Benigno Aquino III, President of the Philippines who fought corruption but failed to tackle poverty – obituary

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Benigno Aquino III in 2010 - Erik de Castro/Reuters
Benigno Aquino III in 2010 - Erik de Castro/Reuters

Benigno Aquino III, the former President of the Philippines, who has died aged 61, swept to power in 2010 on a wave of public sympathy after the death of his mother, Corazon Aquino, the first president to follow the hated dictator Ferdinand Marcos, ousted in a people-power revolution in 1986.

His accession fostered a new mood of optimism in the country and Aquino, known popularly as Noynoy, established himself as a leader with a reputation for probity and competence.

As a result of nitty-gritty economic reforms, by 2013 the Philippines had become the fastest-growing economy in South-East Asia, exchanging its junk-debt status for investment-grade credit-rating – success capped in 2014 by a peace agreement with Muslim separatists on the island of Mindanao.

Aquino with a portrait of his mother Corazon, the Philippines' first leader following the end of the Marcos regime - Rolex dela Pena/AP
Aquino with a portrait of his mother Corazon, the Philippines' first leader following the end of the Marcos regime - Rolex dela Pena/AP

Aquino also took a tough line on corruption and launched criminal cases against former officials, including his predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose legitimacy had been undermined by fraud and corruption allegations during her term of office.

In an early, and much-appreciated, populist move he banned the use of sirens in vehicles that carried VIPs through Manila’s notorious traffic jams.

The main foreign policy issue during his six years in the presidency was Beijing’s aggressive expansionism in the resource-rich South China Sea. Comparing modern-day China with Nazi Germany, Aquino filed a case at the International Court of Justice, which ruled in 2016 that China had no historic title over the disputed waters – a decision hailed as a victory in Manila, but which China has refused to recognise.

Aquino flashes the 'L' sign (for 'laban', or 'fight') on the 25th anniversary of the 1986 revolution - Bullit Marquez/AP
Aquino flashes the 'L' sign (for 'laban', or 'fight') on the 25th anniversary of the 1986 revolution - Bullit Marquez/AP

Promising to tackle poverty, Aquino expanded a programme that provides cash handouts to the poorest. But with more than 10 million Filipinos – a quarter of the workforce – working overseas, the economic boom failed to create enough jobs at home. Many Filipinos remained mired in poverty, their plight made worse by natural disasters including the devastating Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, to which the government’s response was judged to be slow and inefficient.

Aquino’s critics coined the term “noynoying”, a play on his nickname which roughly translates as “procrastinating”.

Benigno Aquino was born in Manila on February 8 1960 into a politically powerful clan, one of five children and the only son of Benigno Aquino Jr and his wife Corazon.

His father was the leading figure of the opposition to Ferdinand Marcos and was imprisoned for seven years. Allowed to flee the country with his family in 1980, he was allowed to return in 1983, when he was assassinated while under military custody at Manila international airport. His death sparked an uprising that toppled the dictatorship three years later and swept his widow Corazon into office.

With his US counterpart Barack Obama in 2014 - Carolyn Kaster/AP
With his US counterpart Barack Obama in 2014 - Carolyn Kaster/AP

After reading Economics at the Ateneo de Manila University, Aquino joined his family in the United States, returning to the Philippines shortly after his father’s assassination.

During her six years as president, Corazon Aquino survived several attempted coups but had limited success in improving the economic situation, in curbing the excesses of the military or in combating communist and Muslim secessionists.

Her son was badly wounded in 1987 during one of the coup attempts when rebel soldiers opened fire on his car in Manila, killing three of his security guards. A bullet remained embedded in his neck

After a spell in the private sector, from 1998 he served as congressman and senator before becoming president.

Aquino, a heavy smoker with a liking for fast cars, was the Philippines’ first bachelor head of state, a curiosity in his mainly Roman Catholic family-oriented nation. He was linked to several women during his presidency but complained that press intrusion was ruining his chances of finding true love.

Aquino returned to private life after his term ended in 2016. He is reported to have died while being prepared for a kidney transplant.

Benigno Aquino III, born February 8 1960, died June 24 2021

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