Jose W. Diokno and principled politics
Jose “Ka Pepe” W. Diokno died on Feb. 27, 1987, a little more than a month after demonstrating peasants were gunned down on Mendiola, which practically put an end to the peace talks that he was leading. “Jobs and justice, food and freedom” was the framework he had proposed for the talks; the peace process was ended in a hail of bullets before he died.
I remember Ka Pepe struggling to contain his tears as we heard about the massacre of peasants on Mendiola on Jan. 22, which led to his resignation as head of the human rights committee and as the government’s peace czar. I had come to consult him during the last stages of the campaign to seek the citizens’ approval of the 1987 Constitution in a referendum then scheduled on Feb. 2. He had devoted his life to causes that totally consumed him, and he was at the end of his physical powers but there was still fire and fight in his eyes.
By his life and example, by his deeds and his words, Ka Pepe defined courage for an entire generation who lived through the long night of martial law. He embodied the resistance to dictatorship, he upheld human rights in season and out of season, he led the struggle to oust US military bases from Philippine shores.
He did so by practicing a brave brand of principled politics, by taking a stand without regard for his political fortunes or personal safety. He spoke out eloquently and tirelessly in the halls of Congress and in the streets, throughout the country and abroad.
I remember Ka Pepe soon after his release from the dictator’s prison, where he stood his ground strong and unbowed. He spoke firmly about the need to resist the excesses of martial law in the town plazas of the Southern Tagalog and Bicol regions. On one occasion in Sorsogon, he spoke to a crowd surrounded by soldiers carrying Armalites. He did not blink; nothing seemed to deter or discourage him.
I remember Ka Pepe leading a rally in Davao City’s main plaza in driving rain. It was in that city after the vast gathering that I first noticed that he would cough incessantly, his booming baritone struggling to be heard above the din. He was in the first stages of his battle against cancer, and he would not let that deadly disease deter his crusade.
In the end, Ka Pepe was defined by the crusades he fought. He raged against violations of human rights; thus, soon after his release from prison he founded FLAG, or the Free Legal Assistance Group. He did not run away from a fight and consistently argued against the presence of US military bases on Philippine soil. He never accepted the rationale for Marcos’ martial law and resisted the dictatorship till the end, without a hint of compromise. He defended the common man in the law courts and in the halls of the legislature, in the plazas, and in school assemblies. He defended the unjustly persecuted, such as Fr. Niall O’Brien, an Irish Columban missionary, and his companions. Called the “Negros Nine,” O’Brien and his companions were set free after Ka Pepe’s brilliant defense scuttled the lies and the lack of logic in the trumped-up murder charges leveled at them.
He left a singular legacy: He pioneered principled politics, a new way of doing politics that was honorable and unafraid, bold and brave, giving assurance to those who were advanced in age and providing inspiration and encouragement to the youth of the land.
Jose W. Diokno defined courage for a generation that resisted martial law in the Marcos era. He defied the dictatorship that imprisoned him and the designs of the imperial power that supported the dictatorial regime. Thirty-one years after his death, he lives on in his ideals and his dreams, and his deeply held belief that it is worth building “a nation for our children.”
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Ed Garcia is a veteran of the First Quarter Storm and a framer of the 1987 Constitution.
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