MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The late Philippine President Benigno Aquino III was hailed Friday for his integrity in a Southeast Asian country long plagued by corruption and for standing up to China over territorial disputes long standing in the South China Sea.
Hundreds of people lined up at a Catholic church in Manila despite coronavirus restrictions to pray in front of a silver urn with the cremated remains of Aquino, who died Thursday at age 61 kidney disease caused by diabetes.
âI just want to show my support and a big thank you to Pnoy,â said Ivy Roque, a 41-year-old call center worker, using the Aquino nickname. âIn his day, we were given hope that the Philippines could lift itself out of poverty. “
President Rodrigo Duterte decreed 10 days of national mourning and ordered Filipino flags to be hoisted at half mast across the country to honor Aquino, who ruled the country from 2010 to 2016.
Aquino’s remains are due to be laid to rest on Saturday in a private cemetery next to the graves of his parents, the pro-democracy icons who helped topple dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s.
Ordinary Filipinos took to Facebook and other social media platforms to mourn Aquino and hail him as an honest leader who reminded the country that no one is above the law.
Condolences also poured in from all over the world.
“He was a valued friend and partner of the United States, and will long be remembered for serving his country with integrity and selfless dedication,” US President Joe Biden said in a statement.
“Aquino’s unwavering commitment to advancing peace, upholding the rule of law and stimulating economic growth for all Filipinos, while taking bold steps to advance the rules-based international order,” leaves a remarkable legacy at home and abroad that will last for years to come. “Biden said.
Duterte, who publicly ridiculed the political opposition Aquino was associated with, called for the outpouring of sympathy for his predecessor to be turned into an “opportunity to unite in prayer and put our differences aside.” .
âHer memory and her family’s legacy of giving their lives for the cause of democracy will forever be etched in our hearts,â said Duterte.
Aquino’s deceased parents, including former President Corazon Aquino, are revered for helping lead the resistance against dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was ousted in a military-backed revolt in 1986 that helped spark similar peaceful uprisings in authoritarian regimes around the world.
Philippine TV channels paid tribute to Aquino and his advocacy for good governance. The DZMM radio network carried messages from listeners, including one who praised Aquino “as the bravest president against China.”
Aquino authorized the filing in 2013 of a lawsuit challenging the validity of China’s massive claims in the South China Sea before an international arbitration tribunal. The Philippines largely won. But China refused to join the arbitration and rejected the 2016 court ruling, which struck down Beijing’s claims.
Aquino’s legal challenge and final ruling were hailed by Western and Asian governments, but plunged Beijing-Manila relations to an all-time high.
One of Aquino’s main successes was signing a peace deal in 2014 with the largest Muslim separatist rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which eased decades of fighting in the south of the country.
But while Aquino has fought against corruption – by detaining his predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and three powerful senators – and launched anti-poverty programs, the deep inequalities and weak institutions in the Philippines have remained too intimidating.
Opponents stumbled, but Aquino retained high approval ratings when his six-year term ended in 2016. Philippine presidents are limited to one term.
Aquino campaigned against Duterte, warning that he could be an impending dictator and could reverse the democratic and economic momentum achieved during his own tenure. Duterte, however, won by a wide margin on the vow to root out illegal drugs and government corruption during his first three to six months in office.
Duterte broke his bold promise, acknowledging that he had underestimated the scale of the problems. Besides his brash rhetoric, he has been convicted of a drug crackdown that has killed thousands of mostly juvenile suspects and alarmed Western governments and human rights groups.
Antonio Trillanes IV, former senator and leading critic of Duterte who went after Aquino, said the death of the former president had rekindled memories of his integrity and style of leadership which contrasted sharply with the ” culture of hatred, murder and death “under Duterte.
âWe now fondly remember the pleasant conditions in our country before compared to what we are seeing now,â said Trillanes.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report.