28 years after death, Ka Pepe still relevant

12:03 AM February 21, 2015

Sen. Jose W. Diokno would have turned 93 come Feb. 26 if he were alive today. A brilliant lawyer and lawmaker, street parliamentarian, champion of human rights, nationalist and poet, Ka Pepe, along with Ninoy Aquino, Soc Rodrigo and many others, was among the high-profile politicians who were arrested and incarcerated shortly after the declaration of martial law.

But even before he became senator, Ka Pepe was already reputed as the fearless President Diosdado Macapagal’s secretary of justice in 1960s, pursuing a big US firm owner for bribery and tax evasion charges, which later led to the investigation of other public officials.


Ka Pepe was detained for more than two years. After he was released in 1974, he founded the Free Legal Assistance Group that gave pro bono legal services to the helpless victims of martial law.

Ka Pepe also traveled abroad to tell the world about the situation in the Philippines under the Marcos regime. In 1983, the BBC-produced documentary: “To Sing Our Own Song,” narrated by Ka Pepe himself, was aired, exposing the social injustices and human rights abuses in the country.


After the Edsa People Power in 1986, President Corazon Aquino appointed Diokno as chair of the Presidential Committee on Human Rights. Ka Pepe resigned in 1987 though, when 13 peasants demanding genuine agrarian reform were shot dead by the police and the presidential security forces along Mendiola. It was then told that Ka Pepe was so dismayed and saddened by the incident that he almost burst into tears. He died of lung cancer the following month, just a day after his 65th birthday.

Jose W. Diokno’s legacy is secured in the pantheon of our heroes, but questions are inseparable to greatness: Was he anti-American? No, he was pro-Filipino, ergo anti-imperialist. Ka Pepe was a bourgeois nationalist who pushed for national industrialization. He was critical of government policies that promoted and imposed subservience and favored foreign interests. And like Claro M. Recto and Lorenzo Tañada, he opposed the US military bases in strongest terms not only because their presence on Philippine soil symbolized our sham independence, but also because they posed a danger to the Filipino people.

Was Ka Pepe a communist? A big NO. As a quintessential lawyer, Ka Pepe never supported armed struggle. His concern was to improve the law. Although he shared common views with the leftists, particularly on the

issue of national sovereignty, he did not agree with the use of force to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship.

But despite his limitations—his middle class orientation and confinement to legalism, Ka Pepe was undoubtedly on the side of the oppressed. He marched on the streets along with the workers, farmers, informal settlers, indigenous peoples, students and professionals. Most of his clients were poor and those who opposed the regime.

Ka Pepe remains relevant today. His advocacy for respect of human rights, genuine national independence and good governance is still far from reality. Let the voice of Ka Pepe echo in the halls of Congress to enlighten our conventional and corrupt politicians. Let Ka Pepe serve as an example for P-Noy whose mediocrity and subservience to the dictates of the United States have caused nothing but misery and grief among Filipinos.



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