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Why is it named the Ninoy Aquino International Airport?

Fact-checkers this year have had to repeatedly debunk claims that President Rodrigo Duterte had approved proposals to rename the Ninoy Aquino International Airport back to Manila International Airport.

VERA Files alone has had to do so thrice this year for uploaded videos making the erroneous claim that the airport has been renamed. All have hundreds of thousands of views, and seem to have been designed to be “clickbait” for the anti-“Dilawan” crowd, promising an honor conferred to “fake hero” Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.— at the behest of his wife, the alleged presidential usurper—had finally been rescinded, somehow paving the way for a Marcos Restoration.

Looking at the history of how Republic Act No. 6639—“An Act Renaming the Manila International Airport as the Ninoy Aquino International Airport”—came to be, however, shows that MIA did not become NAIA because of a post-revolution whim. It was relatively uncontroversial; the law went through the entire post-EDSA legislative process, and was the fulfillment of proposals to rename the airport shortly after Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. was assassinated on its tarmac on August 21, 1983.

How RA No. 6639 became law

RA No. 6639 was among the first laws enacted during the Eighth Congress, the first elected legislature under the 1987 Constitution. It started out as House Bill No. 47, authored by Representative Raul S. Daza of Northern Samar. The bill was approved on second reading on August 4, 1987. According to the first volume of the Journal of the House of Representatives covering the 1987-1988 session, Daza described his proposal as “self-explanatory.”

It was not the first proposal to rename MIA as NAIA. Francisco Tatad, Ferdinand Marcos’s former Minister of Public Information, as a member of the Interim Batasang Pambansa representing Bicol, claimed to be the first to propose the renaming. He reiterated this claim on the Senate floor in 1993, while the Senate was tackling a resolution—the coauthors of which included current Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III—to formally declare Ninoy Aquino as a national hero of the Philippines. That resolution was ultimately approved as one “expressing the sense of the Senate that the late Senator Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. be declared as national hero of the Philippines” a few days shy of the tenth anniversary of Aquino’s death.

In the Regular Batasang Pambansa (1984-1986), Cecilia Muñoz-Palma of Quezon City filed Resolution 36, “Naming the Manila International Airport as the ‘Ninoy Aquino International Airport’ to honor the memory of the late senator and Opposition leader, Benigno S. Aquino, Jr.” Like the earlier Tatad proposal, this resolution was not approved by the largely Marcos administration-allied legislature.

HB 47 was given far more attention than these Marcos-era proposals. One of the interpellators during the bill’s second reading was Representative Dante O. Tinga of Taguig-Pateros. According to the House Journal, Tinga’s main issue with the bill was the use of Benigno Aquino Jr.’s nickname, stressing that “laws are not for this generation alone and heroes are remembered by their full Christian names” to be more respectful and reverential. The Journal states that Daza “replied that heroes should be seen in the context of the times in which they lived”—he was known best by all, supporters and opponents alike, as Ninoy Aquino.

There were also questions raised by Representative Hernando Perez of Batangas, to which Daza gave the following responses: “1) that after the EDSA Revolution, international pilots, whenever they land in the Manila International Airport, announce that they are about to land at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport; 2) that in recognition of the martyrdom of the late senator, airline pilots submitted a petition to the then Secretary of Transportation and Communications that requested the renaming of the airport as Ninoy Aquino International Airport; and 3) that as the then Secretary of Transportation and Communications, Mr. Perez drafted an Executive Order renaming said airport as Ninoy Aquino International Airport but the President [Corazon “Cory” Aquino] reprimanded him on the ground that renaming airports is legislative and not an executive function.” The Journal added that Daza agreed to “accept the foregoing facts as added justifications and consider the Bill appropriate legislative approval.”

Representative Antonio Abaya of Isabela was worried about the “bad name” of the Manila International Airport at the time, resulting from “inadequate facilities” and poor management. Representative David Tirol of Bohol wondered if there was another place that could be renamed to “give more honor to Ninoy Aquino,” such as Tarlac, the late senator’s home province. According to the Journal, Daza replied that “he has not given the matter serious thought but that he would seriously consider supporting the bill Mr. Tirol should see proper to file.”

After these interpellations, amendments were suggested. Tinga was insistent that Benigno Aquino, Jr. International Airport was the appropriate name, but his amendment was not accepted. Parañaque Representative Freddie Webb only wanted to remove the specification “Parañaque, Metro Manila” as NAIA’s location, given territorial issues at the time involving his district.

On August 10, 1987, the House was ready to vote on the passage of the bill on third reading. By then, the bill had 90 other co-authors besides Daza. There were 156 lawmakers who voted to approve the measure, two rejected it, and two abstained. Tirol was one of those who voted in the negative. According to the Journal, Tirol explained his vote by saying that “renaming the Manila International Airport in Ninoy’s honor is not honoring him enough,” believing that “something more important and meaningful should be named after him.” The other representative who voted not to approve the measure, Mariano Nalupta Jr. of Ilocos Norte, did not give an explanation for his vote. Nalupta would later file renaming bills of his own, including one in 1989 to restore the name of Batac General Hospital to Mariano Marcos Memorial Hospital.

