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Benigno Aquino III, who led Philippine growth spurt, dies at 61

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Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, the former Philippine president who oversaw the fastest period of growth since the 1970s and challenged China’s expansive territorial claims before a United Nations-backed tribunal, has died. He was 61.

Aquino, who served as the nation’s president from 2010 to 2016, was rushed to a hospital in Quezon City where he died after heart failure, the Manila Bulletin reported on Thursday, citing his family.

A bachelor with a weakness for cigarettes and computer games who had spent much of his life in the shadow of his parents — icons of Philippine democracy — Aquino had said he didn’t aspire to lead the nation.

His father, senator and opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., was jailed under the regime of Ferdinand Marcos and assassinated in 1983 upon his return from U.S. exile. Three years later, his mother, Corazon Aquino, ran against Marcos in a snap election that led to the dictator’s ouster.

The 2009 death of Corazon, the nation’s first female president, prompted calls for Aquino, then a senator, to run for the top post the following year. “I didn’t have any ambition to be president,” he said in a 2013 interview. “It was fate. The people found me.”

Aquino was born on Feb. 8, 1960, the only son among five children. An economics graduate from the Ateneo de Manila University, he served as a congressman and senator. Prior to his public sector career, he worked as retail supervisor and promotions manager at Nike Inc.’s Philippine unit.

Under Aquino’s six-year presidential term, the nation’s economy grew an average of 6.2% and twice exceeded 7%, the fastest pace since the 1970s. His administration pursued tax evaders, narrowed the budget deficit from a record level, and enabled the Philippines to clinch its first investment grade score from a major credit rating company.

Benigno Aquino III waves to supporters during a campaign stop in Quezon City, Philippines in February 2010. | JES AZNAR / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Benigno Aquino III waves to supporters during a campaign stop in Quezon City, Philippines in February 2010. | JES AZNAR / THE NEW YORK TIMES

He brought China before a U.N.-backed tribunal in March 2014 to challenge Beijing’s push for control of the South China Sea, portions of which the Philippines claims. Aquino initiated the proceedings after a standoff between vessels from the two countries in the disputed Scarborough Shoal in April 2012.

After Aquino left office, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016 ruled in favor of the Philippines, saying China’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea breached international law — a decision Beijing has rejected.

Rodrigo Duterte, Aquino’s successor, has resisted raising the ruling while pushing the country toward China and away from the U.S., which has had a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines since the 1950s.

Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, was jailed on corruption charges during his term. The country’s ranking on Berlin-based Transparency International’s Corruption Index improved 11 notches in his last full year in office in 2015 from six years earlier.

His administration was criticized, however, for not spending enough to improve the country’s decrepit infrastructure. Traffic jams that led to hours-long commutes triggered public disenchantment, which his successor Duterte capitalized on during the campaign to succeed him.

Incoming President Rodrigo Duterte and outgoing President Benigno Aquino salute the honor guards before Aquino leaves the Malacanang Palace in Manila in June 2016. | REUTERS
Incoming President Rodrigo Duterte and outgoing President Benigno Aquino salute the honor guards before Aquino leaves the Malacanang Palace in Manila in June 2016. | REUTERS

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