Former Philippine president Benigno Aquino, who pushed for anti-corruption reforms and scored a landmark ruling against China’s sweeping claims in the disputed South China Sea, died on Thursday at the age of 61.
Aquino, the 15th president of the Philippines, passed away due to “renal disease, secondary to diabetes,” his family said.
“It is with profound grief that on behalf of our family, I am confirming that our brother, Benigno ‘Noynoy’ S. Aquino III, died peacefully in his sleep,” said Aurora Corazon Abellada, one of his four sisters.
“No words can express how broken our hearts are and how long it will take for us to accept the reality that he is gone,” she added.
The family thanked the millions of Filipinos who voted for Aquino as a member of Congress, a senator and eventually as president of the Philippines.
Flags in the country were flown at half mast to honour the bachelor president popularly known as Noynoy.
He was the only son of two of the country’s democracy icons.
His father, senator Benigno Aquino Junior, was a staunch critic of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was assassinated in 1983 upon return to the Philippines from exile in the United States. His mother, the late president Corazon Aquino, was propelled to power by an uprising that toppled the Marcos dictatorship in 1983.
Noynoy Aquino was elected president in 2010, one year after his mother died, on a platform of good governance and a promise to end corruption.
The former president was known for calling Filipinos his “bosses” during his term that ended in 2016. He shunned special treatment for himself and government officials, and kept his simple lifestyle.
“My hope is that when I leave office, everyone can say that we have travelled far on the right path,” Aquino said in his official biography.
He will be remembered for cementing a Philippine economic revival, passing a controversial reproductive health law and filing a successful arbitration case against China over the disputed South China Sea.
He stayed out of the public eye after his term and refused to give statements about his successor, current President Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte criticized some of Aquino’s past policies, especially on the diplomatic row with Beijing over the South China Sea.
But he is remembered well by many, and tributes poured in after news of his death.
“I am deeply saddened to hear about the sudden passing of former President Noynoy Aquino,” said Senator Loren Legarda. “Thank you for your firm leadership, hard work and integrity.”
“I knew him to be a kind man, driven by his passion to serve our people, diligent in his duties, and with an avid and consuming curiosity about new knowledge and the world in general,” Supreme Court Associate Justice Marvic Leonen said.
Duterte offered his sympathies to Aquino’s sisters, friends and supporters, and hailed his family’s legacy.
“Let us all take this opportunity to unite in prayer and set aside our differences as we pay respects to a leader who has given his best to serve the Filipino people,” he said in a statement.
“His memory and his family’s legacy of offering their lives for the cause of democracy will forever remain etched in our hearts,” he added.
Senator Imee Marcos, a daughter of the former dictator, also paid tribute to Aquino and said that “beyond politics and much public acrimony,” she knew him for being a “kind and simple soul.”
While his administration was hailed for being honest and transparent, Aquino’s six-year term was also marked by scandals involving alleged misuse of funds by lawmakers and other controversies.
He was also criticized for failing to show empathy with the public at crucial times, including after a powerful typhoon killed thousands in 2013 and 44 police officers were killed in a clash with Muslim rebels in 2015.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, a former press secretary and speechwriter of Noynoy’s mother, said the former president was “incorruptible” and “indifferent to power and its trappings.”
He “ruled our country with a puzzling coldness, but only because he hid his feelings so well it was though he had none,” Locsin tweeted.
“It was the way he and his siblings were raised.”