009, saying he was answering the call of the people to continue his mother’s legacy. She had died just weeks earlier of colon cancer.
His won with a battle cry "without the corrupt, there won’t be poor people.” He called ordinary Filipinos his “boss” and offered himself as their servant. Friends said he often carried a copy of the Philippine Constitution in his pocket, a reflection of his steadfast belief that no one is above the law.
His victory was also seen as a protest vote due to exasperation with the corruption scandals of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. She was detained for nearly five years before the Supreme Court cleared her of the charges. Arroyo later served as House speaker under Duterte.
Public expectations of Aquino were high. While he moved against corruption — detaining Arroyo and three powerful senators — and initiated anti-poverty programs, the deep-seated inequalities and weak institutions in the Southeast Asian nation wracked by decades-old communist and Muslim insurgencies remained too daunting.
Under Aquino, the government expanded a program that provides cash dole-outs to the poorest in exchange for commitments by parents to send children to school. Big business, meanwhile, benefited from government partnership deals to finance major infrastructure projects.
One of Aquino's major successes was the signing of a 2014 peace deal with the largest Muslim separatist rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. It eased decades of fighting in the country’s south, homeland of minority Muslims in the largely Roman Catholic nation.
Opponents pounded on missteps, including a Manila bus hostage crisis that ended with the shooting deaths of eight Chinese tourists from Hong Kong by a disgruntled police officer, and delays in recovery efforts in the disastrous aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. He was also criticized in 2015 for his absence at an air base ceremony honoring police commandos who were killed by Muslim insurgents during a covert raid that killed one of Asia’s most-wanted terror suspects.
Aquino retained high approval ratings when his single, six-year term ended in 2016. The rise of the populist Duterte, whose deadly crackdown on illegal drugs has killed thousands of mostly petty drug suspects, was a reality check on the extent of public dissatisfaction and perceived failures during Aquino’s reformist rule.
Aquino campaigned against Duterte, warning he could be a looming dictator and could set back the democracy and economic momentum achieved in his own term.
Time magazine named Aquino as one of 100 most influential people in the world in 2013, praising him for stabilizing a sputtering economy and for bravely confronting China over the South China Sea disputes.
After leaving office, Aquino stayed away from politics and the public eye.
He is survived by four sisters. His cremated remains are to be taken Friday to a Roman Catholic church at Ateneo de Manila University, his former school, for a daylong public visitation subject to coronavirus safeguards before a planned weekend interment, organizers said.
Associated Press journalists Joeal Calupitan and Aaron Favila contributed to this report.