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Philippines mourns democracy icon Aquino

Military honor guards carried former President Corazon Aquino's flag-draped casket to a school gym Saturday for public viewing, as Filipinos mourned the beloved democracy icon.
APTOPIX Philippines Obit Corazon Aquino
Supporters light candles in front of a portrait of the late Philippine President Corazon Aquino at the financial district of Makati, south of Manila, on Saturday.Joseph Agcaoili / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Military honor guards carried former President Corazon Aquino's flag-draped casket to a school gym Saturday for public viewing, as Filipinos mourned the beloved democracy icon who swept away a dictator and fought off seven coup attempts.

The accidental opposition leader — whose rise began only after her husband's assassination — died before dawn in a hospital after a yearlong battle with colon cancer, which had spread to other organs and left her bedridden since late June, her only son, Sen. Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, said. She was 76.

Monsoon rains drenched Manila's streets as a convoy took Aquino's casket from the mortuary to the gym at De La Salle, the Catholic school where her remains will lie in state until Monday morning.

More than 100 military honor guards met the casket there. Eight in olive drab uniforms and berets carried it up a winding path to the gym while family and friends, many dressed in her trademark yellow, walked behind. Supporters dropped yellow confetti on the procession.

Her body will be moved later Monday to the Manila Cathedral where it will remain until her funeral on Wednesday. She will be buried beside her husband at the Manila Memorial Park.

Aquino's son said that days earlier he and each of his four sisters went to their mother's bedside where they "were told to say everything we wanted to say."

1983 assassination
Aquino rose to prominence after the assassination in 1983 of her husband, opposition leader Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino Jr. The uprising she led in 1986 brought down the repressive 20-year regime of Ferdinand Marcos and served as an inspiration to nonviolent resistance across the globe, including those that ended communist rule in eastern Europe.

"She was headstrong and single-minded in one goal, and that was to remove all vestiges of an entrenched dictatorship," Raul C. Pangalangan, former dean of the College of Law at the University of the Philippines, said earlier this month. "We all owe her in a big way."

CORRECTION Obit Philippines Corazon Aquino
FILE - In this Sunday Aug. 17, 2008 file picture, cancer-stricken former Philippine President Corazon Aquino smiles to friends inside the church at the Ateneo de Manila University in suburban Quezon City, Philippines. Aquino, who swept away a dictator and then sustained democracy by fighting off seven coup attempts in six years, has died, her family said Friday, July 31, 2009. She was 76.Aaron Favila / AP

But Aquino struggled in office to meet high public expectations. Her land redistribution program fell short of ending economic domination by the landed elite, including her own family. Her leadership, especially on social and economic reform, was often indecisive, leaving many of her closest allies disillusioned by the end of her term.

Still, the bespectacled, smiling woman remained beloved in the Philippines, where she was affectionately referred to as "Tita (Auntie) Cory."

Aquino's supporters had been holding daily prayers for her in churches around the country since she was rushed to intensive care after she had stopped eating in late June.

As the news of Aquino's death spread through Manila, radio and TV stations broadcast documentaries and stories of her life, accompanied by music dating back to the "people power" revolt and a love song based on a poem written by her husband.

Catholic priests held requiem Masses, and ordinary people tied yellow ribbons around trees, cars, lamp posts and house gates.

Others prayed at a shrine on Manila's EDSA highway, where hundreds of thousands of her supporters blocked Marcos' tanks in 1986.

"The nation lost its moral guiding light, but she will forever remain as the inspiration of this impoverished nation," said Al Roy, one of Aquino's godsons.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who is on an official visit to the United States, remembered Aquino as a "national treasure" who helped lead "a revolution to restore democracy and the rule of law to our nation at a time of great peril.

The Philippines will observe 10 days of national mourning, she said. The Armed Forces of the Philippines said it would accord full military honors during the mourning period, including gun salutes and lowering flags to half-staff. The Aquino family, however, opted for a private instead of a state funeral.

With teary eyes, former aides and friends recalled their moments with "Tita Cory" in radio and TV interviews. A former speechwriter, Rep. Teodoro Locsin Jr., broke down saying that her "purity, nobility never failed."

Former top Cabinet aide Franklin Drilon said "President Cory was the most sincere person I have known in my life. ... Part of me died this morning."

Deposed President Joseph Estrada, who was toppled in the country's second "people power" revolt — backed by Aquino — in 2001, said the Philippines had "lost the true mother of democracy."

Aquino's successor, Fidel Ramos, who was the military's vice chief of staff when he broke with Marcos and embraced Aquino, said the former leader "represented the best of the Filipino of the past and the future."

'Crucial role in Philippines history'
President Barack Obama was deeply saddened by Aquino's death, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

"Ms. Aquino played a crucial role in Philippines history, moving the country to democratic rule through her nonviolent 'people power' movement over 20 years ago," Gibbs said. "Her courage, determination, and moral leadership are an inspiration to us all and exemplify the best in the Filipino nation."

Maria Corazon Cojuangco was born on Jan. 25, 1933, into a wealthy, politically powerful family in Paniqui, about 75 miles north of Manila.

Her unlikely rise began in 1983 after her husband was gunned down at Manila's international airport moments after soldiers escorted him from a plane on his arrival from exile in the United States to challenge Marcos, his longtime adversary. Investigations showed one of his military escorts was the assassin.

After the murder, Aquino returned to the Philippines and led the largest funeral procession Manila had ever seen, with crowd estimates as high as 2 million.

Killing enraged Filipinos
The killing enraged many Filipinos and unleashed a broad-based opposition movement that thrust Aquino into the role of national leader.

"I don't know anything about the presidency," she declared in 1985, a year before she agreed to run against Marcos, uniting the fractious opposition, the business community, and later the armed forces to drive the dictator out.

In the wake of that election, the Marcos regime — which declared martial law in 1972 and had jailed Aquino's husband — started to unravel.

But Marcos claimed victory in those polls — widely seen as fraudulent — leading a group of military officers to mutiny against him on Feb. 22 and holed up with a small force in a military camp in Manila, leading to three days of protests by hundreds of thousands that finally toppled him.

On Feb. 25, Aquino was sworn in as the Philippines' first female leader and Marcos flew to exile in Hawaii, where he died three years later.

She stepped down in 1992 after serving for six years.

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