Benigno Aquino, graft-busting Philippine president, dies at 61

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Benigno S.C. Aquino III, the Philippine president who tried to send corrupt officials to jail and took China to court for its island-building activities in the South China Sea, has died. He was 61.

Mr. Aquino was rushed to the hospital on Thursday morning, Manuel “Mar” A. Roxas II, a close friend and his Interior and Local Government chief, told reporters in a Viber group message. He “passed away after efforts to revive him failed,” he added.

The cause of his death was not yet known and his family did not immediately make an announcement.

“He made the fight against corruption his political centerpiece, so much so that his anti-thesis — President Rodrigo R. Duterte —also took up the same slogan strings in his government and during his presidential run,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, professorial chairholder in geopolitics at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.

“Because of Aquino’s moral politik, it has become closely impossible for any president to not put fighting corruption at the heart of their political vision and agenda,” he said by telephone.

He managed to jail his predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and at least three senators for graft, while firing the country’s chief justice for hiding his wealth.

Mr. Aquino, whose political lineage propelled him to power in 2010, ran after tax evaders and unscrupulous officials, giving him more revenue to build roads and schools and boost cash aid to the poor while cutting debt.

These efforts led to investment-grade credit ratings and economic growth exceeding 6% from 2012 to 2014.

The Philippines under Mr. Aquino also sued China before an international tribunal for its militarization of the South China. In 2016, the court rejected China’s claim to more than 80% of the disputed waterway based on a 1940s nine-dash map.

“He was the first Asian leader to dare to directly confront China,” Mr. Heydarian said. That arbitration award had set the tone of conversation about the South China Sea and allowed neighbors such as Vietnam to question China by invoking international law, he added.

“Aquino has been a major headache for the Chinese as far as their excessive and unlawful claims and activities in the sea are concerned,” the political analyst and columnist said.

Also part of Mr. Aquino’s legacy was laying down the foundation for the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao after landmark negotiations with Muslim rebels in the country’s south.

RISE TO POWER

The son of ex-President and “People Power” icon Corazon C. Aquino was thrust into the political limelight on a massive outpouring of grief following her death in August 2009. He beat his rivals in the presidential race despite a rather undistinguished legislative career.

Mr. Aquino, like his parents, came from pedigreed stock — landed, aristocratic families that have long been part of the ruling elite. His campaign was based on a legacy far greater than his own.

Aside from having the first female Philippine president for a mother, his father Benigno Jr. was the country’s greatest democracy champion before he was assassinated in 1983 presumably by agents of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Corazon ended Marcos’s two-decade rule in the popular uprising of 1986.

As soon as he assumed office, Mr. Aquino created a “truth commission’” to probe Ms. Arroyo, which the Supreme Court struck down for being illegal. He fired officials whom his predecessor had appointed shortly before her term ended in June 2010, and refused to be sworn into office by one of them — ex-Chief Justice Renato Corona, Mr. Arroyo’s former chief of staff.

Less than three months into his term, Mr. Aquino suspended the incentives received by directors of government-owned companies and abolished superfluous agencies under him, including an anti-smuggling office and another dealing with global warming.

Mr. Aquino, the third and only son among five children, was born on Feb. 8, 1960 in Manila. He attended Ateneo de Manila University for his primary, high school and college education. He graduated in 1981 with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and was one of Ms. Arroyo’s students.

The first bachelor Philippine president, his love life was a constant target of media speculations. Mr. Aquino was a shooting and billiards enthusiast, enjoyed playing video games and was an avid smoker.

He is survived by four sisters.

Mr. Heydarian, who spoke with Mr. Aquino on the phone two years ago, said the former leader was “very crest-fallen.” “He was really dejected because of the state of affairs in the country and by the political backlash against the whole project that his parents and himself represented.”

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