After the House vote, the NAIA proposal also breezed through the Senate. The Senate’s counterpart bill was principally authored by Heherson Alvarez. The bill was then transmitted to President Corazon Aquino on August 20, 1987—a day before the fourth anniversary of Ninoy Aquino’s assassination. However, the president did not sign it. It lapsed into law on November 27, 1987—Ninoy’s birthday. Like RA No. 6793, the text of the NAIA law did not contain the justifications for the renaming, which were already discussed at length in Congress.

The editorial of the Manila Standard on August 15, 1987, reflected some of these discussions. It noted that the murder of Ninoy Aquino “triggered off a chain of events that led to the toppling of a dictatorship that has gone down in history as outstanding in brutality and debauchery.” However, it also pointed out that “renaming the airport as it is now would be tantamount to besmirching the memory of the man whose singular act gave a new meaning to the word ‘courage,’” given the airport’s reputation as a “haven of all manner of thieves and hustlers.” The editorial hoped that, after a “drastic overhaul,” the airport could be rid of its ills in order to be “worthy of the name of the man whose death made so many things possible, and whose memory this nation aspires to immortalize.” Legislators and pundits were not concerned that Ninoy was unworthy of having the country’s main international gateway named after him—they believed the deteriorating principal airport was unworthy of being named after him.

It is not known whether Ninoy Aquino’s nemesis, Ferdinand Marcos, still alive and in exile in Hawaii at the time, had any publicly conveyed reaction to the renaming. He did not mention it in his various post-EDSA Revolution interviews nor in the last book he authored, A Trilogy on the Transformation of Philippine Society, nor is it tackled in books about the Marcoses in exile.

Proposals to rename NAIA under Duterte

There have not been any formal legislative proposals to restore NAIA to MIA. The call to revert the name has mostly been made outside the halls of Congress by Marcos loyalists, including those who erroneously claim the airport was only constructed during the Marcos regime. Some loyalists have even been clamoring to rename it the Ferdinand E. Marcos International Airport. There have been at least two petitions seeking to turn NAIA into MIA again: a closed petition with 8,984 supporters, and a still open petition that, as of this writing, has 143,522 signatories—about 7,700 more than last year. Within two weeks after being filed by lawyer and Marcos loyalist Larry Gadon, a petition to nullify RA 6639 was junked by the Supreme Court on September 9, 2020 for lack of merit.

On June 25, 2020 in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Representatives Paolo Duterte of the 1st District of Davao City, Lord Allan Velasco of Marinduque, and Eric Yap of ACT-CIS partylist filed HB 7031, “An Act Renaming the Ninoy Aquino International Airport as the Paliparang Pandaigdig ng Pilipinas.” According to the bill’s explanatory note, “NAIA is the international gateway of the Philippines, being the biggest and largest international airport in the country. As such, there is a need to identify the same as belonging to the Philippines.”

In a statement, Yap further explained that he and his fellow proponents “deem it more appropriate for our international airport to bear the name of our country,” reflecting not “just one hero,” but also “our everyday heroes.” The renaming was not meant to discredit “the heroic contributions” of Ninoy Aquino, Yap claimed. He also believed that the rebranding was necessary to “let go of [NAIA’s] negative image,” in an inversion of the most resonant among the renaming issues back in 1987.As of this writing, the bill has been pending with the Committee on Transportation since July 28, 2020.

It is unclear whether President Rodrigo Duterte shares the same sentiments about renaming NAIA as his allies in Congress or those of Marcos loyalists, even if he is the president who finally ordered the internment of Ferdinand Marcos’s remains in the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Annually, the president still issues a commemorative message on Ninoy Aquino Day. Last year, he exhorted Filipinos to “emulate Ninoy’s courage and patriotism so we may all be heroes through acts of discipline, goodwill and social responsibility.”

Moreover, President Duterte does not seem averse to officially naming things after Ninoy Aquino, or even Cory Aquino, who appointed Duterte as OIC vice mayor in 1986, giving him his entry point into politics. On June 29, 2018, President Duterte signed into law RA No, 11041, “An Act Renaming the Montevista-Cateel National Highway Traversing the Municipality of Compostela, Compostela Valley Province into the Benigno S. Aquino Jr. National Highway.” In the explanatory note of the House bill that became the law, HB 833, filed by Representative Maria Carmen S. Zamora, reference is made to Compostela Valley Municipal Resolution No. 2011-2041, wherein the Sangguniang Bayan of Compostela expressed the desire “to honor the late national hero whose role and involvement in nation-building and dedication to public service greatly affected our people.”

Also on June 29, 2018, the president enacted RA No. 11045, “An Act Renaming the Kay Tikling-Antipolo-Teresa-Morong National Road in the Province of Rizal, Traversing through Barangay Dolores in the Municipality of Taytay up to Barangay Maybancal in the Municipality of Morong, as Corazon C. Aquino Avenue.” This law states that the renaming was being done to recognize Cory Aquino’s “public service rendered to the people as the 11th President of the Republic of the Philippines, and of her legacy in the restoration of political democracy and constitutional rule in the country.”

Both laws were passed unanimously in the House during the immediately preceding Congress. One wonders if the tide has truly changed, given an Aquino-less Senate, a second Senator Marcos after the EDSA Revolution, and allies of the president who seemingly want to divert people’s attention away from the ongoing health crisis by occasionally bringing up and amplifying decades-old partisanship and rivalries.

(Miguel Paolo P. Reyes is a researcher at the Third World Studies Center, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman.This piece is part of their on-going research program, the Marcos Regime Research.The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.)