(Samira Ali Gutoc-Tomawis is a Filipino journalist, environmentalist, women’s advocate, and legislator. She served as a member of the Regional Legislative Assembly of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARRM), and a member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission which was tasked to draft the Bangsamoro Basic Law. In 2021, she was named one of the Mulsim 500, world’s most influential Muslims.)
It was supposed to be a typical Thursday for me, which meant back-to-back-to-back meetings merging into back-to-back talks to different groups, when I received a message that would stop my world from turning. PNoy was in the hospital and it’s not looking good.
I automatically canceled all my scheduled activities, asking for understanding and forgiveness from those who would be inconvenienced but also utterly determined to do everything I can to pay my respects to former President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino Jr., one of the most important men in recent Philippine history and, more importantly, one of the most decent men you could ever meet.
I made sure I could be there that afternoon when the family held a viewing for his remains because I wanted them to know just how big PNoy’s impact was on a Muslim girl from Marawi, a place so far away from imperial Manila that made it so easy for many administrations to just ignore us.
But not PNoy. I remember being asked to submit a list of qualified Muslim professionals to join his administration, an act never asked of me by any President’s liason. He not only saw us but also heard us, taking note and heed of our decades-long struggle for peace, for self-sufficiency, for self-governance. Years later, he appointed me Sectoral Representative in ARMM after a rigorous selection process chaired by DILG Secretary Jesse Robredo.
He did many things that improved the lives of the Bangsamoro. In fact, I could tell you about how he paved the way for the formation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), how his administration’s support for the peace talks was tangibly felt in far-off places like Zamboanga and Basilan, how he personally believed in the urgency and value of instituting reforms in a post-Ampatuan massacre era in the autonomous region. But others could tell you the same things, and with more detail and depth.
So instead, I’d like to tell you about the time we were able to talk during one of the most nerve-wracking and emotionally-draining times in my life. It was 2019 and despite being a Muslim woman from a place most people didn’t know existed and having basically no political machinery, I offered my services to the nation. The grind was exhausting and mind-numbing, the journey, arduous.
Meeting PNoy was akin to meeting someone much like Papa who talked with much reason . I was nervous and jittery, wanting to make a good impression on him but not knowing how to. In an instant, he put me at ease with his graciousness and humor.
He was kind, an articulate speaker, and a willing listener. I spoke about things that were meaningful to me, like the struggles of Marawi. He listened and made suggestions, sometimes making jokes to make sure the evening didn’t become too heavy. I left that meeting with a refreshed spirit and a renewed willingness and determination to make a change not just for the Maranaos but for everyone who’ve been left behind, forgotten, or ignored.
Sadly, I didn’t get that chance to serve the country then. But the flame that PNoy reignited in me that night still burns now. In fact, it burns even brighter because I cannot disappoint the president who believed someone like me can do good things for the country, who believed our country needed someone like me.
So I’d like to honor that man by doing exactly what he believed I could do.
Continue to fight. Continue the fight.